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Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan
Luke Syson
National Gallery London, 2011
320 pp., $65.00

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Noah Charney


Loving Leonardo.

London's blockbuster exhibition lives up to the hype.

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Beside "Lady with an Ermine" hangs "La Belle Ferroniere (Portrait of Beatrice d'Este)" (1493-94), one of many works here normally in the Louvre collection. This is not to be confused with the so-called "American Leonardo," a copy of "La Belle Ferroniere" that just might also be by Leonardo and which was the subject of a famous court trial in which Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen testified. The Louvre painting, certainly an original, is brooding and has a melancholy to it that stands in sharp contrast to "Lady with an Ermine," in which Cecilia Gallerani has mischief in her quarter-smile as she lovingly strokes the ermine. The curators have set up a wonderful duel between "La Belle Ferroniere," wife of Ludovica Sforza, and "Lady with an Ermine," portrait of Sforza's beloved mistress. The former seems to stare in quiet rage at the portrait of the latter beside her. We can see why Sforza might have favored Cecilia.

The next tremendous coup for this exhibit is the juxtaposition of both versions of "Virgin of the Rocks" in the same room, one from the Louvre and one from the National Gallery. The Louvre version, from 1483, features captivating geology, rocks like canines, stark against the lovingly-rendered Madonna with John the Baptist and an infant Christ. Across the room, which is spiked with preparatory drawings that give a glimpse of Leonardo's process, hangs the National Gallery version, from 1492-99: ghostlike, the figures pale and mannered, shadowy and twilit. Though the composition is similar, the handling of the human forms might as well have been by different painters. Simply turning one's head from one version to the other is a great treat (it made me want to send the curators a fruit basket in appreciation).

Such is the hype surrounding "Lady with an Ermine," the two "Virgins of the Rocks," and the newly discovered "Salvator Mundi" (of which more in a moment), one might easily forget some smaller treasures that are in the mix. The unfinished and quite awkward "Penitent Saint Jerome" (1488-90) is here from Rome, complemented by drawings, as well as the odd "Madonna Litta" (1491-95), a reworking of the traditional lactating Madonnas. If you sneeze you might walk past the tiny "Madonna of the Yarnwinder," which was thought lost for good—it had been stolen in 2004 from a castle in Scotland and was only recently recovered, found in the offices of a Glasgow law firm that had been holding it for the gangsters.

Much of the drum-roll about this exhibition was the inclusion of a never-before-seen lost Leonardo painting, "Salvator Mundi" (circa 1499). Now owned by a consortium of collectors, the work had featured in the royal collection of King Charles I, but had been damaged and its attribution lost until recently. The current owners assured the National Gallery that they had no imminent plans to sell the work, a rule of the gallery to ensure that their display of a work is not tantamount to advertising. A similar assurance could not be made for another lost work that some scholars think is by Leonardo (although many fewer than the near-universal agreement about "Salvator Mundi"), called "La Bella Principessa." Hence it is not included in the exhibit. Either one of these two "lost" works, both of which are in private hands, could break the world auction record for an Old Master if sold: Rubens' "Massacre of the Innocents" fetched only 49.5 million pounds, about a third the price of the top Modern painters.

The moment you stand before "Salvator Mundi" there can be no doubt that it is by Leonardo. Its handling is masterful, its detail striking and very much in keeping with the style of the master throughout the show. The reddened eyes of Christ as savior of the world, as if he has just wept. The rock crystal orb in his hand, representing not just the world but the universe. The puffed and rubicund lips (which perhaps inspired Boltraffio's love of bee-stung overbites), the delicate sfumato used to mask the figure in a smoky haze that only emphasizes the mysticism of the work.

Wandering through this exhibit makes one feel blessed, thankful to the good folks at the National Gallery for bringing together so many wonderful pictures that inform and enchant. With so much to see in the pictures, one hardly has time for the wall copy, and the stifling crowds disappear as you stare with awe and a great sense of peace, at some of the world's greatest paintings, by one of the world's greatest painters.

Noah Charney is professor of art history at American University of Rome. He writes regularly for ArtInfo and Tendencias del Mercado. His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World's Most Famous Painting (ARCA).


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