Falling In Love with Leonardo
Well! Yesterday was a pivotal moment. Two things were revealed. I appear, despite evidence to the contrary, to have a heart/soul/emotional pulse AND can appreciate art in some form. Neither things were particularly noticeable about me before.
I visited the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition at the National Gallery. I’m not particularly interested in art – old, predominantly portrait or religiously-based oil paintings and much of modern contemporary art leaves me completely cold. Complex structures fashioned from bog-moss and pre-sucked Polos hold little appeal for me, and why on earth would I want to look at some medieval popsy in full drag that I’ve never heard of?
But da Vinci intrigues me. I have never been able to decide if he was an artist, a physician, inventor or a scientist. So I was curious to go along and see this exhibition from a period when he was an “official” court painter in the hope of making up my mind.
The exhibition is simply amazing. AMAZING!
Consider this man, over 600 years ago, imagining the inside of the human brain and putting his ideas down on paper.
Imagine a man who studied and sketched, in intricate detail, literally hundreds of models to fashion his vision of the perfect divine hand of Christ. Envision a man who could take a human skull and, from that, shape and craft a human face hundreds of years before any facial reconstruction techniques. A man who continued to explore his theories of what lay inside that skull and other body structures – bone placement, muscle and arterial networks – incredibly accurate, as it turns out, and all in the days before X-rays were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
Walking into the salon where the unfinished study of Saint Jerome faces you as you enter, I was instantly moved by this painting.
This little picture cannot do it justice. You have to see it in the flesh. Even incomplete, there is such beauty in this picture despite depicting religious suffering. The straining muscles, the eyes raised to Heaven. The sheer thought that he was about to pound his own chest with a rock in penitance. Unexpected and astounding. I wanted to hold him in his moment of pain.
The study of Ludovico Sforza’s wife (above) with her expression of almost scowling distaste and imperiousness was actually quite creepy, in a way. As I walked towards her position on the wall, she became very real and almost 3D – advancing towards me from the canvas. I expected her at any moment to speak to me angrily with a flash of her incredible olive eyes. Da Vinci believed the human eyes to be the windows to our souls. So compelling is their hypnotic power in the faces of angels; cherubs and saints that I defy anyone not to see them and be thrilled.
The final embarrassment for me came in the presence of the two The Virgin of the Rocks paintings. Created some years apart, they face each other on opposing walls in the National Gallery for the first time in 500 years, the “younger” one more usually on permanent exhibition at the Louvre. I have no words to describe the unbelievable skill and attention to detail present in both paintings – completely mind-blowing. But it was the older painting that finally sent me over the emotional edge. The Virgin’s face, so perfectly angelic and peaceful; the infant St John the Baptist so beautiful and yes – holy – there’s no other word for it. All too much for my out-of-practice heart. Tears rolled down my face and I can honestly say no work of art has ever affected me like that before. I couldn’t be any less interested in religion yet seeing this painting made me, for a moment, believe it all. I was not alone, thank goodness. Two young Italian girls stood nearby and we all self-consciously shook with silent sobs and wet faces. Such is the power of this painting, the room itself, though packed with visitors, was virtually silent save for the sniffles of those who had forgotten to pack tissues. Awe-inspiring. It was at that moment I officially fell in love forever more with Leonardo.
The final part of the exhibition is the vast work of The Last Supper. Badly damaged from years as a church fresco, it is still impossibly sad: Judas with his purse of filthy blood money; St Peter and his thrusting broodiness; the beatific, sad and eerily calming (to me) Christ. Absolutely incredible.
If you do nothing else this year, go and see this exhibition. Some of these paintings and drawings are so fragile they will never be displayed again after this. You might not be as uncharacteristically mushy about it all as I was/am, but you cannot fail to be impressed by this man and his craft, by the pure love and devotion pored into every sketch and paint stroke, by his ability to inspire his students and followers whose works are also displayed. Pre-book tickets on the National Gallery website first though – yesterday’s “on-the-door” queue was around a two and a half hour wait!
So Leonardo? A Painter? Scientist? Anatomist? What did I decide?
Simple. He is all of the above. A true genius. Go and meet him.
Photos all courtesy of Google images