The National Gallery's unique assembly of masterpieces may never be seen again


Leonardo: A Painter in the Court of Milan
National Gallery, until February 5

Leonardo de Vinci was the greatest artist and thinker of the Renaissance. Like many eminent painters, he had a mixed start in life. The illegitimate son of a Florentine notary, he was enrolled in the fraternity of St Luke in Florence and was a pupil of the sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio’s workshop was the largest in Florence during the second half of the 15th century and many Renaissance artists were trained there. The universality of his talent foreshadowed that of Leonardo.

Leonardo worked in Florence until 1482 when, at the age of 30, he was invited to go to Milan by Ludovico Sforza, known as the Moor because he was dark and violent, primarily as a musician, a player on the lyre. In a document urging his continued stay in Milan, Leonardo wrote mainly of himself as an “artificer of instruments of war”. From then on schemes of applied science – flying machines, fortifications, waterways – were to occupy much of his energy, while his notebooks were filled with studies of flowers, birds, skeletons, cloud and water effects and children in the womb.

He searched insatiably for knowledge, and in the vast medley of his manuscripts he seemed constantly on the verge of discoveries, some achieved, some not yet realised. He never formulated his results or attempted any coherent systematisation; when he put theories into practice, whether methods of painting or diversion of rivers, the results were generally faulty. It was the quest which absorbed him: the limitations of human knowledge, rather than the potentialities, were his interest.

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It is only in painting, even more in drawing, that Leonardo’s restless, acute intellect expressed itself in an accessible form, and it is as the artist rather than the scientist that he exists today. In Milan, in the 17-year sojourn between 1482 and 1499, in addition to portraits his three great works were the Virgin of the Rocks, the Sforza Monument and the Last Supper in the refectory of St Maria delle Grazie, the supreme image of the subject. Only 17 of his pictures survive, of which nine are on show at what is probably the most prestigious exhibition ever mounted at the National Gallery. Paintings from as far afield as Milan, Kraków, St Petersburg, the Louvre and the Vatican are assembled with works from the Royal Collection and the Gallery itself. A copy by Leonardo Giampietrino of the Last Supper is on view in the Sunley Room upstairs.

Most arresting at the beginning of the exhibition is the portrait of the 15-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, Sforza’s mistress, the Lady with the Ermine, famed for her faultless beauty. This painting has a skill in modelling that alone would ensure its repute were not all technical accomplishments, such as the painting of soft light, fur and textiles, subordinate to the completeness of the character study. The still, close-lipped face, half-determined, half-foreboding, is preserved by the hand of genius for posterity. It is in contrast to the later Mona Lisa in the Louvre, with its exploitation of the device of the enigmatic half-smile, which seems strange and soiled in comparison with the composure of this portrait. The exquisitely painted ermine cradled in her arms represents Sforza himself, the order of the ermine being part of his heraldic devices.

The exhibition’s main gallery is devoted to the dramatic contrast of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, the earlier from the Louvre, the later from the National Gallery. These are hung not side by side but facing each other at the extremities of the room, one heavily fortified in a glass case, the other hung freely. They are united here for the first time and the comparison is instructive. The Louvre version is covered with darkened varnish; the second, commissioned in 1483 and worked on at intervals up to 1508, is very thoroughly cleaned and was recently put into a fine contemporary frame.

The exact relationship between them is a complex one about which much has been argued, and the difference in their condition makes comparison all the harder. The Louvre version has, despite its strange cave setting, a gentleness that is now lacking from the cold, livid colouring of the London example where, almost certainly, a pupil’s hand was employed. The excellent catalogue regards these paintings as representing the divine and emphasises their command of Marian theology. Both depict the Virgin kneeling in a rocky grotto above the infant Christ, St John the Baptist and an angel, an attitude that represents her as a tender mother immaculately conceived. But perhaps through familiarity, the London version has the edge on the Louvre’s, because the refinement of detail, tonal harmonies and the working of the brush can be seen more clearly.

The last picture is the newly attributed Salvator Mundi. Here, we see the hand raised in blessing and the thick, coiling hair which are such familiar ingredients of Leonardo’s mystery, augmented by the rock crystal orb emblematic of divinity. No other painter would have attempted this. I don’t have the space to comment on the many beautiful drawings which complement the pictures, nor the distraction of so many works by Leonardo’s pupils which only serve to show how decisive his influence was in preventing a personal style.

The religious images that he created have had a deeper impact than those of other artists of the time, except perhaps for his great contemporaries, Michelangelo and Raphael. This unique assembly of darkly atmospheric masterpieces will, I suspect, never be repeated.

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