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Monday, 19 December 2011

Notes on Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery, London

Despite reports of a sell-out, good news for the visitor to London that morning queuing (and not too early) has at least up to mid-December been rewarded by entry to the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition' at the National Gallery in London, described by the organizers as ''the most complete display of Leonardo's rare surviving paintings ever held.' 
What’s to see? Sketches in red crayon, chalk and ink, work by his pupils, paintings in evolution and finished, and a tantalising copy of La Cenacolo [‘The Last Supper’], supported by preparatory drawings of key figures at the supper.  During my visit, the paintings were the main attraction, not many visitors showing interest in the sketches. Therefore although the rooms seemed very busy, by avoiding the crowds close to the walls, it was easy to have unhurried close views of all exhibits.

The drawings
There was a surprising contrast between drawings detailing accurate anatomy of human bone and  muscle vs. cross-sections of human skull and brain, which, apart from the frontal sinus, are imagined from perceived wisdom of the time. Most striking were ventricles as a mid-line set of 3 chambers, reported in the gallery notes as attributed by Leonardo to locations for imagination, intellect, memory and the seat of the soul.

Close inspection of the sketches revealed how hatching brings out soft contours and boundaries, part of Leonardo’s sfumato style;- the hatching upper left to lower right, typical of the work of a left-handed artist. And little waste, several sheet showing not only many different figures or views from multiple angles but unrelated engineering drawings.
Thanks to colleague DS for alerting me to the 1977 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts of Leonardo's Drawing from the Royal Collection.  Copies of the exhibition catalogue are still available with some detective work.

The paintings?
-  their excellence even more evident by pairings with works by members of his workshop;
-  the ‘Musician’ illustrating Leonardo’s interest in physiology, with eyes painted at different times reflected in asymmetric pupil size - the nearer right eye much larger, indicating that light was much lower than when the left eye was painted; and not explained by contrasts in room lighting – the darker background for  the left side of the face would have caused left pupil enlargement;
- examples of later owners aiming to improve or sanctify Leonardo’s originals – for example, in the later National Gallery version of Virgin on the Rocks, addition of halos and a crucifix.
- numerous symbols explained, from the ermine for purity, to violets for humility, and the red-faced goldcrest, clutched by a breast-feeding Christ child, for torture, in ‘The Madonna Litta’.
-  mood – wonderful examples of melancholy, adoration, serenity; and the sullen, in Beatrice d’Este, wife of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.

And within the exhibition there is a mystery. Beatrice is described as ‘La Belle Feronnière’. However ‘The ‘Lady with an Ermine’, Cecilia Galerani, the ~16 year old mistress of the Duke of Milan has the phrase ‘La Bele Feroniere' in golden capitals at the top of the dark background. The curators leave this for observant visitors to decode: obvious explanations – a misattribution, or a view that the sitter was in common for both portraits. Upstairs part of the exhibition provides engaging insight into the Last Supper, all the better for passing a series of Titian portraits – including a 'Young man with quilted jacket', a more self-confident subject, painted around 20 years later than (c. 1510) and perhaps in homage to the more tense features of the sitter for Leonardo's ‘Portrait of a Musician’ (from c. 1490).
Access to the heavily restored ‘original’ Last Supper in Milan is now very restricted. Identified hazards include further pollution from the Milan air, volatile lipids from the skin of visitors and acid damage from carbonic acid generated by exhaled carbon dioxide. In the 1970s, when I first saw the fresco in the Refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, with a pre-med student friend, other than by ticket, viewing was unrestricted. My recollections are of a large faded painting in poor state of preservation – and photographs from the Second World War recording the remarkable survival of a sandbag-protected Cenacolo, the other walls severely damaged by wartime bombing.

What next? The Prado has announced discovery after restoration a painting contemporary to the Mona Lisa, considered to be from his studio - either a copy or a simultaneous portrait of the same sitter, a similar Tuscan landscape revealed by removal of later black background. This to be displayed soon alongside the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, to be seen toogether for the first time in over 500 years.

Further sources:
Leonardo exhibition catalogue

The Louvre: all the paintings
Leonardo's Notebooks
Paper engineered Leonardo inventions

© DRJ Singer

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