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The Leonardo Series: Drawings by Anthony Panzera Based on Leonardo da Vinci's Work on Human Proportion

by Anthony Panzera
State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2015
256 pp., illus. 162 col., 9 b/w. Trade, $60
ISBN:  978-1-4384-5935-6.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Anthony Panzera's elegant collection of fine, sepia-toned studies of the human figure derives from Leonardo da Vinci's (1452-1519) drawings and notes on human proportion known collectively as Leonardo's Notebooks. In the canonic Western tradition of the nude these Notebooks have for centuries offered reflections on proportion that serve as a venerable touchstone for artists and humanists alike. While countless treatises, formulas, books, and articles have been written on the subject (from Vitruvius, Alberti and Cennini to Boime, Wittkower and Morselli), none compares with the empirical scrutiny, aestheticism, and resonance of Leonardo's folios. Replete with metaphysical connotations, Leonardo's theory of human proportion epitomizes the universal harmony between microcosm and macrocosm as the foundational principle of beauty.

Panzera is closely attuned to the issue of proportion both as an artist long committed to the human figure as a center of artistic expression, and as Professor Emeritus of Art at Hunter College in New York whose classes in advanced figure drawing taught the importance of anatomy and proportion. He became deeply impressed with the consummate beauty of Leonardo's pen-and-ink sketches in Florence where he decided to more critically investigate the master's theories on proportion as the basis of an artistic practicum. The task, he soon discovered, would be daunting given the enormous number of drawings, fragmentary annotations, and notebook pages with conflicting numerical references (by last count slightly more than 7000) scattered among over a dozen cities in Europe and America. He began by collecting individual notes that he tested empirically by creating isolated drawings of a model from units of measurement transcribed from Leonardo's notations. The initial experiment gradually evolved into a 30-year project that led to the creation of 65 original artworks known as the Leonardo Series, a conceptual ensemble that joins High Renaissance classicism to contemporaneity.  Additionally, Panzera identified, collected, tested and analyzed the entirety of Leonardo's original drawings, notes, and measurements on human proportion to serve as a future reference for artists and researchers investigating Leonardo's theories. In this capacity, the text provides an exacting critical supplement to existing Leonardo scholarship, one that includes a brief history of proportional studies and academic instruction in life drawing; a chronology of Leonardo da Vinci's life and artistic career; definitions of arcane units of measure; annotated lists of relevant ancient manuscripts and codices; concordances of drawing and notebook numerations in primary collections; and an extensive bibliography.

The collection as a whole is a stunning work of art and an impeccable contribution to art historical scholarship, as remarkable in its union of art and science as Leonardo's own marriage of spirit and matter. Finely drawn in sanguine pencil, Panzera's figures impart a sense of ethereal beauty unto themselves. Here a handlebar moustache, there a mop-top haircut connotes youth and age, bonded within a studio tradition that is at once contemporary and timeless. Superimpositions of ruled metrics over softly shaded contours contrast the corporeal substance of the flesh with essence, the geometric clarity of calculus with the indeterminacy of nature. This juxtaposition of the inanimate and the animate, of abstract grids and drawings from life, imbues the imagery with a subtle tension poised between mathematical perfection and post-photographic realism. Dr. Domenico Laurenza (Museo Galileo-Institute and Museum for the History of Science) alludes to the opposition of rationalism and subjectivity in his Preface to the series where he associates Panzera's "precision" with the scientific predilection of contemporary American art. Some of Panzera's drawings confront the viewer with unexpected effects of time-lapse sequencing, scale disparity or contraposition, while others combine antipodal members such as the head and foot in startling apposition. This is not, however, a confrontation between naked verisimilitude and the idealized nude in the parlance of Kenneth Clark, but rather of emotional and intellectual structures to be read abstractly as significant formulaic propositions. Many of the designs assume a mesmerizing presence free of binary constructs through haunting degrees of partiality, evocative composition, stillness and engagement with space and light. They achieve intrinsic presence from the artist's interdependent sensibilities, "guided by judgment" as Cennini writes in his Libro dell'arte, to "arrive at the truth."

Panzera's methodology crosses disciplines ranging from literary erudition to historical and experimental science. It supplements the work of J. P. Richter, whose commanding compilation and English translation of Leonardo's Notebooks remains the most comprehensive reference on the subject, joining ranks with da Vinci scholars such as Edward MacCurdy, Martin Kemp, and Carlo Pedretti. Moreover, just as Leonardo's Vitruvian Man emblematizes the entirety of the humanistic tradition identified by the Pythagorean maxim "man is the measure," Panzera's narrative synthesizes the vast repertory of critical discourse emanating from such areas as architectural theory, fine art pedagogy, and aesthetics in chapters titled "The Ancient Greeks and Ideal Form;" "Leonardo's Vitruvian Man;" and "Leonardo, Dürer, Lomazzo, and the Advent of the Academies" thereby providing an invaluable contextual survey of relevant ideological currents.

Leonardo's own poetic epigraph to the Notebooks leaves open the question of whether, as Panzera believes, the artist planned to combine his study of anatomy and proportion into a projected treatise on the human body that was never realized:

"Begun in Florence, in the house of Piero di Braccio Martelli, on the 22nd day of March, 1508. And this is to be a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later in its place, according to the subjects of which they may treat."

Perhaps Panzera's Leonardo Series approaches the unity of Leonardo's aspirations, for it presents the first coherent treatise on Leonardo's notes and observation on human proportion to be realized in the da Vinci constellatory.


Last Updated 1 April 2016

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