Twenty-four hours in London

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view display of Da Vinci’s paintings isn’t the only reason to visit London.

Da Vinci 311 (photo credit: Princes Czartoryski Foundation)
Da Vinci 311
(photo credit: Princes Czartoryski Foundation)
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 time.
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 mirror.
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.
Previous 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.
In 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 viewer.
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 creations.
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 St.
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 them together.
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 other portraits.
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 fresco.
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.
Some 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 crowded.
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 English monarchs.
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 pilgrimage.
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.
Adjacent to 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.
The 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 and enthusiasm.
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 act.
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.