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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 13 JANUARY 2012 — Everyone knows Leonardo of Vinci, Florence and latterly France, the scientific visionary and artistic genius whose imagined helicopter and enigmatic Mona Lisa are forever engrained in popular imagination. Fewer appreciate his pivotal period in Milan in the late fourteenth century, where he may have joined the court of the usurper Ludovico Sforza as a musician, before perfecting his painting skills and — having left after the Italian city was sacked by the French — was drawn back to collect his debts.

All credit to London’s National Gallery in its latest blockbuster exhibition, focusing on Leonardo’s extended and formative period in one pivotal place, faded in his biography just as his masterpiece The Last Supper quickly deteriorated in situ in the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, Ludovico’s planned mausoleum.

Leonardo da Vinci: Christ as Salvator Mundi, about 1499 onwards
Oil on walnut, 65.5 x 45.1 cm
Private collection
Newly discovered

That particular work — later tarnished through building work that drove a door through Christ’s feet — had already been damaged irreparably within 20 years of its creation. While Leonardo possessed extraordinary compositional skills, his impatient appetite for experimentation with new techniques (in this case oil and tempura) apparently surpassed his ability to appreciate their frailty.

Hence the Last Supper — with its meticulously composed Apostles in groups of threes, in front of triples of doors and windows — is represented through a large-scale photographic reproduction [cat 93]. There is also a copy [cat 92] completed three decades later in 1520 by his assistant Giampietrino. That provides clarity on vanished details from the holy feet to Judas’ spilt saltcellar, making it invaluable to modern-day restorations.

Curiously, this section of the exhibition is tucked away in a separate room on a different floor, wrapped around by the National Gallery’s permanent collection. In fact, despite stretching across seven rooms, the show houses only eight finished paintings, the gaps filled by an extensive selection of sketches and drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci: Sketch of a Youth (used for the Head of Saint James)
 with Designs for Fortifications, circa 1492-4

But what sketches (such as the Burlington House Cartoon [cat 73]), and what pieces of eight! The organisers have gathered a large proportion of Leonardo’s total oeuvre of oil paintings, alongside some striking supporting work, most of which justifies its place on the walls.

They overcame extraordinary obstacles (and, thanks to sponsor Credit Suisse, considerable cost) to permit the loan of jealously guarded works from the Louvre and the Hermitage, as well as Italy, Hungary and the U.S., not to mention the Royal Academy and the Royal Collection amongst several British repositories.

Those visitors who have managed to buy advance tickets for the sold-out exhibition, or queued long hours for a quota held back for sale each opening day, are guided through the emergence of modern painting, as Leonardo breaks with Milan’s tradition of full profile (shown in his almost modern drawing Bust of a youth in profile [cat 6]) portraiture to tilt to a three-quarter view and soon full frontal.

Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of a Woman
(La Belle Ferronniére),
circa 1493-4
Oil on walnut, 63 x 45 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris 

They see his attempts to understand rules governing human anatomy in The proportions of the arm  [cat 24]; in Knot pattern [cat 57] — with Leonardo da Vinco Academy written in the centre — possibly the first surviving example of abstract art; and in the furious pentimento (rethinking) technique of heavily reworked drawings in Sketches for a Virgin and Child [cat 74]. His portrayal of gestures, faces and the remarkable detail of veils and other clothes, is remarkable.

The written descriptions and audio guide commentary provide succinct and useful additional information. They highlight the differentially dilated pupils of The Musician, his only oil painting of a man [cat 7]. There is the symbolism in The Lady with an Ermine [cat 18] of the ermine, representing the purity of Ludovico’s youthful mistress Cecilia Gallerani through an animal reputed to prefer death to the sullying of its prized white coat. Her beauty contrasts with the more formal profile Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza [cat 10], Ludovico’s niece.

Leonardo da Vinci: Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani/
The Lady with an Ermine
, circa 1489-90
Oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm
Czartoryski Foundation, National Museum, Cracow 

The centrepiece of the show is the two versions Leonardo painted of The Virgin of the Rocks, an earlier version that eventually ended up in the Louvre [cat 36] after a dispute over fees; the latter owned by the National Gallery [cat 46], itself only paid for by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception 25 years after it was begun, when it insisted the artist return to finish it.

The achievement of bringing the two works together— something Leonardo himself may never have seen — is great, spoilt only by their respectful distancing on opposite sides of the exhibition room, making comparison of their significant differences strained. The National Gallery also underplays its own scientific work and its meaning, having used infrared to identify under-drawings that show further distinctions in its own version.

The crowds may be hard to take, but for those with the chance, Leonardo offers a remarkable chance for once to see works normally scattered around the world and to appreciate more of the genius behind them.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.
Until 5 February 2012
National Gallery Sainsbury Wing

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan
(National Gallery London)
By Luke Syson with Larry Keith
Arturo Galansino, Antonio Mazzotta, Minna Moore, Scott Nethersole
and Per Rumberg

Hardcover: 320 pages
National Gallery London (November 2011)
Distributed by Yale University Press
Dimensions: 12.8 x 9.7 x 1.2 inches

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is co-chairman of Pushkin House (, as well as a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. Andrew Jack last wrote on the filmsThe Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn and Contagion for Culturekiosque.

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