LONDON – London’s National Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition featuring
nine of the 15 known surviving paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Such is the hype
created by this unprecedented event that advance tickets sold out the first week
of the opening. It has also generated a lively sale of the almost impossible to
come by tickets on the black market.
Leonardo is unquestionably one of
the pivotal figures of the Renaissance and the most versatile polymath of all
He was an artist (both painter and sculptor), inventor, musician,
poet, architect, engineer (hydraulic and military), town planner, botanist,
anatomist, astronomer and philosopher. In addition, he had a great interest in
optics and the mechanisms of flight. He wrote extensively, filling up several
notebooks with his characteristic left-handed, backward script, starting at the
right side of the page and moving to the left. It needs to be deciphered with a
Leonardo was more interested in ideas than in products and as a
consequence seldom brought any of his brilliant projects to a successful
conclusion. His fertile mind had moved on to something else.
exhibitions have highlighted Leonardo’s achievements as an inventor, scientist
or draughtsman. This is the first to be dedicated to his paintings, and the
exhibit relates to the 18 years that Leonardo spent in the service of Ludovico
Sforza, ruler of Milan. This was probably the most productive period of his
career and began in 1482 when he was 30 years old.
Leonardo started no
more than 20 pictures, and most experts agree that only 15 of those that survive
were entirely by him.
Several are also incomplete. Leonardo’s career
began in Florence where he was apprenticed to Andrea di Cione, known as
Verrocchio, who ran an important workshop.
He was trained in a tradition
where every feature of a painting, not only the dominant focus, was given equal
importance, whether it be a bird, flower, forest or landscape.
addition to the paintings, the exhibition also features a large selection of
drawings and studies by Leonardo as well as other contemporary artists, many of
whom were trained by Leonardo. Thirtyfour of the drawings on show come from the
Royal Collection at Windsor.
The earliest of Leonardo’s paintings on
display at the exhibition, from the Ambrosian Art Gallery in Milan, is Portrait
of a Musician depicting a young man in a three-quarter-profile pose. This was
almost unique for that time in that it turned the sitter to engage the
Perhaps the most captivating portrait in the entire show is Lady
with an Ermine, the subject of which is the 16-year-old beauty Cecilia
Gallerani, who was Sforza’s mistress.
She is shown holding an ermine, an
animal prized for its lovely coat. This eyecatching painting comes from Krakow
in Poland and is acknowledged to be one of Leonardo’s greatest
Hanging close by is another beguiling image, La Belle
Ferronnière, from the Louvre.
This portrait is believed to be of Sforza’s
wife, Beatrice d’Este. Ironically, wife and mistress appear on adjacent walls in
the same room. From the Vatican comes the remarkable unfinished
Jerome in the Wilderness, depicting the early fourth-century
Christian saint beating his breast with a stone.
Shown together are the
two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, the earlier one from the Louvre and the
second from the National Gallery’s own collection. The latter was especially
restored for this exhibit. To see these two paintings on either side of the same
gallery is a real privilege. As pointed out in the outstanding scholarly
exhibition catalogue by Luke Syson and Larry Keith, it is unlikely that even
Leonardo himself had the privilege of viewing these two pictures together. The
Paris version is softer and not as sharp as the one from London but other subtle
differences between these two masterpieces become readily evident when viewing
Another noteworthy recently restored painting is Salvator
Mundi (Savior of the World). This has only recently been attributed to Leonardo.
The face has not worn well, probably a result of too-rigorous cleaning in the
past, and unlike the hands lacks the subtlety seen in so many of Leonardo’s
All the paintings that Leonardo undertook during his
period in Milan are in the current exhibit with the exception of the unmovable
fresco, The Last Supper, housed in the dining hall at the monastery of Santa
Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Because of the experimental technique used by
Leonardo in executing this fresco, it started to deteriorate almost immediately
after its completion. The final room of the exhibit displays a full-scale copy
of The Last Supper by Giampietrino, one of Leonardo’s apprentices, and includes
drawings by Leonardo of some of the individual figures of his epic
This exhibition, with loans of Leonardo’s paintings from Krakow,
Paris, Milan and St. Petersburg is without question one of the most monumental
and impressive ever mounted and represents a real triumph for the National
Gallery and its exhibition curator, Luke Syson. To see nine pictures by the
master is a feast for the eyes of connoisseur and non-expert alike. Because of
the current international financial uncertainty, art experts were predicting
that the age of the blockbuster museum show was over. The National Gallery has
proven them wrong.
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Royal Court of Milan
remains on view until the end of the first week of February 2012.
500 tickets are made available each day and huge lines begin to form in
Trafalgar Square very early in the morning.
Within minutes of opening,
every image is swamped by eager viewers. The best time to visit is in the
afternoon about one hour prior to closing. At this time, the gallery is least
Before returning to the National Gallery in the late afternoon
for a final viewing, I visited another fascinating exhibit at the British
Library. Entitled, “The Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination,” it
relates to handwritten illuminated manuscripts dating from the ninth to the 16th
centuries which comprised the reading material of British monarchs. The exhibit
closes on March 13 and is drawn almost exclusively from the library’s holdings
of lavishly illustrated manuscripts and books.
It is a real privilege to
see these beautifully hand-copied illustrated books and manuscripts close up.
There are no massive crowds so each gem can be perused in detail. Over 150
manuscripts are on display including Bibles, histories, Psalters (a volume
containing the Book of Psalms), genealogies, tales of mythological heroes,
scientific works and accounts of coronations.
One interesting point to
emerge was the large number of French manuscripts in the collection of the
One of the major highlights of the exhibition is a
travel map itinerary by Matthew Paris for 13th-century pilgrims who wished to
journey from London to Jerusalem. It shows the detailed route through England,
France and Italy. On arrival at the Italian port of Apulia, pilgrims embarked on
a sea voyage to the Holy Land. The travel map consists of several pages, each
composed of parallel vertical columns that are read left to right from the
bottom to the top.
This travel map highlights important landmarks
including cities on route. The concluding section shows a map of Acre and
Jerusalem. Acre being the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem receives
considerably more prominence than Jerusalem, the climax of the
The reason is that by the time the map was drawn, Jerusalem
had been captured by Saladin.
Of the many exceptional bibles on exhibit,
one of the most eye-catching is the magnificent bound volume belonging to Henry
VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. In the margins of the displayed pages
are annotations made by both Henry and the chancellor. This suggests that these
two powerful men consulted this bible while building an argument supporting
Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Also of great interest is the
small, beautiful Psalter belonging to Henry VIII. The page on view shows a
seated portrait of Henry depicted as the biblical King David.
his portrait, Henry inscribed in the margin in Latin in his own hand “Note who
is blessed.” Does Henry refer to King David or to himself? Since only two opened
pages of each manuscript can be viewed from each volume at one time, there are
several computer touch-screens throughout the exhibit which permit detailed
viewing of some of the books and manuscripts.
I concluded this
exhilarating day by attending a performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata, the
story of the doomed courtesan Violetta Valery, at the Royal Opera House. Richard
Eyre’s production, with stage designs by Bob Crowley, dates from 1994. Rodula
Gaitanou was responsible for the current revival.
At the beginning of the
Prelude to Act I, one sees the seated Violetta while videos of her as a young
girl are projected as flashbacks. The gambling scene in Act II was particularly
effective. Because of the large stage, the final act, set in Violetta’s bedroom,
seemed pretty bare. The production is classical and non-flamboyant and has
always been an audience favourite. It is certainly more effective than Franco
Zeffirelli’s extravaganza seen at the Metropolitan in New York although it is by
no means as thought-provoking as Willy Decker’s innovative production, seen
initially in Salzburg and more recently in Amsterdam and New York.
two principal male singers were exceptional. Especially impressive was the
glorious lyric tenor of Piotr Beczala. This Polish artist gave a wonderful
portrayal and is certainly an Alfredo to be reckoned with. He sang with ardor
His “Lunga da lei” (Out from her presence) at the
beginning of Act II was one of the most outstanding renditions that I could
recall. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, was sung by British baritone Simon
Keenlyside. He certainly brought dignity to the role with his glorious, sonorous
baritone. He remained somewhat reserved, aloof and detached even in his final
encounter with the dying Violetta.
Completing the trio was Ailyn Perez,
the American light lyric soprano who has sung this role with the Royal Opera on
tour in Japan as well as the Vienna Staatsoper. She was a little unsettled at
the beginning but mustered all her resources to give a masterful account of the
fiendishly difficult “E strano” (how wondrous) from Act I. On occasion she had a
tendency to swoop and glide to reach the higher registers.
Ms. Perez rose
to her greatest heights in her encounter with Giorgio Germont and during her
passionate duets with Alfredo.
There was palpable chemistry between the
two lovers. She succeeded in bringing out all the emotional intensity and pathos
of the aria “Addio, del passato” (Farewell to the bright visions) in the final
Patrick Lange, chief conductor of the Komische Oper in Berlin, led a
lively-paced rendering of the score and brought out some lovely, passionate
playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Especially impressive were the
beautifully nuanced sweeping strings in the two preludes.
This was the
second of the three casts of this revival. La Traviata remains in the current
repertoire until January 2012, when Anna Netrebko reprises as Violetta. That
should prove to be a sure show-stopper.Welcome to London! Irving Spitz,
an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical
topics, music, art, history and travel.