Da Vinci, and Translucencies

It’s a ‘common truth’ that Leonardo didn’t depict a single mirror in his paintings (at least, we don’t have painting of him at the moment that would contain a mirror). In this case, why such a master should enter this blog, you may ask?

I wrote about a couple of such mirror-less masters before, and exactly because of the lack of mirrors in their works seemed a little bit suspicious. One was Lucas Cranach the Elder; many masters of his time did depicted glass mirrors (that were widely known and used in Germany at that time), but not him.

Another similar case is of Albrecht Dürer – although even when I was writing about his ‘lack of mirrors’, I had to say ‘almost’ even then – now I have more evidences of his use (which means that I have to edit that posting at some point).

But the Leonardo’s ‘mirrorlessness’ is even more enigmatic; his admiration of mirrors is well-known, and we can safely assume that the best glass mirrors of his time, both quality- and size-wise, had been within his reach. And yet, alas.

I can’t claim that I ‘solved’ the above enigma, but a few facts and artifact I compiled will make, perhaps, a posting.

I rarely go into the labor of paraphrasing the basic bio-facts here, even with less known masters, and I am definitely not going to do so in case of Leonardo; the Wikipedia article is considered to be standard in terms of factual accuracy (I once read that it’s translated to more languages than any other piece in Wikipedia). I assume that any reader is either know the basic things about his life and works, or will go and refresh their memory about those).  The date of birth, for example, is good to recall for sure, because it would anchor this whole story in the right time-frame.

Oh, well, let’s not be too demanding from the reader. It’s 1452. In a small town of Vinci, near Florence (and the death, in 1519, but very far from the above place, in the Château du Clos-Lucé, in France; allegedly in the presence of Francis I, then then king of the country).

This is also to hint that the life of Leonardo was a long one, and pretty twisted; to cope with that in my story, I will divide it in a few micro-chapters.

I. Mirror handwriting

This is usually first thing that one encounters when trying to explore the relationships between Leonardo and ‘mirrors’: his way of writing, the “mirror” method he used during his entire life:

It’s not possible to read these notes as is (or at least very difficult, unless you are specially trained) – but they become absolutely clear as soon as you place a mirror next to them and read the imaged reflected in it:

This simplicity of ‘decoding’ annuls the theories of ‘encoding’, suggesting that Leonardo was trying to hide the meaning of his writings from his foes or rivals. Mirrors had been relatively widely available by the the of 14 century in Italy; they hadn’t been a casual, everyday object for everybody, but were definitely possessed by the nobility.

A much more plausible theory is that Leonardo, who was knowingly left-handed, could simply worked out for himself a way to write from right to left, using the mirrored letters – in this way his left hand wouldn’t scrub fresh ink smeared ink. He wrote all his numerous notebooks for himself only; they’ve never been published during his lifetime, all his “books” are posthumous compilations made ​​much later by his disciples.

II. Mirror aid

But even despite he didn’t need to use mirrors to read his own writings, he did have them in his possession, apparently. It looks that he had them relatively early – the leaf below is attributed to 1480s latest (he was about thirty by then). Moreover, the drawing shows the way of using the mirrors as an aiding tool for drawing:

Below is the part related to the use of the mirror:

This is how Leonardo describes the procedure (elsewhere in his diaries):

“Have a piece of glass as large as a half sheet of royal folio paper and set thus firmly in front of your eyes, that is, between your eye and the thing you want to draw. Then place yourself at a distance of 2/3 of a braccia from the glass fixing your head with a machine in such a way that you cannot move it at all. Then shut or entirely cover one eye and with a brush or red chalk draw upon the glass that which you see beyond it; then trace it on paper from the glass, afterwards transfer it onto good paper, and paint it if you like, carefully attending to the aerial perspective.”

(Royal Folio is about our A4, so the suggested size is 15 x 20 cm, and braccia is a measure of length, ‘arm’ in Italian, equal to 66-69 cm).

This small figure is not very clear what is mean by the machine that is needed to ‘fixing you head’; but we have another, bigger and better drawing by Durer, from his treatise on painting, Underweysung der Messung (I already mentioned it in my earlier blog posting, but found a better copy lately):

This is a leaf from the edition of about 1525, but there are signs that Dürer knew about this technique much earlier. Leonardo’s own drawing is dated around the 1480s, some 50 years earlier; some researchers even suggest that he ‘invented’ this technique. I personally think that the trick per se is common sense, this principle inevitably comes to mind to anyway who has in his hands a piece of more or less flat (and more or less large) piece of glass (not mirror, by the way). In fact, in the book by Dürer this way called by a very generic way, ‘glass’ (this doesn’t exclude, however, that Leonardo – or later Dürer) could have invented a particular design to fix the head).

Of course, to do such a trick, one would need this piece of glass first – relatively flat and quite transparent, at least without major distortions. The method to mold flat glass (and therefore to make flat mirrors) was not invented yet (it will emerge in the early 16th century in Venice), so the first ‘flat glasses’ were in fact made out of the walls of blown vessels (or from the glass disks – see the typical look of a medieval glass window). Such small flat glass were already quite common by the end of the 15th century, both in Italy and in Germany.

But the ‘lenses’ – that is, glass with an evenly curved surface – was still a thing of the future. Of course, the curvy, somewhat rounded surface was obtained already during the glass blowing process., but its surface was uneven, and such glasses couldn’t work as a good lens (people will learn how to make somewhat usable lenses some 200 years later, in the Netherlands (see also Antonie van Leeuwenhoek).

But some attempts to produce the lenses had been made much earlier, of course – the first eyeglasses had been made in Italy as early as 13th century. In fact, we have another drawing by Leonardo where he proposes a device that would help making large lenses (concave, in this case):

As often happens with many ideas of Leonardo, it would be very difficult (often impossible) to actually make such a device in his time. Using modern technology we can make a prototype of what was meant by Leonardo (see the picture above to the right; in fact, it does produce the lenses; of a kind).

It was all interesting, but related to glass, not mirrors. As it turns out, Leonardo thought about mirrors as a helping tool for a painter too – in one of his drawings we see a young man with what is very a large convex mirror:

Even if it’s a mirror, the man does not look at himself in it; that way, to look at the mirror and then draw yourself, was apparently known from the times immemorial. I once wrote about Marcia (or Iaia) who painted herself using a mirror (albeit it its metallic incarnation).

Despite the theme of ‘self-portrait’ is unlikely here, many people still consider this drawing portrait young Leonardo (whose true look is still a mystery for us, since all the so-called “self-portraits” are only attributions, more or less convincing).

When working on this posting, I found a very interesting Tumblr, Leonardian, entirely dedicated to the works of Leonardo; it’s run by an artist who also created a few own versions of how Leonardo may have looked like – here, for example, Leonardo is presented in an appropriately Renaissance dress:

I got a kind permission to reproduce this image here – although I think it’s not ‘correct’, and the right version should look like that:

My point was not about historical resemblance, but the fact that in the original version Leonardo holds his notebook in his left hand – as would any right-handed person do. Knowing that he was left-handed, we can assume that he would held in the right hand – as in my mirrored image.

I had a chance to raise this issue with the artist, and got the following answer:

“And no, the orientation is quite right. Just because he was left-handed doesn’t mean he could not hold a notebook in his left hand. He’s not writing in it, just holding it. :)” 

Well, as they say in Britain, let’s agree to disagree; it’s a lovely work anyway.

It was a detour; if we go back to the ‘mirrors’ and Leonardo, we would soon discover that he was thinking (and writing) about them quite frequently, and in general valued mirrors tremendously. There are fragments where he proclaims mirror as a “royal instrument” of artists (I remember reading it in my book of his Confessions, which I don’t have at the moment to provide an exact quote).

One one side, Leonardo warns artists to now act merely as a mirror:

“The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies every thing placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence”.

But on the other side (of a mirror), and if we approach the matter mindfully, mirror can provide invaluable assistance to the artist, allowing him to see ‘the essence’, of true shapes and colors of the objects  as well as their overall composition.

Below is a long quote that describes a very specific way of using mirrors, but it also shows his more general attitude towards mirrors, too:

“The air is filled with endless images of the objects distributed in it; and all are represented in all, and all in one, and all in each, whence it happens that if two mirrors are placed in such a manner as to face each other exactly, the first will be reflected in the second and the second in the first. The first being reflected in the second takes to it the image of itself with all the images represented in it, among which is the image of the second mirror, and so, image within image, they go on to infinity in such a manner as that each mirror has within it a mirror, each smaller than the last and one inside the other. Thus, by this example, it is clearly proved that every object sends its image to every spot whence the object itself can be seen; and the converse: That the same object may receive in itself all the images of the objects that are in front of it.”

As I just said, this is a very interesting specific case of using mirror(s), but it also shows (= reflects in itself, if we use the same metaphor) many other things – that mirror for Leonardo can provides an excellent opportunity to see something different in the world, or – may be even more important – to see the usual everyday things with a fresh eye (and clear mind).

And the boy here doe not look ‘into a mirror’, but rather using the mirror to look at the world, in some sort of mirror-mediated meditation.

This technique will soon become very popular, and its use will achieve almost industrial scale. Unfortunately, it will known not as the Mirror of da Vinci, but as Claude Glass, from the name of the French artist (Claude Lorrain) who figured out that if to take a slightly concave and darkened mirror, it can be used to paint nice miniature landscapes – and do it very quickly.

The result may look like that:

This dark concave mirror performed a dual task – it compressed a landscape into a compact and easy to reproduce a copy, and also simplified its color palette, breaking nuanced natural colors into some sort of ‘color blocks’, similar to certain filters graphical editors of today.

For example, I used one such filter for this painting once again, in a very exaggerated and cruel way, and that’s what happened:

We now a few much more simple colors to reproduce; if they would play with techniques a bit further back then, we could perhaps get Liechtensteins Hockneys already in the Renassance age.

III. Mirror Chamber

I cited the above long quote, about the infinite reflections in two mirrors, as an example of positive attitude of Leonardo to the mirrors in general. But apparently this way of using mirrors got his specific attention as well.

In one of his notebooks he made layout of – not even of a device, but a special space, which he called the Mirror Chamber, Sala degli Specchi:

The idea was that if one can create an octagonal room, each of the eight walls of which would be made of mirrors, then any person entering such room would be able to see herself yourself from all sides, without even turning his head, by just looking at different reflections (and reflections of reflections)

As usual, to full realize such a seemingly simple concept would not be possible in Leonardo’s time (or at least very difficult) – they were not able to produce such large, full-height mirrors (even more or less flat mirrors had been produced only around 1505s, and half-height ones only after almost a century later).

In our time everybody can make it by just visiting the neared Ikea:

I am not sure, by the way, that Leonardo fully understand the experience of a person in such a room; yes, you do see yourself from all sides, but you also see so many more reflections (= infinite) that the majority of people get dizzy in such spaces very quickly. I’ll try to write a separate posting later, about such “mirror cameras”, and how they are used by various artists (so far I only once mentioned a similar room, made by Japanese Yayoi Kusama, but there are many more).

It’s important to mention here that despite the general attitude toward mirrors of Leonardo was very positive, it was very pragmatic too – they were understood, and treated as very useful tools, with many interesting qualities, but seemingly without any hidden symbolic meanings. In this context I find a bit problematic some of the mirrors that are attributed to Leonardo. But let’s talk about them anyway.

IV. Magical mirrors

Frankly, I have some doubts if this work belongs to Leonardo at all – I didn’t find it any any paper editions I looked trough so far (we have a fairly large volume with the drawings of Leonardo at home, and I also checked a couple of albums in a local library – but I admit, those were not catalogues raisonné.

But in the online archive where I found it in the Internet, it has been described as a “Witch using a Magic Mirror.”

I am sure that Leonardo was well aware of many ideas and concepts related to mirrors of his time (many of which we would now call prejudices), that attributed to them a lot of magic qualities and capacities (including, for example, the ability to “steal people’s souls”). I wrote about some of these believes in my story about Hans Baldung and his Bewitched Mirrors (and plan to write more about (Dark) Magical Mirrors of 16th century, for examples, in the context of John Dee’s story I am working on now.)

What I’m not sure is that Leonardo would treat these ‘magical’ properties as more important than  those useful and evident qualities of the mirrors he could observe himself.

It seems that for him the main thing in the mirrors was their ‘technological’, instrumental side – and if we accept this framework, then the scene above can be read as a “drawing session with a model using a mirror.” But yes, the words “witch” and “magic” sound much more ‘interesting’ and ‘mysterious’ for many (and the search for mysteries and enigmas of Leonardo is a Big Sport already for ages).

Speaking of the “witches”, two of them had been found very recently, in the work that is often regarded his Main One:

Chances are that you will not recognize anything here, but people equipped with microscopes and also having access to his work handing in Louvre argue that there two tiny figures underneath this bridge:

According to some researchers, the scenery behind Mona Lisa does represent a certain real landscape, and that this bridge existed and was known as the Witch Bridge. And therefore these two figures that are allegedly standing under the bridge – in approximately the same positions as in the drawing above – must be witches.  Yet even the best microscope can not say if one of them holds a mirror.

V. Even More Magical Mirrors

There is another “mirror” theme related to Leonardo, which has recently become pretty viral. As I already wrote, the desire to find yet another ‘enigma’ of Leonardo (and offer your ‘solution’ to it) proves to be never-ending. One of the latest fads was the search of “encrypted messages” in his paintings that can be decrypted only with the use of – mirror, of course!

When placed in the right sot, the mirror can ‘reveal’ a lot of things – from the head of the Creator, to the head of Satan (or Dark Vader in some version), to the UFOs or  aliens themselves:

There are dozens, if not hundreds of such ‘revelations’ which already filled a good chunk of the Internet (together with the revelations of them as hoaxes, and parodies about both camps):

A great example of a back-projection, a reverse cargo-cult, so to speak; it would worth to write a special piece on that at some point.

VI. Wishful Mirrors

If I go back to the “serious conversation” about Leonardo’s mirrors, especially about mirrors in his paintings, I’d need to simply re-iterate the lack of those. And yet I would also have to admit a strong desire to find the “true mirror” in the “real pictures” of  Leonardo.

A good candidate for such ‘discovery’ would be his Annunciation, one of the earliest paintings he made; it’s an amazingly beautiful panel, and yet we need to remember that was hardly 20 years old when he painted it:

The panel is now in Uffizi Galery in Florence (and also can be seen in details in the Google Art gallery).

The mirror was present in many other Annunciations, and who was on his way to place the one in Mary’s room, too? 

May be it’s still there? May be a Super-Duper-Ray would eventually reveal it to us?

Another candidate is the Lady with Unicorn:

This is, of course, not even a painting – although it’s believed that it was a study for such one (it is also believed that it inspired Raphael). And the mirror would fully fit the scene as we know, only True Virgins can tame the unicorns, and what is a True Virgin without a True Mirror?


VII. Madonnas and the Mirror-Like Things

Of all the paintings by Leonardo we tend to love his Madonnas most (and even the Mona Lisa is believed to be Madonna by many, just unfinished). But relationships between Madonnas and mirrors are always tight; we do occasionally see mirrors in the Annunciation scenes, but I know only one true example when mirror was in the vicinity of Mary with baby Jesus (in the Hans Memling’s famous diptych) – that is, without the presence of St.Luke (there are a couple of examples of this trio with the mirrors, too).

And Leonardo’s Madonnas are not an exception; there are no mirrors there, too. However, we can spot what I’d call “micro-mirrors”, in form of large and beautiful brooches clasping St.Mary’s cloak; with some luck, we can even see something reflected there!

The first such ‘mini-mirror’ appears already on the very first Madonna by Leonardo, the so-called Madonna with Pomegranate (1472):

The Benois Madonna (1478), currently in the Hermitage, Russia.

And another Madonna, the so-called Madonna of the Carnation (1480):

It may seem that with time Leonardo was creating larger and larger “mini-mirrors” – if this trend would continue, by 1490 we would see a mirror saucer hanging on the Madonna’s neck. This is not the case (perhaps unfortunately) – in the famous Virgin of the Rocks (1492) the brooch gets very small again:

But ‘small’ is a relative term; some of these ‘mini-mirrors’ are fairly large, for example, the one of the Madonna of the Carnation (currently at the Alte Pinacothek in Munich) is almost 10 cm large:

The copies that I have do not allow any serious exploration, but I hope that one day a more serious analysis will be done, and we can see of anything is reflected in these ‘mirrors’ (and what, if yes):

VIII. Mirror Sphere

This is the last work that I want to talk about, and the most peculiar of all, perhaps. The painting was attributed to Leonardo only very recently, and it is still a subject of heated debates about its authorship.

It’s called the Salvator Mundi,  Saviour of the World, and painted circa 1500.

It also does have a ‘mini-mirror’, similar to the ones I just showed on the Madonnas (and if this mini-mirror has any reflection in it, it may well be the self-portrait of Leonardo):

But this painting has another amazing artifact; again, not exactly a mirror, but this giant glass sphere (=the symbol of the world which is to be saved) is just incredible:

Even it’s not a “mirror”, such design could appear only in the mind of somebody who was intimately familiar with glass-blowing (and thus, mirror-making) techniques of this time. Perhaps, Leonardo even had such a sphere in his possession (or at least provided by the (unknown) client who commissioned this work).

It’s funny that the very ability to depict such a transparent mirror ball, which only Leonardo allegedly had at that time) has become one of the important proof-points of the attribution:

My ‘mirror icon’ in this case shouldn’t really contact a mirror; yet it wouldn’t be fair to deprive the genius of such icon, too, so let it be a Translucent Icon this time.

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