Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (2011-12)

Leonardo: Madonna and Child with St Anne

Yesterday morning, at 8:30am, a full hour and a half before the gallery opened, I joined the queue which was already snaking around the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.  The hype in the press about this exhibition has been cranked up to fever-pitch and all advance tickets have now been sold.  The only way to get in to see it is to queue on a morning in the hope of getting one of 500 tickets released every day.  The anticipation and excitement in the queue were electric, and it was wonderful to be there with people who had gone to such great extremes to get tickets.  One woman had come down from Nottingham and had got up at 3:30am in order to get to London on time to queue.

I think your impression of the exhibition will  differ depending on how well you already know Leonardo’s work.  There is no question that this is a rare and very valuable opportunity to see almost everything from his first Milanese period (circa 1480 to 1499) in one place.  The Lady with the Ermine is a particular draw: it was inaccessible in Krakow for many years and is very rarely allowed to travel to exhibitions.  After this exhibition, I understand it will once more be restricted from travelling.  To see it in the ‘flesh’ therefore is a real treat, and the curators have given it pride of place in the second room, where it glows under a spotlight, looking much richer and fresher than it appears on the front of the catalogue.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with each room focusing on one or two of Leonardo’s paintings, which are presented alongside preparatory drawings by the artist and related works by his followers.  (The pupils who have the most exposure in the exhibition are Gianantonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono.  Poor Marco comes out of it looking rather wooden, while Boltraffio’s work displays flashes of brilliance.)  The order of the show runs as follows, with the key related painting given for each room: male portraits (Portrait of a Musician); female beauty (Lady with an Ermine; La Belle Ferroniere); anatomy (St Jerome); Madonnas (the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks); Leonardo’s followers (The Madonna Litta); and a final room focusing on compositions which were influential parts of his legacy (The Madonna and Child with St Anne; and the newly-discovered and still debated Salvator Mundi). This last raises the question of attributions, which are always particularly troublesome with Leonardo’s paintings.  The exhibition wall-labels were perhaps slightly more confident in their attributions than is really justified by scholarship, and I see no reason why questions of authorship couldn’t have been touched on in the show as well as in the catalogue, if only to give the general public an idea of the subtlety and complexity of research in this area.

Leonardo: Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani)

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine) (detail)

The arrangement of the exhibition was excellent. The only thing I’d have been tempted to change is to have the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks actually hanging side by side, so that we really could compare them at close quarters. Since it’s the only chance most of us will have to see them together, it was odd to put them at opposite ends of a large room, thereby depriving us of precisely the kind of comparison that would have been useful.

I was particularly pleased to see the drawings used so well, to illustrate the amount of thought and study that went into each painting: with Leonardo, the drawings are always especially important.  The juxtapositions bring out details you might not have noticed before: the way Cecilia Gallerani’s ermine has a paw very much like that of a bear, while Leonardo’s studies of bears hang on the wall nearby; or how St Jerome’s outspread arm filtered into Leonardo’s ideas for the Virgin of the Rocks. Later on, the works emphasise the collaborative nature of the Renaissance studio: there are preparatory studies by both Leonardo and Boltraffio for the Madonna Litta.  I was glad that the drawings were on the walls, rather than tucked away in cabinets, which would have made them very hard to see with so many people shuffling around.

To give the National Gallery credit, it’s doing its best to control the crowds by restricting admission to 180 people per hour, although, being on the short side, I still found myself squinting through gaps and peering over shoulders.  However, my experience didn’t come close to the frustration I suffered at the NG’s Raphael exhibition several years ago, where there was such a crush that someone actually stood on me.  I stumbled across a discussion about crowds at blockbuster art shows here and completely sympathise with Miranda Sawyer’s points. (A general plea: if you’re listening to the audio guide, please do not stand slap-bang in front of something, blocking the view for everyone else for however many minutes your audio clip takes.)

Leonardo: Portrait of a musician

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Musician, c.1490-95 (detail)

For most people, the exhibition will be wonderful because it is a chance to get close to Leonardo, who, more than any other artist, has become a kind of global obsession (I blame Dan Brown). But how much does it really tell us about Leonardo himself and his time in Milan? In The Guardian Laura Cumming makes a shrewd point about the fact that Leonardo’s work seems designed to keep us at one remove from the artist: that his rocky grottos, mists, chiaroscuro and coyly-averted eyes conspire to create an air of mystery. I read that Luke Syson, the curator, deliberately avoided the social-history angle, wishing to focus on the works themselves, and I respect that decision. But I think that a little more information about Ludovico Sforza and the culture at his court might have helped to give a clearer context to the paintings and drawings.

We think of Leonardo as a genius nowadays and it’s tempting to believe that his contemporaries felt the same way, letting him alone in his studio and watching in amazement as these unique paintings were produced. But it wasn’t quite like that. Seeing this exhibition, you don’t really get a full idea of Leonardo’s responsibilities at the Milanese court (perhaps the title Painter at the Court of Milan was chosen deliberately to avoid his other activities). He was an engineer and a kind of theatrical producer, a designer of sets and costumes and mechanical contraptions that fascinated the courtiers; but at the end of the day he was one of a number of employees and I read once – I don’t know if it’s true – that when he was starting out in Milan, he was paid slightly less than the Court dwarf. In focusing on Leonardo’s enigma and in allowing him to remain mysterious, we risk solidifying the modern myth of the lone genius and losing sight of what the man was actually like.

There was one major omission from the exhibition, which I didn’t notice at the time – overwhelmed by the infinite delicacy of the metalpoint drawings – but which struck me several hours later. Where was the Horse? Ludovico Sforza’s ambition to build an equestrian monument in memory of his father was one of the reasons Leonardo came to Milan. We have a draft of an application letter – perhaps not sent – in which Leonardo lists all the things he can offer Sforza (painting is mentioned as an apologetic afterthought) and among them the commission for the Horse is key. Thereafter, Leonardo spent so much of his time planning and reimagining this monument. In his mid-forties, which in those days was old, he must have seen this as the ideal way to cement his reputation. And instead the commission became his greatest failure.


Leonardo da Vinci, Head of a woman (study for the Madonna Litta), c.1488-90, silverpoint, Louvre (detail)

Obsessed with perfection, he spent so much time working on the clay model that, by the time came for him to cast it in bronze, war had broken out with the French. Leonardo suffered the pain of seeing the bronze which had been promised to him being shipped off to make cannon for the war. And then, when the French invaded in 1499, so legend has it, they used his clay model for target practice and nothing was left of the great dream except fragments of clay and reams of paper. Five years later in Florence, Michelangelo would taunt Leonardo about his inability to complete the Horse, which gives some indication of how important a commission it had been, and how visible the failure. It seemed strange to me that, in an exhibition dedicated specifically to Leonardo’s time in Milan, there was no mention of it, not even a few drawings collected together in one of the rooms (I mean in the show itself, rather than the catalogue, which is much more fulsome.  I haven’t read it all yet, but I thoroughly recommend it even if you can’t get to see the exhibition).

And yet there’s no doubt that the ticket money was well-spent. It isn’t just the chance to see all the pictures in one place.  I’ve always believed that Leonardo was a better draughtsman than a painter, and I stick to that now. The drawings are sublime, especially the metalpoints. In his portrait studies, Leonardo conveys an individuality which is lacking in his paintings: look at the wistful day-dreaming expression of the girl whose head he studied for the Madonna Litta (the drawing is in the Louvre, no. 59 in the exhibition). She is so serene, so beautiful, lost in the same self-absorption as the angel in the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks (I was sorry not to see the lovely study for the angel in the first version, from Turin, but you can’t have everything). Look closely at the magnificent study of hands from the Royal Collection (no. 11 in the exhibition) and just see how Leonardo builds up the contours and volume of the hands, twining them in such a graceful pose. (Speaking of metalpoints, an honourable mention has to go to Gianantonio Boltraffio for his Head of a youth with an ivy wreath (Uffizi, no. 50 in the exhibition), which I didn’t know before but which has a similar air of inner contemplation and which is technically excellent.)

Leonardo: Study of Hands

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a woman’s hands, silverpoint, Royal Collection, Windsor (detail)

In my opinion none of the paintings – except the St Jerome, which of course isn’t finished – comes close to the evocative beauty of the Virgin and Child with St Anne cartoon.  For me, despite the centuries of hagiography, Leonardo’s paintings lack the liveliness and vividness of his graphic work.  The colours and varnish act like amber, stiffening his figures, and for all their elegance there is something distant about them.  In his unfinished works, by contrast – the drawings, the Virgin and Child with St Anne, the St Jerome – I think it is possible to appreciate much more of his imaginative flair.  The lines haven’t yet ossified into the final composition and we can see the way he worked – teasing out the ideal placement of a fold or a foot, emphasising and articulating his figures’ inner emotions with subtlety or force as required.  The agonised power of the St Jerome is striking precisely because it is so unique: nowhere else in the exhibition, among the smooth androgynous faces, do we have that same sense of a man struggling so forcefully to understand the workings of God.

If I could choose anything in the exhibition to take away with me, however, it would be the Virgin and Child with St Anne.  Here the power lies in the sculpted solidity of the forms, while the expressions subtly blur and shift with the light.  Shadow seems to lap around the figures, whose three-dimensionality is emphasised by the smooth transition of light to shade. The bodies blend together, perfectly-poised, the expressions are serene and the hooded eyes are gently downcast, everything bathed in a diffused radiance as if seen through a layer of grey smoke. Here is Leonardo at his very best.

It’s only fair that I nail my colours to the mast, because my reaction will be atypical and perhaps more critical than most.  I’ve been reading about Leonardo and seeking out his paintings and drawings since I was thirteen (a teenage passion), so the sheer visceral impact of seeing his art was a little tempered by familiarity.  And I’m therefore much harder to please than most.  So I want to emphasise that my reaction to the exhibition has been really very positive, despite the couple of small things that caught my eye.  It’s a great achievement to have brought so many rare and beautiful things in one place, and I really hope that as many people as possible get the chance to see this before the run finishes in February.  And I hope that most of them look beyond the hype and try to formulate their own way of looking at these challenging works of art.

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7 thoughts on “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (2011-12)

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