Painter, polymath, perfectionist


Leonardo da Vinci was skilled in so many disciplines that his artistic output is surprisingly small – but, seen together for the first time in London, it forms a tremendous exposition of Renaissance art, writes AIDAN DUNNE

LEONARDO DA VINCI was the archetypal Renaissance polymath, a creative genius whose inventiveness flourished across a bewildering range of disciplines. His sketchbooks are storehouses of analytical drawings that offer brilliant insights into such fields as human and animal anatomy, natural history, engineering and hydrology, and anticipate the development of such mainstays of the modern world as helicopters and winged aircraft, the submarine and the armoured combat vehicle. He also designed elaborate fortifications and, surprising as it may seem, extravagantly theatrical parties. He is even thought to have come up with, and worn, a pair of sunglasses.

And of course he was an artist, responsible for making a succession of iconic works that number among the most famous in the history of western art, including The Last Supper, Mona Lisaand The Virgin of the Rocks. Given the range of his activities, it’s hardly surprising that in any given area his output is relatively sparse in numerical terms. This is so for several reasons. One is a simple time constraint. Late in life – he was born in 1452 and died in 1519 – he came to the regretful conclusion that it would take far, far longer than the remainder of his own lifetime merely to organise his vast archive of papers, never mind complete any of the projects they outlined.

Another reason is that he was innovative and experimental in his use of materials and techniques, hence the perishable nature of much of what he did. Intriguingly, there is also evidence to suggest that, once a work was finished, he lost interest in it. The idea ties in with the psychoanalytical theory that he had a closure complex, manifested in his fondness for endless, indefinite research and his extreme reluctance to complete a project. In his controversial, and at least partly mistaken, work on Leonardo, Freud suggested that the artist’s desires were sublimated into this endless cycle of incompletion and deferral.

For whatever reason, Leonardo was notoriously tardy about finishing things. The result is that, although he left a voluminous, fragmentary archive of sketches, drawings and writings, his artistic reputation rests on a very small number of paintings.

Because they are so few, their scarcity reinforces their value. That, and their fragility, make the prospect of gathering them together in one location problematic. Hence the exhibition, which opens at the National Gallery in London next week, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is unprecedented in its scope.

LEONARDO WAS BORN at Vinci, near Florence, hence the surname. Although he was illegitimate, he was accepted into his father’s household and reared there. His exceptional abilities quickly became apparent as he trained as a painter, and he worked initially as an assistant to Andrea del Verrocchio. The National Gallery exhibition concentrates on his time in Milan, to which he is thought to have arrived about 1482. He had written to Ludovico Sforza, Il Moro, the duke of Milan, offering his services across a wide range of activities, including military engineering, building, sculpture, and wrote that “in painting I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be.” Accepted on to the duke’s payroll, Leonardo was based in Milan until about 1500. He flourished in the lively atmosphere of the court, with its concentration of scientific and creative minds, and it was an amazingly productive time.

He completed, for him, a great many paintings, including, of course The Last Supper.His obsessive pursuit of perfection in this work, which aroused a great deal of exasperated comment, and his minute attentiveness to the complex psychological drama involved, over and above the religious narrative, identify him as a precursor of such 20th-century film directors as Stanley Kubrick. However, Leonardo’s technical adventurousness ensured that the wall painting was deteriorating almost as soon as it was made.

Sforza’s rule came to an end with the French invasion in 1499. Leonardo actually went on to work indirectly for the French and, though based in Florence and later Rome, did return to Milan when it was under French rule for a time. Eventually he joined the court of King François I of France, and spent the last two years of his life in France, near Amboise.

Flagged, not unreasonably, as “the most complete display of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever held”, the National Gallery’s exhibition was made possible by the institution’s considerable international clout and the strength of its own holdings. It has, for example, engineered a swap with the Louvre. Both galleries possess versions of the extraordinary The Virgin of the Rocksand, more to the point, the Louvre painting certainly predates the other one.

How did an artist who could hardly bear to complete a painting manage to create two elaborately detailed, meticulously finished versions of the same work? The theory is that a dispute arose over the commission, from the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and, by the time it was resolved, Leonardo had disposed of the first painting and had to make a replacement to complete the contract. The chance to compare them directly is irresistible. The National Gallery was able to arrange this because London is lending the Louvre the Burlington House Cartoon, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist, so it can be seen with the Louvre’s version of that work. The Louvre’s La Belle Ferronière, a beautiful portrait of a woman and the subject of much debate about its precise attribution – at least partly, and probably largely, by Leonardo’s hand seems to be the cautious consensus – also features in the exhibition. A copy of this painting featured in a celebrated and acrimonious court case in the US in the 1920s and was sold last year at auction, not as a Leonardo, for €1.1 million.

Martin Kemp, an expert on Leonardo, says there is a reasonable possibility that the subject of the painting is Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of the artist’s employer Ludovico. There’s more definite evidence that the subject of a similar, celebrated portrait, known as Lady with an Ermine, is another of Ludovico’s mistresses, Cecelia Gallerami, a highly regarded woman of considerable independent achievements. Kemp points out that, in his bestiary, Leonardo wrote of the ermine as representing “the essences of purity and moderation”, and suggests he intends a pun on Gallerami’s name, in that the Greek word for ermine is galee. It is a fantastic portrait, exceptional for its subtlety of expression and quiet vitality. It travels from the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow for the exhibition.

There’s a similar haunting liveliness to Portrait of a Young Man, known as the Musician, from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan. Though unnamed, the sitter is thought quite likely to be Franchino Gaffurio, another employee of Ludovico’s court and highly regarded as a musician and a musical theorist. It’s certain that he and Leonardo would have been acquainted and they may well have been friends.

IT’S PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for the show to include Leonardo’s most iconic work, The Last Supper, but actually it has the next best thing: an almost contemporary, full-scale copy in the possession of the Royal Academy, in London. This is usefully displayed in the context of a wealth of preparatory studies. Leonardo was a dazzlingly good draughtsman, someone of fantastic facility who was never content to make something according to an existing set of aesthetic conventions. He seemed to think through drawing, and we can see his mind at work in the speedy flurries of line and cross-hatching.

There have been many Leonardo exhibitions. Such is the range of his endeavours that there is always another facet to be explored and elaborated. The director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, rightly points out, though, that Leonardo’s versatility, apart from other practical difficulties, can make it easy to overlook the obvious: the artistic achievement that lies at the core of his reputation. This show can only add to our understanding and appreciation of an extraordinary genius.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, from next Wednesday until February 5th next year. Booking is essential. See