Vinci, Léonard de
Fréart de Chambray, Roland


Traitté de la peinture de Léonard de Vinci...

Imprint Paris, J. Langlois, 1651
Localisation Lille, BUC Université de Lille-3, Réserve moderne A-28


Transcribed version of the text


     The Traitté de la peinture which came out in Paris in 1651 was the first edition printed in French of the writings of Leonardo da Vinci. Roland de Chambray owes his reputation in the area of literature and artistic theory to this publication.
While he was staying at the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan, from 1485-1487, Leonardo undertook to write a Libro di pittura ; manuscript A of the Institut de France in Paris has numerous fragments of it. During the rest of his life, the artist pursued this work, recording in several Carnets his observations on painting, optics, perspective, anatomy, physionomy, etc. but, at his death in 1519, these notes were still in a state of scattered reflections. His pupil Francesco Melzi then put the master’s thoughts in order and composed a compilation out of the eighteen manuscripts he inherited. It would be known later under the name of Trattato della pittura. At the Vatican Library (Codex Urbinas lat.1270), the manuscript consists of 944 chapters, organized into eight sections. The Melzi collection would circulate for a long time in the form of partial copies ; the approximately fifty known derivations prove that, even in manuscript form, Leonardo’s ideas were widely spread, not only in Italy but also in the north of the Alps. One of these copies, made for the Milanese count Galeazzo Arconati and which consists only of the second, the third and sections of the fourth part of Melzi’s compilation, that is to say the chapters devoted to the qualities of the painter, the movement of the human body and the representation of draped forms, reached Cassiano dal Pozzo. Intending to print an illustrated edition, the Roman collector asked Nicolas Poussin to translate, into a more modern and more elaborate form, the schematic sketches that Melzi had drawn in the Codex Urbinas lat. 1270 from Leonardo’s sketches. He gave the responsibility of executing the geometric diagrams which clarify the chapters treating optics and the passages which illustrate those devoted to arial perspective to Pier Francesco degli Alberti. In 1640, still unable to print his precious manuscript, Cassiano dal Pozzo gave a copy of the collection, with replicas of drawings by Poussin and Alberti, to Paul Fréart de Chantelou.
The manuscript owned by Paul Fréart de Chantelou, today at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, is the basis for the first printed edition of the Libro di pittura. It is a question of the Trattato della pittura di Lionardo da Vinci. Nuovamente dato in luce, con la vita dell’istesso autore, scritta da Rafaelle du Fresne. Si sono giunti i tre libri della pittura, & il trattato della statua di Leon Battista Alberti, con la vita del medesimo, that Raphaël Trichet du Fresne published in Paris, at Jacques Langlois’ shop, in 1651. A few months later, Jacques Langlois printed a French translation attributable to Roland Fréart de Chambray, Chantelou’s brother. Entitled Traitté de la peinture de Léonard de Vinci, donné au public et traduit d’italien en françois par R[oland] F[réart] S[ieur] D[e] C[hambray], the book differs from the Italian edition by its appendices. Firstly, it opens, not on the dedications to Queen Christine of Sweden and to her doctor, Pierre Bourdelot, but on a dedication-letter to Nicolas Poussin, in which Chambray thanks Cassiano dal Pozzo for having given the manuscript to his brother and Poussin for having illustrated it, while at the same time expressing his regret that he had not collaborated with the French painter, who would have been able to enlighten him as to “l’obscurité du stile de cet autheur [Léonard de Vinci]”, thus justifying possible mistakes or inadequacies of his translation. Moreover, Leonardo’s life history, which appears in the Italian edition and which constitutes such a precious source for establishing the history of his paintings in France, does not appear here. Finally, the list of the thirty-five works of art, noticeable in that it constitutes one of the first bibliographies of art books, was not reproduced in the French translation, nor were Alberti’s De pictura and De statua which ended the Italian edition. On the other hand, the heart of the treatise corresponds to the Italian version. Engravings, derived from Poussin’s and Alberti’s drawings, and enriched by Charles Errard, illustrate the text, organized in thirty-five chapters, some expected (“comment il faut desseigner le nud”, “comment il faut desseigner les païsages”, “comme on doit representer une bataille”) whereas others reveal Leonardo’s thought (“comment il faut estudier les mouvements du corps humains”, “de la nature des contours des corps sur d’autres corps”, “des villes & autres choses qui sont veües dans un air espais”). In the long run, the result is disappointing : the Traitté sets out a stream of practical advice, not an accomplished theoretical philosophy ; the instructions come one after another in a disorganized way, rather inconsistently.
In any case, the publication was immediately successful, especially in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where artists and theoreticians were very excited about the chapters on perspective. Nevertheless, the book was also controversial : Charles Le Brun considered the Traitté the rule to follow whereas Abraham Bosse, at that time professor of perspective at the Academy, severely criticized the book, considering it too approximative. Poussin also disapproved of it, all the more so in that he was disappointed by the engravings which were supposed to reproduce his drawings. He maintained in a letter (whose authenticity, however, is not unanimously accepted), “Concerning Leonardo da Vinci’s Book, it is true that I drew the human figures in the book that Monsieur le Chevalier Du Puis has ; but all the others, either geometric or not, are by a certain Alberti, the same who drew the (plates) in the Livre de la Rome Sousterraine [A. Bosio, Roma soterranea, 1632]. The clumsy landscapes behind the human figurines in the copy that Monsieur Chambray had printed were added to it by a certain Errard, without my knowing anything about it. Everything good in this book can be written on a single leaf in large letters ; those who believe that I approve do not know me ; I who declare never to give free reign of sincerity to the things of my profession which I know to be badly done and badly said ” (Correspondance, ed. Jouanny, 1911, letter 185, pp. 419-421).
The fact remains that the Traitté de la peinture would remain one of the only printed editions of Leonardo’s writings until the 19th century. It contributed extensively to the painter’s reputation, as much in France as elsewhere. Up until then considered a philosopher, “another Archimedes”, Leonardo acquired a new stature after 1651, that of forerunner of modern artistic theoretical thought.

Laure Fagnart (F.R.S.-FNRS/University of Liège) – 2011

Critical bibliography

L. de Vinci, La peinture, Texts selected, translated and with notes by A. Chastel in collaboration with R. Klein, Paris, Hermann, 2004 (1st ed. : Paris, 1964).

L. Fagnart, Léonard de Vinci en France. Collections et collectionneurs (XVe-XVIIe siècles), Rome, L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2009.

F. Fiorani, "Abraham Bosse e le prime critiche al Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo", Achademia Leonardi Vinci, 5, 1992, pp. 78-95.

D. L. Sparti, "Cassiano dal Pozzo, Poussin and the Making and Publication of Leonardo’s Trattato", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 66, 2003, pp. 143-188.

A. Sconza, Leonard de Vinci. Le traité de la peinture, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2011.

A. Sconza, Leonard de Vinci. Traitté de la peinture/Trattato della pittura, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2012.

K. Trauman Steinitz, Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della pittura. Treatise on Painting. A Bibliography of the printed editions 1651-1956 based on the complete collection in the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana preceded by a Study of its Sources and Illustrations, Copenhagen, Munksgaard, 1958.