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Beyond mere physiognomy: Leonardo da Vinci's "Portrait of a [email protected], c.1490 (National Gallery) 

According to Vasari, the gifts the heavens rained down on Leonardo da Vinci were such that "every action is so divine that he distances all other men and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God and not an acquirement of human art". There was, however, a distinctly undivine corollary to Leonardo's genius: he rarely finished anything.

Throughout a long career he painted a mere 20 pictures, of which only 14 survive; his great attempt at a mural scheme (The Battle of the Anghiari for Florence) slid off the wall and was never completed; his great attempt at sculpture (the equestrian bronze of Francesco Sforza) was never cast; and as James Hannam pointed out in last month's issue, his inventions — from siege engines to parachutes — were largely unworkable. Not only this, Leonardo was agonisingly slow too; in the time he took to paint the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo had polished off the entire Sistine ceiling.

As a result, the appearance at the National Gallery of nine of Leonardo's paintings and 50 of his drawings is a once-in-a-generation occurrence. The last time there was a comparable show was in Milan in 1939. The new exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, chronicles the period 1482-99 when he worked for the city's ruler Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed "Il Moro" — the Moor — because of his swarthy complexion. It includes all of his Milanese paintings except for the mural of The Last Supper which is represented instead by the full-scale copy owned by the RA. The Leonardos will be accompanied by works by followers and assistants such as Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d'Oggiono. It is hard to overestimate just what a special exhibition this is. The National Gallery is even reducing visitor numbers so that those who do get in do not have the experience blighted by the crush.

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