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Curatorial assistant Francesca Sidhu studies a painting by Leonardo da Vinci entitled 'Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani', (The Lady with an Ermine) at the National Gallery on November 7, 2011 in London. (Dan Kitwood/Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)
Curatorial assistant Francesca Sidhu studies a painting by Leonardo da Vinci entitled 'Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani', (The Lady with an Ermine) at the National Gallery on November 7, 2011 in London. (Dan Kitwood/Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Visual arts

Leonardo, painting's revolutionary Add to ...

There’s an alarm going off at London’s National Gallery at the worst possible time. Nicholas Penny, the gallery director, stands in front of the greatest collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings ever gathered in one place, looking green around the gills. He mutters, “Millions and millions and millions of pounds of loaned pictures. …”

Then the alarm goes quiet – probably just someone trapped in an elevator – and he sighs with relief. The gallery is already trying to save Leonardo from pop culture; to actually have to save the paintings would be beyond imagining.

The title of the exhibit says it all: Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan. Not Leonardo, Mad Genius from Assassin’s Creed, or Leonardo, Father of All Conspiracy Theories from That Book That Sold a Billion Copies. There are no trebuchets or medieval helicopters in this show, just nine sublime canvases and more than 50 drawings, a testament to the man who revolutionized painting in the 15th century.

If there’s one message from the curators, it’s this: Look closely. (Which may be tricky, given that this is likely to be the most popular show in the National Gallery’s history and will be more crowded than Harrods on Christmas Eve.) “If you can, really stick your nose in there,” says the show’s curator Luke Syson, whose contagious enthusiasm for all things Leonardo has not been dampened by five years spent wheedling masterpieces from international galleries, institutions, and the collections of the Queen.

Look closely, and suddenly the familiar picture postcards dissolve and the miraculous details appear: the impossibly feathered wings of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks; one pupil, slightly more dilated than the other, in Portrait of a Young Man, reflecting not only the light but Leonardo’s obsession with its properties; and otherworldly smile on Lady with an Ermine, which is at least as enigmatic and fetching as Mona Lisa’s. (No, the world’s most famous painting is not here; the Louvre’s generosity stretches only so far, and they did lend their fragile Virgin of the Rocks, which is the equivalent of leaving your newborn with a babysitter.)

“I’m a bit in love with her,” sighs Syson, standing in front of Lady with an Ermine, from 1489. She is in fact Cecilia Gallerani, the teenaged mistress of Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza, and this extraordinary picture changed portrait painting forever. Not only is there movement in Cecilia’s body, as she gazes over her shoulder while stroking an ermine (a symbol of purity), but there is what Syson calls “movement of mind.” The sitter clearly has something going on upstairs: plans, ambitions, dreams.

Across the room is an equally astonishing picture: La Belle Ferronnière, a Renaissance beauty who gazes with something like reproach out of the frame. Everybody who looks at the picture sees something else, Syson says: Is she staring at us with contempt? Shyness? Worry? Or perhaps it’s jealousy; scholars think this may be a picture of Ludovico’s other mistress, Lucrezia Crivelli, or possibly his much-put-upon wife.

Either way, the portraits illustrate the claims for Leonardo as the most psychologically astute Renaissance painter, as well as his belief in his art’s metaphysical properties. “He had greater ambitions for the art of painting than anyone else in the modern age,” says Syson “He thought painting could represent everything that was visible and invisible in the universe. Not just what we can see but what we think must exist – the soul, the whole of God’s creation.”

Not least among the treasures, spread through five rooms, are the beautiful preparatory sketches and anatomical drawings – a flayed throat, vertebrae, an attempt at the nervous system. It’s unlikely that there will be a collection of Leonardo’s artwork to rival this in the near future; it’s a feat of diplomacy and chutzpah to borrow these priceless centrepieces of collections from Krakow and Milan and Paris even once. The two versions of Virgin of the Rocks, one belonging to the National Gallery, were painted decades apart and have never been seen together before. A 40-minute lineup to buy tickets to the exhibition indicates that people understand what a rare opportunity is here (the gallery is holding back 500 hundred tickets to be sold each morning, since the show is likely to be sold out on many days).

A notorious perfectionist and repainter, Leonardo left only 15 finished canvases. Nine paintings are in this show, including the work-in-progress Saint Jerome, on loan from the Vatican, whose tortured martyr and barely sketched lion give a fascinating glimpse into the master in mid-thought.

Of course, art scholars and dealers have spent the past six centuries playing “Is it a Leonardo?” – and the latest winner in this game is the Salvator Mundi, a painting of Christ holding a crystal globe, which was only authenticated (such as it ever can be) earlier this year. Lost in the mists of history and once sold for less than $100, it now hangs in the exhibit, so badly cleaned over the years that Christ’s eyes seem to glow horror-movie pink, but the beautifully painted hands and shimmering echo of the crystal indicate to experts that it was, indeed, Leonardo who held the brush.

Anyone expecting siege engines or pop-up books will be disappointed. The Leonardo of popular imagination, who stars in video games and who made an appearance in the medieval romcom Ever After, dispensing love advice to Drew Barrymore’s wench, is nowhere in sight. This is the artist at his purest, covering the years he spent in Milan as court painter to Ludovico Sforza, Il Moro (“the Moor”), the ruthless despot whose martial ambitions were rivalled only by his desire to be a great arts patron. Leonardo, the visionary, illegitimate son of a notary, would be his tool; at least, they would use each other profitably and to the benefit of history.

The artist arrived in Milan in 1482, when he was 30, and developed his all-consuming theories about seeing and painting, about the way vision intersects with the natural world. Among the real discoveries of the show is a sketch that Leonardo did circa 1490, one of dozens of drawings from the collection of the Queen, some of which have never been on public display. It shows a cross-section of a human head, attempting to map how the optic nerve works. The subject’s downturned mouth is at odds with his powerful eye, as if he hasn’t yet realized what Leonardo knows, and is about to show everyone: The great joy in life is seeing.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is at the National Gallery in London until Feb. 5, 2012 (www.nationgallery.org.uk ).

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