The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan – opening last week to coincide with the beginning of the Milan Expo on 1 May – is not to be missed, even if the show misses some opportunities itself.
Unfortunately pipped to the post by London's Leonardo exhibition just three years ago, which actually focused in his two-decade stay in Milan, the curators here have decided to put his whole life and career on a timeline, together with works by his contemporaries. Paintings, drawings, sketches, manuscripts and codexes are shown alongside works by his Florentine contemporaries and predecessors: Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Paolo Uccello and the architect Donato Bramante, among others. Leonardo's teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, is represented by several paintings, but his marble bust Lady with a Bunch of Flowers, brought in from Florence, is the most exquisite.
While certain loans are impossible to hope for – though they did dare to ask for the Mona Lisa – a generous Louvre has given three paintings: La belle ferronnière, John the Baptist and the small-scale Annunciation. St Jerome in the Wilderness has been loaned by the Vatican Museums, and Washington has shipped across their Dreyfus Madonna, or Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate, which is attributed to Leonardo or Lorenzo di Credi, depending on which catalogue you read, and, while it seems too fine for di Credi, it doesn't seem quite at Leonardo's level. Splendid all the same.
Parma has lent the gorgeous head of a woman, La Scapigliata, an oil on canvas of his mature years with her Virgin of the Rocks gaze. The Portrait of a Musician came from just around the corner, Milan's Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, as did several other loans. The Musician's solemn expression seems at odds with the scrap of paper in his hand (a sheet of music) as though he's presenting the bill for his services; maybe it was sketched in as an afterthought.
Leaving aside the Mona Lisa, the two most iconic Leonardo images are those of The Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man. Well the latter has been given, for a short period only (several works will be disappearing before mid-May) by the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. However, as The Last Supper is painted on a Milanese wall it certainly couldn't be part of the exhibition and, similarly, his ceiling decoration in the Sala delle Asse in Milan's Sforza Castle.
And here's my chance to mention what I see as missed opportunities… The Last Supper certainly cannot be moved, but Leonardo's Study for Saint James for The Last Supper – one of thirty drawings on loan from the Royal Collection – is already in the exhibition; why not underline the fact? A major show about Leonardo in the city where he spent a large period of his life doesn't stress the fact that we are walking in his shadow as we go around Milan. When we look at the canals he helped to design, or the mechanism for raising and lowering water levels (his design for a canal lock for San Marco is in the Codex Atlanticus, housed in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, but not on show), we are getting closer to Leonardo, just as when we look at his paintings. At one time he even lived in the Corte Vecchia, where Palazzo Reale now stands. Another room on ‘Leonardo and Milan' would have been appropriate.
What “Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519. Il disegno del mondo” [Drawing the World] does do so well is that with its large quantity of designs and notes it conveys the passion and energy of Leonardo, his curiosity and the intensity of his work. In the Deluge drawings or the similar curls of John the Baptist's hair there is fervent vigour which makes the water violently swirl and gives the stillness of the Baptist's pose the pulse of life. Works by his contemporaries seem almost flat and static by comparison.
As every divided Kingdom falls, so every intellect divided between different studies is confused and weakened.
If this is the artist and scientist weak and confused, what on earth would he have produced if he'd focused on just one thing!
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Piazza Duomo from April 16th to July 19th, 2015
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.