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a review of Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at the National Gallery in London

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Newspaper reviews of the current National Gallery exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan‘ have been extremely positive: see the LA Times, the Scotsman, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent. Effective marketing including a live tv and digital cinema preview has ensured that within days of opening all advance tickets sold out and people wait for hours for limited daily entry positions.

First, I will discuss the strengths of the exhibition, then I will offer some critical comments. My own impression does not contradict these reviews, but I do have some doubts about the curation of and reporting on the exhibition that I have not seen published elsewhere.

The exhibition is remarkable for bringing together so many paintings with their preparatory drawings. This provides audiences with a wonderful opportunity to see how art is created and how artists develop and represent ideas.

The exhibition is well designed. One room featured portraits of two women, one of whom is known to the mistress of Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (the Lady with an Ermine, on loan from Poland, below) is exquisite and as I have been wanting to see it for twenty years I was thrilled to finally do so. She’s ethereal and hypnotic.

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A lot of nonsense has been written about the modernity of the posture of the Lady with an Ermine. A change in portrait fashion was occurring in Italian art driven by the influence of Flemish portraits. The old style was strict profile, and the new style showed the subject turned towards the viewer as if engaging with them.

Examples of the old style (Baldovinetti, c1465) and new (Botticelli, c1480-5) can be found in the gallery’s collection. Describing the Lady with an Ermine as the first modern portrait and other nonsense distorts what was a gradual transition determined by political and cultural values (profile represented power and authority, as it had been used since Roman coins).

The other portrait (from the Louvre, which I had already seen) is perhaps of another mistress, Lucretia Crivelli. She looks sulky and intense. The portraits have been cleverly hung so that Lucretia’s gaze is directed at Cecilia, who gazes away innocently.

Thirdly, by bringing together the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, the National Gallery has allowed audiences to see something that even their creator never saw – the two versions of this painting in the same room for convenient comparison.

Religious painting from the late middle ages and renaissance are almost iconographic in their symbolic consistency. They tell Biblical stories and include symbols that act like guides or props to help the audience understand what story the painting is telling.

For example, how do you tell a St Michael slaying Satan from a St George slaying the dragon? As Satan is often presented as a reptile with wings, this can be difficult, but St George always wears his symbol of a red cross on a white background, which St Michael does not wear. Likewise St Peter Martyr always has a knife stuck in his head.

When painting saints and the holy family, angels usually have wings and Jesus, Mary and the saints generally have halos. It’s unusual to see works from this period without them.

The first version of the Virgin of the Rocks (from the Louvre) is stunning, complex and iconoclastic. There are no halos and the angel does not have wings. This appears to be a deliberate act of obfuscation on Leonardo’s part – he makes it more difficult to tell who the characters are.

This is exacerbated by the infant Jesus not being close to his mother, but away from her by the angel. She holds her hand above his head, but with her other ran she is sheltering John. This is a most unusual configuration. Identifying the characters can still be done by their hand gestures – Jesus (blessing) and John (carrying a cross).

The angel is the most mysterious figure of all. Its gender is indeterminate (a repeated theme in Leonardo’s art) and it is pointing not towards heaven or Jesus but towards John. Why?

The landscape, with its distinctive vertical columns of rocks and horizontal strata, is considered to be a geologically accurate representation of areas of northern Italy that Leonardo was familiar with. One of his lesser known areas of interest is geology, and he was probably the leading geologist of his era. He understood water’s role in the formation of strata, and the deposits of fossils within them, and used this knowledge to challenge the Biblical story of the flood.

Leonardo uses this same rocky landscape in every religious painting attributed to him, and it also features in some other works, including faithful reproductions of it in copies of his works. It is hugely symbolic and was evidently very important to him. It is one of the most distinctive characteristics of his work.

My hypothesis is that Leonardo was making a silent mocking riposte to the church by including pictorial representations of his research, thus placing evidence for the refutation of Biblical stories within his paintings of Biblical stories.

Leonardo was known for being unorthodox in many aspects of his life and in the first edition of his Lives of the Artists Vasari described him has a heretic. This was edited out of the second and subsequent editions as Vasari himself and his book became famous, and the book was made more politically correct.

In the second version (owned by the National Gallery), the same configuration is presented in a very different way. Leonardo apparently sold the first version to someone other than the church that commissioned it for more money, then was sued and had to make another version to fulfil the contract, and even then he had to be reminded to come back to finish it.

Much of the strangeness of the first has not been replicated in the second. The angel’s hand is gone. The subjects have halos. It looks altogether more conventional. There are numerous other differences. The rocky landscape appears to have been done with less detail in the second than the first, and the drapery of Mary’s robes is less detailed in the second, and the angel wears a different shaped robe.

The second version is much clearer, having just received an extensive restoration. If only the first version had also had layers of yellowing varnish removed (if nothing else). It has been suggested that the gold and red colour scheme of the first version represents sunlight, while the paler flesh tones and blue and green colour scheme suggests that the scene is depicted under moonlight as a deliberate alternative to the first.

If so, few people in Leonardo’s lifetime would have noticed, because until now the two versions have never been in the same place. We are seeing these works in a way that even their creator did not.

The concept for the exhibition is a curious conceit. By naming it ‘painter’ rather than ‘artist’ is cleverly justifies ignoring one of Leonardo’s major artistic endeavours in Milan – the development of a giant horse sculpture in honour of his patron’s father. It was never completed though a full size model in clay was exhibited and admired in the city.

There is another unexplained exclusion from the exhibition – Leonardo’s painting of a room in the the Sforza castle called the Sala della Asse. But as this decorative work is related to Leonardo’s assorted other roles at court, such as an entertainer (musician, director of theatrical performances and costume designer), it was evidently decided to ignore this example of his work.

The final room of the main section of the exhibition featured the cartoon of the Madonna and child with St Anne and the infant John the Baptist. The inclusion of this work in the exhibition is problematic, as it has been dated to either very late in Leonardo’s Milanese period or immediately after when he had returned to Florence, where documentary evidence suggests it was displayed.

Given this uncertainty, it could have been left out of the exhibition. It could have been used in the main part of the gallery, where entry is free, to promote the special exhibition. In hindsight of course, that would have been unnecessary as the exhibition sold out, but now that it has it would have allowed all the disappointed people who will have missed out to see one of his works, which are normally free to view, especially because the gallery’s other Leonardo, The Virgin of the Rocks, is also in the exhibition.

Similarly, the inclusion of the newly attributed Salvator Mundi breaks the theme of the exhibition because the painting is believed to have been completed later than the period of time he spent in Milan.

The final room of the exhibition was in a different wing of the gallery, several floors above the main section, and this rupture was frustrating. It meant that viewers could not walk through all of the exhibition and return to previous rooms. This last room contained preparatory drawings for the Last Supper (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan, which I had already seen), along with a large photograph of the original and a large contemporary copy that preserves many of the details lost to deterioration in the original. Given the space of the gallery, the importance of the exhibition and the time spent preparing it (about 5 years), it seems plausible that a suitable concurrent space could have been defined to house it.

Despite these criticisms, this was an exhibition well worth travelling around the world to see. Seeing the two Virgins of the Rocks together was worth it alone. If you don’t have a ticket, here are some videos about the exhibition.

One comment

  1. fabulous story – thank you Brian!

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