by Joost Keizer. Reaktion Books, February 2019. 232 p. ill. ISBN 9781789140699 (h/c), $35.00.

Reviewed July 2020
John Hagood, Head of Library Reader Services, National Gallery of Art, j-hagood@nga.gov

keizerARLIS/NA members experience acutely the invigorating, sometimes confounding relationships between the verbal and visual—or, more nobly, between “word and image.” We, and the readers we serve, live in the disjunction, or “aporia,” of image collections designated by thesauri, stories and biographies rendered as “graphic novels,” or artists’ statements informing critics’ reviews. Joost Keizer, professor of art history and historian of early modern European art at the University of Groningen, is likewise steeped both in the artistic culture of early sixteenth century Italy, and in literary theory of the twentieth-century U.S. In Leonardo’s Paradox, Keizer brings descriptive and analytical incisiveness to Leonardo da Vinci, as expressed (often contradictorily) in that artist’s output of painting and writing. Keizer examines the home-grown paragone that Leonardo drew upon, throughout his life, to advance his thought and work. Keizer reminds us that Leonardo, the child of a notary, grew up in the earliest era of printed texts, when the role of painting also underwent a version of disenchantment.

Keizer’s study, told with craft and attention to Leonardo’s paintings, drawings, letters, and (now) codices, deduces from written and visual evidence how Leonardo worked through pairings of language and pictures, invention and scientific observation, objectivity and subjectivity, nature and human-made; the instant and the enduring. He explains how Leonardo must have grasped—and grappled with—the mechanics of reading, as a visual, cognitive act. Keizer asks how Leonardo and his contemporaries responded to hieroglyphics and to non-Latin scripts, and unlocks how their art inevitably depended upon literary groundings to generate imagery of monsters, allegories, and prophecy.

While Keizer bends Leonardo’s biography into a framework that might belong more to narratives in myth or theology, the book lovingly condenses time by linking Leonardo’s life experience to his milieu and to the circumstance of his commissions. (A timeline, or chronology would have been a useful appendix.) Four chapters lay out the argument that contradictions, not conclusions, kept Leonardo going. Keizer never lets readers forget that “Our modern obsession with originality and originals comes out of the Renaissance culture Leonardo helped to shape,” nor that Cy Twombly, Roland Barthes, and Paul de Man continued, as much as they tried to explain, Europeans artists’ traditions addressing the contradictory. That is, Keizer shows how what we call the Italian Renaissance may be less “revival” and more “proto-modern.”

The author’s language is natural and accessible—so the book fits in well with Reaktion’s ever-accelerating list of modest-sized volumes that showcase new thought on focused topics. Even the range of endnotes enclose a garden of delight confirming the author’s own sense of wonder, and inspiring curiosity in the reader. Wearing its erudition lightly, the book would best suit libraries supporting departments of art history, Italian, or literary studies.