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sonnet,” he adds, “could not be excelled for precision and technical conciseness, and nothing could be more nobly pathetic than the frankness of its personal application.”
Unhappily, modern criticism is ruthless, and Professor Uzielli, who has discussed the problems connected with Leonardo with such unequalled perspicacity, has mathematically demonstrated, if I may use the term, in an argument covering eighty-five pages, that this famous sonnet is really the work of one Antonio, a Florentine (Antonio di Meglio, according Uzielli : according to others, Antonio di Matteo, who died in 1446).
Leonardo therefore had nothing to do with it, which is a pity, as its combination of good
with certain technical inexperience would have been thoroughly in keeping with his sincere and sagacious intellect.
After all these negative conclusions, the reader may well be impatient to learn in what, after all, Leonardo's talent as a poet consisted, and how I justify his inclusion among the Parnassians.
Open the Trattato dell'Arte della Pittura and read his description of the zephyr and the hurricane (cap. 68). In movement, warmth, and audacity it rivals Virgil's famous description of a storm, in the Georgics. As descriptive poetry, in which landscape and effects of light and atmosphere are rendered, sixteenth-century Italian literature produced nothing finer. Here and there we find a few subtle resemblances to the “concetti,” which prove that Leonardo was not above turning occasionally to Petrarch as a model. “ The divine strain which exists in the art of the painter puts an echo of the divine intellect in his, and enables him to create with perfect freedom a world of birds, of
plants, of fruits, of wide plains, of ruins perched upon mountain sides, of scenes calculated to excite awe and terror, or of smiling sites enamelled with many coloured flowers. Over these fields the soft breath of the wind spreads gentle undulations, as if the bending grass had turned to watch the flight of the breeze. Or he shows us the swollen rivers flowing from the mountains, carrying down uprooted trees, mingled with rocks, roots, mud and foam, and driving before them everything that attempts to stem their progress. Or yet again the sea, its waves struggling with the tormenting winds, its superb undulations thrown up to the sky and then falling, to smother the gale which flogs it. The waves embrace and imprison the wind, which tears them apart and splits them, mixing with their foam, and venting its rage upon them. Sometimes, carried by the wind, the foam escapes from the sea, flies along the cliffs and promontories, and, leaping over the summits of the hills, falls in the valleys beyond ; some of it mingles with the wind and becomes its prey, some escapes and falls again into the sea as rain, some rushes down as a waterspout from the mountains, and chases before it everything which opposes its rage. Sometimes this latter encounters a breaking wave, dashes against it, and with it leaps to the sky, filling the air with a mist of foam ; and this mist, driven by the wind against the cliffs, begets dark clouds, which in turn become the prey of the wind their conqueror.” (Cap. 68.)
Now and then, too, the poet-artist rises to a high pitch of pathos, as, for instance, in his description of the Deluge. This is really calculated to excite our terror and admiration, and compels us, as one biographer does not hesitate to say, to think of Shakespeare and Dante. After painting the unchained elements, the dark and cloudy air, torn by winds blowing from all points of the compass at once, and thick with floods of rain and hail ; the uprooted trees, dragged in clouds of flying leaves first to this side and then to that; ancient trees torn up and destroyed by the fury of the wind ; fragments torn from mountain-sides by the rush of the swollen rivers ; animals, mad with
terror, taking to the mountain tops and forgetting their ferocity in the imminence of death, the poet passes on to the human side of the tragedy He paints men, women, and children heaped on tables, planks, beds, or boats, where they groan and weep in terror at the fury of the wind ; others float about, drowned ; others fight with lions, wolves, and other savage beasts, for such refuges as they may have contrived to reach. “What terrible cries," he says, “one might have heard ringing through the darkened air, and mingling with the claps of thunder! How
many human beings one might have seen closing their ears with their fingers to avoid hearing these dismal sounds! Others laid their hands over their eyes lest they should see the carnage worked upon their kind by the anger of God. Boughs of great oaks hung about with fugitives were carried away by the winds.
Boats were overturned, sometimes whole, sometimes in many pieces, with the miserable refugees who had clung to them. Here were seen despairing men ending their own days, as a relief from agony ; some threw themselves down from high places, others strangled themselves; some crushed the heads of their children, others pierced themselves with their own weapons, or falling on their knees, called
Leonardo was evidently greatly pleased with this performance, for he returned to it no less than three times. First he produced a concise sketch, which he afterwards expanded into two much longer versions between which there
, are numerous points of difference.
His description of a battle is equally rich and vivid. There his language is at once supple, flowing, and precise. He shows us the horses dragging their dead riders, and tearing the flesh from their bones, the piteous bodies hanging by the spurs and reddening with their blood the ground over which they pass; the vanquished, pale, gaping, bewildered ; rivers of blood mingling with the dust; dramatic episodes of every sort rendered with extraordinary energy and illusion.
The “ littérateur ” becomes still more conspicuous in the fables and apologues. These compositions, hitherto too much neglected, seem to
have to do with some ancient and more or less popular collection. I confess to strong doubts as to whether they issued from the imagination of Leonardo himself. However, in spite of much research, I have failed to discover any extraneous source, except for the fable of the Rat and the Oyster, which occurs for the first time in the Greek Anthologia, as M. Paul Meyer informs me. Leonardo may possibly have borrowed the incident from Francesco del Tuppo, whose edition of Æsop's Fables was published at Aquila in 1493. It was afterwards turned to account both by Alciati (Emblems, no. lxxxvi.) and by La Fontaine, 1
Leonardo's scheme is similar to that of the classic fabulists. As with Æsop 2 and Phædrus, the animals set out to teach ; but it was rather the shrubs and plants that he made the exponents of his preaching
In the fable of the butterfly which burns itself, the fabulist is inspired by the memory of his own disappointments, and rises almost to eloquence. “O false light! how many must thou have miserably deceived in the past like me! Or, if I must indeed see light so near, ought I not to have known the sun from the false glare of dirty tallow?”3
Full, however, of good sense as they are, these fables are essentially wanting in character. Deep and judicious thinkers seldom excel in wit, at least in our conception of the term. The idea for them is more important than the form.
These apologues and fables borrowed from the vegetable kingdom
Toujours furetant, s'accommodant de tout, mais friand de bons morceaux, un rat aperçut une huître, épanouie dans sa maison entr'ouverte; il effleura de ses dents la frange humide de cette chair trompeuse ; aussitôt les écailles avec bruit se reserrent : le rat est pris, il n'echappera plus de ce piège, de ce tombeau, où il est venu de lui-même chercher la mort."
Here is Leonardo's version :
An oyster, being turned out together with other fish in the house of a fisherman near the sea, he entreated a rat to take him to the sea. The rat, purposing to eat him, bade him open, but as he bit him, the oyster squeezed his head, and closed, and the cat came and killed him. (Richter, vol. ii., p. 335.)
2 Leonardo possessed the Fabula de Esopo historiate, of which numerous editions had appeared in his time (in 1481, 1483, 1487, 1490 and 1497. D'Adda, p. 40).
3 Richter, vol. ii., p. 336.