Watery Manes. Reversing the Stream of Thought about Quattrocento Italian Heads

Emanuele LugliORCID logo

Department of History of Art, University of York, YO10 5DD, UK.

Cite this as: Lugli, E. (2016) Watery Manes. Reversing the Stream of Thought about Quattrocento Italian Heads, Internet Archaeology 42.

In a famous passage, Leonardo da Vinci compares the flow of water to hair:

'Consider the movement of the surface of water. It behaves like hair, which has two motions: one conforms to the weight of the mane, the others to the wandering of the locks. Likewise water has its eddying movements, one part of which follows the principal current, the other the random and reverse motion.' (Windsor Castle, Royal Library: RL 12579r; translated by the author).

The passage is an apt commentary on the wondrous drawings of streams Leonardo sketched on the side of the text (Figure 1), and it has been read as proof of Leonardo's magnificent capacity to use analogy (Gombrich 1976; Rosand 2002; Kemp 2006; Siegert 2014). Yet I find the passage engrossing for two other reasons. First, it reverses the cultural primacy of water over hair, according to which the latter is usually informed and shaped by our knowledge of the former. This is true even linguistically. We speak after all of hair 'waves' and, as Quintilian pointed out in his Latin grammar (which became highly influential after the book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered it in 1416), the Roman Latin word 'vertex' denotes a whirlpool before it was connected with the coiling of hair and thus the crown of one's head (Quintilian, Inst. 8.2.7; Cousin 1975; Murru 1983). In contrast to the normal use of language, Leonardo states that when thinking about the nature of water, it is hair that may offer the model, and not the other way around.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Leonardo da Vinci, Water Studies, Windsor, Royal Library RL 12579r. Royal Collection Trust / ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Leonardo then assigns to hair an unexpected, prototypical role, far from the decorative function to which scholarship has often relegated it. To emphasise it is a way to increase the role of hair in early modern art and open up alternative readings that, given the weight of discourses on Renaissance art for the wider discipline, may ripple the surface of other periods as well as other fields. While there are a number of studies dedicated to the depiction of hairstyles in the Renaissance, these are mostly seen as pointers to something external rather than as artistic entities in their own right (Wright 1999; Welch 2009). The questions they ask are related to the status of the coiffed sitter or to beauty conventions, with much emphasis on the moral directives against adornments proclaimed by mendicant orders and taken up by governments (Rainey 1985, 516-519; Muzzarelli 2009; Gnignera 2010). The wildly popular Franciscan preacher Bernardine of Siena rebuked women for wearing extensions made of 'cadavers' hair' (del Corno 1989, 1074-1075), an expression that in the scholarly literature has become as famous as Leonardo's. The religious diktats and the political protocols of Quattrocento Italy often converge and historians often uncritically repeat them rather than considering another possibility: that hair may not have been treated just as a passive ornament.

One influential Renaissance scholar who internalised Quattrocento sumptuary laws and the stance of office-holding elites, is the 19th-century art critic Giovanni Morelli. Morelli labelled hair as a secondary pictorial element, one that the painter approached automatically, without any creative thinking (Morelli 1982, 107, 155, 181, 193, 230n). Paradoxically, its passivity was of prime importance for Morelli, who took hair, as well as other minor pictorial elements, such as ear lobes and drapery, as a major clue to identify an artist's hand. His method was hardly different from the then contemporary hair checks that police undertook to spot criminals or ethnologists to classify races (Haddon 1900, 2; Selenka 1900, 31; Ginzburg 1980, 17-19). A student of medicine brought up by Calvinist principles, Morelli turned a moralising attitude into an allegedly scientific method thus confirming, without the shadow of a doubt, that hair's place was on the periphery of art, far from the attention bestowed by Leonardo and other painters of gorgeous, watery manes.

Yet, of course, water is not like hair as it is only through drawing, or disegno in Italian, that water resembles hair. A crucial concept for many Renaissance artists, disegno actually does not mean drawing even if it is often taken as its synonym. Rather, disegno is drawing sublimed to an abstract idea, of Platonic derivation, that exists beyond the physical trace of chalk or pencil on paper (Cropper 1994; Faietti and Wolf 2012). Disegno is to drawing what the geometrical definition of a point is to its graphic representation as a dot. It is a way of thinking that transcends any tool and allows an artist like Leonardo to apply himself to a variety of disciplines regardless of the materials and techniques involved. To master disegno is to master artistic invention of any kind.

But then disegno does not represent the mid-point in the hair-water relationship, as hair strands can be effectively rendered by lines. The relationship between hair and lines resembles that between a stamp and its trace, whereas hair offers a way to model the movements of water through disegno. Giulio Mancini, an important collector and art dealer who was born shortly after Leonardo died, reflects on the close association of hair and lines when he writes that 'curls and waves of hair [...] are very laborious to do [...] and are like the strokes of the pen and flourishes in handwriting, which need the master's sure and resolute touch' (Marucchi 1956, 34). The sentence is part of a larger reflection on how to distinguish the work of a master from that of a pupil, but is enlightening as it confirms, once again, the modelling role of hair: hair as the organic, natural counterpart of drawing, with all its infinite possibilities of flourishes and types of handwriting. Like Leonardo, Mancini bestows great importance on the depiction of hair, as mastery in art depends on it. Yet, what Mancini does not say is that the connection of hair and drawing is as much representational as it is technological. The tiniest brushes of the Renaissance, those employed to paint strands of hair, were often made of only one hair, plucked from a pig or a squirrel tail, so that a painted hair should be taken as a trace of its real self (Quiviger 2003, 101-103). In that case, what does a line stand for in water? Is the edge of a ripple a mere optical illusion? Are waves necessarily modelled on something else as water escapes the geometricisation of disegno?

Figure 2
Figure 2: Mariano di Jacopo, Water Lock, De ingeneis, Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 197, II, 114v. ©Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Leonardo's quote cascades into a waterfall of questions. Yet to return to the current on which we set sail, there is a second reason that makes his parallel of hair and water intriguing. A simile can after all also be read in the opposite direction, which means that manes can also be interpreted through the filter of water and that hairstyling can be explained by hydraulics. It is thus interesting to note that the literature on water management grew at the same time as artists' exploration of the expressive possibilities of hair. Around the 1430s, when the sculptor Donatello modelled putti whose hair streams in all directions, as well as young men with beautifully chiselled locks, Mariano di Jacopo (often known as 'Taccola') wrote De ingeneis [On Engines], a treatise on siphons, cisterns, and canals (Prager and Scaglia 1972, xi). In it he included the drawing of a dam (Figure 2) that turns the placid waters of a lake into a controlled stream, which produces the whirls that fascinated Leonardo. And in the 1470s, when the outpouring of treatises on water engineering reached a high degree of sophistication, thanks to experts such as Filarete and Francesco di Giorgio Martini, famed painter Andrea del Verrocchio created some of the most stupendous headgear of the Renaissance (Galluzzi 1991).

Figure 3
Figure 3: Verrocchio, Head of a Woman, London, 1475, London, British Museum, drawing on paper, Inv. n. 1895,0915.785, recto. ©Trustees of the British Museum

Look at the detail in the woman's hair-style as portrayed in Verrocchio's British Museum drawing (Figure 3). While her fringe loosely falls over her temples, the hair on the top of her head is gathered into two braids, which, after a double loop on each side, join in the centre, fastened by a jewel. On the other side of the paper (Figure 4), Verrocchio sketched the same head but without hair and without the polished care that he bestowed on his more finished drawing. The strokes around the cheek and the forehead are brisk and he went over the contours more than once, as if trying to get the silhouette right. In some points the hatching is summary: there is just enough to render the slenderness of the nose and the overall profile (Rubin and Wright 1999, 185-187; Savello 2012, 63-66; on the drawing, see also Covi 2005, 216-217). Such hastiness indicates that Verrocchio was drawing from a model. Do the longer strokes on the left suggest that the model supported her head with her hand during the tiring drawing session? It is also interesting to ponder over the effects of reworking the model's hair, which was pulled back, as suggested by the curved strokes springing from the forehead, into a wonderful coiffure. The turning of the page signals a division in work between the drawing from a model and the invention of her coiffure. And such a difference is the reason why scholars include the drawing among the 'fantastic heads' of the Renaissance (Kemp 1977), or 'idealised heads' (Viatte 1994, 45-53; Simons 1995). Such labels imply the existence of two mindsets, one that aims at speed and veracity and the other which is instead regulated by a process of distillation and exclusion, that is a fantasia. (On the realism/fantasia dichotomy, a leitmotif of Renaissance art history, see Zeri 1983; Bull 2005, 389-394.) Let's return for a second to Verrocchio's drawing to look at that smoky tuft of hair that emerges from the braided loop. Its direction enhances the diagonal trajectory of the woman's gaze, working in counterpoint to the out-of-frame object of her attention. Here hair does not frame the face: it injects meaning in that gaze by cantilevering out. By filling the top right corner of the sheet, it is also the element that binds the drawing to the format of its physical support. In other words, hair is here a constructive force.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Verrocchio, Head of a Woman, London,1475, London, British Museum, drawing on paper, Inv. n. 1895,0915.785, verso. ©Trustees of the British Museum

Verrocchio handed down his interest in hair to Leonardo and shared it with many of his collaborators, among whom was Sandro Botticelli. Consider the Portrait of a Lady in Frankfurt's Städel Museum (Figure 5), which is sometimes attributed to his workshop (Christiansen and Weppelmann 2011, 120-123). The sitter's coiffure stands out if we consider it as a quantifiable expanse. The proportional amount of surface it occupies is enormous, and so must have been the time spent on its depiction, since, as Mancini remarks, 'curls and waves of hair are very laborious to do'. Like Leonardo, hair is here treated as both weighty mass and impalpable, gravity-defying thing. And like in Verrocchio, hair is regarded as an unruly stream, but also as the very material that makes up the barriers in which it flows. It is as if Botticelli plaited the lady's locks to resemble the rope of Taccola's winch (Figure 2). Her braids are neatly parted and from the knots at their ends spring an outpouring of hair, like the streams rushing across the opening in the dam. The strings of pearls reference Venus, a beauty born by the sea, and turn the sitter (whether real, imaginary, or in between) into a deity of fantastical beauty and wealth. Yet, draped over the lady's head, the arrangement of pearls are like a fish net and turn the lady's hair into a watery expanse. Such metamorphic possibilities reveal hairstyles not as mere representations of the conventional adornments of the wealthy, but as creative pictorial fields whose cultural possibilities emerge once we draw in wider theories from anthropology, ethnography, and even the history of technology.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Sandro Botticelli, Idealized portrait of a Lady, c. 1475, Frankfurt, Staedel Museum ca. 1475, tempera on poplar, Inv. No. 936. ©Städel Museum, Städel Museum � Artothek


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