Meeting the genius
di// pubblicato il 23 Novembre, 2011
“Questo è quel Cesar ch'io ti dissi prima
contempla lui: ché questa è la fucina
che Italia tutta e tutta Europa stima
felice ognun che al suo voler si inchina
mira quanti per lui son posti in cima
e come esalta chi lo segue e affina”.
These anonymous lines in praise of Ludovico Sforza (also known as “the Moor”) lie next to his miniature painted by Ambrogio de Predis, da Vinci's contemporary and collaborator. Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the court of Milan focuses on this fertile time under the duke's protection, and is widely considered the event of the year, at least for what concerns London. The exhibition takes place at the National Gallery from 9 November to 5 February, but tickets are already sold out for several weeks: thanks to the support of Credit Suisse and the generous loans from several collections (among which is a fruitful exchange with the Louvre), in fact, the show gathers in one place nine of Leonardo's paintings – the largest amount of his canvases to ever appear together. This number acquires even more relevance when taking into account that the number of the Tuscanian humanist's authenticated paintings fluctuates around twenty, thereby making this an unprecedented event.
A finely curated itinerary casts light on the formative worth of Leonardo's years in Milan: there, from around 1482 to the French invasion in 1499, the scientist and artist worked at the court of Ludovico il Moro, who summoned him and many other bright minds of the time, in order to create one of the Renaissance's most productive and ifluential circles. With the duke's patronage, Leonardo could further – among others – his naturalistic and anatomical studies, which would shape his style in a handful of years, turning him into the well-known painter who could depict the “motions of the mind”.
A great deal of this development happens in portraits, to which the early rooms are devoted. The Portrait of a young man (1486-7) is soon followed by the Lady with an ermine (1488-90) and La belle ferronière (1493-4). In this ideal triptych one can experience, from up close, the increase in the use of sfumato and shadings, and the rapidly achieved mastery in sealing those famous lively gazes. Even inconsistencies can be appreciated: where the face ends, there often seems to terminate the painter's interest, who sketches a lock of hair before going back to the careful detailing of a hand. The painstaking study that led up to these poses and traits is exposed in the wealth of sketches and drawings that punctuate the space inbetween portraits. If these latter ones are the exhibition's highlight, they are prepared by more than 50 notes and studies (many of them lent by Queen Elizabeth II) that, carefully laid out, allow for the reconstruction and evaluation of da Vinci's inspiration and genius.
And such a construction is often beauty, sought in nature and pursued in his own work: the ermine held by Cecilia Gallerani seems to be built from the sketch of a bear's head and a study on a dog's legs, both appearing close to the portrait. One of this exhibition's aims is precisely to retrace Leonardo's path from an ideal of beauty (nature) to ideal beauty (art). This gap is always noticeable between the sketches and the paintings they refer to; but the artist's change of heart is best displayed by showing the two versions of the Virgin of the rocks, together in the same room. Thanks to a historical swap with the Louvre, both altarpieces face each other for the first time, bringing back the awe for such a radical shift in a short timespan. The sullen and naturalistic hues of the first Virgin light up in the second one; wilting weeds blossom into lunar plants; ravines become, as in a mirror that renders pictures from a slightly different dimension, smooth surfaces coloured by an otherworldly shining.
Among the other works on display are the Madonna Litta (1491-5), the unfinished Saint Jerome (1488-90) and the masterful Burlington House Cartoon (1499-1500). But this is also the first “public apparition” of the Salvator Mundi (1499), long thought to be lost. Coming from a private collection, da Vinci's authorship could only be assessed after a careful restauration which removed later interventions – although it looks to be very clear when simply observing the extremely polished refraction of the globe held in Christ's left hand. This unveiling marks even more strongly the importance – if not irrepeatability – of this occasion.
But there's something else making Painter at the court of Milan as essential and convenient as a rare medication for the soul. Most of these paintings are hugely famous, and oftentimes experienced in a more or less mediated way, be it parody (from Man Ray to advertisements) or the ubiquity of reproduction. To physically find oneself amidst such a gathering of – otherwise devalued – works of art (which, at any other time of the year, would have to be chased around Europe) brings back a powerful Benjaminian “aura” around them: the here and now, the uniqueness of Leonardo's brushstrokes. Those intensely expressive gazes, normally seen in copies, come back to life – along with the “off-canvas” pocket of reality that grabs their attention – when they are in front of us and we can give them the time that art of the Renaissance requires, being so focused on humanity and so anxious to establish a relationship with the viewer. With this exhibition, the National Gallery devised an exclusive space where Leonardo da Vinci, seen, looked at and studied, can be finally met.