The Big Review: Leonardo at the Louvre

Installation view of Leonardo at the Louvre © Musée du Louvre/Antoine Mongodin

The celebrations of artists of the past have rarely acquired a political dimension, as has been the case with Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). One may recall that the legacy of this universal genius of the Renaissance was co-opted for a ruinous nationalistic agenda in the last century. From 9 May to 20 October 1939, a gargantuan exhibition on Leonardo in the Palazzo dellArte in Milan, commemorated the 17th anniversary of the fascist regime in Italy, organised on the orders of Benito Mussolini. Fortunately, we are in a different political moment in our understanding of Leonardo. On 2 May 2019, marking the 500th anniversary to the day of his death in Amboise, the presidents of Italy and France, Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron, appeared jointly to lay flowers at Leonardos “modern tomb” in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert within the precinct of the royal castle in Amboise. The geopolitical loan negotiations of paintings and drawings for the Musée du Louvres ambitious exhibition — the culminating event of the Leonardo year of 2019 – have at times had their share of nationalistic drama.

Any serious international-loan exhibition on Leonardo is bound to present Herculean challenges, at the very least because of the variety and complexity of the masters oeuvre, the mountains of literature on him to be digested, and the practical problems of securing what are enormously rare loans if the wish is to represent his most significant work. In bringing together 163 works (drawings, paintings, sculptures, and medals), the Louvres retrospective on Leonardos career is a once in a lifetime event. This is a beautiful, finely researched, and thoughtfully selected exhibition. It succeeds in telling the story of Leonardos artistic vision — primarily as a painter — with a freshness of insight and intellectual coherence that should please both the greater public and the scholar alike. The emphasis is on Leonardos “science de la peinture,” to quote the words of the curators Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank.

As one knows too well, Leonardo mostly defies categorisation

The loans anchor the four paintings by Leonardo from the Louvres permanent collection that are included in the exhibition: the Virgin of the Rocks of 1483-88; the portrait nicknamed La Belle Ferronnière of around 1495; the Saint John the Baptist begun around 1504-06; and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne begun around1507-08. The last is splendidly displayed with the cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne from the National Gallery (London). The loans of securely autograph paintings by Leonardo include the Madonna Benois from the State Hermitage Museum (St Petersburg), the unfinished Saint Jerome (around 1480) from the Vatican Museums, The Musician from the Biblioteca Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Milan), and the Scapigliata from the Galleria Nazionale (Parma). The ratio of the artists extant, securely autograph paintings to sheets with drawings and manuscripts is roughly 15 to 4,100. The great majority of Leonardos works in the Louvre exhibition, therefore, are drawings and manuscripts, with a particularly generous number of loans from the Royal Collection at Windsor. The Louvre itself owns around 30 drawings by Leonardo.

The arrangement of the works in the exhibition communicates a sense of Leonardos powerful artistic personality from beginning to end, and with arresting immediacy. The works are well paced within 13 rooms or compartments in the exhibition galleries, and the curators and the architect of the display have enhanced the aesthetic experience by creating vistas that unify sections from room to room. The paintings and drawings stand out with dramatic elegance on the walls painted in dark gray and lighter gray hues.

Léonard de Vinci, A study of a woman's hands (c.1490) Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Four large themes

The works in the show are grouped around four large, somewhat elastic themes: a mixture of the conceptual and the biographical on the artist, but which do not easily provide an umbrella for the actual works in each display. As one knows too well, Leonardo mostly defies categorisation. The first theme, “Shadow, Light, Relief”, is intended to describe the three major stylistic qualities of late 15th-century Florentine art, which especially characterised the training of Leonardo and other artists in their teacher Andrea del Verrocchios workshop. The exhibition begins majestically with Verrocchios monumental bronze of The Doubting of Thomas, an exceptional loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Florence), sited at the centre of a semi-circular aedicula on whose walls hang the beautiful series of drapery studies on linen; they are mostly by Leonardo, but these attributions have led to much spilled ink in the literature. The curators then elaborate compellingly on the impact of 15th-century painting and sculpture on the young Leonardo, beyond his training and collaborations with Verrocchio, and to this effect they have enriched the displays with works from the Louvres own incomparable holdings of drawings, paintings, and sculptures.

The second theme, “Liberté” (a genial French take on the subject), is meant in a literal and conceptual sense. It covers the projects done by Leonardo at his moment of independence from Verrocchio, and also represents more abstractly the staggering creative freedom evident in Leonardos sketches on paper for early compositions, such as those for the Madonna of the Cat and the Uffizi Adoration of the Magi, as well as in his unfinished Vatican painting of Saint Jerome. For the first time in recent memory, Leonardos early Florentine-period drawings from the Musée Bonnat-Helleu (Bayonne) are seen in an international-loan exhibition outside their home institution, which is undergoing a renovation, and which are normally restricted by the “do not lend” policy imposed by Léon Bonnats bequest. The most famous Bayonne drawing depicts sketches of the hanging of Bernardo Baroncelli (following the Pazzi conspiracy), with notes about his costume.

A superb moment in the exhibition is the long room in which the Louvres Virgin of the Rocks and the Vatican Saint Jerome hang on the end walls, underscoring the short period of time intervening in their conception, and this is supported by the drawings on one of the long walls. On the opposite long wall, the fascinating juxtaposition of Antonello da Messinas Portrait of a Man of around 1475 from the Louvre with Leonardos so-called Belle Ferronnière of around 1495 and the Ambrosiana Musician of around 1486-88, suggests the possibility of Antonellos influence on Leonardos portraiture.

A large room is dedicated to “Science”, the third theme of the exhibition, and brings together Leonardos drawings and manuscripts relating to scientific subjects, including anatomy, geometry, architecture, mechanics and the flying machines, as well as the theory of painting. All of the masters 14 manuscripts from the Bibliothèque de lInstitut de France (Paris) are displayed for the first time since 2003. The room also includes the Codex on the Flight of Birds from the Biblioteca Reale (Turin), two sheets of the Codex Leicester from the Collection of Bill and Melinda Gates, and the famous Vitruvian Man from the Gallerie dellAccademia (Venice).

Léonard de Vinci, Étoile de Bethléem, Anémone des bois, Euphorbe Petite Éclaire Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The fourth theme of the exhibition, “Life” (Vie), again understood abstractly alludes to what elevated Leonardos approach to painting as a “divine science” in his maturity, based on his study of nature and science. It encompasses the works produced during the period of the masters return to Florence around 1500, his three years in Rome, and final years in France. While the heavily conceptual quality of the four themes shaping the exhibition is probably confusing for the visitor who is actually walking through the exhibition (as there is not enough description on the text panels), the narrative threads of these themes, and related sub-themes, are more elegantly unified in the accompanying catalogue (albeit only in French).

Infrared images give a vivid sense of creative work in progress

An energetic campaign of scientific investigation of Leonardos paintings accompanied the planning of the Louvre exhibition, and an innovative and informative aspect of the show is the curators courageous decision to integrate the scientific imaging in infrared reflectography (IRR) of Leonardos paintings, which reveal the underdrawings and other early layers of design below the paint surface. The IRR images are presented backlit on glass screens on the walls, and are interspersed unobtrusively throughout the exhibition. These scientific images serve to remind the viewer of Leonardos paintings not present in the show, while at the same time communicating a vivid sense of Leonardos creative work in progress and his evolving thought over the long periods of time that he spent on his paintings. The image in IRR of the Mona Lisa (not in the show), a painting begun around 1503, can be compared to Leonardos damaged Portrait of Isabella dEste cartoon, of two or so years earlier, which is an experimental drawing. The body scales of the female sitters are not only similar, but also the problems evident in Isabellas pose, especially with her crudely foreshortened right arm and hRead More – Source