Pater’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci was among his earliest writings, and one of his first published works as a young writer. In looking back toward the Renaissance as a framework for his somewhat radical philosophies, Pater was provided with a more neutral cultural backdrop than his own, conservative Victorian society. Pater himself speaks of the “enchanted region of the Renaissance” where “one need not be forever on one’s guard"#5 The subject of the Renaissance was free of the moral and religious implications Pater’s writing had on his own life and, especially in the case of Leonardo, pre-existing legend and biographical ambiguity allowed Pater to explore his own ideas in a context free from moral judgment.
Pater considers Leonardo to have been artistically driven by two main forces: “curiosity and the desire of beauty.” These further led to Leonardo’s mastery of the subject matter with which he was predominantly concerned, nature scenes and portraiture. Pater brings Leonardo forward in time, calling him “a part of the ‘modern spirit’” and observing in his style “something of the freer manner and richer humanity of a later age.” The scientific curiosity to which Pater attributes Leonardo’s interest in painting nature is something that Pater feels truly sets Leonardo apart from his contemporaries. He describes Leonardo’s style as a sort of proto-realism, appealing to experience rather than allegory.
Throughout his essay on Leonardo, Pater focuses as much on the artist’s life as on his works, the constant mystery surrounding both seeming to enhance rather than inhibit Pater’s analysis and opinions. Pater celebrates everything that set Leonardo apart from his contemporaries, romanticizing the idea of the “strange soul” who “anticipated modern ideas” and who feverishly jumped from one project to the next, temporarily abandoning painting to explore his interest in science only to then “crowd all his chief work into a few tormented years of later life.” As critics assert, subtle allusions to the long-standing question of the nature of Leonardo’s sexuality (the “express historical testimony” that, Pater says, prevents one from considering the Mona Lisa Leonardo’s “ideal lady”)#6 and descriptions of male beauty pervade Pater’s analyses; however, these details are minimal and, ultimately, better serve to support Pater’s idea that beauty in art is universal and transcendental. By emphasizing the mystery of Leonardo’s life as well as that inherent in his paintings, Pater presents just one manifestation of the idea that subject matter and form should be synonymous; that is, in this case, Pater’s lyrical account of Leonardo’s life is as aesthetically pleasing as the art itself.
The Mona Lisa
Pater’s analysis of the Mona Lisa is the lengthiest he makes of a single painting in the Leonardo chapter, and remains one of the most well-known analyses of the Mona Lisa today. His writing style in this section, more than any other, is in itself “of such poetical power that many men committed the words to memory. It was not at all unusual for a man to recite Pater as he gazed at the painting itself.”#6 It is fitting, in the context of his work and ideals, that Pater’s analysis of the painting he calls “in the truest sense, Leonardo’s masterpiece” would, in a way, become his own sort of literary chef d’oeuvre.
Pater seems to consider the Mona Lisa an extension of Leonardo himself; shrouded in mystery yet universally known; deeply desired; at once ancient and “the symbol of the modern idea.” He ascribes to her a certain amount of accountability; “Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary.” There is no better way for Pater to represent intrinsically his assertion that “Leonardo’s history is the history of his art.” Just as Leonardo’s shoulders are among those upon which the Academic canon stands, his portrait of the mysterious Gioconda launched an artistic renaissance, the influences of which were still resounding at the time of Pater’s writing of The Renaissance.
Pater’s Prose as Artistic Form
It is important to consider, especially with regards to the Mona Lisa, that none of the nineteenth-century editions of The Renaissance included reproductions of the works Pater discussed.#7 His essays were more about creating a language with which one could talk about art, and connecting visual description with his more abstract philosophies, than they were about the individual works themselves. There is a marked absence in Pater’s writing of discussion on formal artistic elements such as composition, line and color; he focuses instead on the larger concepts that pervade Leonardo’s life and work, and the personal, emotional basis for both their creation and their reception, in Leonardo’s time and in Pater’s.
Pater’s prose is virtually an art form in its own right, the opening of his Mona Lisa analysis having even been translated into verse by William Butler Yeats. Pater uses rhythm, alliteration, and metaphor to draw his readers in, rather than to the paintings themselves, to the mystery behind them. Thus setting up in a single image various antithetical oppositions that enhance, rather than compromise, his concept of Leonardo’s “strange beauty.” According to Pater’s descriptions, the Medusa of the Uffizi is “corrupt” yet “exquisite.” Her head is covered with “delicate snakes” in “terrified struggle.” The “rigid order” of Leonardo’s journals is directly contradicted to the “restlessness of his character.” Pater further sees in Leonardo a constant conflict between curiosity and the desire of beauty; a struggle between reason (ideas) and the senses (the desire of beauty).
There are a few recurring images that span the length of Pater’s Leonardo essay; music is perhaps the one that best relates to his ideas presented in the Giorgione essay and his Conclusion to The Renaissance. Water, however, is also an image that pervades the chapter, and seems to represent for Pater a sort of opposition to, or companion of, beauty and love in art. “Two ideas,” Pater says, were confirmed in Leonardo, relatively early in his career: “the smiling of women and the motion of great waters.” The water theme is addressed in relation to almost every painting Pater discusses in the essay, and, in the most notable passage, Pater traces the flow of moving water from painting to painting, “evoking a pervasive pattern of landscape background”#7 until it comes to an end, pooling around the Mona Lisa, “the presence that rose…so strangely beside the waters.” There is a constant interplay between the fluid prose of Pater’s analysis of the Mona Lisa and the pervasive influence of the woman herself, and she seems in the end to overpower even the compelling movement and depth of his prose.
Male Beauty in Pater’s Leonardo Essay
Pater is generally known for his written effusions on male beauty, and, however subtle it is, his celebration of male (or at least androgynous) beauty is not absent from his discussion of Leonardo’s life and works. Pater’s first mention of androgynous (or universal) beauty is about a drawing of Leonardo’s, “a face of doubtful sex…with something voluptuous and full in the eyelids and the lips.” Though the figure cannot be immediately defined based on gender, it illustrates for Pater “better than anything else Leonardo’s type of womanly beauty.” Leonardo’s painting of John the Baptist also possesses qualities coded as female, such as his “delicate brown flesh and woman’s hair.” His “treacherous smile” connects him to the Mona Lisa herself, whose “unfathomable smile” holds, for Pater, “something sinister in it.” Taken by themselves, or even as a whole, these moments in Pater’s analysis serve to represent the idea that beauty in art should not be restrained to a specific gender, or even to a particular subject matter. There is no reason, based on the contents of the essay, to call into question Pater’s own sexuality; however, his view on the ambiguous nature of Leonardo’s is convoluted by his mention of the “one at Florence which Love chooses for its own,” the young man “beloved of Leonardo for his curled and waving hair.” Considering also the “express historical testimony” of which Pater speaks, the alleged evidence that Leonardo was sexually attracted to men, it is possible that Pater saw in Leonardo’s life a deeper basis for the androgynous beauty that pervaded his art, transcending boundaries of gender and religion.
Pater, Religion, and the Leonardo essay
Many of Pater’s more conservative contemporaries criticized his writing for advocating hedonism and a reversion to pagan sensibilities in lieu of the period’s indoctrinated Christian discipline and values. Indeed, in his Leonardo essay, Pater seems to promote the subversion of Christian ideologies, even in his discussion of the most overt Christian themes in Leonardo’s art. He talks about the gradual disappearance of the cross in the hand of John the Baptist as it was copied throughout the years, then relating the figure to Bacchus, a figure in “pagan” mythology. He discusses Christianity as the “new religion” in which “decayed gods…took employment” after the fall of paganism. He calls Leonardo “the most profane of painters,” constantly handling sacred subjects but in a way that carried them well beyond their intended, conventional use. Pater even chooses to interpret the Last Supper, rather than as Christ’s last blessing of his disciples, as “one taking leave of his friends.” Pater ends the Leonardo essay with the declaration that, though no one knows the exact form of Leonardo’s religion, he considers it of little importance in the grand scope of Leonardo’s genius. His blatant denunciation of the importance of Christianity in Leonardo’s life and work corresponds perfectly to his hedonistic claims in the Conclusion of The Renaissance, and serves to link the past with his present in an attempt to break with both.