"Where can we find inspiration, then?" I asked, perhaps a little impatiently.
“Ah,” he replied, taking my youth in his stride, “we find it in the most unlikely of places. Botticelli said that were one to throw a sponge, soaked in different colours, against a wall, one could find within the resultant splodges entire landscapes. There we would discover views adorned with mountains, set with rivers, rocks, and trees, with spreading plains and valleys, even with reefs and seas. If one is planning a battle scene one can find those there too, with strange figures in movement, dressed in costumes both elaborate and wondrous, and with remarkable expressions on their faces
There too are devils and monsters…”
“But,” he interrupted what was becoming a ramble, and looked at me earnestly, “before all this you must prepare your mind to see them. Otherwise you may see nothing, or worse, find something that fits not at all within your planned painting. To find the right inspiration, you must know the full essence of the things you want to represent – the members of the animal kingdom, the rocks, plants, hills and buildings or whatever is needed in your scene. You must study them, look at all the examples you can find of them, observe them from every imaginable angle, and in many different lights. You must be able even to hear them breathe.”
“And then, O Painter!,” he had never called me ‘Painter’ before, so I guessed he had told this tale many times before… “then you can seize the mystery that breathes behind things, and only then will this jumble of sponge marks you just splattered on a wall, marks that apparently represent nothing in particular, then they will draw from you magically all you have studied, in miraculous and inventive ways. If you know how these things really are, then these random marks can awaken your genius. It is as if one lay on one’s back in a meadow and watched the clouds sailing past high above: their subtle shadows reveal ambiguous forms that in their uncertainty inspire us to imagine all manner of things. Just as sfumato in a painting prompts us, with a gentle dance of penumbral greys, to imagine a solid object that is not there, so it is too within the clouds, and equally, hidden in Botticelli’s sponge marks.”
“Now, young man,” he said, pulling me to sit in a chair beside him, “I will tell you what is most important about this discovery, and it is not that it provides us food to satisfy any famine of inspiration, however great. Listen closely. We will talk seriously, master to apprentice.”
I had forgotten for the moment how indifferently he spoke of the people that had died on that slave-ship, and how they were thrown overboard, and there was no one there to remind me, so I gazed at him as if he were a god. In my young and eager mind he was now not only my Apollo, bringer of light, but also my Janus, guardian of the most magical of gateways. He had the key to universes unseen and unimagined, the door to new beginnings, artful nature unleashed, the bridge that separated youth and adulthood - and he was not driving my unworthy hide away, but offering to let me in.
“The great secret,” Leonardo said, “is that all of this works in reverse too… As with most things in life, one can both-ways it. When you want to hide the true meaning of your work, O Aly, if you wish to camouflage it so only another artist, or the goddess Nemesis can see it, ah, then you do all this in the opposite direction, in reverse.”
“The opposite direction?”
“Exactly. Into the sketch of the grand scene that everyone will eventually see, into the superficial painting, you secretly paint the key to the allegory. You add the true names of the characters, doing it roughly, crudely. You add sketchy faces and vague little scenes of the events of that true tale of passion you are really telling, beneath all the superficiality. And then… you look for inspiration in these rough, sketchy letters, faces and scenes – you look for stains, ashes, clouds, leaves or pebbles… fantasies as before, except they must now fit perfectly into the superficial scene your patron is buying, be part of it. And then you paint these fantasy stains, ashes, clouds, leaves or pebbles in, making them look exactly like real ones, in a place where everyone would expect them to be. In this way you include the key to your painting by making the remnants of your true letters, faces and hidden sketches look like a jumble. The eyes of those looking at your work will then see nothing but the ‘natural’ unplanned muddle of stains on a wall, ashes in a fire, clouds in a sky, leaves on a tree, pebbles on the ground, or the shapes of rocks in a cliff. They will look right at your secret, O Painter!, but see it not. And even if they do see it, they will think they made it up, as if it were in a cloud.”
“But uncle, would it not be possible, seeing these vague shapes for even a skilled artist, a member of our family, to see them and in trying to interpret it, see anything they wanted to see?”
“That is a very important question, Aly. Sometimes what is hidden can be recognized with not the least doubt. For example, have you seen the faces in the cloud of Mantegna’s ‘Triumph of the Virtues’? Or the horse and rider in his ‘St Sebastian’? They are so little disguised that one can see at a glance what they are. There is no doubt. But more usually the secret contents are more ambiguous. Then the possibility for error exists, certainly. But does that mean one can see anything there one wishes to see? Just as one can look up in the clouds above, it is impossible to see just anything… a cloud that brings to mind a rabbit will not, even with the greatest effort and determination bring to mind a crocodile. And faint lettering in a painting that might summon forth a letter ‘M’ would refuse as easily to conjure up a letter ‘K’. So can one make mistakes? Yes. But can one make any mistake one wishes? I’d have to say no.”
Seeing my look of wonderment, Leonardo added a caution. “Say nothing of these skills in hiding messages, though, to anyone, …ever. Embracing uncertainty in this way is our secret, it belongs to us artists, and to us only. It is the greatest of treasures, and the greatest of confidences, and one that we must preserve as we do our very lives.”