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Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan

Pat Harvey


National Gallery
Until 5 February

The long queues, a black market in tickets and broadsheet reviews full of superlatives suggest that this is no ordinary exhibition, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come face-to-face with the works of the world's template Renaissance Man. Nine of Leonardo's 15 surviving paintings are on show here.

The superlatives started with Georgio Vasari, the first great art historian, in 1550: 'whatever he does..., he distances all other men and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God'. But what is the reality about the 15th-century Florentine who came to achieve semi-divine status not unlike that of his own creations?

Like all aspiring artists Leonardo learned his craft in the Hollywood-like studio system of the day where, apprenticed at 17 to the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrochio, he learned to grind pigments, paint bits of the anatomy, or even, as in the case of an angel in Verrochio's 'Baptism of Christ', whole figures. This may have contributed to his downfall as, accused of a homosexual relationship with a fellow apprentice, on whose long, flowing locks the angel was perhaps based, he left Florence under a cloud. Dreamily visionary (he often failed to complete commissions on time, if at all), he was unsuited to commercial work. Fortunately, his own guardian angel stepped in in the shape of Lorenzo de' Medici, the statesman and patron, who noticed him and introduced him to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

Leonardo gave him a silver lyre in the shape of a horses' skull, and a sales pitch as a designer of military defences and weapons to assuage Ludovico's political insecurity. It worked. So began a 20-year period which was the making of him, honing his extraordinary gifts and culminating in the instantly-recognisable masterpieces we know today.

In 1483, Leonardo was had his first Milan commission, for a painting of the Virgin and child for the altarpiece of a chapel, 'The Virgin of the Rocks', though it was never used because of a dispute over payment. The painting exemplifies Leonardo's view of himself as a 'scientist-painter' and is the fruit of his studies of botany, geology and optics, as seen in his notebooks full of drawings  not meant to evoke emotion in response to beauty, but to aid understanding. For Leonardo at this moment in his career, understanding nature is the same as understanding and loving God.

Leonardo also brought a new subtlety thanks to the medium of oils, pioneered in the Netherlands, with its  richly glazed layers, and its capacity for rilievo, the portrayal of light and shade, and sfumato, Leonardo's signature smoky transitions from one plane to another.

When Cecilia Gallerani became Ludovico's mistress, Leonardo incorporated all these discoveries in the first modern portrait: 'The Lady With an Ermine'. It is incontestably the star of the exhibition, as anyone who has stood in front of its cool and gentle gaze will testify.

In 1490, more politically secure, Ludovico at last employed Leonardo as his court painter, and a fertile few years ensued in which he found the freedom to experiment and his fame grew. A long-term Aristotelian, the well-read Leonardo became convinced that this hard-headed approach to nature could be combined with the more mystical outlook of Neo-Platonism, where all natural objects are a shadow of the divine. Hence, his two great paintings of the time, 'The Last Supper', on the wall of the Duke's refectory, an early copy of which is in this exhibition; and the second version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks'. This painting is infinitely more breathtaking than the first, with its soft, glowing colours and mysterious shadows, and is displayed for the first time here opposite its predecessor. In 1508 Leonardo finally received payment for it - 25 years after it was commissioned.

Leonardo left Milan amid more financial disputes, his reputation transformed but living from day to day. In a final burst of activity, he embarked on a group of paintings which, in their monumentality, humanity and tenderness, have come to symbolise the Leonardo we know today. Set in vast, panoramic landscapes, and bathed in sfumato, with understated facial expressions whose smiles reach their eyes, are 'St John the Baptist', 'The Virgin and Child with St Anne'; and one Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine silk merchant - better known as Mona Lisa. 

Yes, she is missing from the National Gallery show. But no matter. In Luke Syson's words, 'Never was the human form so central to a vision of God's universe'. The question is: is it God's, where natural and supernatural combine in one reality, or Plato's where all we see is but a shadow of the real?





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Posted: 08 February 2012

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