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It is tempting for biographers of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) to wax poetic about the artist’s supernatural talents and divine genius, but instead the Louvre’s blockbuster exhibition Léonard de Vinci offered a cerebral and technical approach to understanding the old master’s virtuosic oeuvre. Cocurated by Vincent Delieuvin, the Louvre’s curator of paintings, and Louis Frank, curator of drawings and prints, this much-anticipated retrospective coincided with the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s death. As stated in the wall text and accompanying booklet, the primary goal of the exhibition was to demonstrate “Leonardo’s revolutionary approach,” which “aimed to make painting a science encompassing the whole physical world, able to express the truth of appearances.” Drawing from the Louvre’s collection with select loans from across Europe and the United States, the exhibition featured more than 175 total works, including roughly 120 drawings attributed to Leonardo, nine paintings by the master and his workshop, seventeen infrared reflectograms, and dozens of sculptures and paintings by students and other artists in his milieu.
The curatorial logic gravitated around four themes pertinent to Leonardo’s goals as a draftsman and painter. The introductory theme, “Light, Shade, Relief,” recalled his training as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s Florentine workshop. With a dramatic spotlight on Verrocchio’s bronze sculpture Christ and Saint Thomas (1467–83) surrounded by two-dimensional drapery studies by Verrocchio and Leonardo, the scenography emphasized how Renaissance artists used chiaroscuro, or the play of light and dark, to create a sense of volume within two dimensional images. While Leonardo’s quest to achieve subtle gradations of shadow led him to favor oil painting, the possibilities and limitations of different media were evoked through works such as Alesso Baldovinetti’s Virgin and Child (1464), painted with distemper and tempera grassa, and Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin (1471–74), painted in oil.
Leonardo achieved professional independence in 1478, and the second theme of the exhibition, “Freedom,” explored how this allowed him to develop a unique style of drawing that endowed figures with a sense of movement. Leonardo’s practice of “intuitive composition,” or componimento inculto, was demonstrated by drawing studies such as Madonna with a Fruit Bowl (1478–80), wherein the clean contour lines of the Virgin’s face and torso contrast with the spontaneous gestural marks that give baby Jesus’s legs a dynamic quality. Thanks to a loan from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia, visitors could see how Leonardo’s intuitive approach to drawing translated into his oil painting technique of sfumato, which produced the soft edges and “smoky” tonalities evident in the Benois Madonna (ca. 1480–82).
While the display of Leonardo’s preparatory studies in proximity to the finished paintings offered invaluable insights, the exhibition was also notable for its inclusion of nontraditional media. Seventeen infrared reflectograms provided a view typically reserved for specialists in the conservation laboratory. These full-scale, hyperspectral images reveal carbon drawings hidden beneath the final layers of paint. As such, they offer clues about compositional changes, or pentimenti, that Leonardo made while completing a work. However, the technical process of creating and interpreting infrared reflectograms was insufficiently explained for the general audience, and most of them hung in galleries separated from their corresponding paintings, limiting their comparative potential. Importantly, this exhibition strategy allowed reflectograms to stand in for key paintings not loaned for the retrospective. Notable among this category were the reflectograms of Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ (ca. 1468–78) featuring an angel painted by Leonardo, in addition to Leonardo’s Annunciation (ca. 1470–74), his unfinished Adoration of the Magi (1480–82), and the portrait Lady with an Ermine (ca. 1485–90).
In 1482 Leonardo left Florence seeking patronage in the Milanese court of Duke Ludovico Sforza. As articulated in a subsection, “The Milan Years,” this strategic move resulted in one of Leonardo’s most productive periods (1482–99), when he explored everything from fortification design to theatrical apparatuses, architecture, music, and anatomy. It also led him to produce paintings such as the enigmatic portrait of a woman known as La Belle Ferronnière (1483–90), which was featured in the exhibition’s promotional materials. The pamphlet explains that while the identity of the sitter remains disputed, the subject’s intense gaze, dynamic three-quarters position, and sense of self-awareness highlight how Leonardo “revolutionized the female portrait genre.” Other artworks from Leonardo’s Milan period included his unfinished Penitent Saint Jerome (ca. 1480–90), loaned by the Vatican, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Musical Score (ca. 1483–90), and the Louvre’s Virgin of the Rocks (ca. 1483–94).
Leonardo’s insatiable interest in geology, botany, and natural philosophy is evident in the unusual cave-like setting for Virgin of the Rocks, a painting that smoothly transitioned into the third theme of the exhibition, “Science.” Here, visitors could inspect Leonardo’s prolific notebooks with sketches and backward mirror-script writing documenting his investigations into optics, geometry, anatomy, hydraulics, and more. Though the curators chose not to include any of Leonardo’s reconstructed machines in the exhibition, the manuscripts—crowded into vitrines in a manner that lacked a clear visitor pathway—highlighted Leonardo’s collaboration with mathematicians, anatomists, and intellectuals from the court of Milan and the University of Pavia. As articulated in the wall text, “The comprehensive nature of Leonardo’s quest for knowledge stemmed from the fact that he was no longer content to study appearances; in order to convey their truth, he needed an understanding of the phenomena from the inside—an awareness of the laws that govern them which . . . he regarded as fundamentally mathematical in nature.”
“Life,” the final theme of the exhibition, explored how Leonardo’s scientific approach to painting created “a modern art capable of imitating the inner movement of life.” The Last Supper (ca. 1494–98) remained attached to the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, but the exhibition featured a full-scale copy painted in oil by his student Marco d’Oggiorno between 1506 and 1509. Since the original has deteriorated significantly, this copy is invaluable for understanding the physical and psychological responses of each apostle.
After the 1499 invasion of Milan by French king Louis XII, Leonardo moved back to Florence and established a workshop of his own. The subsection “Return to Florence” charted the mature phase of Leonardo’s career and evoked the lost cartoon for Battle of Anghiari by displaying preparatory drawings and later copies. Despite the conspicuous absence of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (Cook version), which broke auction records in 2017, the exhibition’s grand finale included the National Gallery of London’s cartoon The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1500) hung near his paintings Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and the Infant Jesus Playing with a Lamb (ca. 1503–19) and Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1508–19). The final subsection, “Relocation to France,” offered a coda to explain the last three years of Leonardo’s life, when he moved to France at the request of King Francis I. Though the exhibition provided little visual evidence of Leonardo’s artistic activities during his final years, this section reminded visitors why French collections contain so many of his works.
Given that Leonardo completed so few paintings throughout his life, the Louvre’s emphasis on his intellectual and technical process was highly effective. However, something was lost in the single-minded pursuit of this goal: Leonardo’s human side. Apart from the names of key patrons and students, personal details of his life remained unexplored. Apocryphal biographies such as that by Giorgio Vasari (1550) require a healthy amount of skepticism, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that visitors never learned about Leonardo’s sharp wit, dazzling sartorial choices, or vegetarianism. His presumed homosexuality was also unexamined. The free exhibition booklet distributed online and in print offers rich commentary in French and English, yet conditions within the crowded gallery were not conducive to casual reading. From the dim lighting necessary to preserve the fragile drawings to the crush of visitors packed into the space, the constraints of the Louvre’s temporary exhibition hall were not ideal. The numbering system placed above the artworks created confusion, particularly because several works were substituted over the course of the exhibition. Whereas visitors between October and mid-December saw Leonardo’s Study of a Tuscan Landscape (1473) and Vitruvian Man (ca. 1489–90), visitors in later months saw Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel (ca. 1470–75) and an alternative drawing instead. The exhibition catalog has not been translated into English, but the essays therein expound upon key themes while providing additional archival evidence and insights from recent conservation science.
Criticisms aside, visitors will not soon forget this exhibition. The Louvre partnered with HTC Vive Arts to create a virtual reality experience to “meet” the Mona Lisa since the original painting remained in the museum’s permanent collection upstairs. Some art history traditionalists may scoff at the inclusion of this new media, yet the eight-minute-long, pedagogically rich experience Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass introduced the painting’s secrets and offered visitors the uncanny sensation of seeing the model, Lisa del Giocondo, move in virtual space. It further indulged them with the sensation of flying in one of Leonardo’s theoretical machines. Digital detractors aside, the VR experience was enthusiastically received by the public and is unlikely to be the Louvre’s last venture into digital mediation. Certainly, if Leonardo were alive today, the Renaissance polymath would be eager to experiment with new media and fresh methods of creating illusionistic space.
Assistant Professor, Parsons Paris, The New School
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