by Carmen C. Bambach. Yale University Press, July 2019. 2350 p. ill. ISBN 9780300191950 (h/c 4 vol. in slipcase), $550.00.

Reviewed November 2019
Max Marmor, President, Samuel H. Kress Foundation, max.marmor@kressfoundation.org

bambachThe literature on Leonardo da Vinci is staggering in its scale. The most recent attempt at a comprehensive, scholarly Leonardo bibliography – Mauro Guerrini’s Bibliotheca Leonardiana – lists no fewer than 6,192 titles; and it was published thirty years ago (Milano: Editrice Bibliografica, 1990). Small wonder that few art research libraries – in the US one thinks, for example, of UCLA’s Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana – would aspire to acquire every new book on the artist. Fortunately, truly essential works on Leonardo – works that every committed art research library should ideally seek to acquire on behalf of its patrons – are significantly fewer in number. The title under review here belongs among that select group of publications. It will unquestionably occupy an essential place in the literature on Leonardo – and on the shelves of art research libraries, both in academe and in art museums.

The author, Carmen Bambach, curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is fully aware that her own work would be unimaginable without the “heroic and daunting contributions of past scholars” (preface). She is also right to lament that increasingly “books on Leonardo are being written entirely without notes to the text, which has buried the historiography of an enormously vital field.” Reference and collection development librarians will value this monumental, four-volume boxed publication not least for the final volume’s detailed 135-page bibliography listing more than 3,000 publications, for its 407 pages of “notes to the text,” and for its rich suite of scholarly appendices.

But even those who will benefit most from the scholarly apparatus to which Bambach’s fourth and final volume is dedicated will quickly realize that her greatest accomplishment lies elsewhere. Her greatest service is to have placed her singular knowledge of the Leonardo literature in the service of a still greater goal: “rediscovering” the artist’s life and work by means not only of his completed commissions but above all through close study of the more than 4,000 sheets of his surviving drawings and manuscripts. Bambach states justifiably that “this publication is the first attempt of sustained depth in recent years to produce a unified view of a comprehensive, complex, and often mystifying mass of evidence in an effort to understand the totality of Leonardo’s career and vision” (preface). Adopting the Renaissance notion of the “Three Ages of Man,” volumes one through three seek to follow the evolution of Leonardo’s art, thought and life in a manner that is as accessible to the general reader and student as it is to the scholarly specialist. The rich corpus of illustrations that accompanies her narrative helps make that possible, since many of the artist’s drawings and manuscripts are reproduced in color and in their actual size “in order to engage the reader … in the materiality of Leonardo’s works” (Note to the reader).

“This monograph,” we read, “is offered without apologia at a time when, in certain quarters of the discipline of art history, the reverent study of the work of art and text – as objects – and the writing of monographs are undervalued.” It may be no coincidence that this ambitious monograph is the product of an art museum curator rather than an academic art historian, and that, as we learn, “the springboard for the present book” was the author’s own international loan exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003). It is hard to escape the conclusion that we may still be confronted with “two art histories” (see Haxthausen’s Two Art Histories, Yale, 2003) and that bridges between the academy and the museum remain to be built.