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Leonardo da Vinci: a curious humanist

The National’s blockbuster show of the Renaissance master’s paintings is a great tribute to human genius and creativity.

Angus Kennedy

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Described as the ‘most eagerly awaited London exhibition in living memory’, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at the National Gallery covers the Renaissance master’s 18 formative years in Milan from 1482 to 1500, and his patronage by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza.

The BBC suggested that this might just be ‘the greatest art exhibition ever’ and, indeed, curator Luke Syson has put together a show deserving the hyperbole. More than half of Leonardo’s surviving 15 paintings are here. This is by no means a standard ‘blockbuster exhibition’. Nor was Leonardo a run-of-the-mill painter, or a run-of-the-mill human being for that matter.

So it is a shame that long before the doors opened on 9 November there were those who questioned the wisdom of letting the masses into the National Gallery. There was talk of the risk of causing damage to the paintings and the high cost of the exhibition at a time of austerity measures. And, above all, there has been constant grumbling about the inevitable overcrowding anyone wanting to see the exhibition would have to endure.

In fact, the Leonardo blockbuster is exactly the kind of Christmas present we need at these miserabilist times. Far from even flirting with the idea of staying home, anyone with even a smidgen of what critic Walter Pater called Leonardo’s ‘curiosity and…desire of beauty’ should have been fighting to get a ticket. Even if it means being packed nose to toe with one’s fellow man, it is worth it.

The immediate spur for the exhibition was the National’s restoration of The Virgin of the Rocks and the gallery’s desire to display it with the earlier version, which is held by the Louvre in Paris. Luke Syson was then able to pull in favours from around the world to bring together some of Leonardo’s most important paintings, along with a fine supporting collection of drawings and studies that illuminate a crucial period in Leonardo’s development as a painter.

Leonardo was first and foremost a painter, and maybe it’s not an overstatement to say he is the painter who gave us painting as we know it. It’s good to be reminded that he did more than paint the Mona Lisa and make all those sketches of tanks, drilling machines and helicopters, that he was about more than all that fascination with mathematics and hydraulics. And even more important is the challenge that the exhibition poses to the comfortable, backwards reading of history that sees Leonardo as a forerunner of the modern age, of naturalist realism, even as an early secularist.

These two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, displayed together for the first time at the National’s show, certainly bear this out. The finer, earlier unrestored version belonging to the Louvre is pure Leonardo: a human scene centred in a nature rich and heavy with the materiality of life. Water and rocks loom behind and above, earth and flowers below. The human tableau is both natural and very human. It’s almost like a family picnic, but with a very special sort of family: the Holy Family, itself both natural and not, in and out of nature.

The hands, as so often with Leonardo’s subjects, demand our attention: John’s are clasped in devotion; the Christ child signals his destiny while his left hand grips the ledge to stop himself falling down to the rocks below; the Saint points with one hand and supports Him with the other; His mother’s hands hover, calming and attempting to ward off His inevitable fate. It is static motion. Nature made idea. Life immortalised.

The National’s restored version at first sight appears shockingly clean, the water seems too blue. Yet on reflection these are not the key differences between the two paintings. The later version speaks the language of the High Renaissance: the figures are more monumental, the landscape idealised, religion more overt as seen in the addition of a cross and halos and an angel replacing the saint. In its entirety, the painting is more static and less imbued with the spirit of the early work that kept the human and the divine more in balance.

That balance is more present in The Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Again, this is a late piece in the high style with all of Leonardo’s characteristic touches: the combined symbolism of a woman and her baby; water and rocks; the subdued blue palette. But there is something else. The Christ child has grabbed his mother’s yarnwinder and gazes upon its cross shape. This is childish play of course and the mother wants it back, but at the same time the Christ child yearns for a death which is life, gripping on to the symbol of the Passion. As Leonardo’s contemporary Fra Pietro put it, it is ‘as if he longed for this cross, he laughs and holds it fast, not willing to yield it to his mother, who seems to want to take it away from him’. As indeed she might but cannot. Her right hand shows alarm, her left tries to draw her baby back to her. Her face is calm, her love clear, but the left side of her mouth is pulled back in what can only be called disgust.

For Leonardo death is always present, that underlying melancholy, yet it is intertwined with life, with water, babies, women, and the promise, the pursuit, of immortality.

The idealised beauty and harmonious composition of The Lady with an Ermine, a portrait of Ludovico Sforza’s young mistress, is an expression of Leonardo’s view that painting could be a form of communication without words, soul to soul through an abstract form of perfect beauty. Painting should aspire to be nature perfected. Note how her right hand, slightly clawed and elevated, complements that of the ermine’s left paw resting on her sleeve. She does not meet our gaze but neither is she refusing it: she is just looking at something we can’t ever see. Frozen in movement as she turns, a smile is forming in her eyes and lips, colour building in her cheeks.

Such a portrait affords us something much more than a straightforwardly realistic representation would. In fact Leonardo is not best described as a naturalist. He depicts humanity in the world, in nature, yet does not do so naturally, but in a highly idealised, artificial and, let’s say it, supernatural way. Walter Pater described it well as ‘faces of a modelling more skilful than has been seen before or since, embodied with a reality which almost amounts to illusion on dark air’.

It is no surprise, then, that Leonardo and his work remain so enigmatic and magical to us. Reflecting the insights of Italian humanism, Leonardo shows us that, as humans, we are natural, in the world, flesh, bone and muscle, but that we are – as Marx would put it – human natural beings. We are aware of our mortality. Our humanity elevates us above nature and we, as humans, can elevate ourselves to the level of the divine. In this realisation of a theory of painting Leonardo established an artistic tradition that started at an almost unassailable height. In his own words ‘The divinity which is the science of painting transmutes the painter’s mind into a resemblance of the divine mind’.

Leonardo would have been aware of the intellectual form of this argument from his contemporaries Ficino, translator of Plato and founder of the Florentine Academy, and Pico della Mirandola, another polymath who situated man, in the manner of Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian man, at the centre of the universe and as balanced between the animal and the divine with the ability, the free will, to ascend to the angels or descend to the beasts. The genius of Leonardo was to take this conception of the centrality of man and to represent it in art, whereas before it had been limited to sculpture and literature.

Leonardo’s paintings strive to express the insights into being human so characteristic of the all too brief moment of the Renaissance. His time in Milan was near the end of that flowering of humanism. The French invaded in 1499. The Reformation was not far off. The Holy Roman Empire was to sack Rome in 1527. There had already been an aristocratic retreat from the cities to countryside villas. The ideas of the Renaissance were, of course, to spread through northern Europe but in the quite different context of the strong, unified nations and powerful monarchs of France and England: in the absence, that is, of independent city states and their equally independent citizenry.

The Renaissance as a whole is a special moment in history, not entirely explicable in terms of a necessary and causal chain of development from the ancient to the modern. The temporary weakness of the authority of both Church and Empire created a space into and through which human freedom could, albeit briefly, assert itself.

As such, it represents a rupture in history, a letting of light back into the world as if someone had drawn back a curtain for a moment. It is almost as if there is a break in the chain of causality and we see a glimpse of the essential immortality of the human spirit. It is in that sense that Leonardo speaks to us out of time rather than from the past: from one of those privileged moments in which freedom tips the scales against necessity.

One painting in the National Gallery exhibition maybe sums up all of these ideas more than any other – and it may not even be by Leonardo. The Christ as Salvator Mundi has only recently been attributed as autograph and not everyone is convinced, though there are strong arguments in its favour. The hands are pure Leonardo, always longer than normal; there is a major pentiment in Christ’s thumb, typical of Leonardo’s many changes of mind; the whole has been overpainted and over-cleaned but the way the face is built up of layer upon very thin layer of paint is typical of Leonardo, too. It is more static than much of his work but then the otherworldly nature of the subject demands that.

The picture certainly expresses Leonardo’s theory of painting. The orb in Christ’s left hand is a Platonic symbol, a sphere containing the whole universe. As the exhibition catalogue notes, by painting the sphere as if made of rock crystal, it ‘would be perceived as if formed from light itself… seen to both contain and transmit the light of the world. Moreover, Christ’s hand remains miraculously undistorted. Leonardo has therefore created an object which would be understood as a piece of divine craftsmanship, but still be his own invention. Never did he make the connection between his own creativity and God’s more explicit.’

One could be tempted to go even further. On whom is Christ modelled? Assuming that the painting is autograph, it is arguably a self-portrait. Not because we know that it is like Leonardo – we don’t – but because, at least metaphorically, it has to be him. Giorgio Vasari, in his biography of Leonardo, notes his struggle to find a model for Christ – there can be nonesuch on Earth. In The Lives of the Artists, Vasari quotes Leonardo as saying of the head of Christ that ‘he was unwilling to seek a model on Earth and unable to presume that his imagination could conceive of the beauty and celestial grace required of divinity incarnate’.

There was an option, as the exhibition catalogue argues, to base it on an existing miraculous image and it posits the Mandylion of Edessa – similar to the Turin Shroud – as being a possible model. We don’t know, however, whether or not Leonardo had access to the Mandylion, but we do know that it was not the only possible model. At exactly the same time as Leonardo was painting the Salvator Mundi, north of the Alps Albrecht Dürer was painting himself as Christ, and in a very similar pose, in his Ecce Homo. Clearly it was not an unthinkable thing to do and self-portraiture is, after all, a way of making the ‘invisible visible, the word flesh’. We cannot see ourselves; our own self has that special quality of seeming to us as being in and yet not in the world; and we cannot truly imagine or countenance our own mortality.

And, of course, placing himself in the frame is to highlight further the connection between his act of creation and that of God’s. It is a recognition of the divinity within himself. In a way the picture says to us that man creates man in his own image; and, insofar as he does so, he is God.

Insights like these gained in moments such as the Renaissance are to be treasured. Leonardo is an ever-present reminder to us to look after ourselves and each other, to cultivate ourselves: to put humanity on a pedestal and to make reality poetic, as Goethe was to put it; a reminder never to mock or sneer at humanity’s essential yearning for immortality and for beauty. He, one man, makes us remember that we all are as one. Seven billion might be a big crowd but it’s a human crowd.

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas.

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