A. Richard Turner, wrote landmark study on da Vinci
NEW YORK - A. Richard Turner, a specialist on the Florentine Renaissance whose landmark 1993 study, “Inventing Leonardo,’’ traced the protean outlines of Leonardo da Vinci through his interpreters and their preoccupations over the last 500 years, died Sept. 9 in Cape May Court House, N.J., at 79.
The cause was lymphoma.
“Inventing Leonardo’’ offered a novel reading of one of the most studied and poorly understood artists in history, in a book that Kenneth Baker, the San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic, called “not a biography but a mythography.’’
The well-known reticence of Leonardo, whose notebooks were not published until the late 19th century, and the scarcity of his work have made him elusive prey for the art historian. Dr. Turner, spying an opportunity in this information vacuum, focused on multiple Leonardos created by biographers, critics, and artists from Vasari to Freud and beyond, each reshaping the artist and man according to his own cultural values and creativity notions.
“There is a 1550 Leonardo, an 1800 one, an 1850 one, and so on,’’ Dr. Turner wrote in his introduction. “Each is a different character based on the needs of the given time that produced him, and each has ties to the Leonardo that went before.’’
Almon Richard Turner, known as Dick, was born in New Bedford, Mass. His father, Louis A. Turner, was a well-known physicist who helped develop radar during World War II.
He attended Princeton, where, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history, he was awarded a doctorate in 1959. His first book, “The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy,’’ was published by Princeton University Press in 1966.
After teaching at the University of Michigan, Princeton, and Middlebury College, he was appointed president of Grinnell College in Iowa in 1975.
In 1979 he became the director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. He later served as a faculty dean and director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. He retired from the university in 2000.
Dr. Turner wrote extensively on Renaissance Italy, especially Florence, in a clear, easy style that made him attractive to publishers of books for a general audience. The British publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson engaged him to write a volume on the Florentine Renaissance for its Everyman Art Library, published in the United States in 1997 under the title “Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art.’’
With Glenn Andres and John M. Hunisak, Dr. Turner wrote “The Art of Florence,’’ a lavish two-volume edition published in 1988 at the then-unheard-of price of $385.
The work was originally conceived by the eminent art historian H.W. Janson after the flooding of the Arno in 1966 exposed the vulnerability of Florence’s artistic heritage. After Janson died in 1982, it became the pet project of Robert Abrams, the president of Abbeville, who hired Takashi Okamura to photograph the city’s streets, sculptures, and frescoes to create a comprehensive portrait of Florence and its art.
Its opulence and packaging as a boxed set, and the sheer weight of the product - the critic John Russell called it “as heavy as a chained Bible’’ - put “The Art of Florence’’ in the deluxe coffee-table category, but critics praised the text as a model of concision and art-historical writing.
A keen photographer and birder, Dr. Turner would often grab his camera and run out the front door of his house in Cape May when he got word of a rare sighting. He spent much of his time at the Cape May Bird Observatory, where he was a volunteer. He was also a director of the New Jersey Audubon Society and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
Dr. Turner leaves his wife, Jane; his sons, Louis of Minneapolis and David of Sarasota, Fla.; a sister, Betsy Turner of Newfoundland, Pa.; six grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.