Exhibition of the Year
Brilliantly curated and one of the largest exhibitions of the master’s paintings to date, Leonardo at London’s National Gallery was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Carmen C. Bambach, Friday, 23rd November 2012
Leonardo da Vinci:
Painter at the Court of Milan
National Gallery, London
9 November 2011–5 February 2012
Away from the strictures of traditions and the competitive art scene of his native Tuscany, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) flourished as an artist, theorist, scientist and technologist during his nearly 17 years in Milan. This period in his life ended abruptly in December 1499, following the fall of the city to the French and the expulsion of his patron Ludovico Sforza ‘Il Moro’, who had become Duke of Milan in 1494. Leonardo’s words in a lost manuscript note of 1492, intended for his treatise on painting, best capture the ultimate goal of his revolutionary legacy as a painter and theorist: ‘He is not universal who does not equally love all things encompassed in painting.’ In advocating his ideal of the ‘universal painter’, his desire was to contain within the science of painting all knowledge of the natural world and its laws, an ambitious yearning for perfection which more often than not resulted in scores of unfinished projects, as his contemporaries were the first to recognise.
These are the intellectual threads often guiding the selection of Leonardo’s work in the National Gallery’s superbly beautiful exhibition, ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’, organised by Luke Syson. The show is focused on Leonardo’s eight portable paintings of this time, of which two are only partly autograph, in my opinion, together with the National Gallery’s monumental cartoon (full-scale drawing) of the Virgin and Child with Saints Anne and John the Baptist (though the latter was probably produced in 1506–08). This core of works is elucidated with a well chosen selection of complementary objects, including a small ducat coin and cameo portrait, the rare illuminated manuscript of the Grammatica with a portrait of Ludovico Sforza by Ambrogio de’ Predis (Biblioteca Trivulziana, Milan), a large and arresting group of autograph drawings by Leonardo (Fig. 1), together with drawings and paintings by his closest Milanese pupils of the 1490s. The exhibition certainly ranks as a once-in-a-lifetime event, since it is the largest of the great master’s paintings to date, and since it also regales the specialist with many important ‘first ever’ instances in the study of Leonardo, as one processes through the seven rooms of the installation. The imaginative selection of Leonardo’s drawings is tightly centred on illuminating the context of his exhibited paintings. The works are superbly lit (the paintings often better than in their permanent settings), and are attractively installed in the exhibition galleries of the Sainsbury Wing, with an excursus on the Last Supper displayed in the Sunley Room of the main building.
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