XIIth Florence Biennale
ARS ET INGENIUM: Toward Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Similitude and Invention
Marking the occasion of the fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 2019, the XIIth Florence Biennale aims to stir some reflection on the cognitive and creative approach of the great master of the Renaissance who is regarded as an unsurpassed genius.
In particular, the theme of the XIIth Florence Biennale focuses on Leonardo’s multifaceted being: an outstanding artist, he was also a ‘scientist’ committed to exploring nature in order to grasp the fundamental knowledge spanning the disciplines of comparative anatomy, botany, geology, physics, and intertwining cosmology with his studies on light, and more besides. In his letter to Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan (also known as ‘Ludovico il Moro’), Leonardo boasts of his ability to represent anything in form of ‘of marble, bronze, and clay sculpture, and similiter in pictura’: he thrived in synthesising visual and structural elements because he also was a skilled architect and engineer. He designed mobile bridges, buildings and channels as well as breakthrough artillery, pyrotechnic effects, and a wide variety of devices. He also developed an innovative casting system to complete the large-scale bronze horse statue commissioned by Ludovico il Moro in 1482, which we know about from a number of drawings although that work was never completed.
What may awaken our memory of that very project is the huge bronze Horse to be installed in the courtyard of the Fortezza da Basso along with twelve sand-and-resin sculpted Steeds by Gustavo Aceves, who is being bestowed the Lorenzo il Magnifico Lifetime Achievement Award for Sculpture.
Aceves’ Lapidarium project Horses, which reveal the author’s thorough knowledge of anatomy and sculpture mastery, are the outcome of a creative process nurtured through observation, study, and experimenting with materials and techniques – to some extent reviving Leonardo’s legacy also because it is the artist’s ethos that gives his works symbolic significance and, through art, turns form into essence.
Aceves’ Horses ideally move on water or carts, a hint at the vessels carrying migrants. Yet, that detail may remind us of the scenic devices used in the Renaissance to stage mock sea battles like the famous 1589 in the courtyard of Palazzo Pitti (flooded for the occasion). Long before had Leonardo designed and built amazing machine and automata. Pluto’s Paradise, for instance, was made for the staging of Poliziano’s Orpheus at the court of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and that of Isabella d’Este-Gonzaga in Marmirolo, around 1490-91; the memory of its design is preserved within the Arundel Codex. Besides, an anonymous chronicler provided a description of Leonardo’s grande ingegno (great ingenious device) which featured a rotating cupola giving shape and motion to ‘paradise and all seven planets’ within the framework of the Festa del Paradiso, a spectacular festival held on the occasion of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabel of Aragon’s marriage, on 13 January 1490. Building on the theatre and festival tradition perpetrated by the festaioli fiorentini, Leonardo entertained the courtly audience of his day also with music, fables and facetiae. Furthermore, he gave breath of life to a treasure trove of invenzioni mirabilissime, some of which crystallised within the pages of his manuscripts, whilst some others entered the visual, performing, and creative arts realms.
In the light of all this, we could not but bestow the Lorenzo il Magnifico Lifetime Achievement Award for the Visual Arts and Performing Arts to Franco Zeffirelli, a genius of our time and a prolific creator of opera himself, staging more than a hundred during his career in London, Milan, New York and Verona.
In the city of his famous film, Romeo and Juliet, his latest mise en scène of La Traviata at the arena, was greeted with a long standing ovation this year. Zeffirelli also excelled in set and costume design in that his drawing and painting skills perfectly served his vivid imagination. Rightfully so, speaking in 2006 he said ‘I am not a film director. I am a director who uses different instruments to express his dreams and tell stories so as to make people dream’. That is exactly what Renaissance inventori were – from Leonardo da Vinci to Bernardo Buontalenti and Inigo Jones, to Pio Enea II degli Obizzi later on.
Thinking of Leonardo as an extraordinary exemplum for contemporary creativity, we wish to draw attention on the fact that, by joining art practice and ‘scientific’ research with experimentation, he challenged the long held distinction between artes mechanicae and artes liberales.
In this way he ennobled the visual arts, especially painting, which in his view was ‘science and legitimate daughter of nature’. Like music and geometry, painting was based on the laws of harmony since, according to Leonardo, ‘it considers all continuous quantities, the qualities of the proportions of shadow and lights, and distances through its [science of ] perspective’. Seeking harmony as an aesthetic value is indeed a principle that unites western and eastern cultures in a closer tie within the global art world, as it provides common ground for an ‘objective’ evaluation of artworks – whether figurative, such as Han Yuchen’s paintings, or abstract like Mice Jankulovski’s monochrome geometrical abstraction series made drawing inspiration from Leonardo’s studies on water.
Other aspects that are still relevant emerge from Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, for instance the idea that ‘the mind of the painter must resemble a mirror, which always takes the colour of the object it reflects and is completely occupied by the images of as many objects as are in front of it. Therefore you must know, Oh Painter! that you cannot be a good one if you are not the universal master of representing by your art every kind of form produced by nature. And this you will not know how to do if you do not see them, and retain them in your mind’. Raffi Yedelian’s Reflection of an Enigmatic Mind, an installation made with a stylised portrait and a mirror reflecting its image above, conveys Leonardo’s idea that it is essential for an artist to grasp a knowledge of nature through observation and to be able to represent it masterly, but the creative process is not a mere reproduction of what the artist can see. As a man of his time, Leonardo shared – to some extent – a way of knowing theorised in Marsilio Ficino’s Theologia platonica, which he presumably read in his adulthood.
Indeed, his vision of the world corresponds to what Michel Foucault described as the ‘episteme of the Renaissance’ based on the concepts of similitude and interpretation ‘to know about things’, which means ‘to bring to light the system of resemblances that made them close to, and dependent upon one another’.
In that perspective we can better understand Leonardo da Vinci’s belief that ‘the godliness in the painter’s science makes the mind of the painter turn into a resemblance of the Divine Mind’. Accordingly, the cognisance of nature for the purpose of its representation confers to the artist’s intelligence the creative power of the Author of nature.
Guest artist and scholar Joanna Hoffmann has explored this aspect with the EpiLab Team while developing EpiMimesis-EpiZoneV: Shifting Identities.
Combining scientific research, art, and technology, that project offers an immersive multisensory experience within a dimension encompassing a VR environment and a pseudo-hologram. Guided by a Vitruvian WoMan, the inter/actor audience enter an imaginative labyrinth of shifting identities inspired by the most fundamental molecule of life (the RNA molecule) and act as a catalyst in the creative process. By enacting the mimesis principle, they transform the immersive environment experienced by creating and discovering multiple, interdependent, elusive identities arousing imagination.
Although in a very different way and with different media, also Adoratorio seek and create elusive identities by interacting with individuals within the framework of One World One Face, an original work in progress conjoining similitude and invention while juxtaposing infinite photographic portraits to create the face of a city, is ideal like the effigy of Mona Lisa. Leonardo contemplated that kind of approach, based on observation and imagination, as in his Treatise on Painting he argues that resemblance to an endless variety of scenes and objects shall be discovered by looking at ‘confused things, which arouse the ingenious mind to various inventions’ such as ‘battles with animal and human figures in action, landscapes, as even compositions with monstrosities like devils and similar beings’ because through those inventions recognition can be gained’.
Using new media, Refik Anadol does recreate that very process, with the indistinct awakening imagination, through works such as Melting Memories, to be seen at this biennial.
His artistic research, tying in with science and technology advancement, opens way to rethinking aesthetics taking into account a dynamic perception of space. Addressing that particular aspect appears to be crucial for other artists working with new media, particularly guests artist Shan Shan Sheng with Universal Elements. This is also true for Walter Gaudnek (USA) with his Space Changer, Hans R.L. Schlegel (Switzerland), with his mysterious Pendulum; Sangeeta Abhay (India), and Pey Chwen Lin (Taiwan, China), who succeeds in the Making of Eve Clone out of the rotating projection of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
The word ‘clone’ may spring to mind Leonardo’s idea that ‘where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art’. To what extent is that affirmation acceptable today? What about New Media Art? What about computational creativity of artificial intelligence, or AI Art? Also that frontier can be explored in this exhibition through Auria Kathi by the artistic duo composed of Fabin Rasheed and Paul Sleeba. These and other issues will be brought to the fore during the Leonardo da Vinci Study Day in a session with scholars and artists as invited speakers. In other sessions, museum directors and art historians specialising in Leonardo da Vinci will offer precious contributions as well.
The programme of the XIIth Florence Biennale includes events complementing the main exhibition. Seeing it means rediscovering Leonardo’s work, which has been a source of inspiration for five centuries, through its contemporary reinterpretations by artists at different career stages and with different cultural backgrounds, interests, and talents.
To them I wish to dedicate Paul Valéry’s words, inviting all of us to imagine Leonardo at work and follow him ‘as he moves throughout the crude and dense wholeness of the world, where nature becomes so familiar to him that he wishes he could imitate it well enough to grasp it, and yet he will ultimately face the difficulty of conceiving an object which is not in nature’.
An artist who has overcome that difficulty with his genius and creativity is, no doubt, Anthony Howe: his kinetic sculptures, reminiscent of forms in nature, appear to come to life as the wind blows.
His newly created Omniverse is to be installed in the eight-vaulted hall of the Fortezza da Basso, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture which enhances the allure of that amazing work. Such a vision makes us think that the threshold between past and present can be trespassed within the space-and-time dimension of art.
To conclude, the XIIth Florence Biennale raises questions and offers some possible answers to the challenges of contemporaneity: from defining ‘art’ to researching aesthetic and technical values, from seeking redemption from the presumed supremacy of conceptual art to opposing deskilling.
In many respects, Leonardo’s legacy still appears to be ‘light’ cast onto a way to knowledge and perfection which may be undertaken with an holistic approach aimed at divining the contours of any human being in their physical, psychic and spiritual unity, and also realising fully the worth of an artist and their creative acts. As Rossano B. Maniscalchi has shown us with his Light of Humanity, acts of that kind can always be reinterpreted and re-enlivened, and thus revived in original ways with old and new media.