This collection of portraits, altar pieces and exquisite draftsmanship tells the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s evolving vision under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, in the late 15th century.
Leonardo was already an accomplished artist and musician in Florence. He was attracted to the Milanese court by its reputation for valuing talented individuals.
Leonardo’s influence on the artistic explosion that prefigured the Enlightenment was almost unique.
The image of Leonardo at Milan suggested by the exhibition is that of a fantastically talented journeyman emerging as a master and then raising himself onto the territory of genius.
This narrative is conveyed through a sequence of rooms, each with a seminal work as its central focus and an important aesthetic idea as its theme.
These range from The Musician, where Leonardo begins to challenge the conventions of 15th century portraiture, to Christ Salvator Mundi, which shows the pinnacle of the artist’s mastery of his material.
This tension is fascinating. We are used to seeing Leonardo as a visionary who observed the principles of flight in the anatomy of birds and designed a helicopter based on the aerodynamics of a floating seed. We are used to thinking about him in terms of a bold, irrevocable break with medieval ideas.
This is partly because it suits a particular view of progress, whereby humanity periodically lurches forward, pushed by the genius of brilliant individuals.
But it makes more sense to look for the source of that genius in the forward momentum of his society rather than trying to credit Leonardo with the dynamics of a generation.
When we look at Leonardo’s paintings, we are struck by the “plausibility” of the figures. We know that this is a result of his scrupulous and unprecedented studies of anatomy.
But there is a world of difference between plausibility and naturalism.
In all his figures Leonardo has intentionally corrected features to correspond to “divine geometry” and an abstract ideal human form. But that isn’t to say that his paintings are without realism.
His appreciation and study of the most intimate details of expression render his subjects dynamic and vital in a way that truly sets him apart from the bulk of his contemporaries.
These expressions elicit a viewer’s empathy and give Leonardo’s subjects an emotional reality.
He was ideologically compelled to confirm divine “perfection” in his images, but the intimate detail points beyond that abstraction.
The affection displayed for the infant Christ in the Madonna Litta, and the haunting gaze of the Christ Salvator Mundi are not those of apparitions.
They are unmistakably the stuff of flesh and blood human beings.
This is the real virtue of the exhibition—a vision of Leonardo not as an inscrutable genius, but as an artist wrestling with the contradictions of his era.
Most wonderful of all is the discovery that, although his work is constantly reaching for the divine, it is perpetually drawn back to its true subject—humanity and the natural world out of which it is formed.
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is at the National Gallery in London until 5 February 2012. Admission £8-£16 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/