Things Visible and Invisible

The National Gallery’s new Leonardo show illuminates his quest for painterly perfection

Michael Prodger

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.

The wider brief of the show is to reveal Milan as the place where Leonardo developed his ideas as a philosopher-painter. It is a theme with two strands: first, the way he turned the minute observation of Nature into a way to discover its laws and then use them to display the metaphysical as well as the physical world; and second, how art and the artist who made it were a reflection of the prince who ruled over them — perfect paintings were the product of a perfect state.

This perfection had unlikely beginnings. Ludovico and Leonardo were both born in 1452 with little indication of what was to come: the former, as the fourth son of a powerful dynasty, had expectations of wealth but not of power, the latter was the illegitimate child of a notary and a peasant.

 Ludovico’s rise was tangled and his hold on Milan initially tenuous. His need for Leonardo was for his practical as much as his artistic skills, a fact Leonardo recognised in a letter announcing himself to Il Moro as a designer of “instruments of war” who “in time of peace…can satisfy as well as any other in architecture and the design of buildings…and in conducting water from one place to another” — as an engineer in other words. He ended the letter by stating, immodestly, “I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay; likewise in painting, one could compare me to anyone else, whoever he may be.”

The painting that substantiated this grand claim was the Virgin of the Rocks (1493-95) from the Louvre; which for the first time can be seen alongside the National’s later version (1491-1508). Leonardo poured into the design everything he had learnt about aerial perspective and light and shade because, as he said, “a true understanding of all the forms found in the works of Nature…is the way to understand the maker of so many wonderful things”. 

This is painting as natural philosophy where the background to the holy figures is meant to express the divine as much as the figures themselves. In the same way, the extraordinary tree-root sinews in the neck of the unfinished Saint Jerome (1488-90) were the fruit of the painter’s anatomical studies. Rock, flowers, flesh — the origins of each were identical and so was their devotional power.

For divine beauty, however, the real exemplars are his three Milanese portraits: the surprisingly little-known Portrait of a Musician (1485-87) from the Ambrosiana, the portrait of Ludovico’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine) of 1488-90 from the Czartoryski Foundation in Poland, and La Belle Ferronière (1492-94) from the Louvre. These muted but exquisite works were designed specifically for the eyes of connoisseurs. Leonardo’s eschewal of bright colours was deliberate because he believed that “whoever fights shy of shadow fights shy of the glory of art as recognised by noble intellects”. The careful modulations of tones and highlights, the imperceptible shifts in flesh and modelling, the careful rendering of texture — all were forms of flattery as well as observational verities. 

They were also about a new form of painting. During his Milan sojourn, Leonardo came to believe that art was perfectible and that the aim of painting was to depict everything visible and invisible, from facial features to transitory emotions. It was an extraordinarily exalted ambition and one of the reasons why he so often abandoned works. But the Milan portraits in particular are attempts at taking face painting beyond the depiction of mere physiognomy. They are secular works but these three faces also approach his ideal of harmonious proportion and as such they are imbued with a sense of the spiritual.

In another statement of the ideal, Leonardo defined the painter as “lord of every kind of person and of all things”. What this show reveals is that it was an aspiration perhaps only he had the skills and intellect to realise.

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