The Louvre gave a first look at the show on Friday afternoon. Now we have answers.
“Salvator Mundi,” which is rumored to be owned by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi prince who the CIA believes ordered the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is not in the show. The exquisite “Benois Madonna,” which travels from its home at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg exceedingly rarely, is. The unfinished “Saint Jerome,” seen recently in New York, has been lent by the Vatican, and a soulful portrait of a young musician, from Milan, has also made the trip.
In 2012, the National Gallery in London mounted a show focused on Leonardo’s years as a court artist in Milan, and the highlight of that exhibition was the juxtaposition of its “Virgin of the Rocks” (which may have been made in collaboration with Leonardo’s assistants) with a version from the Louvre. But the London painting has not traveled to Paris, lending force to then National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny’s prediction that it was a once-in-a-lifeime pairing “unlikely ever to be repeated.”
So Leonardo completists who come to Paris with a checklist may be disappointed. But take one step past the fame of the Mona Lisa (which is on view at the Louvre in another gallery) and a wholly different and more interesting Leonardo emerges. That Leonardo is well represented in all his brilliance and richness.
Many of the artist’s most important drawings and sketches are in the show, including the large format and emotionally incandescent Burlington House cartoon (depicting the Virgin, Saint Anne, and the infant Christ and John the Baptist), the rigorous perspective drawing for the unfinished “Adoration of the Magi” and the stunning painted drapery sketches made in the earliest years of his career. The most famous drawing of them all, the Vitruvian Man (a naked male figure inscribed in a circle and a square), wasn’t yet on the wall after a last-minute legal battle over its departure from Italy. But the unattached label was leaning against the blank panel on which it will be hung.
Only one major episode of Leonardo’s life isn’t covered in depth: the story of the enormous bronze equestrian statue made for his patron Ludovico Sforza, the clay model of which was supposedly blown apart by French soldiers after they stormed Milan in 1499. But the rest of his life is fully present. Visitors are greeted by the great masterpiece of his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio’s monumental bronze “Christ and Saint Thomas” (as overwhelming as anything else in the show), and are sent home with the memory of a work by one of his most talented and devoted pupils, Francesco Melzi’s iconic portrait of an elderly, bearded and benignly careworn Leonardo, made in the last years of the master’s life.
In between, works by contemporaries complicate superficial ideas about his meteoric genius, and small, delicate drawings teem with an abundance of ideas — paintings never made, thoughts adumbrated then abandoned. Under low light, these faded, wispy clippings from the cutting-room floor suggest a superfluity of ideas that might have supplied a lifetime of inspiration to other artists. All aspects of his life as an artist, scholar, scientist, engineer, military adviser and archaeologist are documented in drawings.
There are, on this planet, only about 15 extant paintings confidently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and if you were to mark their locations with pins on a map, you would have a reliable record of several of the Western world’s lost or fading empires.
The “Benois Madonna,” from St. Petersburg, was bought by Czar Nicholas II for what was then a record price in 1914, only four years before he and his family were gunned down in a basement room far from their former palaces. There is an early portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, in Washington, which was for a long time the only Leonardo painting outside Europe when the National Gallery of Art acquired it in 1967 at the height of the space race (it never travels and isn’t in the Paris show). And the United Kingdom has “The Virgin of the Rocks,” which it acquired in the 18th century.
In his lifetime, Leonardo was a cultural export, from Florence under the Medicis to the upstart court of Milan, and a cultural import, from Milan to France. His paintings used to be tools of cultural diplomacy. The Mona Lisa visited the United States in 1963, when France briefly admired America under its young president, John F. Kennedy.
But Leonardos are likely to travel less in the future, as museums depend on them to validate the touristic-spiritual yearnings of their millions of visitors, and as nations hold them more closely, ossified symbols of national prestige in an age of resurgent nationalism.
So a Leonardo exhibition without the major paintings is simply a sign of the times. But every exhibition devoted to Leonardo must grapple with the basic question: Why did a man who lived into his late 60s — a man who was ceaselessly inventive, who left thousands of pages of meticulous drawings and notes, whose personal beauty, intelligence and discourse charmed everyone with what we would now call star power and celebrity — leave behind so few finished works? Was he undisciplined and distracted, or thwarted by his own perfectionism? Did his ambition entice him to draft the basic lines of paintings he could never realize in paint? Did he intentionally withhold his genius from a public he considered unworthy?
Beginning in the 19th century, the most common answer has had to do with his pursuit of science. His interest in painting was only an extension of his deeper interest in the material world. He thought through the visual world by analogy, looking for affinities between the way hair curled and water eddied, between human anatomy and the life of trees and animals, and the structure of the Earth and heavens. But as he became increasingly preoccupied with scientific questions, he got lost in the process of looking into the world.
The exhibition’s curators, Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, argue with that conclusion. It may seem, says a wall text, that science was “an endless, multifaceted labyrinth in which the painter . . . ultimately lost his way.” But, “this disappearance is illusory.” Rather, it was the process of looking, observing and working out problems in myriad ways (in diagrams on paper, with paint on wood, in his writings and in his head) that mattered to Leonardo. His energies and endeavors were part of one holistic enterprise.
Leonardo’s own writing partially confirms that. He said, “The divinity which is the science of painting transmutes the painter’s mind into a resemblance of the divine mind.” How do we take that? As a simple indication that, when the painter is painting, his intelligence and creativity somehow mimic what God is said to have done in creating the world? Or that the painter is literally transformed through the process of painting into a state of intellectual ecstasy that approaches the divine? That would certainly explain why he preferred the act of painting to the making of finished paintings.
The Louvre curators won’t go that far, and for the most part they keep the exhibition closely focused on the visual data, the major preparatory works for the great paintings and supporting evidence for lost works such as the unfinished “Battle of Anghiari” (represented in the show by a vital 16th-century copy displayed next to Aristotile da Sangallo’s essential copy of Michelangelo’s lost “Battle of Cascina”). But one can’t gather this much of Leonardo’s opus without explosive things happening. And the thrilling aftereffect of this show is how closely it entangles even skeptical visitors in the persistent myth of Leonardo’s superhuman intelligence.
I resisted, but I failed. The paintings that didn’t come to Paris are represented with infrared reflectography, and standing before the large monochrome image of his early “Adoration of the Magi,” you see at scale the polyphonic vortex of the unfinished painting, which never translates in small-scale reproduction. I’ve seen the “Benois Madonna” at the Hermitage, but under bad light and with a crowd. Here, one sees that her toothless smile isn’t toothless at all, and her presence is no less powerful than that of her better-known cousin, the Mona Lisa. Small allegorical drawings, about the size of a large egg, contain fully meaningful and realized worlds within them, rather like the little eggs at the feet of “Leda” contain fully realized little human hatchlings (the image was based on Leonardo’s ideas for a painting based on the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan).
I could go on and on, because Leonardo went on and on, and this exhibition manages to reflect that incessant creativity without abbreviation or excess. One last image troubles me. In a room of drawings and notes that includes his exercises in ornithology and architecture and studies for how light glints off the surface of water, is an unprepossessing sketch of a man’s head and eyes, with the proportions carefully annotated with measuring lines.
If you’ve paid attention to one of the most momentous developments in technology today, the ability of machines to learn and analyze the details and deviations of facial physiognomy, you’ve seen these lines, proportions and measures before, and you know the daunting promise and peril of this new science of looking. With this tool, which extends Leonardo’s basic ambition infinitely beyond the scope of what he could have done with the bare eye, we can now diagnose diseases and monitor the behavior of ordinary citizens walking down the street. Its medical potential could liberate us from our bodily feebleness, and its political potential could ultimately subjugate the entire species to dull, dutiful conformity.
Leonardo knew none of these latter-day Frankenstein fears, nor could he imagine outsourcing the work of our eyes to an impenetrably complicated machine. But he almost certainly knew the limits of trying to divine the meaning of things from the surface of their appearance, and through his life’s work and service to potentates, he knew the ultimate marketability of his knowledge. He was born and died in a world around which the sun and planets still revolved in their orderly, medieval fashion. But if we love him for more than a handful of paintings — which exhibitions like this compel us to do — it is for having pioneered his way from ignorance to knowledge to enlightened and enervating uncertainty, the fundamental spiritual condition of the postmodern, post-liberal, post-democratic age. He lived with that confusion productively, as we must, too.
Leonardo da Vinci: 1452-1519” is on view at the Louvre in Paris through Feb. 24. For more information visit louvre.fr.