Da Vinci wows at major London show

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Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

It has masterpieces, media frenzy, a contested gem — everything but the Mona Lisa. London’s latest blockbuster art show confirms Leonardo da Vinci as a Renaissance rock star.

A new exhibition of the artist’s paintings at London’s National Gallery is opening amid A-list levels of hype and anticipation.

Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan focuses on da Vinci’s formative years as a court artist in the 1480s and 1490s. The gallery spent five years persuading museums in Italy, France, the United States, Russia and Poland to lend fragile works for the show, which gathers nine of Leonardo’s 15 surviving paintings and dozens of his drawings.

“There are many loans we only seriously dreamt would come here,” said National Gallery director Nicholas Penny. “Everything we dreamt of has come true.”

There is no Mona Lisa – it was created later, after Leonardo had left Milan – and no Last Supper, which remains in Milan’s Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The show does include a full-scale copy of the mural by one of Leonardo’s students, as well as the master’s preparatory sketches and other drawings — many loaned by Queen Elizabeth II, who owns one of the world’s largest collections of them.

There are sights to stir art-lovers’ hearts, including two versions of the Biblical scene The Virgin of the Rocks which have never been shown together. One usually hangs in the Louvre in Paris, while the other — once thought to be a studio copy but now restored and validated as the master’s work — is owned by the National Gallery. The show’s curator, Luke Syson, said even Leonardo probably never saw them in the same room.

Another talking point is Christ as Salvator Mundi, a formerly disputed portrait that sold at auction in 1958 for just 45 pounds, but which the gallery says is an authentic da Vinci work.

The painting, which shows Christ face-on, holding up one hand in blessing and grasping a crystal orb in the other, still has its doubters, but has recently been valued at $200 million. It is owned by R.W. Chandler, a consortium represented by New York art historian and dealer Robert Simon.

The exhibition, which runs to Feb. 5, is expected to be one of the most popular in the gallery’s 187-year history and is already sold out until mid-December. To avoid it being overrun, the gallery is selling 180 tickets every 30 minutes, 50 fewer than it is allowed under health and safety rules, and is extending opening hours to accommodate demand.

Beyond the hype, Syson said he hoped the show would “refocus attention on Leonardo the painter” — rather than the scientist, inventor, architect or sculptor.

“First and foremost, Leonardo was trained as a painter, and he thought as a painter, even when he was working on other things,” Syson said.

“Careful, detailed, precise observation” was at the root of all he did, Syson said. “Trusting what he could see, rather than what he could read.”

The exhibition traces the development of da Vinci’s technique and artistic vision under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan — “the classic wicked uncle, the despot,” Syson said, but also an art-loving aristocrat who gave Leonardo money and time to explore his ideas.

Syson said that when da Vinci arrived in Milan from Florence, aged about 30, Leonardo was already “unprecedentedly curious about the world around him.”

He injected a new naturalism into painting. Plants in the first Virgin of the Rocks are depicted in almost microscopic detail. Portrait subjects had traditionally been depicted in profile, but Leonardo turned them so they look toward the viewer. He strove to capture his subjects’ thoughts and emotions on their faces. The Lady With an Ermine, a depiction of his patron’s 16-year-old mistress, has a teasing, inward expression, while The Belle Ferronniere — based on the duke’s wife— looks boldly and challengingly at the viewer.

“These are much more than simple likenesses of people,” Syson said.

In The Madonna Litta, on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Virgin’s idealized beauty is complemented by the breast-feeding baby’s cheeky gaze toward the viewer.

Later, Leonardo began to seek perfection, seeing himself as “somebody whose talent is, in a sense, fed by God himself” and striving to depict a kind of absolute beauty.

“I think 100 years later he would have got into trouble with the Inquisition,” because of his unorthodox ideas on art and religion, Syson said.

“He believed painting could represent not just everything that was visible, but all that was invisible in the universe.”

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