This exceptional exhibition ended on February 5 2012. It concentrated on the period in Leonardo's life spent in the service Ludovico il Moro Sforza, The Duke of Milan. Although the exhibition itself contained a mix of paintings and sketches by da Vinci and his followers, in this review I have focused mainly on Leonardo's works.
The first striking thing about the da Vinci Exhibition was the difficulty in obtaining tickets! If you had not already pre-booked then a long queue from very early in the morning is the only way to ensure entry. Having seen the exhibition advertised in September 2011 I made the mistake of hesitating for a few days only to discover that all the advance tickets had sold out. Determined to see this once in a lifetime collection of works by Leonardo I had booked three nights in London with the prime intention of visiting this unique exhibition.
My own experience began on Saturday 21st January arriving at the National Gallery at 7.55 am, some two hours before the ticket office was due to open, it became clear that there was no chance of tickets on that day. The Gallery had an allocation of 500 tickets to sell per-day and an official had calculated by counting from the head of the exceptionally large queue that these would be gone and that there was little point in wasting time waiting for tickets that would not be available.
The disappointment of the crowd was obvious but good humoured. It was not possible to buy tickets for the following day as they are only sold on a day-to-day basis, the only option was to return the next morning and try again.
Having been advised by the Gallery official that the only sure way to gain admission was to arrive early, at least 6 am, I set my alarm for 4.30 am Sunday 22nd January, washed, dressed and set out on the twenty minute walk from my hotel to Trafalgar Square. A considerable queue had already begun to form with people at the very front in sleeping bags having been there since midnight (and I thought that I was dedicated). However, from my position in the growing line of ticket hunters, I was confident that my early rise would be rewarded with success.
I finally purchased my tickets at 11.20 am, six hours after arriving at the Gallery. Was it worth the wait?
Yes, it was.
As I explained earlier this exhibition was unique, it is very unlikely that so many of Leonardo's surviving paintings and sketches, along with examples of works by his followers, will ever be assembled again. The logistics of persuading galleries and collections from around the world to loan their star attractions may prove to be impossible.
The National Gallery had organised the exhibition within seven rooms, mainly in the Sainsbury Wing and also the Sunley Room of the Gallery. The organisation was impressive, tickets are time-based ensuring that the exhibition is not overcrowded allowing for close up viewing of the exhibits in a full, but not overcrowded environment. (My own slot was for 6.00/6.30 pm entry time, once inside you could stay for as long as you like)
ROOM 1:- This room provided a strong start to the exhibition, it contained paintings by Leonardo such as The Musician, opposite. Also known as Portrait of a young man it was revolutionary because of the sitters pose engaging with the viewer and breaking with the traditional strict profile portraiture favoured at the Court of Milan. The pose of the sitter was much imitated by Leonardo's pupils such as Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio's painting Portrait of a young Man which was also displayed in Room 1. Also in this room were several excellent drawings by Leonardo and his followers so there was a lot of information to study and absorb.
ROOM 2 :- In my opinion Room 2 displayed two of the finest portraits ever painted in the history of art. The Lady with an Ermine (right) and La Belle Ferroniere (far right) are sublime examples of Leonardo's technique. They are complete works from an artist who finished so very few of his paintings. The Lady with an Ermine was Cecilia Gallerani the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, The Duke of Milan and Leonardo's employer. Although the identity of La Belle Ferroniere is by no means clear another of Ludovico Sforza's mistress' Lucrezia Crivelli remains as a prime candidate.
ROOM 3:- The unfinished painting of St Jerome (right) was the highlight of room 3. The oil on walnut panel depicts the saint as an old man holding a rock with which he is ready to beat his breast in penance. A typical Leonardo landscape fills the background and the overhanging rocks separate this from the barely sketched image of a church seen on the right of the painting. There were also several anatomical studies in room 3. They highlight Leonardo's interest in the muscles of the neck, arms and legs, shown here together with St Jerome, these drawings are a testament to the artist's constant search for perfection in his art.
ROOM 4:- I have been privileged to see both versions of the Virgin of the Rocks previously, the Louvre, Paris version (right) and the National Gallery, London version (far right). However, my viewing of these two works was separated by a gap of several years. This exhibition had brought the two paintings together in the same room for the first time ever. It was an inspired decision by the organisers and allowed a close comparison of the paintings to be made in real time. Room 4 also contained sketches by Leonardo many showing his drawings in preparation for the Virgin paintings. Works by his followers and pupils were also on display.
ROOM 5:- The Madonna Litta (left) is now generally accepted as a work by Leonardo. Previous attributions have suggested that this could be a product of Leonardo's workshop or even the work of his most gifted pupil, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. Room 5 had a wealth of drawings relating to this painting. The studies of a baby and the excellent head of a woman make a compelling case for the Leonardo attribution. Seeing the paintings with the studies that relate to the work was a theme of the exhibition.
ROOM 6:- In this room, we had the very recently authenticated Salvator Mundi (right). The version on the far right in the red tunic (not in the exhibition) was thought to be by Leonardo but has now been largely dismissed by experts and is possibly by one of Leonardo's followers. Personally, I always had doubts about the red tunic version and stated as much in my article over three years ago. Room 6 also displayed The Burlington House Cartoon, depicting The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist.
The greatly deteriorated mural of The Last Supper (above) in the monastery of Santa delle Grazie Milan remains in its original location. The organizers of the exhibition had displayed a sixteenth-century copy by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli known as Giampietrino. The copy, faithful to Leonardo's design and free from damage, allowed the viewer to imagine the majesty of the original and the excitement that it generated when it was first unveiled. All of the surviving drawings connected to the work were on display in room 7, they provided an insight into the artist's working methods.
My time at this exhibition certainly improved my understanding of Leonardo's methodical working technique. I had purchased the Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition Catalogue for the bargain price of £15 (was £25) it is packed with comprehensive details of the artist's works, his methods, history of the paintings along with the work of his pupils and followers. This-319 page book is lavishly illustrated with all of the paintings and drawings displayed at the exhibition, a must for all Leonardo lovers (if you can still get your hands on one). I also bought a print of The Lady with an Ermine, I just could not resist a copy of this excellent painting.
Overall the National Gallery has excelled itself in its presentation and organisation of this fantastic event. The pain of the long queue has faded but, for an art nut like myself, the memory of the masterpieces on display will last forever. (Have a look at the video)