The Head of a Woman, also known as ‘La Scapigliata’ (c1501-10)
The Head of a Woman, also known as ‘La Scapigliata’ (c1501-10) © Galleria Nazionale di Parma
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Leonardo da Vinci contained multitudes. A painter, scientist, architect, poet and engineer, he was the ultimate polymath. Now, however, the new exhibition at the Louvre wants to reframe him. According to Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, the curators of this 500th-anniversary exhibition, the largest ever staged in the French capital, Leonardo’s priority was always painting. His other investigations simply served to improve his grasp of what he described as the “science of painting” due to that art’s ability to convey the truth of the world better than any other means.

That this mission does not entirely succeed in no way detracts from the splendour of the exhibition. Forget all the brouhaha around the “Salvator Mundi” (it’s not here and shows no sign of arriving) and the distasteful politics between France and Italy that soured various loans — the show is an unmiss­able cornucopia of paintings, sculpture, drawings and notebooks. The Louvre has assembled 11 paintings — six loans, to add to its own holdings of five — out of the artist’s tiny surviving output: only 15-20 paintings are attributed to him, and many are too fragile to travel.

These are accompanied by reflectograms (an image of an underdrawing beneath the surface of the paint) of many paintings — some of which aren’t present — which reveal Leonardo’s early versions, corrections and pentimenti.

A startling, theatrical opening centres not on a work by Leonardo but a sculpture by his master Andrea del Verrocchio, “The Incredulity of St Thomas” (1467-83). Lit to perfection and framed in a hemisphere of drawings of drapery by master and apprentice set off by dove-grey walls, the bronze figures of Christ and the saint dance in shafts of light that glance off their robes, hands and faces.

Study for ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’, (c1507-10)
Study for ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’, (c1507-10) © Musée du Louvre/Michel Urtado

Born in 1452 in the town of Vinci near Florence, Leonardo joined the workshop of Verrocchio, then one of Italy’s finest sculptors, at the age of just 12. Taking inspiration from his master’s light effects, Leonardo — who later noted that “every opaque body is surrounded, and its surface clothed, in shadow and light” — developed his gift for chiaroscuro by painting tempera studies that he modelled on clay figures covered with cloth dipped in liquid clay. In an example such as “Drapery Jabach IV” (1473-77), the sumptuous skirts of the kneeling figure shine with mercurial luminosity, while the creases of shadow are as crisply articulated as marble.

By the late 1470s, Leonardo had opened his own studio in Florence. A gathering of drawings, reflectograms and the painting known as the “Benois Madonna” illuminate the moment he embraced componimento inculto — intuitive or rough composition — to discover the hidden truth of his subjects.

The technique, which involved drawing and redrawing his lines with a flowing, spontaneous boldness untethered to classical correctness, is at its most beguiling in three drawings (1478-80) that explore the figures of Madonna and Child as they grapple with a cat.

In one, the cat twists its neck in a frantic and improbable 180-degree turn from the toddler. In another, all three bodies are so entangled that the image is condensed to an illegible thicket of wiry black strokes. But the overall impression, thanks to Leonardo’s athletic, repetitive mark-making, conveys the scene’s squirming, furious physicality more effectively than any photograph.

The drawings, undoubtedly based on the artist’s own observations, testify to his belief in the eye as the “chief means” of “understanding . . . the infinite works of Nature”. What Leonardo saw was not a world crystallised in a state of Platonic perfection but an Aristotelian realm in which, as he put it, “motion is the cause of all life”. His awareness that the world existed in a state of ever-changing relations — which prefigures contemporary quantum theory — underpins the astonishing vitality that sets Leonardo’s paintings apart from those of his Renaissance peers.

In this pursuit of dynamism, Leonardo found an ally in the new medium of oil. The fluidity of his “Benois Madonna” (1480-82), on loan from the Hermitage, in which child and mother spiral around each other as if wrapped in a shimmering cocoon of love and melancholy, would have been impossible without the silky, light-reflecting properties of the innovative pigments.

His determination to capture his subjects in a state of becoming explains why Leonardo worked so slowly and revised so heavily. Although the original did not travel from Florence, a reflectogram of his “Adoration of the Magi”, which he abandoned around 1482, shows numerous alterations to the swirl of horses, soldiers and worshippers whose anxious expressions suggest they are trapped in a battle between despair and faith.

‘Virgin of the Rocks’ (c1483-94)
‘Virgin of the Rocks’ (c1483-94) © Musée du Louvre/Michel Urtado

Given his passion for science, you have to wonder if that was Leonardo’s own war. If so, nowhere did he struggle more elegantly than in the “Virgin of the Rocks” (1483-94). Conceived for a church in Milan, where Leonardo moved in 1482, it shows Madonna, Christ, St John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky, flower-filled glade. The intensity of the figures is played out through a waltz of hands which bless, pray and point towards the invisible miracle of transcendence at their centre. Yet Leonardo displays the botanicals — including cyclamen, acanthus, St John’s Wort and primrose — with meticulousness.

The Louvre explores Leonardo’s empiricism in a section entitled “Science” which brings together optical, botanical, anatomical, architectural and mathematical drawings and texts. Here the studies of shadow, light and the nature of binocular vision underscore that Leonardo saw both art and science as, essentially, ways of seeing.

Those powers of perception made him unequalled as a portrait painter. The exhibition is a rare opportunity to witness Leonardo’s famous painting “La Belle Ferronnière” (1490-97) — possibly a portrait of Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan — alongside “The Mercenary” of 1475 by the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, a watchful lone wolf pinioned against a black void.

'La Belle Ferronnière' (c1490-97)
'La Belle Ferronnière' (c1490-97) © Musée du Louvre/Michel Urtado

It’s not hard to believe that Antonello’s flinty soldier provided inspiration for the suspicious personality that is La Belle Ferronnière. With her astute, guarded gaze, so at odds with the feminine ribbons on her dress, she reminds us that Leonardo always credited his female subjects with self-will and intelligence.

He bestows similar autonomy on Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, a drawing of whom, made in 1500, is also on show. A year after this work was made, Isabella harassed Leonardo, who was by then in Florence again, to send her more pictures. The letter she received in response, from a Florentine who knew Leonardo, discloses that the painter was distracted by mathematics and “cannot abide the paintbrush”.

Such remarks undermine the curators’ thesis that painting was Leonardo’s greater god. The works, too, beg to differ. The show closes with several late masterpieces, including the National Gallery’s cartoon in charcoal and chalk, c1500, of the Virgin and her mother St Anne accompanied by Christ and an infant St John the Baptist.

‘Portrait of a Musician’ (1485)
‘Portrait of a Musician’ (1485) © De Agostini

The cartoon is every bit as majestic as its oil-based neighbours. Leonardo evokes the women at a moment of heightened emotion — Mary restraining her boy as he stretches towards the Passion, Anne pouring strength into her daughter through her wise eyes. Using dark shading to deepen Anne’s gaze, and pale highlights for Mary’s and Jesus’s shoulders, it expresses the kaleidoscope of emotion with the simplest of means.

Only oil, however, allowed Leonardo to employ sfumato. His signature technique of graduating tones so that his figures dissolve into their surroundings is responsible for the hazy mystique of the “Mona Lisa” — which has remained in the Louvre’s permanent collection — but also for his half-length portrait of St John the Baptist. Started in 1508, but still on Leonardo’s easel after he departed for France in 1516, the seductive martyr writhes out of the darkness in a glimmering chimera of golden skin and mahogany curls, his finger pointing us towards heaven even as his eyes warn us to think twice.

Such is his potency, St John seems to have sprung fully formed on to the wood. Yet the reflectogram reveals that Leonardo made myriad pentimenti, including changes to his hair and left arm while certain light transitions, according to the curators, suggest the painting was unfinished when Leonardo died in France in 1519. According to his biographer, Giorgio Vasari, King Francois I was at his bedside. He deserved nothing less.

Study for ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ (1504)
Study for ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ (1504) © Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

To February 24,

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