On a typically dismal autumn afternoon in London, the sky filled with a misty fog, I arrived at London’s National Gallery for the much anticipated Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. As I was standing at the coat check waiting for my ticket, I couldn’t help but notice the crowd queuing behind me. I watched in awe as it doubled in size in the few minutes that it took me to check in my coat. The dreary weather did not deter these culture seekers.
Since the exhibition had not yet opened to the public, I asked the clerk to explain the scene. Apparently, folks were gathering [for hours apparently] to reserve their tickets in advance so as not to miss the most ‘important art exhibition of the year’.
Suddenly a man approached me and said, “Its journos only today, love, are you a journalist?” Startled, I snapped back, “Yes, I am” to the gentleman with the rotten, black teeth and tattered clothes who looked as if he was a throwback from the Renaissance to which he replied, “Any chance I can take you outside and rustle your ticket off you?” Of course, I said no and walked towards the exclusively, privileged press view of Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.
Once inside the galleries were awash with camera crews taking their places in front of the most significant paintings to film an array of broadcasters, each with their own Leonardo spiel, photographers snapping away and journalists steadfastly jotting down information while a range of European accents filled the room. Director, Nicholas Penny was on hand to introduce the man behind what is expected to be a record-breaking exhibition, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 and Head of Research, Luke Syson.
The focus of the show is on Leonardo the painter, rather than the scientist/inventor for which is he usually associated. In particular, the period between 1482 and 1499 which he spent in Milan under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.
Portrait of a Musician, the painting that sealed Leo’s reputation as a master in Milan, kicked off the exhibition. With his revolutionary ‘three-quarter pose’, da Vinci captures a sense of movement but more than that the young musician exudes emotion not only with the twisted position of his body but with his eyes, which seem to follow you as you move around the picture. The painting’s title, attached during a restoration at least a hundred years ago, is based solely on the sheet of paper in the young man’s hand on which musical notes are depicted.
Moving on to Lady with an Ermine, a painting with which Syson confesses he is smitten, viewers encounter the subtle sensuality inherent in all of Leonardo’s portrayals of women. The lady depicted is Cecilia Gallerani and she is the known mistress of Duke Sforza. The master’s ability to idealise his subjects whilst maintaining an uncanny realism is a force to be reckoned with. As Syson put it, “you half expect her to take a breath once we have turned our heads” The ermine, which serves as a symbol of the Duke as well as a play on the Lady’s surname – which in Greek means ermine - is just as lively with its short muscular legs and claw-drawn paws.
In comparison, La Belle Ferronniere, whose true identity is not known, is portrayed as a more aloof, perhaps even remote, confident woman. Daring to cast her gaze directly at the painter and in turn the viewer encourages some scholars to suggest that she was perhaps the Duke’s wife.
In an altogether different vein, (pun intended), an unfinished St Jerome in the Wilderness reveals da Vinci’s interest in both human anatomy and spirituality. Here an emotionally penitent St Jerome is convincingly portrayed in agony. Great attention was paid to the development of his immensely toned muscular shoulders and arms whilst his hands and feet are merely sketched. Equally outstanding is the figure’s concave chest and head which more closely resembles a skull – conjuring notions of death and decay further exaggerated by the sagging flesh from the figure’s face. That this work was left unfinished further emphasises man’s ephemeral existence.
The impetus behind the exhibition, and its highlight, is the two versions of Madonna of the Rocks, one on loan from The Louvre, the other part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, displayed together for the first time in history.
It is certainly interesting that Leonardo finished two versions of the same subject considering the many unfinished works throughout this career. The first version, in the Louvre’s collection is more naturalistic in terms of the figures skin tones and less descriptive in terms of the background landscape while the second version in the National Gallery’s collection has a supernatural feel to it, in part due to the otherworldly glow that bathes the canvas and also due to the classically portrayed figures who resemble marble statues rather than flesh and bone.
The subject, a far cry from the original commission which was meant to depict the Immaculate Conception, is perplexing but goes a long way in understanding Leonardo’s place within the Renaissance art world. That he was regarded as a genius, inspired directly by God himself, allowed an exceptional artistic liberty.
Although it is extraordinary to be able to make comparisons between these two amazing paintings they rather overshadow the newly attributed Salvator Mundi. Tucked in the last gallery, the recently ‘discovered’ painting possesses a commanding presence that vividly sets it apart from the rest of the works in the show.
Emerging from a saturated black background the figure of Christ’s emits an intensely eerie stare that is at once fixed yet blurred and shadowy (achieved by using a technique called sfumato that was unique to Leonardo).
So, is this or is this not a ‘Leonardo’?
It was documented that he painted this subject, and the said painting has never been located – until now? – And it does have an undeniable aura; it’s strange and theatrical. What caught my attention was Christ’s glowing eyes which are slightly crossed – a detail that no-one else seems to have mentioned out loud but I’m sure those who have seen the painting must have noticed. At this point, I am one of the believers. I mean, who dares doubt the opinions of Professor Martin Kemp, the well-respected Leonardo expert and renowned restorer Dianne Modestini, who spent hundreds of hours in the company of this great work? [Not me!]
Another great strength of the show is the clever placement of Leonardo’s drawings which provide great insight into his thought process with regard to his painting practice. In particular, The Virgin and Child with St John and John the Baptist, one of the most famous drawings in the history of art despite that fact that is unfinished, is a monumental drawing enabling viewers to make connections with Leonardo’s paintings more easily. The figures are executed with a sculptural quality which translates to the way in which we view paintings in comparison with the way in which we view traditionally two-dimensional sketches.
The inclusion of works by the master’s pupils, in particular, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio adds another dimension to analysing Leonardo’s works and further reinforces my belief that the Salvator Mundi could only have been accomplished by the master himself.
Finally, as an extra treat, a copy of The Last Supper painted by Leonardo’s pupil Giampietrino, circa 1520 is also on display. Though the experience is not the same, it is huge benefit to be able to make out the finer details that have long disappeared from the original painting.
This exhibition has been deemed an “historic occasion” as it marks the first ever live broadcast from inside London’s National Gallery as well as the first time that these paintings have been exhibited together. Sky Arts have called it an “all out unprecedented event” and the BBC have declared it to be “the most important exhibition in London this year, if not the world.”
In short, my exhibition summary is intended as more of a recap than a review as well as an attempt to evoke some sense of the excitement surrounding this landmark exhibition. As I see it, what can anyone say about Leonardo that has not already been said – and how many different ways can you spin the words swirling amongst the unwavering plethora of media coverage that this exhibition has already received?
Perhaps, Georgio Vasari, the infamous Renaissance biographer said it best,
“Sometimes in a supernatural fashion a single body is lavishly supplied with such beauty, grace and ability…each of his actions is so divine that he leaves behind all men… a genius endowed by God. Men saw this in Leonardo da Vinci”
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