The Da Vinci mode

Modern critics have been merciless to the followers of Leonardo da Vinci. Bernard Berenson said that their “only serious merit [consisted] in some measure of having immortalised the ideas of Leonardo...” Kenneth Clark described them as “the smile without the Cheshire Cat”.

Leonardeschi: Da Foppa a Giampietrino, an exhibition in the northern Italian town of Pavia, begs to differ. It brings together 44 paintings by the artists known as the Leonardeschi, a group of mainly Lombard painters who either studied under the master or closely observed his style. The curators argue that their paintings deserve to be judged as “autonomous works in which are discovered excellence, originality and the capacity to develop ... artistic process”.

This is true for certain works: no one could deny masterpiece status to “Flora” – a queenly painting of the fertility goddess by Francesco Melzi. Others – an anonymous copy of “The Last Supper”, for example – are as soulless as painterly photographs.

Overall, the exhibition is a rare chance to study a nucleus of paintings whose profoundly metaphysical style is unlike anything else produced in Italy at that time. It is also an occasion to meditate on the absent master; no one can peruse this gallery of hood-eyed figures, wriggling infants and aqua-blue mountains without pondering what made their prototypes infinitely more marvellous.

The exhibition is the fruit of a concord between the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Civic Museum of Pavia. A textbook example of cultural realpolitik, it was arranged by the Hermitage Foundation, a Ferrara-based body that promotes artistic exchange between Italy and Russia, which enjoy strong commercial links.

The core of the Leonardeschi in Pavia, a city in northern Italy held dear by Leonardo, belonged to Luigi Malaspina, a Lombard marquis who founded the original Pinacoteca (public art gallery) in 1838. The Hermitage, meanwhile, acquired most of its Leonardo school at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century.

Attributions in this area are a minefield. Ten of the Hermitage Leonardeschi were purchased as the work of the master. (Stendhal hailed Cesare da Sesto’s “Holy Family with St Catherine”, a miraculously vital painting present here, as Leonardo’s finest work.)

Of the Pavia works, only one was bought as a Leonardo. Yet even among his followers, authentications are unstable. Behind the problem lies Leonardo’s custom of running a vast bottega, or workshop, where a team of assistants churned out works and prices depended on the degree of his own contribution. The system created a culture of imitation, even during his own lifetime. “My compositions were admired even when they were later painted by followers,” Leonardo once said. The result is that there are not only copies of his works but copies of those copies whose authorship is hard to fix and whose quality varies wildly.

When he arrived in Milan in 1482, Leonardo’s vision must have been a revelation to the city’s painters. At that time, the leading artist there was Vincenzo Foppa, whose international Gothic style – already outmoded in Venice and Florence – is evident in his depictions of Santo Stefano and the Archangel Michael.

Looking pretty, stiff and insubstantial against a gold ground, this pair adorned separate panels in a polyptych. How very different from the awesome naturalism of Leonardo’s first commission in Milan, the Louvre’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, which sets the sacred scene in a shrub-fringed grotto at twilight.

An anonymous 16th-century copy of London’s National Gallery’s version of that painting shows how the idea mattered less than the execution. Leonardo was a notoriously slow painter. His laborious technique, based on layering thin veils of colour to create tones alive with nuance and shadow, infuses his paintings with exceptional subtlety and depth.

In this copy of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, however, the figures – deprived of the sculptural volume that was another Leonardo signature – merge into muddy shadows. Meanwhile, the hazily defined plants bear little relation to the perfect botanical replicas of the master, who insisted on drawing en plein air.

But even Leonardo could not have improved on the precision with which one of his star pupils, Francesco Melzi, executed the columbine, anemone and lily of the valley that adorn “Flora”. From her golden braids to her daintily embroidered robe, every detail of this painting testifies to the draughtsmanship that is probably responsible for the best portrait we have of Leonardo himself – the glorious red chalk drawing in the Royal Collection at Windsor.

Her alabaster skin dissolving into shadowy depths, “Flora” is one of a clutch of works to evoke Leonardo’s late sfumato style, which reached its zenith in the “Mona Lisa” and in his painting of John the Baptist, both in the Louvre.

The protagonist of the latter painting, a languid, hermaphrodite figure with ringletted hair and an enigmatic smile – variations of whom appear throughout Leonardo’s work – is ubiquitous here. This John is most clearly recognisable in “Angel” by an anoymous follower, in “Christ with the Symbol of the Trinity”, attributed to Giampietrino and in “The Apostle John”, also by Giampietrino. The latter figure is one of this exhibition’s wonders; modelled with sublime delicacy out of smoky blacks and glimmering reds, he appears to hover on a heavenly threshold between light and shade.

More disquieting is “Donna Nuda” from the Hermitage. Once attributed to Leonardo’s pet pupil Salai, now catalogued as “school of”, this painting – the finest of many versions – poses the model naked at a balcony beyond which lies a rocky arctic-green landscape. With her brazen gaze and slack, milky flesh, it is as if La Gioconda has been stripped literally and figuratively of her mystery.

The best use of Leonardo’s genius was made by those who absorbed his ideas without being enslaved by them. The most triumphant – Raphael, Titian, Giorgione – lived far from Lombardy. Yet certain works here shine with individual flair.

With just a dusting of sfumato on her cheeks and décolletage, “Portrait of a Woman Dressed as a Saint”, possibly by Boltraffio, who assisted Leonardo, possesses a crisply defined poetry far from the maestro’s melting figures. The sloe-eyed blonde in Bernardino Luini’s fresco fragment “Feminine Figure” is a fresh-faced younger sister to those hermetic androgynes. In “Cupid and a Landscape”, Sodoma – who started life in Lombardy before transferring to Siena – surrounds his plump, athletic babe with earth-brown trees and pearlescent mountains to cast the classical icon of mischief in an unusually sinister light.

Leonardo contended that: “Painting is a mental thing.” The best of the Leonardeschi continued to think for themselves.

‘Leonardeschi: Da Foppa a Giampietrino, Paintings from the Hermitage and the Pavia Civic Museum’, Castello Visconteo, Pavia, Italy, until July 10,

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