An exhibition opens today in London offering art lovers an extraordinary insight into the methodology behind the man who epitomises the beauty and soul of Renaissance art.
Hailed as one of the greatest painters ever to have graced the art world, Leonardo da Vinci's work is renowned, with his most famous pieces including the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.
The amazing exhibition will offer a chance to see the greatest collection of his masterpieces ever assembled — 60 drawings and paintings by him, as well as paintings by his school.
The Genius with X-ray eyes
As soon as you enter the new Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, you become aware that you are engaging with an extraordinary human mind. The very first exhibit is not exactly a work of art — although, like all Leonardo’s drawings, it is of exquisite skill and craftsmanship.
Rather, it is a scientific document, a drawing of a human head cut open, with the ventricles of the brain and the layers of the scalp all carefully labelled. The point of the drawing was to locate the parts of the brain that control sight. For Leonardo, the eye was the window of the soul, and visual art, above all painting, was the means by which we could learn about the questions that concern scientists, philosophers, poets and religious thinkers.
The Mona Lisa is exhibited permanently in the Louvre in Paris
Above all, he was looking for answers to the question — who are we? The accuracy and sensitivity of his anatomical drawings are truly amazing. He was a pioneer of anatomical study, and of nude drawing and painting. The pages from his notebooks on display in the National Gallery show detailed analysis of the proportions of the arm, the exact make-up of the skull and studies of the nervous system.
Leonardo’s early biographers emphasise that he was a gentle person, who loved animals. If he passed someone selling birds in cages he would often stop and buy one, only to release it.
But in his analysis of the human body there was nothing sentimental whatever. He used the freely available bodies of dead criminals to anatomise the structure of muscles and nerves.
His human models were flayed, literally skinned by him. When he made use of this knowledge in his art, you therefore feel you are in the presence of someone who has stripped humanity down to its essentials.
His immensely powerful unfinished painting of St Jerome, borrowed for this exhibition from the Vatican, shows an etiolated, grief-stricken old man who has laid bare his sins before God. All the muscles across his throat, his collar-bone and chest are taut with anxiety.
But this is no imagined body. It is built up from dozens of studies which we can see around the walls, hanging next to it.
This is one of the marvellous things about this exhibition. You can almost watch Leonardo at work — first in the drawings, then in the half-finished paintings, then in the supernatural gloss of the few masterpieces that he actually finished.
Where did this extraordinary talent come from? Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a peasant girl and a lawyer. Barred from the traditional professions by the circumstances of his birth, he trained as a painter in Florence.
The few records that exist suggest he was a young man of great beauty. However, we know relatively little of his life until he wrote to the Duke of Milan in 1483 offering his services as, of all things, a military engineer.
The letter Leonardo wrote to the Duke of Milan listing his capabilities is the ego-trip of all time — claiming he had a complete mastery of every form of warfare weaponry, and ending, almost as a footnote, with: ‘I can also carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may!’
Yet every claim he made for his breathtaking talent was justified.
During his 16 years at the Milanese court, Leonardo indulged his interests not only in anatomy but in mechanics, hydraulics, architecture, as well as military and civil engineering. On the back of an anatomical drawing by Leonardo will often be found some mysterious cog, or a siege engine or a canal-lock.
He kept very odd company, he was almost certainly gay, and was had up for ‘immoral conduct’ shortly after arriving in Milan. But he was let off, not least because the Dukes of Milan simply could not afford to lose him.
He rebuilt their castle, making it both more beautiful and more impregnable. He designed and built the dome of Milan Cathedral. He was an expert equestrian and made a close study of the anatomy of the horse. He became a master craftsman in bronze.
When the Dukes of Milan went to war he designed canals for supply barges, and later, in the service of the king of France who defeated the Milanese, built and designed harbours for the French navy.
In the 1480s, it was Leonardo who was the first person to make serious studies of how humans might fly, and his drawings, over 100 of them, of what was called the Ornithopter are the basis of modern helicopter design.
Truly he was Renaissance man, perhaps the greatest recognised genius of all time, endowed with the brain of a polymath to explore the whole range of human knowledge.
It was lucky he lived during the Italian Renaissance, that great era in the history of western civilisation when the potential of humankind seemed limitless and the arts and sciences progressed in leaps and bounds shrugging off the dogma and ignorance of medieval Europe.
Had he lived 100 years later, he would almost certainly have fallen foul of the Roman Inquisition set up to defend the Christian faith.
As it was, in his lifetime, he was accused of heresy against the Church, and all the great paintings in this exhibition breathe a sense of the forbidden and the occult. They are profoundly subversive, even to this day.
What did Leonardo subvert in his own day? Among other things, the traditional Christian respect for — and fear of — the body. Leonardo did not believe in ‘immortality’ in the sense of life beyond the grave; he seems to have believed that divinity and spirituality shine through us when we live.
What does he subvert in our day? The boring ‘modern’ idea of materialism: that we are no more than our bodies. For, having literally taken human bodies to bits in order to anatomise them, what we see in this exhibition is Leonardo’s whole vision of humanity.
Never since he died have so many of his paintings been brought together under the same roof. You can see not only the Virgin Of The Rocks, that ethereal and mysterious group of figures in a primeval landscape, but also its Parisian counterpart on loan from the Louvre, an earlier painting which is much less cool, and abounds in detailed, lovingly painted plants and flowers.
The Last Supper, another of da Vinci's most prominent works, with several historians identifying the figure to Jesus' right at Mary Magdalene and not the Apostle John
You can see the absolutely stunning painting of the mistress of Leonardo’s patron in Milan.
On loan from Krakow in Poland, The Lady With An Ermine must be the most beautiful portrait in oils on this planet, a painting which turns you to gooseflesh as you stand in front of it. She is so real — so there! And yet she is also suggestive of so many other things too.
Here is the unfinished painting, normally hanging in the Vatican, of St Jerome in despair at his own sinfulness; every sinew of his body, every vein, every muscle is in tension.
And nearby is the tender Madonna Litta, which belongs to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, in which the Christ Child, suckled at the breast, sneaks a glance at us. His golden, curly hair is something you feel you could ruffle with your fingers, and the face of his mother is a definition of serenity.
How different it is from the Madonna Of The Yarnwinder in which the little Christ Child is wriggling away from his mother, who sits in an almost trance-like state. Behind is a seascape which is both entirely realistic and yet somehow dreamy and surreal.
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter of consummate skill, and it often took years for him to complete these glossy, haunted, rich works of art. As a result, there are very few completed Leonardos that we can be sure are really by him — identification is made all the more difficult because his work was so admired and copied by his pupils and followers.
Yet here, in an amazing exhibition, is a chance to see the greatest collection of his masterpieces ever assembled — 60 drawings and paintings by him, as well as paintings by his school. All are, of course, priceless, although the National Gallery has insured the exhibition for £1.5billion.
Seeing them all together, you see Leonardo’s occult — or secretly pagan — vision of humanity. The Virgins Of The Rocks are no ordinary Virgin Marys from an Italian altar. They are goddesses, symbolic of the heights to which humanity, in its genius, can reach.
The truly awe-inspiring beauty of The Lady With An Ermine is much, much more than a likeness of the Duke of Milan’s favourite mistress.
Stroking the neck of the ermine she holds, she is both an image of feminine sexuality (which I won’t spell out in detail in a family newspaper) and a repetition of the great myth of Leda and the Swan. Leda made love to God (Zeus) in the form of a swan.
So in this multi-layered masterpiece, Leonardo is both suggesting the god-like status of his patron and half unmasking, with cool poise and exquisite finish, the divinity in us all.
This will be the most popular exhibition ever staged at the National Gallery. Already, crowds and crowds of people are queuing for advance tickets. That is fitting, because Leonardo was the first artistic genius to stage what we should call an exhibition — as opposed to merely finishing a commission for a patron.
We are told by Vasari, his early biographer, that when Leonardo had finished the exquisite drawing which now hangs in our National Gallery — sometimes known as the ‘Cartoon’ Of The Virgin And St Anne With Christ — the religious order of friars of Florence wanted him to make it into a painting for an altar.
Instead, Leonardo, rather, hung up this great drawing, and opened his room to the public. For two days, Vasari says, the crowds swarmed in to see it ‘as if it were a festival’.
We are still swarming in, and we are still overwhelmed. For Leonardo reveals to every one of us who sees his drawings and paintings the awe-inspiring mystery of what it is to be human.
The Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition runs from today until February 5, 2012, at the National Gallery.