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Seeking the universal painter: Carmen C. Bambach appraises the National Gallery's once-in-a-lifetime exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan

9 November 2011-5 February 2012

National Gallery, London

Catalogue by Luke Syson with Larry Keith

ISBN 9781857094916 (hardback) 40 [pounds sterling]

(National Gallery Company)


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.' (1) 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 very 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, 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 very tightly centred on illuminating the context of his exhibited paintings. The works in the show 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.

A major revelation emerging from the show is the new visual understanding of Leonardo as a portraitist. The exhibition and catalogue provide eloquent proof that Leonardo is the portrait artist who revolutionised an entire genre for his time and a long posterity to come. One is left with a unified view of his great achievement in the late 15th century, something that is elusive when his famous portraits are seen one by one in their respective museums. Syson's historical reassessment of Leonardo's reinvention of portraiture in Milan (which was dominated by the profile portrait at the time of his arrival in 1482/3) sensitively acknowledges the central role of his early anatomical research. At the same time it focuses attention on the manner of his poses and choices of pictorial devices which heighten the psychological identity of the sitter and demand a response from the viewer. In Leonardo's theory of gesture, it is the human body that manifests the 'motions of the mind' (the 'moti mentali'), as is recorded in the lost notes for his intended treatise on painting. (2)

The first key painting in the show is Leonardo's largely unfinished bust-length portrait of a man, 'The Musician', in the Ambrosiana (Fig. 1), of around 1486-87. Its sitter, seen in three-quarter view, may well be the gifted Florentine musician and friend of the artist, Atalante Migliorotti (active c. 1482-1535), as was suggested by some early scholars and in the National Gallery catalogue. The young man holds a sheet of musical notation, but that Leonardo is the composer of this music is improbable; his extant drawings of rebuses with musical notation in the Royal Library, Windsor, do not help in providing likely comparisons.


For the first time, the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (the 'Lady with en Ermine') from the Czartoryski Foundation on deposit at the National Museum of Cracow, datable to 1486-89, is seen in the vicinity of the Louvre's portrait of a woman (misnamed since the 18th century as 'La Belle Ferroniere') of 1493-95, further suggesting Leonardo's development as a portraitist in less than a decade. His increased economy of outward gesture and attributes in the service of a charged psychological characterisation is evident in the often under-appreciated Louvre portrait panel of 'La Belle Ferroniere', the last extant painted portrait preceding the Mona Lisa, which Leonardo began in Florence in 1503.

For the first time, the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, respectively in the Musee du Louvre and National Gallery (newly cleaned by Larry Keith), are displayed in the same room, at opposite ends from one another. This permits one to judge visually, and agree with the curator of the show, that in the historical balance these paintings represent two very distinctly different moments in Leonardo's Milanese career as a painter. The crucial differences are those that separate his work of the 1480s, at the time of the Cecilia Gallerani, from that in the late 1490s. The open questions regarding the complex documents about the commission of the Virgin of the Rocks of 25 April 1483 (the final altarpiece was not installed until 1508 in its intended destination in the church of San Francesco Grande, Milan) are little discussed in the catalogue, probably a wise choice, given the art-historical quicksand they represent. The attentive examination of the London Virgin of the Rocks, both during extended visits to the National Gallery's paintings conservation laboratory as it was being cleaned and during its magnificent display in the exhibition, has convinced this reviewer that it is for all intents and purposes an autograph painting, probably with only very minor interventions by assistants in the background landscape. For, rather than raising problems of authorship (as has often been heatedly suggested in the literature), the London Virgin of the Rocks brings to mind the astute comment made long ago by Kenneth Clark, who tartly summed up the difference between the Louvre and National Gallery versions of the subject, while accepting them both as autograph works.. 'in the delicate imaginative beauty of the first, the waxen chiaroscuro of the second, we cannot help feeling how far Leonardo's theories on painting led him away from our affections'. (3)

The exhibition makes a strong case for Leonardo's importance as a teacher and founder of a Lombard tradition of naturalistic painting. The integration of the works by his Milanese followers within the display of autograph works also at times shows the Leonardesque artists to evident disadvantage. Even the best followers seem good on the details of the master's style, but weak as composers of pictures (composition being one of Leonardo's undisputed strengths), suggesting that the Lombard humanist Paolo Giovio, Leonardo's only biographer to have known him personally, was exactly on target in eulogising the master in 1.525-27: 'He died in France at the age of sixty-seven, and the mourning of his friends for him was the greater, because among such a crowd of young men, through which his studio blossomed to the fullest, he left behind no pupil of fame.' (4) The exhibition presents cohesive, hence convincingly attributed groups of paintings and drawings by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d'Oggiono, who are mentioned by Leonardo as artists in training in his studio in 1490. The exquisite Madonna Litta of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (Fi8. 2), is exhibited and catalogued as by Leonardo by the curator of the lending institution, although the proposals that it is by a pupil or pupil(s) seem certainly correct. The hypothesis that it is by Marco d'Oggiono, as suggested by David A. Brown in several publications (1990, 1991, 2003), makes the most sense to this reviewer, to judge from the comparisons of style and technique in paintings by that artist displayed in the same room of the National Gallery's show. The attribution of the Salvator Mundi (Fig. 4), formerly in Sir Francis Cook's collection, is an important addition to the scholarship, but requires a more qualified description, for its severely damaged original painting surface exhibits large portions of recent integration. In the present reviewer's opinion, having studied and followed the picture during its conservation treatment, and seeing it in context in the exhibition, much of the original painting surface may be by Boltraffio, but with passages done by Leonardo himself, namely Christ's proper right blessing hand, portions of the sleeve, his left hand and the crystal orb he holds.


The culmination of Leonardo's painting career in Milan, the mural of the Last Supper in the Refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie, is represented by his sublime preliminary sketches and studies connected with the project. They are imaginatively displayed in relationship to the accomplished monumental painted copy after Leonardo's mural by 'Giampietrino' (Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli), from the Royal Academy of Arts, on loan to Magdalen College, Oxford. The selection courageously includes the crude, much debated Venice red-chalk composition sketch of the Last Supper, which is correctly attributed to Leonardo by the curator of the exhibition, but which in 2001 was injudiciously denounced as a later imitation. Among the crucial works for understanding Leonardo's preparatory design process in the Lest Supper, the famous Windsor bust-length study from life of a man which served for the head of Judas (Fig. 3) is puzzlingly displayed and catalogued as by Leonardo 'with additions?' without comment. To clarify here (as it would not be desirable to see this highly important work penalised in future publications), this is clearly an autograph drawing by the great artist, as is demonstrated in the well preserved parts of the drawing, such as the powerfully sculptural modelling of the neck with controlled effects of sfumato. The red-chalk drawing surface of the study is rubbed in other passages and faded, as is evident in the ear, and consequently the facial profile outline from midway up the nose to the jaw (an important element in the drawing to understand it, but an outline which had probably suffered abrasion over time) was redrawn in a minor and sensitive way, with very similar red chalk to the rest of the drawing. The provenance of the Windsor Leonardo drawings is such (that is, with very few changes of ownership since Leonardo's time) that the most probable author of this very minor intervention is Giovanni Francesco Melzi, Leonardo's Milanese pupil from 1506-08 onward, who became the direct heir of his drawings in 1519, and whose curatorial tasks in Leonardo's late years included the reinforcing of faint or faded drawings and notes by his master.

A consequence of the closely argued thesis of the National Gallery show, around the exhibited paintings, is that some other aspects of Leonardo's career as a court painter to Ludovico Sforza, his family and entourage are not represented. A major part of Leonardo's activity as a court painter, for example, indeed one that gave him considerable delight and to which he dedicated inordinate amounts of time, consisted of drawing designs for ephemeral spectacles, costumes and stage sets for festivals and musical performances ('feste'), described profusely in his notes, as well as in the rare publications and letters by his contemporaries.

The greatest strengths of the catalogue as a work of scholarship are in the presentation of a wealth of new evidence on Leonardo's painting technique and its relationship to his stylistic development, in the clarified attributions of works by Leonardo's followers and in the often superb visual analysis of the paintings themselves. While not detracting from the main conceptual points of the exhibition, some of the proposed revisions to the chronology of Leonardo's drawings seems unconvincing (the traditional literature has been in many cases correct), guided by what are at times literal comparisons of motifs in certain drawings to paintings. In the case of Leonardo this can be perilous, considering that motifs became types and recurrent themes in his language as an artist, which he used and refashioned throughout his long career. The copious, helpful evidence from Leonardo's manuscripts deserves mining in this and other arguments, but his writings are paraphrased or quoted in the catalogue only in English translation, without comparison to the original texts. This is regrettable in the case of the detailed and fascinating description of the Apostles' gestures for the Last Supper contained in Leonardo's pocket-sized Codex Forster II, the only manuscript displayed in the exhibition, open to the leaves with the text of interest, but catalogued only with an imperfect English translation, and with the major scholarly monograph on this work omitted from the literature. (5)


Carmen C. Bambach is curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She is currently Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

(1)/ Recorded by Giovanni Francesco Melzi, after Leonardo, in Codex Urbinas Latinus, 1270, fol, 33v: 'Quello non sia universale che non ama equalmente tutte le cose che si contengono nella pittura',

(2)/ Best recorded by Melzi, after Leonardo, in Codex Urbinas Latinus, 1270, fols. 122r-127r.

(3)/ Quoted from Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, ed. by Martin Kemp, London, 1988, p. 94 (1st edn 1939; 2nd edn 1959).

(4)/ Quoted from Paolo Giovio, Scritti sulle arti: Lessico ed ecfrasi, ed. by Sonia Maffei, Pisa, 1999, p. 233: 'Sexagesimum et septimum agens annum in Gallia vita functus est, eo maiore amicorum luctu, quod in tanta adolescentium turba, qua maxime officina eius florebat, nullum celebrem discipulum reliquerit'.

(5)/ Augusto Marinoni, Leonerdo: Codice Forster II (part of the three-volume series, I Codici Forster I-III), Florence, 1992.
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Title Annotation:Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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