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  • David Parkinson

Parky at the Pictures - In Cinemas (29/10/2019)

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Review of Leonardo: The Works

Exhibition on Screen has made gallery cinema an art form and it reaches a new level with Leonardo: The Works, which is being released to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci's death and the launch of the Louvre retrospective, which will run until 24 February next year. Breaking with EOS tradition, however, this doesn't provide an overview of a single show, as director Phil Grabsky has travelled extensively to film the masterpieces in Ultra HD. Moreover, he has set out to capture the world of the Tuscan painter who became the epitome of the Renaissance polymath.

Leonardo was born in the small town of Vinci on 14 or 15 April 1452. His father was the Florentine notary, Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, and Luke Syson, Director and Marlay Curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, explain how Florence under its Medici rulers typified the political, mercantile and cultural aspirations of the 15th-century Italian city state. Despite being illegitimate,Leonardo was raised in Piero's household and his father secured him a garzone apprenticeship in the studio of Andrea Del Verrocchio.

Larry Keith, Head of Conservation at the National Gallery in London, points out the young Leonardo's possible contribution of the dog and the fish to `The Angel Raphael With Tobias', which was produced in Verrocchio's workshop between c.1473-75. But, as we also see `The Virgin and Child' (c.1470), `Madonna and Child' (c.1470 or 1475) and `Virgin and Child With Two Angels' (c.1471-72), we learn that Verrocchio's studio was also involved in sculpting and casting and that Leonardo would have received a solid technical grounding, while also having his imagination fired by being in the presence of a master and the collaborators who would go on to become key Renaissance artists themselves.

At the time Leonardo first joined Verrocchio in 1469, the majority of painters used egg tempera. But the influence of items like Hugo van der Goes's `Portinari Altarpiece' (c.1476-78) from Bruges led to oil-based paints becoming more common and their richness and subtlety enabled Leonard to depict what Syson calls the visible and the invisible in his artworks. In his Arno Valley landscape dated 5 August 1473, he sketches both the observed and the imagined to convey the specific and the idealised elements of his vision.

As Kemp suggests, however, `The Annunciation' (c.1472-73), which hangs in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, gave the young painter a chance to show off his aptitude for architectual perspective and drapery, as well as such natural aspects as the carpet of flowers and the feathers in Gabriel's wings. According to art historian and conservator Cecilia Frosinini, however, this is less a proclamation at the end of Leonardo's apprenticeship than a test that he set himself to meet various technical and stylistic challenges and Frosinini wonders whether he was entirely satisfied with the end result.

The same gallery is home to `The Baptism of Christ', which was produced in Verrocchio's studio between c.1475-76. In Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), it's suggested that the master was stricken by an inferiority complex after seeing Leonardo's work on an angel holding some garments. Syson also identifies the pupil's hand in the landscape and the water over Jesus's feet and claims that these elements turn a decent picture into a remarkable one. But, as Kemp notes, Leonardo would soon graduate from contributions to small-scale paintings solely by his own hand, such `Madonna and Child With a Vase of Flowers' (aka `Madonna With the Carnation', c.1474-75), which is held at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

This was once owned by Pope Clement VII and quotations from Vasari and Leonardo himself draw our gaze to the dewdrops on the flowers in a carafe of water and the chubbiness of the flesh on the baby's limbs. Lines from the notebooks address the play of light and shade in bringing depth to a plane in `Ginevra de' Benci' (c.1476-78), which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Kemp opines that such early works reveal that Leonardo was pushing boundaries by depicting a female sitter in full face rather than profile and by having her look out directly from the canvas. But his combination of colour and texture in the fronds of the juniper bush and the trees in the background show that he was also contrasting the distinctive effects of painting and sculpture.

Our next stop is the Hermitage in St Petersburg to see `Madonna and Child' (aka `The Benois Madonna', c.1478-80) and museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky recognises the happiness in the pose, while also highlighting the cruciform shape of the petals on the flowers in the infant's grasp. Piotrovsky also mentions the experimental nature of this work and Syson and Kemp follow this up by suggesting that the homosexual artist's lack of family commitment allowed him to dedicate himself to his work. We see a profile from the collection at Windsor Castle, which is reputed to be the most accurate likeness of Leonardo, as Kemp explains that he was an elegant, if elusive character, who dressed well and considered his vocation to be gentlemanly.

We remain in Berkshire to meet Martin Clayton, the Head of Prints and Drawings for the Royal Collection Trust, who affirms that Leonardo was interested in everything from anatomy and botany to geology and engineering. Professor Evelyn Welch from King's College, London avers that he thought with his hands, as he was forever making sketches and notes and that these papers afford a unique insight into the workings of his mind. Jane Munro, the Fitzwilliam's Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints, shows us two equine sketches and points out the ways in which these preparatory studies for `The Adoration of the Magi' (c.1480-82) capture the monumentality and movement of the beasts, as well as the billowing cloaks of their riders. The painting itself is kept in the Uffizi and the camera glides towards its striking white frame to the accompaniment of swelling choral strains.

Commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato in Scopeto, this picture remained unfinished and Frosinini takes us through the recent five-year restoration of the 70+ hand-drawn figures in a composition that Kemp rightly claims captures the sense of turbulence created by Christ's arrival on Earth. However, the project was abandoned when Leonardo relocated to Milan in 1482 and Welch hints that he may well have done a flit to avoid having to complete certain works and honour some debts. She also alludes to a draft letter of introduction to Duke Ludovico Sforza, in which Leonardo offers his services as a designer of war machines and bridges before signing off with an afterthought that he could also paint.

Over the `Sforza Altarpiece' (c.1495) by the Master of Pala Sforzesca, Syson states that the move also gave Leonardo a greater creative independence, as there were nowhere near as many serious rivals in Milan as there had been in Florence. He uses `St Jerome' (c.1481-82), which belongs to the Vatican Museum, to show how, in the authentic depiction of the hermit's strained neck, Leonardo put his investigations into the movement of body parts into action. This unfinished image also reveals the extent to which he extemporised as he worked, while the prominence of the lion in the foreground suggests a new boldness on Leonardo's part, as the creature is a symbolic representation of himself as the observer of the scene.

Around this period, Da Vinci also painted `The Virgin of the Rocks' (c.1483-93), which can be seen at The Louvre in Paris. Vincent Delieuvin, the museum's chief curator of 16th-century Italian Painting, reveals that this was commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception for a chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan and he explains how Leonardo uses the grotto to reinforce the notion of Marian purity in the image of Mary protecting the young John the Baptist, as he venerates his cousin. However, the accuracy of his depiction of Nature represents the mystery of the incarnation of God, as the Infant Christ has come to renew Creation. The delicacy within this darkened space of the lighting and the shifts in colour tone reinforces the aura and Delieuvin declares this to be Leonardo's first masterpiece.

It's back to Russia for `Madonna and Suckling Child' (aka `Madonna Litta', c.1481-95), and we see the proximity in the gallery of `The Benois Madonna', as Piotrovsky again contrasts the tangible feeling of contentment with the intimations of future tragedy. He suggests that some of Leonardo's staff might have painted parts of the picture, but he is taken by the emotions evident in Mary's lowered eyes, as she contemplates the suffering that her innocent child will have to endure.

Based at the University of York, Robert Hollingworth, the musical director of the I Fagiolini ensemble, discloses that one of the reasons that Ludovico il Moro wished to patronise Leonardo was that he played the lira da braccio better than any of his court musicians. Over the famous image of `Vitruvian Man' (c.1490), Hollingworth says that Leonardo applied scientific principles to music, as well as art. Fittingly, `The Musician' (aka `The Singer', c.1484-85) is kept at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan and Welch notes that this shows how Leonardo developed a distinctive style of portraiture that gave his sitters what they wanted to see, while also being true to his own observations.

A more celebrated portrait, `Cecilia Gallerani' (aka `The Lady With an Ermine', c.1489-90), hangs in the Czartoryski Gallery in Kraków and Andrzej Betlej, the Director of the city's National Museum, admits to not knowing the precise provenance of this picture, although it's likely that Ludovico Sforza commissioned a likeness of his mistress. He compares it to an inrimate shapshot, as though Cecilia was looking at somebody outside the frame and her expression suggests both her devotion to Da Vinci's patron, but also the intelligence that infused her poetry and made her a muse for other artists.

Back in Paris, we contemplate `Lucrezia Crivelli' (aka `La Belle Ferronière', c.1498). According to Delieuvin, this is another painting with a shrouded history, although many experts believe that the sitter is Ludovico's final mistress. The eyes seem to be looking towards us, but the head also appears to be turning away and Delieuvin suggests that this is because Lucrezia's gaze is for her lover only. It's a striking, almost photographic portrait and it's one of the quirks of cultural history that so little is known about such a key work by such a major artist.

Its fame pales beside that of `The Last Supper' (c.1496-98), which occupies a wall in the refectory at Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. Sadly, however, it's only a shadow of its former self, as Welch reveals that the techniques and materials used were not of the finest quality. Consequently, the colours have faded and we have to rely on a copy from c.1515-20 that has been attributed to Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. Tim Marlow, the Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, describes it as a copy made for posterity by a couple of former students who were inspired by the original.

`The Last Supper' has become so familiar that it's easy to forget that it was painted as a backdrop for monks to eat their meagre meals and wasn't intended to be widely seen. Both Welch and Marlow marvel over the experimental nature of the composition and the stories being told across the length of the table, from James being shocked by the news that someone is going to betray Jesus to Peter pushing Judas out of the way so he can speak to John. Marlow claims the image as the summation of Leonardo's intellectual endeavours and the most pivotal work of the entire Renaissance.

Kemp reminds us that Da Vinci was a busy man, whose efforts at creating stage scenery for court entertainments have been mostly lost. But it's clear from the mulberry tree design in the Sala della Asse (c.1497) in the Castello Sforza in Milan that the ingenuity that went into his more formal paintings carried over into this decorative motif, which is shot through with a golden chain that refers to the family of Ludovico's wife, Beatrice d'Este.

While this is on public display, `Madonna and Child With a Yarnwinder' (aka `The Lansdowne Madonna', c.1501-07) is in a private collection in the United States. Fortunately, `Madonna and Child With a Yarnwinder' (aka `The Buccleuch Madonna', c.1501-07) can be seen, as it's on loan at the National Gallery of Scotland from the Buccleuth Living Heritage Trust. Kemp muses on the fact these pictures may have rested on adjoining easels in the studio and been revisited when inspiration struck. We know from Fra Pietro da Novellara, the head of the Carmelites in Florence, that one was commissioned by Florimond Robertet, a secretary to three kings of France, after Ludivico had been overthrown in 1499 during the Second Italian War. However, Leonardo opted to do a second version for sale and there is something deeply touching about the toddler gripping the wooden frame of the yarnwinder with its crossbar foreshadowing the Crucifixion.

From seeing double, the focus narrows to what Delieuvin rightly calls the most famous painting in the history of art. Tantalisingly, he refers to Leonardo's own role in mythologising `Lisa del Giocondo' (aka `Mona Lisa' and `La Gioconda', c.1503-16) and also mentions the infamous theft in August 1911. But he opts not to develop either theme. Instead, he reveals that `Mona Lisa' depicts Florentine noblewoman Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, who had been born in 1479 and had married prosperous silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. So engimatic is her expression that it has been attributed to both mirth and melancholy and Leonardo achieved the effect through the technique of eliding tones and shades known as `sfumato'.

Syson, who has seen `Mona Lisa' out of its frame, talks about its colouring and its immediacy and reminds us that this is a portrait of a real woman who was chosen by Leonardo to represent his ideal of womanhood. He also notes that it was a work that took time to plan and execute and Kemp concurs that it came to be the repository of all of Leonardo's expertise, as he drew on draughtsmanship, optics, poetry, psychology, physics and geology to produce a universal picture that remains as remarkable now as it was 500 years ago.

We come next to `Salvator Mundi' (c.1504-1510), which has been held in a private collection since becoming the world's most expensive painting, at $450 million, in 2017. Long associated with the studio of Giovanni Boltraffio, this haunting image sold for £45 at a London auction in 1958 and only raised $1175 when New York art historian Robert Simon purchased it in New Orleans in 2005. Since being attributed to Leonardo in 2011, however, the picture's contentious acceptance by the art establishment has been little short of extraordinary.

Yet, Grabsky omits mention of this chequered past. Instead, Syson comments on the contrast between the lifelike hands that seem to emerge from the frame and the more spectral visage of Christ, as if Leonardo is drawing on his God-given talent to produce an image that almost draws on divine inspiration. The blurring of the real and the ideal produces a greater truth that Syson suggests is the key to understanding Da Vinci's art. Simon reckons it was a commission that took a long time to complete (if it was ever finished) and reveals that Leonardo had misgivings about depicting the adult Jesus that predate `The Last Supper'. However, he declares that he took a traditional form and imbued it with so much novelty and humanity that it's possible to look at it now and feel a connection with the main who painted it half a millennium ago.

According to Delieuvin, it was long believed that the monks had rejected `The Virgin of the Rocks' for iconographical reasons and that it had been acquired by the Duke of Milan. However, Leonardo was under contract and painted a second version between c.1495-1508, which is now kept at the National Gallery. Larry Keith takes us through the variations in the two images and, in noting the differences in the grotto and the figures, suggests that the London version is a superior work because it is more dependent upon detailed observation and practiced execution.

A penultimate return to The Louvre enables Delieuvin to outline how Leonardo worked on `St John the Baptist' (c.1507-16) while he was living between Milan and Florence. The Baptist is one of the latter's patron saints and this may well have been a work of devotion and discovery that Leonardo undertook for himself rather than for a patron. As there is so little colour in the image, it's an exercise in light and shade. But this also chimes in with the opening lines of St John's gospel about a light appearing in the darkness to pave the way for the Redeemer.

Kemp informs us that Leonardo spent the period between 1507-13 in Milan as an engineer and artist in the service of Louis XII of France. He then lived in Rome after Giovanni de Medici, the brother of his patron Giuliano, became Pope Leo X. Michelangelo and Raphael were in the Eternal City at this time, but nothing is mentioned about any interaction (nor, indeed, is there a reference to the time in 1504 Leonardo and Michelangelo were commissioned to paint murals of the battles of Anghiari and Cascina in the Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, only for Vasari to cover their efforts with his own in the 1560s).

When Giuliano Medici died, Leonardo accepted the offer of Francis I to settle in France. François Saint Bris of the Château de Clos Lucé in Amboise reveals that he took with him, `Mona Lisa', `St John the Baptist' and `The Virgin With Child and St Anne' (c.1507-19). He also discloses the monarch's generosity, which Kemp suggests suited Leonardo well, as he was never comfortable with producing works to order and on deadline. Da Vinci spent the last three years enjoying Francis's patronage and died in his arms at the age of 75, having regretted not devoting more time to his art.

Of course, as the current Louvre exhibition makes plain, Leonardo was a thinker and inventor of rare perspicacity and foresight. But the emphasis on the paintings means that these attributes are somewhat overlooked (which raises a slight issue about the completism suggested by the film's subtitle). However, who can quibble, as the camera roves over `The Virgin With Child and St Anne', as Delieuvin proclaims that this was the culmination of Leonardo's scientific, poetic and artistic investigation. He died before he could put the final layers of glaze on Mary's face, but Delieuvin believes it captures the moment when the Virgin ceased to seek to protect her vulnerable infant and accepted that she was the mother of God and that she would have to let him go and meet his fate for the greater good of humanity.

During the restoration between 2010-12, it was discovered that Leonardo's final brushstrokes were to refine the dresses worn by St Anne and her daughter and Delieuvin finds it deeply moving that he should have kept finding subtle ways to improve this image right up to the end of his life. Amusingly, a cleaner wanders past the canvas in the closing shot, as if to remind us of Leonardo's remarkable ability to connect the spiritual and the temporal.

In addition to writing and directing this astute study of Leonardo's paintings, Phil Grabsky also shared a cinematography credit with David Bickerstaff and Hugh Hood. The detailed close-ups perfectly complement the insights of the assembled academics, who discuss issues of content and form in an accessible manner that makes this the ideal introduction for Da Vinci novices.

Given the comparative shortage of biographical information, it's a bit surprising that no mention is made of the notebooks or some of the inventions that are so familiar that they even inspired an episode of Family Guy. But the sheer physical and organisational effort involved in photographing each picture in situ is to be commended, while those caught up in the moment might also want to take home a souvenir in the form of I Fagiolini's soundtrack album, Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible.

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