In addition to Cecilia's portrait from Krakow, Poland, there's the Louvre's "La Belle Ferronnière" and "The Virgin of the Rocks"; "Portrait of a Musician" from Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana; the Vatican's unfinished "Saint Jerome"; "The Madonna Litta" from Russia's Hermitage; and "Christ as Salvator Mundi," a panel only recently — and quite convincingly — attributed to the artist. ("Ginevra de' Benci," painted in Florence, and the "Mona Lisa," painted after he left Milan, are excluded.) The National Gallery's own later version of "The Virgin of the Rocks" stands across the room from the Louvre's altarpiece. A Scottish private collection lent "The Madonna of the Yarnwinder," finished by another hand.
A full-scale copy of "The Last Supper" by his pupil Giampietrino (1500-50) hangs in a room upstairs. Filled with long-lost details from the prototype, it displays little of Leonardo's painterly skill, but compensation comes from 17 drawings for the original.
The absence of prior museum presentations has contributed in turn to the corruption of Leonardo's artistic reputation. The subtitle "Painter at the Court of Milan" is no accident: Syson means to rescue him from what might be called the Dan Brown Effect — the cheesy caricaturing of Leonardo's wide-ranging interests, keen mind and serious ambitions. The show is not a fanciful tale of religious apostasy, fake secret societies or even hypothetical flying machines. Instead it's the urbane — and more riveting — story of a supremely gifted artist coming to maturity.
Leonardo matters most as a painter. The show persuasively argues that his 1482 departure from the rich mercantile city of Florence, cradle of the Italian Renaissance, for the cruder, more bumptious northern city of Milan set the stage for his artistic blossoming. As court painter employed by the city's ruler, he found security and freedom that allowed his talents to blossom.
The arrangement also represented mutual need. Sforza — called Il Moro (the Moor) because of his swarthy complexion — was but the regent for a hereditary duke as yet too young to govern. His grasp on power was tenuous. To boost his standing, Sforza took a cue from Florence's all-powerful Medici family, deciding to re-create Milan as a cultural capital with himself as its leading patron.
Meanwhile, Leonardo, 30, needed work. Artists for hire in Florence functioned in a competitive milieu, unduly ruled by patrons' whims. But in Milan he found a full-time employer for whom a court painter relocated from the shining city of Florence could add luster to the mantle of authority. For more than 16 years, the relationship between artist and patron flourished.
Leonardo was born outside the rural Tuscan hill town of Vinci on April 15, 1452, the illegitimate son of a peasant girl and a prosperous notary. A homosexual, he faced intransigent social hurdles. Apprenticed at 14 to the successful Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, he had a leg up when he set out for Milan. But the lack of prospects earlier in life may finally have been a help if he was going to paint: Smart, but not born to privilege and schooling, he needed to look and to look hard.
Drawing, as the most direct record of artistic thought, was critical. The show's drawings — studies for neck muscles, drapery folds, feet, various saints, the nervous system, buildings and more — are not merely ancillary. A sheet that records numerous studies for a dog's paw shown frontally, in profile and in different angled views resonates with Cecilia and her ermine: You watch Leonardo slowly turning the paw around in his mind.
Also critical, he believed that the human soul resided in the head. Eyes connected the outside world to the spiritual mind, while bodily motions — properly understood — could reflect the mind's movements.
That's one reason the newly attributed "Christ as Salvator Mundi" looms large. Thought to have been painted for France's King Louis XII after his troops drove Il Moro from Milan, Christ is shown holding a heavy, flawless sphere impossibly cut from rock crystal. An emblem of worldly perfection, the sphere's clear quartz refracts light, delicately altering the hand's perspective. The diffused blue color of the robe behind it repeats in the limpid orbs of his eyes, linking hand to divine vision.
Christ's two eyes, anticipating Mona Lisa's a few years on, are of two subtly different aspects. One looks straight at you, acknowledging your being. The other looks past you, taking in the cosmos.
In turn, you look straight at the painting — and past it too, taking in the "mundi" (the world) that Leonardo both encompassed and created. Material substance merges with immaterial spirit, forming a boundless reservoir of charity and faith.