Caricatures were regarded as being an art form a long time before artists took to boardwalks and fairs. In the European Renaissance and the many centuries of artistic development to follow almost every artist drew caricatures, even if they were only side projects or in margins of sketchbooks.
One prominent artist whose caricatures were more prominently recognized was Leonardo da Vinci. Generally renowned these days for the high seriousness of his Mona Lisa, Last Supper, and Vitruvian Man, Leonardo does not tend to be associated with grotesque humor. Yet the caricatures “were some of his most popular and influential works,” writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, “from the 16th century up to the time of [William] Hogarth,” the hugely popular 18th century English visual satirist.
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These caricatures connect Leonardo not only to graphic art of the future but to an earlier, Medieval world—the “hellish visions of Bosch and Bruegel.” They are “Gargoyles,” wrote critic Kenneth Clark, “the complement to saints; Leonardo’s caricatures were complementary to his untiring search for ideal beauty.
And gargoyles were the expression of all the passions, the animal forces, the Caliban gruntings and groanings which are left in human nature when the divine has been poured away.” Clark tempers this characterization by noting that these drawings “in their expression of passionate energy, merge imperceptibly into the heroic.”
In his satirical illustrated biography of Leonardo, Steadman remarked that the Renaissance artist who ennobled the human form also found “that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations.” Steadman quotes a passage from Leonardo’s notebooks that sounds much more Swiftian or Rabelaisian than high-minded Renaissance humanist:
His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.
Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.
If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.
O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.
The caricatures that Leonardo da Vinci drew were not quite as horrific as the description that he had given in the notes. Instead, they seem to portray humans who have less equanimity than the Mona Lisa or Christ as he partakes in the last supper. However, thanks to the skill of Leonardo and his love for any human form, his caricatures have continued to inspire many.