Two Neighbors

By John Hertz: (reprinted in part from No Direction Home 18) Where were you on May 2nd? It was the 500th death-anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Did you take a cup, say a prayer, look up his work? Maybe you will yet this year. He was born near the town of Vinci; the farmhouse which is believed to be where this occurred, built in 1427, is now the Casa Natale di Leonardo, a museum, about 30 miles (50 km) west of Florence, in Tuscany, Italy.

There are celebratory exhibits at Florence, Milan, Rome; Paris; Krakow; in the United Kingdom, touring twelve cities, and at the Queen’s Gallery in London and in Edinburgh; two more were at Hamburg (first week of June) and New York (January-April).

He studied all things in nature with curiosity, patience, and care; science and art, so remarkably united in his mind, had there one origin – detailed observation [p. 199]…. indeed he was interested in everything. All postures and actions of the human body, all expressions of the face in young and old, all the organs and movements of animals and plants from the waving of wheat in the field to the flight of birds in the air, all the cyclical erosion and elevation of mountains, all the currents and eddies of water and wind, the moods of the weather, the shades of the atmosphere, and the inexhaustible kaleidoscope of the sky…. he filled thousands of pages with observation concerning them, and drawings of their myriad forms [pp. 200-01].

The subject [of The Last Supper] was superb, but from a painter’s point of view it was pitted with hazards. It had to confine itself to male figures and a modest table in a simple room … no vivid action could be brought in to set the figures into motion and convey the sense of life…. he portrayed the gathering at the tense moment Christ has prophesied that one of the Apostles will betray Him, and each is asking, in fear or horror or amazement, “Is it I?”… more than violent physical action; a searching and revelation of spirit; never again, so profoundly, has an artist revealed in one picture so many souls…. preliminary sketches … for James the Greater, Philip, Judas – are drawings of such finesse and power as only Rembrandt [1606-1669] and Michelangelo [1475-1564] have matched [p. 205].

There are several alleged portraits of him, but none before fifty [p. 214]…. He was not anxious to be read by the many. “The truth of things,” he wrote, “is a supreme food for fine intelligences, but not for wandering wits” [p. 215].

He wrote equally well on science and art, and divided his time almost evenly between them [p. 217]…. [In the Treatise on Painting] he urges: “Make figures with such action as may suffice to show what the figure has in mind.” Did he forget to do this with Mona Lisa, or did he exaggerate our ability to read the soul in the eyes and the lips? [p. 218]… It is hard for us to realize that to Ludovico [Sforza, 1452-1508], as to Caesar Borgia [1475-1507], Leonardo was primarily an engineer…. He developed a machine for cutting threads in screws … frictionless roller-bearing hand brakes…. three-speed transmission gears; an adjustable monkey wrench; a machine for rolling metal; a movable bed for a printing press; a self-locking worm gear for raising a ladder [p. 219].

Side by side with his drawings, sometimes on the same page, sometimes scrawled across a sketch of a man or a woman, a landscape or a machine, are the notes in which this insatiable mind puzzled over the laws and operations of nature…. Often the artist peered out again in the scientist; the scientific drawing might itself be a thing of beauty [p. 221]…. The anatomy of man he described not only in words but in drawings that excelled anything yet done [p. 224]…. more fertile in conception than in execution. He was not the greatest scientist or engineer or painter or sculptor or thinker of his time; he was merely the man who was all of these together and in each field rivaled the best…. not quite “the universal man”, since the qualities of statesman or administrator found no place in his variety. But, with all his limitations and incompletions, he was the fullest man [author’s emphasis] of the Renaissance, perhaps of all time [p. 217].

W. Durant, The Renaissance (1953; The Story of Civilization vol. 5)

We in the science fiction community cannot claim Leonardo. Some of his designs were not practicable in his day, which he did not know, not having carried them far enough, but he unlike e.g. Jules Verne did not purpose fiction. Conceptually he lived next door to us. The scope and quality of his imagination, and of his conjoining art and science, are inspiring.

From a 2nd to a 22nd, from a 500th to a 50th. June 22nd was the 50th death-anniversary of Judy Garland (1922-1969). Her death at age 47 ended a 45-year career; she had performed since age 2.

On the 29th Jerry Sharell on his Sinatra and Sharell program, Radio Station KKJZ, played her singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” (H. Arlen & J. Mercer, 1946) from her 23 Apr 61 Carnegie Hall concert, followed by Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) from Sinatra and Strings (1962); if you drink wine, like Corton-Charlemagne and Margaux.

That Carnegie Hall concert, to a sold-out house, was called “the greatest night in show-business history”; released as the two-record Judy at Carnegie Hall (1963) it was an RIAA-certified gold album (Recording Industry Ass’n of America; $1 million in retail sales).

Let us note, even without exploring, her spectacular work in Meet Me in St. Louis (V. Minelli dir. 1944), Easter Parade (C. Walters dir. 1948), A Star is Born (G. Cukor dir. 1954), Judgment at Nuremberg (S. Kramer dir. 1961); her last film, as it happened entitled I Could Go On Singing (R. Neame dir. 1963); her studio albums; her other record-breaking concerts in the United States and overseas.

Pertinent here is The Wizard of Oz (V. Fleming dir. 1939). Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is a fantasy; it imagines its creatures and events to be as real as the reader. The cinema Wizard is a dream sequence – although at the end Dorothy insists it was real. Let us pass over this, however recreant, for the achievement of imagination it disavows.

In its merits it is masterly. It turns on Garland. She is the fulcrum, the linchpin. Her cogency supports the fantasy. In fact she was 16; her believability as a child is the creation of an actress. It is she whom the characters meet, who by receiving them sustains them – even the Wizard. We do not even notice that her supreme song, ”Over the Rainbow” (H. Arlen & Y. Harburg) – which won an Academy Award – as she did; which became her signature – throughout hard times, hard knocks, hard moments of irrejectable applause roaring against residues of woe – is falsified: the dreams do not come true. The song is true. She made it true – by singing it, and creating or co-creating Dorothy, with beauty and truth.

She was three-ninths into her life. She was one-ninth of her life short of age 21. She did many more things and earned much more acclaim. This picture was a great moment: it is next door to us: and it has proved, to the surprise of everyone in it, remarkably universal.

Since Our Gracious Host found this picture, you might like a close look at the letters “Wizard of Oz”. They’re by Hirschfeld.

2 thoughts on “Two Neighbors

  1. It would be interesting to see a SF work that proposes that da Vinci found an engineer, artisan who managed to get ahold of Japanese paper or some other wonderful material and was able to make da Vinci’s inventions.

  2. I had no idea that I had gone past that neighborhood twice on a day trip to Florence and Pisa; if I ever deal with that travel show again I’ll point out what they missed in their excursions. I note that Googlemaps doesn’t miss; if you type in “casa na” the first completion offered is “tale di leonardo”.

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