Last year the world celebrated the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci on the 500th anniversary of his death. Even today, much about Leonardo Da Vinci remains an enigma: the smile of the Mona Lisa; why the world’s most famous painter left so many works unfinished; and more recently, who bought the contentious Salvator Mundi.
The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, put on its largest ever Leonardo da Vinci exhibition for the occasion. Unfortunately the exhibition did not coincide with the little bears visit to the City of Light, but they had lots of fun anyway 🙂
Now they can watch a filmed private tour of the landmark exhibition A Night at the Louvre: Leonardo da Vinci, a partnership between the Louvre Museum and Pathé Live. Filmed especially for the cinema, the tour takes the viewer on a nocturnal stroll through the Louvre in the company of the exhibition’s curators, Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, whose commentaries provide precious insight into Leonardo’s artistic practice and pictorial technique.
More than 10 years in the making, the project began when Louis Frank (Department of Prints and Drawings, Louvre) translated a Renaissance-era Da Vinci biography. The biographical emphasis is evident in the exhibit’s design, which traces the artist’s trajectory from his apprenticeship with Florentine sculptor Andrea del Verocchio to his death in France in 1519.
Leonardo, whose life has been a constant source of myth-making, is considered a visionary genius – a painter, scientist, engineer and inventor. The curators argue that his interest in science – particularly astronomy, botany and his constant grappling with mathematical problems – was not a digression that pulled him away from art, but was central to his quest to achieve perfection in his painting. The exhibition presents Leonardo’s work in its totality to demonstrate how Leonardo elevated painting above all other pursuits, and how his investigation of the world – the “science of painting” as he put it – was at the service of an art whose supreme ambition was to give life to his paintings.
With a run from October 24, 2019 to February 24, 2020 the exhibition managed to escape the impact of this year’s pandemic. Unlike this year’s Raphael exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome.
Building on the Louvre’s Leonardo collection – already the best in the world with five paintings and 22 drawings – the exhibition featured 162 works, including loans from institutions in Italy, Germany, Russia, the US, the UK, including 24 drawings loaned by Queen Elizabeth II from the Royal Collection, as well as France.
The largest collection of Leonardo’s surviving notebooks is also in Paris, just a few hundred yards from the Louvre, at the Institut de France. They were seized from Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana during the Napoleonic invasion of the 1790s.
Talking about notebooks, we did see the the Codex Arundel (owned by the British Library), Codex Forster (owned by the V&A Museum) and a selection of sheets from the Codex Leicester (owned by Bill Gates) in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library last year. And we saw the Codex Leicester, with other Da Vinci works, at the Seattle Art Museum exhibition Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science in 1997. Right place(s), right time…
In Italy there has long been a feeling that France has laid claim to more than its fair share of ‘Maistre Lyenard de Vince’ (as he appears in contemporary French documents), and in the run-up to the Louvre’s exhibition this old and rather pointless grievance resurfaced. The Italian government, then dominated by the ultra-nationalist Lega party, and their “Italy First” agenda, threatened to embargo all loans to the exhibition. Possibly the fact that Italy could not organise a Leonardo exhibition on the same scale in 2019 added to frustrations in Italy. They accused France of trying to take centre stage in the commemorations. Well, duh! Somebody had to. Things were eventually smoothed over at presidential level, but of the various Italian loans exhibited only two are Leonardo paintings.
The exhibition space was designed to accommodate pictures arriving or being refused at the last minute. Vitruvian Man arrived just days before the opening of the exhibition. For a major exhibition that’s pretty much last minute! And it stayed only for eight weeks.
Leonardo’s surviving body of work as a painter is remarkably slim: only about 15 to 20 existing paintings can be comfortably attributed to him, although two of them – the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper – are easily among the most famous in the world. Leonardo did not sign his paintings. He worked painstakingly slowly, often spending more than a decade on a painting. Today many are too fragile to be moved, and for most institutions that own them, they represent the pinnacle of the entire collection. Loaning these works involves delicate diplomacy and challenging logistics. The curators of the Louvre exhibition managed to get six Leonardo paintings on loan to add to the museum’s own five, bringing the total to eleven. The previous largest Leonardo exhibition, at London’s National Gallery in 2011, featured nine paintings.
The six loans were the Benois Madonna from the State Hermitage of St Petersburg, the Saint Jerome from the Vatican, the Musician from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata) from the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, and two paintings both known as the Madonna of the Yarnwinder – one from a private collection (the Lansdowne version with a landscape background similar to that of the Mona Lisa) and the other (the Buccleuch version, stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in 2003, recovered in 2007) from The National Gallery in Edinburgh. They joined the five Louvre Leonardos: La Belle Ferronnière, the Virgin of the Rocks, the Mary and Child with Saint Anne, Saint John the Baptist and the Mona Lisa.
Notably absent from the exhibition were the three Leonardos owned by the Uffizi in Florence, Italy’s most visited museum, which were ultimately labeled as too fragile to be transported by the museum’s director. The Uffizi, however, did send the Louvre several drawings, including Leonardo’s very first known artwork, a sketch of the Arno river valley around Florence.
Another painting that was absent was Salvator Mundi, whose attribution to Leonardo is disputed. The painting sold at auction in 2017 for a record $450 million (more than double the previous record for a work of art sold at auction) and is believed to be owned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although its current whereabouts are unknown. The painting was displayed during Leonardo exhibition at London’s National Gallery in 2011 and attributed to the master, causing its value to skyrocket.
Another version of the Salvator Mundi was present, the one known as De Ganay, as it was formerly part of the Marquis de Ganay’s collection. Today it’s in private hands and the Louvre attributed it to Leonardo’s studio on the label. The painting appeared to have been restored, and a showing in such a prestigious exhibition might increase interest around it as well as its value.
An exciting innovation at the exhibition was that Leonardo’s paintings were accompanied by infrared reflectograms, including the paintings absent from the exhibition. This imaging technique is used to trace the carbon beneath the layers of paint and thus reveal the underdrawings made on the ground. Leonardo often changed his mind during the creative process, more so with later paintings, in oil; these images show his initial drafts and how he perfected his compositions. They also provide insight into the first steps he took in rendering skin tones, using his expertise to create careful transitions between light and shade.
The Mona Lisa wasn’t actually part of the exhibition, for logistics reasons. Pre-pandemic, 30,000 visitors visited the Mona Lisa each day. The visitor limit in the exhibition space was far less. To avoid what would have been a nightmare for visitors and the museum alike, the Mona Lisa remained in her usual gallery.
However, fittingly for a show about a man who was so inventive about new technologies, visitors had the option to check out the painting in virtual reality: Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass allowed for an intimate inspection of the artwork through a VR headset, removing the jostling crowds and the overgrowth of selfie sticks that plague the real world experience.
Although his paintings are far better known, Leonardo’s wealth of drawings and manuscripts lay bare the inner workings of his genius. His fertile mind — the range of hypotheses he tested, the intellectual, scientific, and philosophical journeys he launched — is evoked on every one of the 7,000 sheets preserved at Windsor, in libraries in Paris, London, Madrid, Turin, and Milan, and in the private collection of Bill Gates.
More than 80 drawings were on display in Paris, including various preliminary sketches for his paintings, some of his astonishing anatomical studies and the most famous of them all, the Vitruvian Man, a study on the proportions of the human body. Its loan from Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice was only secured at the eleventh hour, after an Italian heritage group had filed an appeal with a court to block the move due to the fragility of the sketch. Vitruvian Man is rarely displayed because light exposure can damage the 500-year-old paper sketch. The sketch was on public display for the first time in many years, along with 24 other works, until July 14, 2019. Leonardo didn’t spend much time in Venice, but he did visit in 1499–1500.
The exhibition also included a dozen of Leonardo’s notebooks, packed with the astonishing variety of his interests – geometry, architecture, anatomy, botany, meteorology, lenses, shadows, whirlpools, and of course the flight of birds, applicable to his perennial dream of human flight. Some of them are pocketbooks no bigger than a pack of playing cards – an eyewitness account of Leonardo mentions a ‘little book he had always hanging at his belt’. These workaday objects, with their grubby vellum covers, are as close to him as we get.
As challenging as some of the negotiations and logistics to get on loan the works on display were, according to the curators the most difficult part was to understand Leonardo da Vinci. The preparation work included a thorough analysis of Leonardo’s biography by 16th century art historian Giorgio Vasari, new scientific analysis of all the Louvre’s paintings and a full restoration of three of them: Saint Anne, La Belle Ferronnière, and Saint John the Baptist. The restoration efforts were not without drama, with some art conservation experts resigning in protest over the methods employed.
The team’s findings included new details about the Virgin of the Rocks, which Leonardo painted twice after the first version was rejected by its commissioners. Some scholars believe that the refusal was due to the angel ostensibly pointing his finger at St John and looking directly at the viewer, because both those elements were removed from the subsequent version of the painting. However the reflectogram showed that the same composition, without the pointing finger, is under the original version too, and was changed only at the last moment — what’s usually called a pentimento (meaning “repentance” in Italian).
Leonardo was born to unwed parents on April 15, 1452, near Vinci, a hill town in the rural Tuscan landscape between Florence and Pisa. Many believe his mother was Caterina di Meo Lippi, a local peasant. His father, Ser Piero da Vinci, held elevated status as a notary — a professional path that Leonardo would have been expected to follow had he not been born out of wedlock. His full birth name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which means “Leonardo, son of Piero, from Vinci”, which is generally shortened to just Leonardo da Vinci.
The town of Vinci proffered an inspiring backdrop for a boy with a capacious vision. From a terrace atop the village’s 12th century castle, the Tuscan landscape reveals itself today as it would have in Leonardo’s youth: olive groves, dusky hills, and a mountain range off Italy’s west coast.
In 1464, the young Leonardo began an apprenticeship in Florence with Andrea del Verrocchio, one of the greatest sculptors of the 15th century. While in Verrocchio’s workshop he studied the sculptural nature of form, movement (on which reality depends and all narratives are constructed) and chiaroscuro (the use of light and shade to create a sense of drama). His prime source of instruction was Christ and Saint Thomas, a monumental bronze sculpture cast by Verrocchio for the Florentine church of Orsanmichele. In this work, Verrocchio demonstrated a profoundly pictorial conception of sculpture, from which Leonardo drew the basis of his own art: the idea that space and form come into being through light and exist only in the play of light and shade.
This is what the exhibition aimed to present – explain – demonstrate: Leonardo’s fundamental belief that the secret to creating perfect paintings that laid bare human nature was to capture light, shade and movement.
Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Tribunale di Mercanzia (merchants’ court) to produce this large bronze sculpture for its niche on the eastern facade of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence. According to the Gospel of Saint John, Thomas the Apostle refused to believe in the Resurrection until he had seen or touched the wounds of Jesus’s crucifixion for himself. The entire sculpture is designed to convey a sense of movement and drama through chiaroscuro – the play of light and shade. During his apprenticeship to Verrocchio, Christ and Saint Thomas was Leonardo’s prime source of instruction.
Taking inspiration from his master’s light effects, Leonardo — who later noted that “every opaque body is surrounded, and its surface clothed, in shadow and light” — developed his gift for chiaroscuro by painting tempera studies that he modelled on clay figures covered with cloth dipped in liquid clay. Leonardo’s monochromatic Drapery Studies resemble Verrocchio’s studies for the figures of Christ and Saint Thomas and were inspired by this innovative perception of space.
The Annunciation, the Madonna of the Carnation and the Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci reflect Leonardo’s transition from sculpture to painting. This shift was boosted by his interest in the work of his contemporaries at a rival Florentine workshop run by the Pollaiuolo brothers, and in the innovations brought to Florence by Flemish painters – three-quarter view portraits and the use of oil.
The Annunciation was brought to the Uffizi in 1867 from the church of San Bartolomeo a Monteoliveto, outside Porta San Frediano in Florence; nothing is known about its original location or who commissioned it. It is generally considered to be one of Leonardo’s youthful works, painted when he was still working in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. It copies an invention of Verrocchio’s, the shape of the lectern, inspired by the tomb of Piero the Gouty in the church of San Lorenzo, Florence.
The image is a traditional one – the Archangel Gabriel blessing the Virgin Mary before telling her that she is to bear the son of God – but the scene is set in the garden of Mary’s house. The infrared reflectogram reveals the underdrawing to be extremely precise and meticulous in this painting. It also shows that the ribbon wound around the angel’s upper arm was very precisely reproduced from the study drawing on the painted panel. Leonardo modified parts of the drawing during the course of its execution, giving it a greater sense of movement and creating the impression that the Archangel has just landed.
In the Madonna of the Carnation, the Virgin Mary is showing Jesus a carnation whose shape evokes a nail, symbolising his crucifixion. The infrared reflectogram reveals how the architectural structure and windows behind the figures were drawn out. Leonardo prepared the compositions of his first paintings so meticulously that very few changes needed to be made during the painting process, which was also perfectly executed.
Around 1478, building on what he had learned from Verrocchio, Leonardo began to explore new paths. To grasp the truth of form – which is illusory, being constantly broken apart by an ever-changing world – the painter needed to acquire an intellectual and technical freedom that would enable him to capture its very imperfection. In his drawing, this was expressed as a violent attack on form – a direct juxtaposition of incompatible states that sometimes produced nothing but black. This approach, required by the absolute necessity of conveying movement, was described by Leonardo as componimento inculto – ‘intuitive composition’. The Madonna of the Cat and the Madonna with a Fruit Bowl are the first remarkable illustrations of this new compositional style.
The Madonna with a Fruit Bowl illustrates the remarkable freedom that suddenly infused Leonardo’s art. Jesus appears to be offering his mother a piece of fruit, symbolising the eradication of original sin. Unlike Leonardo’s previous drawings, this sketch does not attempt to clearly define the forms; instead, it seems to rage against them in an extraordinary struggle to capture the essential reality of movement. This drawing is strongly reminiscent of the Benois Madonna.
The Benois Madonna is the result of one of the two projects undertaken by Leonardo in late 1478. The cross-shaped flower Mary is handing to Jesus prefigures the Passion of Christ. The Child solemnly takes it while his mother smiles in encouragement, joyful in the knowledge that her son’s death will procure salvation for humankind. This is the first of Leonardo’s paintings imbued with the dynamism of his componimento inculto.
The reflectogram of the Benois Madonna reveals the many alterations (pentimenti) made during the painting process, particularly with regard to the distance between Jesus and his mother, Leonardo bringing them closer together to reflect their relationship. The structure of the room is clearly visible, particularly the canopy over Mary’s bed in the top left.
In this pursuit of dynamism, Leonardo found an ally in the new medium of oil. The fluidity of his Benois Madonna, in which child and mother spiral around each other as if wrapped in a shimmering cocoon of love and melancholy, would have been impossible without the silky, light-reflecting properties of the innovative pigments.
Adoration of the Magi was commissioned by the Augustinian Friars of the San Donato a Scopeto Church in Florence in 1481. Leonardo moved to Milan the following year and left the painting unfinished. In the late 1500s, it was acquired by the Medici for their collection. The painting spent six years being restored, returning to the Uffizi Galleries in March 2017. The restoration has given new life to the masterpiece, the passing of time having altered the painting’s color scheme, and cracks in the wooden planks threatened its structural strength. Without the layers of dirt and non-original varnish, the original light blue of the sky, the candor of the faces, and the dark brown of the background are all visible now. In addition, new elements have emerged which were not obvious before and which hint at experimentations found in later works: the battle of knights in the background calls to mind the Battle of Anghiari; the old man close to the Virgin resembles a study of San Girolamo, and the water reflections visible under Maria’s feet evoke the visual effect that appears more decisively in the Virgin of the Rocks.
His determination to capture his subjects in a state of becoming explains why Leonardo worked so slowly and revised so heavily. The reflectogram of the Adoration of the Magi shows numerous alterations to the swirl of horses, soldiers and worshippers whose anxious expressions suggest they are trapped in a battle between despair and faith. The reflectogram reveals the extraordinary freedom of Leonardo’s componimento inculto. The endless superimposition of ideas transforms the crowd present at the ‘manifestation of Christ to the world’ into swirling, chaotic darkness.
Leonardo’s art was transfigured by the freedom he found in componimento inculto. But this creative freedom fostered a tendency to incompletion which would become a characteristic of Leonardo’s painting, exemplified by the poignant figure of Saint Jerome. This creative period continued in Milan, where Leonardo moved to in 1482 and where he painted the Virgin of the Rocks, the Portrait of a Musician and La Belle Ferronnière.
The Virgin of the Rocks was commissioned from Leonardo and the de Predis brothers for the chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Franciscan church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, on 25 April 1483. The scene was to be part of a carved altarpiece, but a financial dispute arose between the artists and their patrons. The work was then sold to a buyer for whom Leonardo modified the angel’s pose, turning the figure to point at John the Baptist while looking at the viewer.
The reflectogram of the Virgin of the Rocks highlights a signature characteristic of Leonardo’s paintings: the artist was never satisfied with the preparatory drawings he transferred onto panel – he reworked them constantly. In this case, he modified John the Baptist’s position and Jesus’s gesture of blessing. It is also interesting to see the final change made to the figure of the angel; the original position of the head in the reflectogram was transferred exactly onto the Head of a Young Woman, now held in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.
The National Gallery in London holds a second version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The paintings were seen side by side for the first time in 2011 at the National Gallery.
During his first stay in Milan, Leonardo painted at least three portraits with the dark background that corresponded to the Lombard portrait tradition, but he introduced the more natural and dynamic three-quarter pose instead of the usual strict profile view. In transforming the Milanese portrait formula, Leonardo must have been familiar with the innovations of Flemish portraitists, who as early as the 1430s had depicted sitters full-face and with gesturing hands.
The identity of this pensive-looking sitter is unknown, but the sheet of music suggests that he was a musician – perhaps Franchino Gaffurio, Josquin des Prez or Atalante Migliorotti. Another possibility is that this unfinished work is a self-portrait of Leonardo.
The reflectogram of The Musician shows the structure of the sitter’s costume, which is very dark in the painting. It also reveals some first ideas, drawn in brushstrokes. And it shows that the musical score was painted onto the costume, which suggests that it was not part of the original image and that the sitter may not have been a musician. The allusion to music may have had a symbolic or emblematic meaning.
This portrait was wrongly associated by Ingres with the name of a mistress of the French king François I. The sitter has been identified by art historians as Beatrice d’Este (Ludovico il Moro’s wife), Lucrezia Crivelli (his mistress in 1495), or Isabella of Aragon, wife of the rightful Duke of Milan Gian Galeazzo Sforza. This work by Leonardo revolutionised the female portrait genre, introducing dynamic movement, more accurately rendered articulations and an elusive gaze while conveying an impression of intelligence, willpower and, above all, consciousness.
The reflectogram reveals alterations (pentimenti) to the sitter’s outfit and necklace. The face is fuller in the underdrawing than in the final version, in which it is sculpted by the chiaroscuro of Leonardo’s sfumato technique. The rough sketch of the (probably unfinished) parapet is also visible.
While at the Milanese court of Duke Ludovico Sforza – also known as Ludovico Il Moro (‘the Moor’) – Leonardo turned his skills to court entertainment. He invented mottos, designed emblems and, to celebrate the wedding of Isabella of Aragon and Ludovico’s nephew Gian Galeazzo Sforza, created the stage set for a pageant called the Festa del Paradiso (‘The Feast of Paradise’), written by the poet Bernardo Bellincioni. He also designed a huge equestrian statue in honour of Francesco Sforza, founder of the dynasty, for which he made a clay model of the horse. During the last decade of the century, he was commissioned by Ludovico to paint a Last Supper for the refectory in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
For a person with extraordinary analytical vision, drawing is more than the mere reproduction of forms; it is also an expression of relationships between forms or, to put it differently, an act of thinking. In Leonardo’s case, this intelligence was self-aware. Moreover, it was accompanied by a constant questioning of the world – an insatiable need to understand, which became a desire to demonstrate, then a systematic investigation of every aspect of the physical world. The result was a vast compilation of notes, studies, experiments, reflections and theories in which writing and drawing were inextricably linked; this body of work, though often wandering and imperfect, nonetheless represents one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of natural philosophy.
The comprehensive nature of Leonardo’s quest for knowledge stemmed from the fact that he was no longer content to study appearances; in order to convey their truth, he needed an understanding of phenomena from the inside – an awareness of the laws that govern them which, like Pythagoras and Plato before him, he regarded as fundamentally mathematical in nature.
During the course of his research on the mathematical and geometrical principles that govern living beings, Leonardo studied the third book of the Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius, in which the author describes how the human body could fit inside a circle and a square. Following after many others, Leonardo drew a version of the man Vitruvius had described in this famous passage. Unlike Vitruvius, he described the figure’s relationship to the circle and the square, and went on to correct the architect’s abstract values in the light of his own anthropological findings. According to Vitruvius, the length of the foot was one sixth of the height of the body; for Leonardo, it was one seventh.
Leonardo’s rigorous scientific approach encompassed every field of knowledge, engendering an endless, multifaceted labyrinth in which the painter seems to have ultimately lost his way. This disappearance is illusory, however, as it was science itself that gave the artist the freedom to master shade, light, space and movement. In his painting, the turbulence of componimento inculto gave way to the sfumato technique – a merging of forms and eradication of boundaries made possible by the revolutionary medium of oil. The freedom acquired through knowledge of the natural sciences elevated painting to the status of a divine science able to recreate the world and, most importantly, convey movement – the essence of life and the defining characteristic of every living creature. These years of scientific inquiry, when Leonardo painted The Last Supper, Saint Anne, the Mona Lisa, The Battle of Anghiari, and Saint John the Baptist, saw the dawn of the modern style.
Ludovico il Moro commissioned Leonardo to paint The Last Supper for the refectory in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The artist is known to have been working on this painting in 1497. The twelve Apostles’ reactions to Christ’s words – Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me – are depicted in a wave-like formation spreading out from the radiating central figure of Christ. The Last Supper – the first true manifesto for a modern art capable of imitating the inner movement of life – earned Leonardo worldwide renown.
Leonardo chose a technique based on thin, transparent oil glazes; incompatible with the dampness of the walls, this resulted in the immediate deterioration of The Last Supper.
Luckily there were plenty of contemporaries copying Leonardo’s work and the most valued record of the original is the copy made by Marco d’Oggiono between 1506 and 1509, while Leonardo was living in Milan.
The Last Supper is a dazzling aesthetic thing. Nothing like The Last Supper had been done before: a life-size, cinematic, technicolor scene of dramatic movement. It’s a snapshot, too. It’s the moment when Jesus lets the gang in on a secret: Someone among them will betray him in a matter of hours. The sequence of moving hands, torsos, heads, feet, and faces isn’t balletic. Leonardo choreographed it, to be sure, but the movement looks spontaneous, like 13 freestanding, independent units exploded in a single burst of energy, visually captured.
The army of Louis XII of France conquered the duchy of Milan in September 1499. Leonardo left Lombardy in December; during his stay in Mantua, he drew a cartoon (full-scale preliminary sketch) for the portrait of the Marchioness Isabella d’Este. As so often, he broke with tradition – this time by conveying a sense that the profile portrait was the result of the sitter’s movement rather than a chosen pose. He captured Isabella as if she had just turned around in mid-conversation. Due to water damage, the side and lower edges of the sketch are missing.
Leonardo began to work on the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, in 1503. The infrared reflectogram allows us to see the preparatory underdrawing of the figure, which – in keeping with his later works – is less detailed. It reveals the alterations (pentimenti) made to the hands and seat balusters, and offers a clearer image of the painting’s arrangement, now obscured by oxidised conservation varnish.
In 1499, in Milan, Leonardo met Florimond Robertet, secretary to Louis XII of France. Robertet commissioned the artist for a painting of the Madonna. We know that Leonardo was working on this painting in April 1501, and that it featured the infant Jesus grasping a cross-shaped yarnwinder (foreshadowing his future death) and the Virgin making a gesture of surprise. There are two versions of this composition, both painted in Leonardo’s workshop and brought together for this exhibition. The landscape in the Buccleuch Madonna was painted over an initial underdrawing identical to that of the Lansdowne Madonna.
Putting so many Leonardo works together under one roof has other beneficial side effects, such as progressing the discussion on attribution. Renaissance painters did not sign their works, and most paintings were the product of a workshop, where many artists and apprentices contributed to the same artwork. That has historically spawned debates on whether some paintings show Leonardo’s hand or not. There are question marks about the degree of Leonardo’s intervention on both versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Those can really be solved only by seeing these pictures next to others that everyone agrees are by his hand. The fact that both were in the show was a perfect moment to look at the claims of each of those pictures against a series of paintings that we know were painted at the same time.
Differences between the two painting in terms of the pictorial technique and the extent of Leonardo’s contribution have generated controversy among art historians with regard to their attribution.
Leonardo aims to show the mother’s instinctive reaction as she turns to remove the dangerous object from her son’s hands, but he also conveys the impression that she has just interrupted her movement, having realised the meaning of Jesus’s thoughtful observation of the cross-shaped object.
The infrared reflectograms of the two Madonnas show the same compositional changes. Leonardo initially drew a donkey in the right background – an allusion to the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. On the left was a house with a balcony, in front of which Mary was placing Jesus in a baby walker made by Joseph, and the yarnwinder was placed in a basket of spindles in the foreground. The positions of the Virgin and Child were significantly changed.
The reflectograms show the evolution of the composition’s form and imagery. Leonardo began by drawing a narrative scene from the life of the Holy Family, who found refuge in Egypt after their flight from the Holy Land. But as the work progressed, he gradually eliminated the non-essential details to focus on the figures’ inner states as they confront the Christ Child’s destiny as Saviour of the world.
On 2 September 1494, Charles VIII of France crossed the Alpine pass of Mont Genèvre, sparking the period known as the Italian Wars. The Medici, rulers of the Florentine republic since 1434, were driven from Florence on 9 November. The republican constitution was then restored around a Great Council with 3,000 members, entailing the construction of a new assembly hall on the eastern side of the Palazzo della Signoria (or Palazzo Vecchio). In 1502, it was decided that the leading figure of the Council – the ‘gonfalonier of justice’ – should have lifetime tenure; Piero Soderini was elected to this new position. This was the political situation in Florence when Leonardo, who had returned to the city in 1500, produced his paintings of Saint Anne, Salvator Mundi and possibly Saint John the Baptist – guardian figures of the liberty of Florence. In the autumn of 1503, he also started work on the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Soderini commissioned Leonardo in 1503 – and Michelangelo in 1504 – to decorate the walls of the Council’s assembly hall with two huge paintings, each commemorating a famous Florentine victory: for Leonardo, The Battle of Anghiari against the Milanese and for Michelangelo, The Battle of Cascina against the Pisans. Leonardo never completed the project, but painted a remarkable scene known as the Battle of the Standard; this work, and the cartoon (preliminary sketch) produced by his rival Michelangelo left a lasting artistic impact before finally disappearing.
This female head is often said to be a preparatory study for Leda or a Virgin Mary. However, the fact that it was painted on wood might suggest that it was a work in its own right – possibly inspired by ancient paintings – in which the artist experimented with a limited palette and a certain incompletion. La Scapigliata recalls the work of the great ancient Greek artist Apelles, who painted a Venus whose head and bust were of extraordinary perfection, while the rest of the body was merely sketched.
This is our absolute favourite painting. Leonardo began to work on his painting of Saint Anne in October 1503 and continued until his death. He was constantly adjusting the poses of the figures and the details of their hairstyles and costumes. The meaning of the composition also evolved, with the final version suggesting the elusive moment when the sadly smiling Mary acquiesces to the future death of her son.
This painting is Leonardo’s testament, the painting on which he worked the longest. He spent 20 years perfecting this work, and it is perhaps the most revelatory, the most ambitious, and the most accomplished painting in terms of pictorial technique. Leonardo produced more preparatory drawings for it than for any other painting. Where the Mona Lisa represents a single figure, there are three figures magnificently entwined here, with an elaborate mountainous landscape in the background.
On the subject of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Leonardo had already reflected in his Milanese period, when he prepared the cartoon with the three figures, now in the National Gallery in London. But he never translated this cartoon into a painting. The painting is neither a version nor a derivation of that earlier idea. Against the background of a circle of mountains emerging from mists, as if they were painfully taking shape from the chaos before the Creation, there rises the pyramidal group of Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Infant Jesus, with a lamb, the symbol of his future sacrifice. It was actually the first pyramid composition, another Leonardo innovation. The barely perceptible smiles of the faces are the only expression of feeling in the whole painting. They are not just smiles, they are an expression of the souls of Saint Anne and the Virgin. The infrared reflectogram of the painting shows traces of the transfer of a large cartoon (full-scale preliminary sketch). Saint Anne’s arm is visible behind Mary, attempting to prevent her from keeping Jesus and the lamb apart. Leonardo eventually abandoned this idea, preferring to focus on the mother’s conscious acceptance of her son’s fate.
Michelangelo and Raphael were Rome’s favourite artists during the reign of Pope Leo X, and in the autumn of 1516 Leonardo left for France. On 10 October 1517, Cardinal Luigi of Aragon, the grandson of King Ferdinand of Naples, was passing through Amboise and visited the ageing Leonardo at the Château de Cloux (known today as the Château du Close Lucé), the residence provided for him by the French king François I.
Leonardo showed the cardinal and his suite three paintings he had been working on for over ten years (and whose final owner would be the king of France): Saint Anne, the Mona Lisa and Saint John the Baptist. Leonardo produced only about fifteen paintings in all. This was not, as has often been suggested, because he was only interested in the original idea or conception, but on the contrary because, in his view, the science of painting found its truest expression in the infinitely extended process of execution. His contemporaries saw Leonardo as the forerunner of the ‘modern style’ because he was the first (and probably only) artist capable of endowing his work with an awe-inspiring realism. Such creative power was as overwhelming as the world inhabited by Leonardo – a world of impermanence, universal destruction, tempests and darkness.
Francesco Melzi joined Leonardo’s workshop in 1508 and became his most loyal pupil. He followed the master to France, was present at his death and inherited his drawings and manuscripts. In this beautiful red chalk portrait attributed to Melzi, Leonardo has the flowing hair and beard of an ancient Greek philosopher such as Pythagoras or Plato.