"Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan," at the National Gallery in London [through Feb. 5], restricts itself to the commissioned esthetic output of the scientific innovator. Nonetheless, the show is full of surprises and accomplishments. Here, specifically, is why Ludovico Sforza, the powerful Duke of Milan, named Leonardo the official artist of the Milanese court.
Da Vinci's work, and specifically his 1503–04 Mona Lisa, is so synonymous with the idea of the "masterpiece" that his myriad other talents can often be overlooked. On display are da Vinci's two versions of Virgin of the Rocks (1492–99, 1506–08), notable for their use of sfumato (a gentle blurring of light and shadows) and because this is the first time the two works have been presented together.
For Cecilia Gallerani, The Lady with the Ermine (1489–90), da Vinci approached the commission to portray Sforza's 16-year-old mistress with the intention of both honoring her, as was tradition in Renaissance portraiture, while simultaneously eroticizing her. In the catalogue, exhibition curator Luke Syson says Leonardo "triumphed in creating a portrait that was true to life yet forever beautiful."
A true revelation is the suggestion of a heretofore-unknown da Vinci Academy, witnessed in the 1495 Knot Pattern engraving centrally inscribed with "Academia Leonardi Vinci," a school apparently formed to emulate that of Greek philosopher Plato. Equally shocking is the revelation that preparatory drawings for The Last Supper (1492-98) initially perceived to be da Vinci's might in fact have been by the hand of his pupils, as suggested by heavy outlines and clumsy execution of Judas's hands.
The real showstopper is the recently recovered Christ as Salvator Mundi (c. 1499), thought to have been lost for centuries until it resurfaced at an auction in 2005 and was authenticated.
The run of the exhibition sold out before it even opened, and signs posted outside the National Gallery inform disappointed visitors that the daily allotment of 500 tickets is no longer available. Even then, crowds are hard to navigate, shoulder-to-shoulder, and tiptoes are required to view the paintings. The hubbub, the price (some scalpers are rumored to be selling tickets for $400 a pop), and the crowds are still well worth it.
An accompanying catalogue is available for £40 pounds hardcover; £15 softcover.