Published  12/12/2011

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan

National Gallery, London
9 November 2011–5 February 2012 by ANGERIA RIGAMONTI di CUTÒ

According to the famously unreliable Giorgio Vasari, when Leonardo’s drawing of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist was displayed in a Florentine friary, crowds of men and women gathered to see the image. The awe it inspired in these contemporary spectators transformed a viewing of Leonardo’s work into something of a religious festival. The current display of a considerable number of Leonardo’s few existing paintings at the National Gallery confirms that Leonardo and his attendant myth still have the power to draw febrile masses. It would seem that the cult of the Vasarian artist hero is untouched by 20th-century ideas of the death of the author and the sagas of postmodernism which, with interesting timing, are being concurrently celebrated in another London museum.

An introductory wall panel states the intent that the work of Leonardo’s followers is included to “explore issues of attribution”. This is a recognition that the exhibition encourages a process of authentication, of confirming or casting doubt on attributions, many of which are controversial in Leonardo’s oeuvre. These uncertainties are more directly acknowledged in the catalogue’s introduction which suggests that one of the aims of the exhibition is to understand how much paintings that “bear” Leonardo’s name owe to him and how much to his associates, although it hardly needs saying that paintings do not bear names but are given them.

This frankly connoisseurial approach informs the arrangement of the exhibition with each room displaying no more than two Leonardo paintings accompanied by his related drawings and works by collaborators. This is a sober, rational invitation to compare and contrast, to make informed connections in an assessment of the work Leonardo produced in Milan when he was in the employ of Ludovico Sforza, although not all the works here were commissioned by Ludovico.

Yet the immediate impact of the works signal that the exhibition will offer much more than a soberly didactic experience. The very first image, a drawing showing the connection of the eye to the brain is a marker of Leonardo’s belief in the absolute centrality of vision in the workings of the human mind but also in the recording of the observable world. However, as the catalogue suggests, it also hints at the limitations of optical vision and it is as well to keep this contradiction in mind throughout the exhibition.

The portrait of The Musician introduces the singularly communicative presence that distinguishes Leonardo’s art. While the torso is flat and oddly incorporeal  – probably because it was far from completed – the young man’s face is quietly, luminously compelling. Leonardo is said to have responded to the portraits of Antonello da Messina who had been considered for the position of court painter in Milan in the mid-1470s. While Antonello’s male portraits are even more astonishing in their psychological penetration and responsive physical presence – his sitters’ incipient smirks precursors to the smile of the Mona Lisa – The Musician is still a captivating image, although considerably diminished in reproduction. Leonardo had yet to carry out his skull and advanced anatomical studies but the study of the fall of light here is meticulous, the facial contouring finely wrought, the moist, spherical eyes engagingly melancholic and the dirt in the nacreous fingernails strangely affecting.

Close by hangs Boltraffio’s Portrait of a Young Man with its lunar, enamelled allure. Although one of better examples of the work of Leonardo’s Milanese followers, its deficiencies suggest how the defining characteristics of Leonardo’s painting could easily degrade if not controlled with absolute mastery and acumen. Of his younger Italian contemporaries, arguably only Giorgione could rival Leonardo in haunting ineffability.

Room display is essential in illuminating – in every sense – these smaller images in particular. Walls are near-black with subdued and accurately placed ceiling lights enabling Leonardo’s mesmeric faces to gain even greater rilievo. The effect, moreover, corresponds perfectly to his very specific, even formulaic ideas regarding every aspect of painting including the conditions in which it was produced. Leonardo believed there was “grace in the shadows of dark rooms” and that “when light falls in front of faces placed between dark walls, the faces acquire great relief, especially when the light is above the face”, proposing that painting be done in a courtyard with precise measurements, black-stained walls and muted lighting.1

This penumbra also works to great effect in the second room where we are confronted with Leonardo’s two female portraits – which also confront each other, one image animated, experienced and understood in comparison with the other. The portrait of Cecilia Gallerani is being promoted as a rival to the vastly more celebrated Mona Lisa, perhaps because the latter is absent in this exhibition. Housed until recently in the Czartoryski museum in Cracow, the “Lady with an Ermine” has been referred to as the first “modern” portrait, its modernity, or innovation, arguably lying in the current that animates the entire composition, so that the moti mentali are now expressed not only through Cecilia’s spirited, inquisitive face but also in her elegantly lissom, turning body. Distinguished not only for its supremely controlled, serpentine contrapposto which articulates Cecilia and the ermine’s forms, this portrait’s relative naturalism and tonal restraint would also have well suited Ludovico’s specific cultural aspirations.

The catalogue’s principal essay examines the rhetoric of the Milanese court and how Leonardo’s work could enhance Ludovico’s status while subtly communicating specific messages. It is a reminder of the importance when looking at Renaissance art of considering how cultural and religious motivations drove very particular artistic choices. Luke Syson gives a lucid account of Ludovico’s desire to mitigate the relative uncouthness of Lombard society by adopting the refinements of Florentine culture at the Milanese court. The engagement of a Florentine painter with naturalistic tendencies as advocated by Alberti perfectly satisfied this ambition. For Leonardo, a shift towards a more rarefied, elite art that would make Milan a creditable rival of the more sophisticated courts of Mantua, Ferrara and Naples consisted in avoiding the lavish colours and gilding preferred by what he called “the ignorant masses” in favour of muted tones and a love of chiaroscuro, essential for creating relief on a flat surface.

Cecilia’s portrait perfectly illustrates an early implementation of these social and artistic objectives, the beginning of “good taste” as synonymous with subdued, pared down elegance, yet there is a charge in the picture that conveys more than just the promotion of cultural ideals. It does not seem credible that Cecilia’s oversized, nervous hand could be anything but a conscious choice by such a technically accomplished artist as Leonardo and for all the conventional emblematic purity of the ermine, her flexed fingers and tendons seem palpably licentious (it is also interesting to note that in the preparatory drawings, the girl’s face and torso are distinctly more voluptuous). The catalogue plays down any erotic undercurrent, emphasizing the importance of presenting Cecilia’s purity. However, Walter Pater’s idea that Leonardo’s “saints and virgins” were “a mere pretext for work which carries one beyond its conventional associations” feels more convincing in the presence of this image. “No one ever ruled over the mere subject more entirely than Leonardo, or bent it more dexterously to purely artistic ends.”2

La Belle Ferronnière, now identified as Ludovico’s wife Beatrice rather than his mistress, initially feels like a disappointing step away from the quick naturalism – however contrived – of Cecilia, although her poise lingers. Perhaps the change in attribution can account for the more stately, slightly lugubrious tone of the portrait. The catalogue suggests that the sitter’s features are now highly idealized in a kind of synthetic naturalism but even considering the forceful tautness of Beatrice’s gaze and the supremely accomplished, if perhaps somewhat overly intellectualized technique consumed with the portrayal of geometric volumes, there is not the lively, animal exquisiteness of Cecilia Gallerani (Kenneth Clark remarked on La Belle Ferronnière’s “commonplace pose” and “uninteresting relationship of head and shoulders”3).

Before leaving the portraits it is worth remembering some absences to appreciate Leonardo’s range, of which more later. If all three portraits in this exhibition show the sitter isolated against a dark (if originally not actually black) background, the missing Mona Lisa and the gelid Ginevra de’ Benci are set against complex landscapes and look at the spectator, while the drawings of Beatrice d’Este and Bianca Sforza show that Leonardo still adopted the profile format for portraiture, even after his stint in Milan.

The unfinished picture of St Jerome is one of Leonardo’s most startling picture whose impact is all the more powerful for being presented after the gracefully restrained courtly portraits. While depictions of St Jerome as a scholar were more common (a supreme example being Antonello’s serenely measured intellectual in the National Gallery), portrayals of St Jerome as a hermit in the wilderness were not unusual in Northern Italy. There are, however, iconographical novelties, introduced to allow greater scope for Leonardo’s growing knowledge of anatomy. St Jerome is beardless and his arm stretched out, allowing an extensive view of his tortuously strained face, neck and shoulders, although anatomical understanding serves the dramatic thrust of the image rather than being an end in itself . The unfinished state makes this almost a hybrid image closer to the taut vigour of Leonardo’s drawings which is often diluted in the highly polished paintings (Bernard Berenson thought that completion of Leonardo’s other great unfinished work, the Adoration of the Magi, would have “ruined” it).

The contrast between St Jerome and the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in the next room could hardly be more striking. The invitation to compare images is nowhere more manifest than in the hanging of the two versions of this work in the same room, albeit not side by side but on opposite walls, impeding a simultaneous viewing. This juxtaposition is the ultimate museum artifice but it is clearly a very seductive one. Obvious differences in the London version are well known: the angel’s pointing hand is absent, its eyes indeterminately averted and St John, like Christ now less childlike, has gained a cross. Rather than casting a relatively uniform glow throughout the picture, light is now clearly defined to dramatic effect.

Even allowing for the yellowed varnish on the Louvre picture, it is the London version that is the more distinctive image. The meticulous surface detail, twilit tones and delicacy of the Louvre version still belong to the Florentine quattrocento while the London version is a heralding of features associated with the High Renaissance with its more sculptural proportions, its greater rilievo and lesser emphasis on colour in favour of dramatic chiaroscuro. This is a depersonalised, if beguilingly lunar, supernatural scene, an ingenious invention of an iconography for the newly established doctrine of the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception. Crucially, the London image is a distillation of a visual world that is distinctive to Leonardo.

While it is an image easy to admire for its unity and inventiveness of composition –the control of the Madonna’s body and hand poised innovatively close to the edge of the picture plane being particularly arresting – the protagonists are arguably too (deliberately) distant and unparticularised to be truly affecting. This is perhaps more generally an effect of viewing devotional images with a secular eye. The interest here lies in the novelty of formal invention rather than what Alberti called the “divine power” of painting to bring back the dead after several centuries. The natural world too is mesmerising, the architectonic rocks – reminiscent of Mantegna’s sculptural masses – and opalescent shaft of light illuminating the cerulean water and rocks in the spectral background.

As with the London Virgin of the Rocks the authorship of the Madonna Litta has also been contested and is given to Boltraffio by one of the catalogue contributors.4 It seems impossible to see its luridly cloying finish and frozen figures as the product of the subtle hand and mind of Leonardo. A preparatory drawing of a head of a woman is, conversely, a flawlessly nuanced study and connecting both images directly to Leonardo seems impossible. Pater spoke of Ludovico’s “religious sentimentalism”;5 could this account for the unctuousness of the image whose overall design was perhaps conceived by Leonardo but executed by his followers in a workshop where images were frequently circulated and recycled?

Although displayed in the final room, it is worth thinking now about the space dedicated to The Last Supper since this is the last work on display made for Ludovico. It is in a sense a pity to end the experience of the exhibition with Giampietrino’s copy of the absent mural. While undoubtedly useful in the details it provides considering the deterioration and inevitable absence of the original, it is a lifeless thing with none of the intelligent, intellectualizing mystery of the original (and perhaps Leonardo’s particular brilliance lies in the ability to merge these seemingly incongruous qualities). It is well known that Leonardo revolutionised the treatment of this theme, not only seating Judas among the other apostles rather than facing them,6 but also giving dynamically heightened gestures to the figures who now interact with one another.

Displayed in the same room as Giampietrino’s mural, which is placed, like the original, surprisingly high up on the wall, are a series of drawings, a reminder that Leonardo’s drawings can be more viscerally thrilling than the paintings and the most immediate manifestation of his creativity (it is, however, jarring to see the proprietorial stamps identifying the collections on the front of the drawings). The pen and ink studies of male figuresand compositional sketchesare extraordinarily dynamic and economical examples of Leonardo’s graphic thought processes. The profile studies of old men and the hollow-eyed sketch of a youth (who becomes St James the Greater in the mural) are also spellbinding while the character study now known as A man tricked by gypsies is a reminder of Leonardo’s fascination with the ugly, the grotesque and the marginal. The disparity between such drawings and works like the Madonna Litta and the Madonna of the Yarnwinder is disquieting - Berenson would underline the contrast between Leonardo’s “spontaneous genius as manifested in the drawings, and the quality of most of his highly elaborated paintings”.7 However much the curators would have us consider Leonardo as painter, it is impossible not to think of him at least as much as a draughtsman. It is also important to remember that part of Leonardo’s artistic duties in Milan and elsewhere consisted in designing material for ephemeral entertainments. This hybrid area of production included designs for theatre sets with ingenious moving structures, costumes, wigs, make up, masks of monsters and humanoid and animal automata.

The final room of the principal floor displays work probably carried out for the French king Louis XII after the demise of Ludovico’s rule, so we are no longer at the court of Milan. Tantalisingly visible from the room with the Virgin of the Rocks, the newly re-emerged Salvator Mundi is a supreme instance of controlled sfumato which has none of the glibness seen in other works of uncertain authorship. It may also have a specific raison d’être. According to the curators the concealed brushwork and deliberately archaic, flattened face are demonstrations of Leonardo’s knowledge of acheiropoetos, holy icons not made by human hands but automatic, unmediated likenesses such as the image of Christ on the veil of St Veronica or the Mandylion of Edessa, the image of Christ made by the pressing of his face on to a piece of cloth.

It is not clear if persuasive evidence exists that Leonardo was striving to recreate such effects and the smoothness of finish, compressed volume and slightly glaucous eyes have elicited scepticism and even revulsion in some viewers. However, the presence of the image is startlingly auratic and its shift away from realism hypnotic and fit for purpose rather than regressive, suggesting that Leonardo could choose from an array of artistic values according to his and his patrons’ intents. This is not to mention the virtuosity of the orb of rock crystal with its mineral inclusions, clinically rendered bubbles and the painstakingly observed magnification of Christ’s palm – Leonardo was said to have “brooded over the hidden virtues of crystals”.8 

The Burlington House “Cartoon”, Leonardo’s only surviving large-scale drawing, is as magnetic as Vasari claimed it was to contemporary viewers. While its usual solitary location in a dark, shrine-like room in the Sainsbury Wing is more effective, this is one of Leonardo’s most extraordinary images and one that marks a shift in tendencies. There is a new monumentality, a classicizing sculptural relief – it is hard not to think of Michelangelo – yet these are living figures engaged in a circuit of mystic communication. The shadow-eyed figure of St Anne is particularly alluring and suggestive of a new cast of face for Leonardo, the mannered, ambiguous type that would re-appear in works outside the scope of this exhibition. That Leonardo could fashion such graduated sfumato in a drawing is a testament to his quasi-divine powers of draughtsmanship. There is also a dynamic cohesion of elements that is almost proto-baroque, with all parts subordinated to a unifying impulse. An exceptional footnote to this composition is the preparatory sketch, a nearly indecipherable cluster of pen and ink markings so dense it feels explosive, in remarkable contrast to the measured, minute delicacy of other drawings.

The face of St Anne hints at things to come in Leonardo’s strange, chaotic career, things that are, however, absent in this exhibition. The high number of Leonardo’s few extant paintings displayed together for the first time has contributed to a sense that this is an overarching retrospective of his artistic career, yet the lack of images relating to his work after 1500 amounts to the omission of some of his most charismatic art.

On leaving Milan Leonardo would go on to work for a range of new and interesting patrons including Giuliano de’ Medici and Cesare Borgia, producing among others Mona Lisa and her erotic counterpart Monna Vanna, the Leda projects, the Battle of Anghiari,the iconographically innovative depictions of St John, Bacchus, the Angel of Annunciation (and its hermaphrodite, ithyphallic twin, the Angel in the Flesh), and the Louvre Virgin and Child with St Anne which yielded Freud’s intriguing if maligned psychoanalytical study of Leonardo .

Such images belie the suggestion that Leonardo was ill-suited to freelance work – Pater described Leonardo’s “tormented” years after leaving Milan as “one prolonged rapture or ecstasy of invention” which produced “his most authentic works”.9 Many of these later compositions show some of the defining characteristics usually associated with Leonardo’s art, the knowing, inscrutable expressions and disquieting androgyny. Syson’s essay proposes that Leonardo has been over-secularized and promotes an orthodox, pious Leonardo, arguing that over half his paintings depict Christian stories,10 something that Pater among others would have argued is hardly the point. The later work in particular has elicited an abundance of criticism that on the contrary identifies a pagan Leonardo and this not only in the sometimes histrionic fin-de-siècle literature: André Derain said that Leonardo, “far from being divine has a taste for corruption”11 while, more recently, the solitary St John the Baptist has been called an “angel of evil”.12 It may be possible to construct a devout Leonardo from the images in this exhibition but it would be distinctly problematic when looking at the post-1500 work. In any case to grasp let alone define Leonardo’s thought, drives and values seems ineffable.

Considering the absent works, it is advisable to keep in mind the exhibition title which circumscribes a particular time and place for consideration. The direct physical presence of some of these works is still thrilling, a paradigmatic instance of the aura that Walter Benjamin saw as threatened by reproductive media. That this aura is ultimately rendered through technique, through the observation and control of light and volume, but with the addition of something that perhaps lies beyond purely optical vision – as the first drawing suggests – makes it no less affecting or rare.


1. Cited in John Pope-Hennessy, The Portrait in the Renaissance, (London: Phaidon; New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1966) pp 101-4.

2. Walter Pater, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, 1867, in Claire Farago, Leonardo and early art criticism, (New York, London: Garland, 1999) p119.

3. Kenneth Clark; Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci, New rev. ed. (London: Folio Society, 2005) p 105

4. Antonio Mazzotta in Luke Syson, Larry Keith, Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan, (London: National Gallery Company, 2011) p 236.

5. Walter Pater, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, 1867, in Claire Farago, Leonardo and early art criticism, (New York, London: Garland, 1999) p 109.

6. There was, however, some precedent for seating Judas with the other apostles in Lombard if not Florentine tradition (Daniel Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, Konecky & Konecky, 1998) p 363.

7. Cited in Ernest Samuels, Jayne Samuels, Bernard Berenson: the making of a legend, 1987, p 216.

8. Walter Pater, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, 1867, in Claire Farago, Leonardo and early art criticism, New York, London: Garland, 1999, p 103.

9. Ibid, p 122.

10. Luke Syson, ‘The Rewards of Service: Leonardo da Vinci and the Duke of Milan, in Luke Syson, Larry Keith, Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan, London: National Gallery Company, 2011, p 36.

11. André Derain, ‘On Raphael’, in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory1900-2000, Oxford, Malden MA, Blackwell Publishing, p 245.

12. Pietro Marani, cited in Daniel Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, Konecky & Konecky, 1998, p 462.

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