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Feature: Exhibition - Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, until February 5 at The National Gallery

Published: 10 November, 2011

The Renaissance man, the revolutionary polymath, was notorious for failing to finish projects and was less of a painter, in terms of output, than seems credible.

His known paintings number 20, of which just 15 survive, and nine are together here in London until February.

These include a work newly attributed to him, the first in more than 100 years. Christ as Salvator Mundi, was painted c1499 towards the end of the period covered by the National’s new show which opened on Wednesday.

After restoration this Christ is now accepted as the work of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) himself.

The exhibition explores the period after the artist moved to Milan in 1482 and cemented his fame working for the pragmatic ruler of the city, Ludovico Sforza.

The eight other paintings, are: the National’s own The Virgin of the Rocks, c1491-99 and 1506-8; the unfinished Saint Jerome, c1488-90 from the Vatican; Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine), c1489-90 from Cracow; Portrait of a Woman (La Belle Ferronnière), c1493-4 from the Musée du Louvre; Portrait of a Young Man (The Musician), c1486-7 from Milan; The Virgin and Child (The Madonna Litta), c1491-5 from the Hermitage, St Petersburg; The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-c1485 from Musée du Louvre; and Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Yarnwinder), c1499 onwards, from a private collection via the National Galleries of Scotland.

These are worth listing as they are the core works drawing massive interest (ticket demand is unprecedented) and which offer a unique opportunity for visitors to compare such a range of subtle, yet disparate, works close up.

For show curator Luke Syson, who has spent five years in negotiating loans and planning, the juxtapositions are important.

For example, the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, the earlier from the Louvre and the National’s own, are exhibited at opposite ends of the main gallery.

Yet crucial to scholars are all the other works on offer, including the celebrated Burlington House Cartoon, acquired “for the nation” controversially in 1962 and later shot-gunned and restored in the late 1980s; there are 33 drawings lent by the Queen, and other works by Leonardo’s collaborators.

The show is a fusion of the secular and the sacred which Syson sees as key to understanding the artist.

In the nearby Sunley Room there is Giampietrino’s monumental oil copy of The Last Supper, Leonardo’s original of which, though damaged, is still on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.

Of the portraits of the two women, (together here for the first time) Sforza’s young mistress with the ermine and Ferronnière whose identity is less certain, Syson says Leonardo gave them an “inner life” and soul in a way no one had quite done before.

Painted on walnut, their colour, clarity and quality is remarkable.

And they are in better condition, for example, than the later Mona Lisa, begun in about 1503, which is on poplar.

Leonardo’s revolutionary portraiture is best illustrated with these two women and with the unnamed “musician” of c1486.

For Leonardo, says Syson, painting was “the most complete statement of his philosophy of the universe”. The aim was to show the world as a perfect place.

“He takes perfectly ordinary commissions and makes them into statements about the world, about painting, and the connections between the two,” he says.

More, the painter’s own talent is claimed as god-given.

Strong Christian themes for one more often thought of as a secular figure.

Above the first gallery are Leonardo’s own words: “If the painter wishes to see beauties that would enrapture him, he is master of their production, and if he wishes to see monstrous things… he is their lord and god… In fact, therefore, whatever there is in the universe through essence, presence or imagination, he has it first in his mind and then in his hands.”

• Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, until February 5 at The National Gallery, sponsored by Credit Suisse. £16, concessions available. Booking 0844 248 5097, and by post or in person


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