A Stroke of Genius

By Eric Schumacher.

Leonardo did not like what he saw.

It was late in the year 1472 and the painting, the “Baptism of Christ,” was turning out like so many others. Nearly complete, Leonardo could not help but notice the rigidity of the characters that populated the canvas. They were correct anatomically, but to the young accomplice, they, like most of Verrocchio’s others subjects, lacked the realism and depth that gave them emotion; that gave them life. John the Baptist’s arm was too stiff; his left hand, too skeletal. Jesus appeared statuesque and oddly bent. The Savior’s face looked sad, not reverent, and his eyes stared down at John’s feet. Why his feet? The kneeling angel to Jesus’s left looked away with an inexplicably bored countenance that drew Leonardo’s gaze to the edge of the canvas. This was Christ, our Savior. Would not the angel be joyous? And that was just the people on the canvas. Leonardo had just as many criticisms for the setting and the natural elements. The palm tree was too small. The sky took up too much of the image. It was, in a word, wrong. All wrong. And it grated on Leonardo’s nerves.

“You see how I frame my characters, Leonardo?” his mentor, Verrocchio, asked. “With the angel on the one hand and John on the other. You can almost see the line from John’s nose that crosses the Savior’s body to the kneeling cherubim, eh?” He reinforced his words by drawing that same line in the air with his brush. “And notice how the background does not wrestle with the people, who are, of course, the center of attention here, hmm?”

“It is clear you have given much thought to your composition, master,” said Leonardo. “Have you given any thought to the feelings of your subjects?”

A deep furrow creased Verrocchio’s graying brow. “Ah, Leonardo. One must not overdo feelings, for it would be improper of me to assume I know.”

Leonardo blinked in surprise. Were not feelings, from which expression was derived, the essence of life? 

Masking his thoughts behind a dutiful nod, he turned his eyes and his attention to his sketchbook, which he always carried. The sketchbook was Leonardo’s escape, his sanctuary. As a child in his Tuscan country home, he had carried sketchbooks everywhere. Whether fearful or embarrassed, angry or sad, he would escape to the silent world of imagination that only his paper and charcoal could offer. For hours, and sometimes days, he would mirror his natural surroundings on paper, paying close attention to accuracy in humans, animals, and objects alike. The bend of a bird’s wing in flight. The rustle of wind in the trees. Interiors of dwellings. Gears and other mechanical devices, some existing, some contrived from his imagination, like the war machines he envisioned fighting future battles. There was no limit to what he might sketch, though there was a purpose: exploring his imagination, satiating his curiosity, and pursuing truth in his artistry.

He recalled one summer evening as a child, listening to the moans that seeped under the door of his father’s room and carried to his bedroom down the hall. Driven by his curiosity, he crept to the door of his father’s place and quietly peeked inside. On the bed, the bodies of his parents lay entwined, their glistening skin flickering in the soft candlelight. An arm curled around a back. A hand buried itself between two thighs. Legs clung to each other like writhing snakes. Leonardo gazed upon the sight with fascination, for the limbs were like separate beings, each with their minds and movements. He committed them to memory, and when his parents finally lapsed off into sleep, he sketched the entwined bodies by candlelight until the rooster heralded the arrival of a new dawn.  

Verrocchio coughed, turning Leonardo’s thoughts to his master. It had been years since Leonardo had moved from his comfortable home in Anchiano, Tuscany, to pursue his dream of painting, and still, Verrocchio guarded his brushes jealously. Unlike most teachers, who often allowed their students to take on some of the painting themselves, Verrocchio insisted that it was more important to watch and listen than to paint and make mistakes. At first, Leonardo accepted this style, believing that it would change soon enough. But three years into their work together, it remained as it had from day one: frustrating.

The more Leonardo learned, and the longer he spent on his works, the more frustrated he became. It was not that Verrocchio was an untalented painter. On the contrary, he followed a contemporary style that kept a steady flow of patrons knocking on the door of his studio. It was just that Verrocchio’s works were all beginning to take on a quality that, to Leonardo’s eye, did not mirror truth in life. They were too balanced. Too safe. Too contrived. 

This was not the only criticism that Leonardo kept bottled inside. His master’s utilization of light and shadow was wrong. It was random and patchy. Blotches of light highlighted the subjects from different angles, rather than coming from specific sources, as in life. With random lighting, the painting’s fluidity −− that which draws the eye from one spot to the next −− was absent, for he found his eye stopping at various points rather than gracefully traveling across the canvas.  

“That is enough for today,” said Verrocchio. “I hope you have learned something.”

“Indeed, master. Again, I thank you.”

Later that night, Verrocchio sat back on his stool, palette in hand, and stared through red-rimmed eyes at his painting. He could paint no further. He had been working since dawn, and his hands were cramped and his dark eyes were watering. Besides, his candles had burned down to near nothing, and it would be wasteful to light more.

Deciding to leave his work until the following day, Verrocchio closed up his studio and slowly made his way downstairs to his bed. Below his window the street torches flickered, casting feeble amber shadows on his walls that played with each other like frolicking souls.

“Have you given any thought to the feelings of your subjects,” young Leonardo’s words echoed in his head. Of course, boy. Of course. But had he? No matter how he tried, Verrocchio had always struggled to capture feeling, to create paintings that evoked awe, or love, or even disgust. In truth, he had tried, but it was not what his patrons wanted. Not what they paid him for. He would have given his legs to capture the depth of expression so often found in a moment. A momentary smirk or lift of a brow. Those subtleties of life that young Leonardo’s drawings and paintings captured so well.

Verrocchio sat up and reached for the glass of water that he kept beside his bed. He gulped at the cup, spilling the cold liquid down his bearded chin. What was it about the young Tuscan’s talent that so threatened him? The boy was popular and flamboyant, quick-witted and resourceful, and talented beyond words. But was that cause for worry-filled nights? Was that worth the hoarding of brushes and refusal to let the young accomplice progress, as he should?

He knew it was not. It was just hard to admit that a boy’s renderings, and his suggestions, were what he sought. That he genuinely wanted to capture life and expression, not the sack of silver that came from mimicking trends. Oh, how jealous he was of it. Leonardo’s attention to detail — to reality — was uncanny. Verrocchio had been searching for it all his life; and the sad truth was that after all these financially successful years, it still evaded him.

Verrocchio forced himself from his bed, lit his bedside candle and ascended the stairs to his studio. He walked to Leonardo’s small table and opened the leather-bound folder that lay upon it. Slowly, he worked his way through the sketches that lay within. Even in the dim light, even with the absence of color, the subjects jumped from the page. In this character, he saw true torment, in that, unmistakable elation.  

The boy defied trends. Unlike so many paintings, there were no flat planes. No fluffy clouds or vegetation or houses were detracting the eye from the faces and forms, from the depth of his subjects. Verrocchio traced a long finger along a sketched limb. So gentle in its curves, so majestic. He could almost see the suppleness of the flesh. Entwined limbs. Curious facial expressions. Studies of animals and humans in motion. Anatomical renderings. So different from his renderings and the linear style of the day.

At the back of the portfolio, Verrocchio found a sketch he had not yet seen, yet was somehow familiar. It depicted two figures engaged in combat, swords drawn and bodies merged. Suddenly, he remembered where he had seen this drawing. He ran to his portfolio and tore through the sketches. There, halfway through the pile of drafts, he found what he sought: the same two figures engaged in combat. With shaking hands, he held the drafts out before him, side-by-side. In action, they were identical. In form, they could not have been more different. Leonardo’s figures were contorted with their struggle. Every muscle strained and bulged. Even though the charcoal had smeared, their pained expressions were vivid. Beside Leonardo’s sketch, his figures seemed so upright, so rigid. So…lifeless.

Slowly, the old master replaced the drafts, then sat on a stool near the window of his study. He undid the bolts on the shutters and opened them to the chill of the night.

“Admit it, you old fool,” he whispered to himself. “The boy has talent the likes of which you have never seen.”

He glanced over at his unfinished painting and sighed. 

Early the following morning, Leonardo arrived at the studio, vibrant and fresh, impeccably groomed and garbed as usual in one of his flamboyant outfits. He found his master sitting on his stool in front of the “Baptism of Christ,” hunched and disheveled.

“Verrocchio? What is the matter? Are you ill?”

Verrocchio smiled weakly. “No Leonardo. Not ill.”

“What then? Has there been a death?”

“Of sorts,” answered the master flatly. “Leonardo, I have been thinking.” Verrocchio glanced at Leonardo, then at the brushes in his hand. “You will complete this painting for me.”  

It was a command, not an offer, and it took a long moment for Leonardo to respond.  When he finally did, it came haltingly. “I…I would be honored.”

“Then, my accomplice, get to work. While you paint, I shall begin a new sculpture.”  Verrocchio placed his brushes into Leonardo’s awaiting palm. “Remember. If you have any questions, ask me. I can afford no mistakes.”

Leonardo’s fingers closed around the brushes. “You have my word.”

Before the year’s end, Leonardo had completed the “Baptism of Christ.” It was AD 1472. It would be a long time before anyone would know that it was Leonardo’s angel whose soft, supple arms embraced the angel of Verrocchio so warmly.  

About the Author:

Eric Schumacher (1968 – ) is an American historical novelist who currently resides in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and two children. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of San Diego.

At a very early age, Schumacher discovered his love for writing and medieval European history, as well as authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those discoveries continue to fuel his imagination and influence the stories he tells. His first novel, God’s Hammer, was published in 2005.

For more information, visit his website: http://www.ericschumacher.net

Follow him on Twitter: @DarkAgeScribe

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