PARIS — Expectations have been high for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that is being mounted at the Louvre to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. For months, there has been speculation, about which works would travel to the Louvre, about the geopolitical backstory to each potential loan, and about a problematic but fascinating painting known as the “Salvator Mundi,” which sold at auction for more than $450 million to controversial Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salam, in 2017. Leonardo da Vinci: 1452-1519 is on view at the Louvre in Paris through Feb. 24, 2020.
“Salvator Mundi,” which is rumored to be owned by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi prince who the CIA believes ordered the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is not in the show. The exquisite “Benois Madonna,” which travels from its home at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg exceedingly rarely, is. The unfinished “Saint Jerome,” seen recently in New York, has been lent by the Vatican, and a soulful portrait of a young musician, from Milan, has also made the trip.
Virgin of the Rocks - Leonardo Da Vinci (Completed 1486)
In 2012, the National Gallery in London mounted a show focused on Leonardo’s years as a court artist in Milan, and the highlight of that exhibition was the juxtaposition of its “Virgin of the Rocks” (which may have been made in collaboration with Leonardo’s assistants) with a version from the Louvre. But the London painting has not traveled to Paris, lending force to then National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny’s prediction that it was a once-in-a-lifeime pairing “unlikely ever to be repeated.”
Leonardo da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa about 1503
and it Was in His Studio When He Died in 1519
So Leonardo completists who come to Paris with a checklist may be disappointed. But take one step past the fame of the Mona Lisa (which is on view at the Louvre in another gallery) and a wholly different and more interesting Leonardo emerges. That Leonardo is well represented in all his brilliance and richness. Many of the artist’s most important drawings and sketches are in the show, including the large format and emotionally incandescent Burlington House cartoon (depicting the Virgin, Saint Anne, and the infant Christ and John the Baptist), the rigorous perspective drawing for the unfinished “Adoration of the Magi” and the stunning painted drapery sketches made in the earliest years of his career. The most famous drawing of them all, the Vitruvian Man (a naked male figure inscribed in a circle and a square), wasn’t yet on the wall after a last-minute legal battle over its departure from Italy. But the unattached label was leaning against the blank panel on which it will be hung.
Leonardo da Vinci, Draperie Saint-Morys "Seated figure"
Attributed to Francesco Melzi. Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci
Red Chalk on White Paper
Only one major episode of Leonardo’s life isn’t covered in depth: the story of the enormous bronze equestrian statue made for his patron Ludovico Sforza, the clay model of which was supposedly blown apart by French soldiers after they stormed Milan in 1499. But the rest of his life is fully present. Visitors are greeted by the great masterpiece of his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio’s monumental bronze “Christ and Saint Thomas” (as overwhelming as anything else in the show), and are sent home with the memory of a work by one of his most talented and devoted pupils, Francesco Melzi’s iconic portrait of an elderly, bearded and benignly careworn Leonardo, made in the last years of the master’s life.
In between, works by contemporaries complicate superficial ideas about his meteoric genius, and small, delicate drawings teem with an abundance of ideas — paintings never made, thoughts adumbrated then abandoned. Under low light, these faded, wispy clippings from the cutting-room floor suggest a superfluity of ideas that might have supplied a lifetime of inspiration to other artists. All aspects of his life as an artist, scholar, scientist, engineer, military adviser and archaeologist are documented in drawings. Artists, like Rembrandt and Leonardo, made St. Jerome lovable.
There are, on this planet, only about 15 extant paintings confidently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and if you were to mark their locations with pins on a map, you would have a reliable record of several of the Western world’s lost or fading empires.
Leonardo da Vinci - Virgin and Child, Benon Madonna
The “Benois Madonna,” from St. Petersburg, was bought by Czar Nicholas II for what was then a record price in 1914, only four years before he and his family were gunned down in a basement room far from their former palaces. There is an early portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, in Washington, which was for a long time the only Leonardo painting outside Europe when the National Gallery of Art acquired it in 1967 at the height of the space race (it never travels and isn’t in the Paris show). And the United Kingdom has “The Virgin of the Rocks,” which it acquired in the 18th century.
J.F.K. Marie Madeleine Lioux André Malraux Jackie L.B. Johnson Unveiling Mona Lisa at National Gallery of Art
In his lifetime, Leonardo was a cultural export, from Florence under the Medicis to the upstart court of Milan, and a cultural import, from Milan to France. His paintings used to be tools of cultural diplomacy. "The Mona Lisa" visited the United States in 1963, when France briefly admired America under its young president, John F. Kennedy.
The Louvre Museum in Paris
But Leonardos are likely to travel less in the future, as museums depend on them to validate the touristic-spiritual yearnings of their millions of visitors, and as nations hold them more closely, ossified symbols of national prestige in an age of resurgent nationalism. So a Leonardo exhibition without the major paintings is simply a sign of the times. But every exhibition devoted to Leonardo must grapple with the basic question: Why did a man who lived into his late 60s — a man who was ceaselessly inventive, who left thousands of pages of meticulous drawings and notes, whose personal beauty, intelligence and discourse charmed everyone with what we would now call star power and celebrity — leave behind so few finished works? Was he undisciplined and distracted, or thwarted by his own perfectionism? Did his ambition entice him to draft the basic lines of paintings he could never realize in paint? Did he intentionally withhold his genius from a public he considered unworthy?
Beginning in the 19th century, the most common answer has had to do with his pursuit of science. His interest in painting was only an extension of his deeper interest in the material world. He thought through the visual world by analogy, looking for affinities between the way hair curled and water eddied, between human anatomy and the life of trees and animals, and the structure of the Earth and heavens. But as he became increasingly preoccupied with scientific questions, he got lost in the process of looking into the world.
The exhibition’s curators, Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, argue with that conclusion. It may seem, says a wall text, that science was “an endless, multifaceted labyrinth in which the painter . . . ultimately lost his way.” But, “this disappearance is illusory.” Rather, it was the process of looking, observing and working out problems in myriad ways (in diagrams on paper, with paint on wood, in his writings and in his head) that mattered to Leonardo. His energies and endeavors were part of one holistic enterprise.
Leonardo Da Vinci Backward Writing
Leonardo’s own writing partially confirms that. He said, “The divinity which is the science of painting transmutes the painter’s mind into a resemblance of the divine mind.” How do we take that? As a simple indication that, when the painter is painting, his intelligence and creativity somehow mimic what God is said to have done in creating the world? Or that the painter is literally transformed through the process of painting into a state of intellectual ecstasy that approaches the divine? That would certainly explain why he preferred the act of painting to the making of finished paintings.
The Louvre curators won’t go that far, and for the most part they keep the exhibition closely focused on the visual data, the major preparatory works for the great paintings and supporting evidence for lost works such as the unfinished “Battle of Anghiari” (represented in the show by a vital 16th-century copy displayed next to Aristotile da Sangallo’s essential copy of Michelangelo’s lost “Battle of Cascina”). But one can’t gather this much of Leonardo’s opus without explosive things happening. And the thrilling aftereffect of this show is how closely it entangles even skeptical visitors in the persistent myth of Leonardo’s superhuman intelligence.
The Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci - 1498
I resisted, but I failed. The paintings that didn’t come to Paris are represented with infrared reflectography, and standing before the large monochrome image of his early “Adoration of the Magi,” you see at scale the polyphonic vortex of the unfinished painting, which never translates in small-scale reproduction. I’ve seen the “Benois Madonna” at the Hermitage, but under bad light and with a crowd. Here, one sees that her toothless smile isn’t toothless at all, and her presence is no less powerful than that of her better-known cousin, the Mona Lisa. Small allegorical drawings, about the size of a large egg, contain fully meaningful and realized worlds within them, rather like the little eggs at the feet of “Leda” contain fully realized little human hatchlings (the image was based on Leonardo’s ideas for a painting based on the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan).
Green light for Leonardo's Vitruvian Man to go to Louvre
An Italian appellate court has overturned the ban on the loan of the celebrated drawing. In its conclusion, the court noted that in making its decision it considered “the exceptional global importance of the [Louvre’s Leonardo] exhibition”, Italy’s aspiration to promote its cultural heritage abroad, and the intrinsic value of a collaboration and exchange with France that will see a reciprocating loan of paintings and drawings by Raphael from the Louvre to Rome next year for an exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s death.
The Vitruvian Man was created by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1487. It is accompanied by notes based on the work of the famed architect, Vitruvius Pollio. The drawing, which is in pen and ink on paper, depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and square.
I could go on and on, because Leonardo went on and on, and this exhibition manages to reflect that incessant creativity without abbreviation or excess. In a room of drawings and notes that includes his exercises in ornithology and architecture and studies for how light glints off the surface of water, is an unprepossessing sketch of a man’s head and eyes, with the proportions carefully annotated with measuring lines.
Leonardo da Vinci Inventions - Water Wheel
If you’ve paid attention to one of the most momentous developments in technology today, the ability of machines to learn and analyze the details and deviations of facial physiognomy, you’ve seen these lines, proportions and measures before, and you know the daunting promise and peril of this new science of looking. With this tool, which extends Leonardo’s basic ambition infinitely beyond the scope of what he could have done with the bare eye, we can now diagnose diseases and monitor the behavior of ordinary citizens walking down the street. Its medical potential could liberate us from our bodily feebleness, and its political potential could ultimately subjugate the entire species to dull, dutiful conformity.
Leonardo da Vinci Architecture Designs
Leonardo knew none of these latter-day Frankenstein fears, nor could he imagine outsourcing the work of our eyes to an impenetrably complicated machine. But he almost certainly knew the limits of trying to divine the meaning of things from the surface of their appearance, and through his life’s work and service to potentates, he knew the ultimate marketability of his knowledge. He was born and died in a world around which the sun and planets still revolved in their orderly, medieval fashion. But if we love him for more than a handful of paintings — which exhibitions like this compel us to do — it is for having pioneered his way from ignorance to knowledge to enlightened and enervating uncertainty, the fundamental spiritual condition of the postmodern, post-liberal, post-democratic age. He lived with that confusion productively, as we must, too.
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) was an Italian polymath of the Renaissance whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, and cartography. He is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time, despite perhaps only 15 of his paintings having survived. The "Mona Lisa" is the most famous of his works and the most popular portrait ever made. "The Last Supper" is the most reproduced religious painting of all time and his "Vitruvian Man" drawing is regarded as a cultural icon as well. Leonardo's paintings and preparatory drawings—together with his notebooks, which contain sketches, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting—compose a contribution to later generations of artists rivalled only by that of his contemporary Michelangelo.
Leonardo's Childhome in Anchiano Vinci
Leonardo was born out of wedlock to notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina in Vinci in the region of Florence, and he was educated in the studio of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna, and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I.
Francis I of France Receiving the Last Breath of Leonardo da Vinci
(by Ingres 1818)
Verrocchio's Workshop: Painting showing Jesus, naked except for a loin-cloth, standing in a shallow stream in a rocky landscape, while to the right, John the Baptist, identifiable by the cross that he carries, tips water over Jesus' head. Two angels kneel at the left. Above Jesus are the hands of God, and a dove descending.
The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475), Uffizi, by Verrocchio and Leonardo
In the mid-1460s, Leonardo's family moved to Florence, and around the age of 14, he became a garzone (studio boy) in the workshop of Verrocchio, who was the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his time. Leonardo became an apprentice by the age of 17 and remained in training for seven years. Other famous painters apprenticed in the workshop or associated with it include Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi. Leonardo was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills,including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, and wood-work, as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting, and modelling.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo kept his private life secret. His sexuality has been the subject of satire, analysis, and speculation. This trend began in the mid-16th century and was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably by Sigmund Freud. Leonardo's most intimate relationships were perhaps with his pupils Salaì and Melzi. Melzi, writing to inform Leonardo's brothers of his death, described Leonardo's feelings for his pupils as both loving and passionate. It has been claimed since the 16th century that these relationships were of a sexual or erotic nature. Court records of 1476, when he was aged twenty-four, show that Leonardo and three other young men were charged with sodomy in an incident involving a well-known male prostitute. The charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, and there is speculation that since one of the accused, Lionardo de Tornabuoni, was related to Lorenzo de' Medici, the family exerted its influence to secure the dismissal. Since that date much has been written about his presumed homosexuality and its role in his art, particularly in the androgyny and eroticism manifested in John the Baptist and Bacchus and more explicitly in a number of erotic drawings.
John the Baptist (c. 1513–16), Louvre
Leonardo is Thought to Have used Salaì as the Model
Assistants and pupils: Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed Salaì or Il Salaino ("The Little Unclean One," i.e., the devil), entered Leonardo's household in 1490. After only a year, Leonardo made a list of his misdemeanours, calling him "a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton," after he had made off with money and valuables on at least five occasions and spent a fortune on clothes. Nevertheless, Leonardo treated him with great indulgence, and he remained in Leonardo's household for the next thirty years. Salaì executed a number of paintings under the name of Andrea Salaì, but although Vasari claims that Leonardo "taught him a great deal about painting," his work is generally considered to be of less artistic merit than others among Leonardo's pupils, such as Marco d'Oggiono and Boltraffio. In 1515, he painted a nude version of the Mona Lisa, known as Monna Vanna. Salaì owned the Mona Lisa at the time of his death in 1524, and in his will it was assessed at 505 lire, an exceptionally high valuation for a small panel portrait. In 1506, Leonardo took on another pupil, Count Francesco Melzi, the son of a Lombard aristocrat, who is considered to have been his favourite student. He travelled to France with Leonardo and remained with him until Leonardo's death. Melzi inherited the artistic and scientific works, manuscripts, and collections of Leonardo and administered the estate.
Art lovers have for centuries debated the reason for her enigmatic smile. Now it appears Mona Lisa may have been hiding a remarkable secret – she was a he. An art historian claims the model in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was one of his male muses, a young man called Gian Giacomo Caprotti, whose nose and mouth bear striking similarities to those of Mona Lisa.
Salai - Leonardo da Vinci Favorite Male Model and Apprentice
Similarities: Italian art historian Silvano Vinceti believes that the model for both the Mona Lisa and St John the Baptist (right) was Gian Giacomo Caprotti (Salai) worked as an apprentice with the artist for more than two decades from 1490 and they were rumoured to have been lovers. Some experts had already suggested Leonardo could have based his masterpiece on a self portrait. But Silvano Vinceti, a researcher who has been analysing the painting using state-of-the-art high-magnification techniques, also claims to have found the letter ‘S’ in the model’s eyes, which may be a reference to Salai. Several of Leonardo’s works, including St John the Baptist and a drawing called Angel Incarnate, are said to have been based on Salai. Mr Vinceti, president of Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage, said these paintings depict a slender, effeminate young man with long auburn curls and almost identical facial features to the Mona Lisa. ‘Salai was a favourite model for Leonardo,’ he said.
‘Leonardo certainly inserted characteristics of Salai in the last version of the Mona Lisa.’ Most experts believe the model for the Mona Lisa, which hangs at the Louvre in Paris, was Lisa Gherardini, the 24-year-old wife of a rich Florentine silk merchant. They say Leonardo started painting her in 1503. But Mr Vinceti claims he may have started in the late 1490s in Milan, coinciding with the time he built up a relationship with Salai.
Salai as a Female
His claims have caused a stir in the art world, with many dismissing the idea that Mona Lisa was a man. Da Vinci expert Pietro Marani said the theory was ‘groundless’. The art professor at Milan’s Politecnico university said: ‘All Leonardo subjects look like each other because he represents an abstract ideal of beauty. They all have this dual characteristic of masculine and feminine. ‘The work began as the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, but over the years it slowly turned into something else; an idealised portrait, not a specific one. ‘That’s also why you have this fascinating face that transcends time and transcends a specific person, and why all these theories keep piling up.’