Giants of the Renaissance

December 10, 2007

By Stuart Frost

Leonardo da Vinci, Forster Codex I, 6v-7r.The V&A is the National Musuem of Art & Design but it is also far more than that. We know that our visitors use the Museum’s collections in many diverse ways. A few weeks ago a photograph in the supplement of a Sunday newspaper caught my eye. I recognised the location as the National Art Library at the V&A. On closer inspection I also identified the object that the people in the photograph were looking at, a facsimile copy of one of  Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. On the next page was a photograph of Michelangelo’s vast marble sculpture, David.

The article was about Antony Sher’s new play, The Giant. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are two of the central characters in the drama. The completely fictional protagonist, Vito, is the model for David and the focus of both Michelangelo and Leonardo’s desire. Whilst the play accurately reflected the culture of male same-sex desire that existed in Renaissance Florence the actual relationships in the play were fictional. 

In writing the play, which is centered on the creation of Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, Antony Sher had undertaken a great deal of research. Both he and the director, Greg Doran, had visited the National Art Library to look at the three volumes of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks that the Museum is fortunate to possess. Rowan Watson, the V&A’s expert on Leonardo notebooks, was on hand to answer questions and provide advice.

I went to see the play a few weeks and enjoyed it immensely.The attention to detail was extremely impressive. Leonardo, played by Roger Allam, had a notebook with him on stage into which he periodically wrote throughout the performance. When doing so he wrote from right-to-left with his left hand, just as the real Leonardo did. I wonder whether any other members of the audience also noted this minor but accurately observed mannerism? It did help engender a tangible sense of convincing authenticity. I took a little while to adjust to the fictionalised characters of the two artists, purely because I’ve read enough about them to have formed my own sense of their personalities. I suspect most people develop their sense of Michelangelo or Leonardo through the artists’ work rather than a detailed knowledge of their biographies.

Plaster-cast copy of Michelangelo's David.The set design was ingenious. A vast ‘marble’ block was gradually transformed into the statute as the play progressed. The V&A has a late nineteenth century plaster-copy of Michelangelo’s David which you can see in the image I’ve used here to illustrate this entry. The fig-leaf with which it was provided, usually hung displayed on the back of the plinth, is currently making a guest appearance at London’s Barbican Gallery in Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. 

Unfortunately The Giant has now closed but if you’re quick you’ll still be able to see the fig-leaf in its temporary home! The plaster cast version of David can be seen from Room 111 at the V&A.

Click here to find out more about Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks

Click here to find out more about the Cast Collections

2 comments so far, view or add yours


Was writing from right-to-left a common thing for left-handed people to do during this period or was it so different that it was noted by his contemporaries?

Hi Lisa,

Leonardo’s mirror writing has generated a great deal of discussion in the past. Some authors have attributed it to a desire for secrecy, and have suggested that Leonardo used it as a strategy for protecting his ideas. However the consensus now is that writing from right to left was simply more practical for a left-handed writer because the slow drying inks were less likely to be smudged. He could also write from left-to-right when required. Leonardo didn’t have a formal education and if he had his left-handed writing would have probably been have been discouraged.

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