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Leonardo da Vinci's Legacy Is Focus of U.Va. Digital Project, Conference

March 30, 2012 — Leonardo da Vinci is considered one of the greatest painters of all time, and his legacy and theory of painting have had a lasting effect on artists through the centuries.

A new University of Virginia archive, "Leonardo da Vinci & His Treatise on Painting," created by Francesca Fiorani, an art history professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, digitally documents the legacy of Leonardo as a writer on the theory of art. A conference on da Vinci April 12-14 at U.Va. will officially launch the archive.

Da Vinci did not compile his theories about painting in one treatise or book – or at least none has been found, Fiorani said. His thoughts about painting were jotted down along with pages filled with drawings representing his theories.

One key element of his theory is the application of optics and geometry to his observation of the world. For instance, some of his geometrical drawings were studies in light and shadow, in which he studied the effect of light on spheres and the shadows it projects.

"Optical drawings did not exist before Leonardo drew them with the same level of accuracy and nuance of shadows," Fiorani said. "It's what we call an abstract drawing, but it's easy to substitute this sphere with a head and therefore actually see the very close connection to his own paintings."

The archive brings together more than 40 manuscripts compiled from da Vinci's drawings and notes gathered by his students after his death.

"We wanted to try to understand what people knew of Leonardo's theories on art in the Renaissance and Baroque periods," Fiorani said.

Partnering with U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Fiorani has worked since 2005 to digitally compile the manuscripts, which are physically housed in repositories around the world.

"We wanted to try to understand better the pattern of diffusion of da Vinci's legacy, and we knew we could do that through the many surviving derivative manuscripts that are still available throughout the globe," Fiorani said.

Working with a team of computer and programming experts at the institute and graduate art history students, Fiorani created a research tool that allows comparison across manuscripts and includes both text and images. The challenge was to develop a system that allows an in-depth study of each individual manuscript through facsimile pages and individual text units and illustrations, as well as a way to study and compare the changes that occurred over time.

The comparisons reveal breakdowns in the continuity of the texts. "When you see a breakdown, you often see a corruption of Leonardo's ideas," Fiorani said. Analysis of that corruption can lead to a better understanding of da Vinci's legacy, she said.

Providing open access to the archive as a research tool was a major consideration, Fiorani said.

The project also was an opportunity for her to involve graduate students and train them in the application of digital technology to the humanities.

Daniel Pitti, co-director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, praised the collaboration. "We look at this project as an exemplary model and wish all our projects function like Francesca's does," he said.

Mari Yoko Hara, a doctoral student in the History of Arts and Architecture program said she learned much about the importance of collaboration, drive and determination. "These are values that are often taken for granted in academia," she said. "It was encouraging to see museums, archives, libraries and universities coming together for a single project. It also taught me to think about scholarship's end-use differently."

Art history doctoral student Emily Fenichel, who is writing her dissertation on Michelangelo, not only learned to use coding software, but contributed her Italian language skills and expertise about 16th-century Italian art and helped create the underlying structure of the website.

Pitti said, "The students working on the project are full-fledged intellectual partners in the design and creation of the project."

Fenichel said since working on the project she has "given a lot of thought to how the project might change the nature of academic publishing in the future. In effect, Professor Fiorani is publishing a different kind of evidence of her research than a book or an article. Instead of a long prose work, she is presenting not only her findings, but a method for other scholars to follow her lead and take the study of these manuscripts to new depths and heights."

Conference to Feature Digital Archive

Fiorani will present the digital archive during "The Legacy of Leonardo da Vinci," a conference being held April 12-14 in the auditorium of U.Va.'s Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Her presentation will be on April 12 at 4:15 p.m.

The focus of the conference is da Vinci's legacy as a painter and includes presentations by two art historians and conservators who have been working on his paintings. Cecilia Frosinini, will talk about "Recent Analysis on Leonardo's 'Adoration of the Magi'" The painting is in Florence's Uffizi Gallery and scheduled for restoration. Her talk is part of a session devoted to "The Legacy of Painting," on April 12 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

On April 13, Elizabeth Walmsley, a conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will give a presentation on one of da Vinci's famous portraits titled "Technical Examination of the Ginevra de' Benci."

In a session on "The Codex Leicester" a collection of da Vinci's scientific writings, Martin Kemp, professor emeritus at Oxford University, will talk about "Order and Chaos in 'The Codex Leicester,'" and Domenico Laurenza, a historian of science affiliated with the Museo Galileo in Florence, will discuss "An Early History of 'Global Access': 'The Codex Leicester' and the Rise of Modern Geology."

Other sessions will be devoted to "The Legacy of the Trattato" and "The Legacy of the Manuscripts" and will include, among others, U.Va. professors Paul Barolsky and David Summers.

The conference will close with an invitation-only session devoted to a discussion of "The Future of Digital Projects on Leonardo" on April 14.

The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To register, visit the conference website. The complete program is posted here.

– by Jane Ford

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