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Da Vinci's Secret Christian Message

Interview With Giuseppe Fornari

ROME, MARCH 14, 2006 (Zenit) - Few would think to question Leonardo da Vinci's genius, yet his life and works have often been the object of serious misinterpretations.

Some books have presented him as an unbeliever and homosexual, who was threatened by the Church. Others, such as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," present him as a master of esotericism.

To help put things in their right place, philosopher Giuseppe Fornari has just published a book entitled, "La bellezza e il nulla. L'antropologia cristiana di Leonardo da Vinci" (Beauty and Nothingness: The Christian Anthropology of Leonardo da Vinci), published by Marietti.

In the work, Fornari argues that "far from being a heretic and blasphemer, a compiler of riddles (as pop esotericism would like) Leonardo was rather a tormented Christian, irregular by necessity but profound and impassioned." He shared more in this interview with us.

Q: Several authors have spread the idea that Leonardo da Vinci was a "naturalist" who was distant or even opposed to Catholic thought and culture. In your book, you argue just the opposite. Can you explain why?

Fornari: The principal error, committed for example by Sigmund Freud, lies in attributing to Leonardo a naturalist vision similar to that of the 19th and 20th centuries. There could be no greater distortion of his thought.

Leonardo was already a modern because he saw nature as an immense whole of forces and phenomena that man must try to know, and over which he has the right to intervene, wherever possible.

The great difference in regard to the vision that prevails today, is that for him these forces are of a profoundly spiritual character, understanding spirit as an energy and end which is not material, which is within nature itself, and which refers to a transcendent origin.

And such a vision not only is not in contradiction with the Catholic vision, but rather corroborates it in the most penetrating way.

Undoubtedly it was a vision that was too advanced for the age, as documented for us by the misunderstandings of [biographer] Giorgio Vasari, concerned that Leonardo's scientific researchers might have led him to religiously skeptical and heretical positions.

It is, therefore, an old prejudice, which is based essentially on a misunderstanding.

Q: In your opinion, which are the pictorial works in which Leonardo expresses his affinity with Christian culture and theology?

Fornari: Without a doubt, in all his works with a religious theme, one sees a growing maturation which finds the fullness of its maturity in the "Adoration of the Magi."

A constant in such paintings is meditation on the reality and centrality of the sacrifice, accepted by Christ for the salvation of humanity, a meditation that came to him from Tradition and from the suggestions of theologians with whom he was in contact every now and then, but which Leonardo deepened increasingly in the light of difficult personal experiences, marked by his condition of illegitimate son.

All this led him to give an interpretation of moving truth and profundity to the great themes of the Incarnation, the Fatherhood of God and the motherhood of Mary.

I will give you just one example that impressed me especially during the preparation of the book: the "Benois Madonna" kept in the Hermitage on St. Petersburg.

In this work, still youthful, we see a Mary who is virtually a girl, who gazes with a smile full of ingenuous joy, and with a secret melancholy, barely insinuated, at the Child she holds in her arms, absorbed in the contemplation of a flower, symbol of his future crucifixion.

It is a scene that is charged with moving connotations if we think of the little Leonardo, who was separated when he was still small, from his very young natural mother, Catalina, obliged to marry, in a marriage of reparation, and to leave little "Lionardo" in the father's house.

How can one not refer to the wisely filtrated re-elaboration of a traumatic experience, which Leonardo undoubtedly knew from his mother herself, in addition to his own emotional scars? In this sort of "flashback" one can measure Leonardo's closeness with the most profound content of the Christian message, through the cognitive re-elaboration of his own experience.

Q: You say that for Leonardo artistic beauty is the means by which man is united with God. Can you illustrate this concept?

Fornari: It is an articulated and complex argument because, to reconstruct it, we must unite explicit observations of Leonardo with what can be deduced from other testimonies, above all from his own works.

Leonardo begins with a vision that goes back at least partially to Florentine Platonism, according to which, beauty belongs to an ideal sphere, superior to the corruption of the material world, but this reflection is full of implications that are in no way consoling.

The same prodigious facility with which he knew how to give visible form to this "divine beauty" must have put him on guard. His enormous talent in fact also gave him the power to use it for other ends, such as vanity, ambition and sensuality.

The beauty of art therefore is ambiguous and depends on the way in which we respond with our freedom to its ambiguity: if we opt for its authentically spiritual orientation, or if we remain with a more equivocal vision. I believe this meditation on the ambivalence of beauty, and on its claim on our liberty, became an ever more important topic in this artist's career.

The only way out is the image of Christ himself. By accepting to be equal to us and to die for us, he shows us the only solution: the acceptance of suffering and sacrifice for love of others.

In this way, through him, we can rise again, and the beauty of the world, which seemed to be and was destroyed, resurrects through love.

The image of Christ makes a reality the image and likeness of God, by whom we were created, and the beauty of Christ is revealed as the beauty of the resurrected body, of creation led to redemption.

With God himself, who makes himself our image, we ourselves become his image. I believe that this is the secret of the greatest Christian art, the secret of Leonardo's art.


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