Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan

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‘It’s a bit too busy for super small children,’ worried one father, hanging on to a sticky-palmed toddler among the crowds thronging this year’s exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci.  Quite frankly, in among the crush of people-young and old, museum toffs and first timers – I was distinctly worried for my own safety, and I’m quite a large child.

So many people wanted to get in that queues were forming at 7am, full of people willing to wait four or five hours to get an on-the-day ticket.  One poor gentleman started queuing at 8am and was turned away at midday because, even though slots were on sale until 9:30, they were already out.  Successful candidates that day were in line by 4am.

It was possible to buy tickets illicitly on the internet if this did not appeal, but they were going for as much as £600.  They were long since sold out on the National Gallery website so I was grateful I’d got hold of one early enough to avoid having to take out another student loan or sell a kidney.

Notably, the first sign presented to the public upon entering the exhibition is a message of grateful thanks to the government for providing what must have been a hefty insurance.  It must have been necessary to offset the very likely risk of someone’s shoulder or bag brushing against one of the priceless and beautiful works lining the walls.

It was probably also useful to remind viewers that nothing on the walls was available to take home.  Leonardo da Vinci, possibly most famous for his ‘Mona Lisa’, in this exhibition is revealed as a draughtsman of unparalleled quality.  Boy, the man could draw, and the temptation to tuck one of his drawings under one’s arm and wander off with it is very strong.  Although his favourite theme seems to have been chubby babies, he was able to turn his hand to almost anything.

Sketches of the ‘Head and Shoulders of a Woman’ looks like cinema invented a few hundred years early as he portrays the bust of a single figure a dozen times from every angle, creating a flickering appearance across the paper.  Nearby, his ‘Studies of Hands’ twist elegantly, so alive they almost reach out and stroke the tactile hair of the bear’s snout next along the wall.  He is able to conjure up a face from nothing more than eyes and lips, leaving the rest to what is, by early on in the exhibition, a seriously over-active imagination.

It is da Vinci’s treatment of lips which complete one of the highlights of the exhibition, his perfect ‘Lady With an Ermine’.  Their twist echoes the turn of her head and the sinewy writhing of the (rather large and muscular) ermine in her lap.  Instead of the often sculptural shadows which so many of his contemporaries used to build up faces, da Vinci’s features call to mind soft mist rather than marble statues.  The delicate shadows around her eyes (and, indeed, around all of his depictions of eyes), make them pop ever so slightly from the surface of the painting, bringing her to life in a way few other painters manage.

‘Lady With an Ermine’ is one of the few of Da Vinci’s paintings to survive to the present day.  To have acquired eight other works by him (including the recently re-discovered ‘Christ as Salvator Mundi’) is an impressive feat by the National Gallery and they do a fine job of linking the paintings to a mixture of his drawings and works by his followers.  These men, pupils and imitators of the main focus of the exhibition, suffer poorly by comparison.  Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono are fine painters in their own right but when next to da Vinci’s paintings, their work looked wooden and pale.

Despite the fact there is, for the most part, a single da Vinci painting per room, at no point does it feel empty or underwhelming.  The effect is actually quite the opposite, forcing the visitors to wait with baited breath for every example.  Sometimes they form a dramatic centre-point to the walls while at other times they blend neatly into the ranks of complimentary works surrounding them.  And the quality of the drawings and other works was so high that there is never a feeling of disappointment.

The finale, ‘The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne’ and the ‘Infant Saint John the Baptist’ is remarkable.  Although not a painting (it is a cartoon intended to be used in the creation of a painting) it is a powerful piece, lacking nothing, as beautiful and evocative of life as any of the more complete works displayed earlier in the show.  It forms a fitting end point, exposing to the avid masses below one of the many stages a da Vinci painting went through before completion.

It is partly this that makes him so accessible to the public, the way we can see his thought processes step by step, and this exhibition, full as it is of cartoons and drawings alongside the main works, succeeds in showing off every one of these aspects to their fullest degree.  Leonardo da Vinci is popular with people with a wide variety of artistic knowledge and this exhibition appealed to and attracted everyone, a fine achievement.

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