The mysteries of Leonardo: A review of the National Gallery's new exhibition on the master

An exhibition catalogue that is erudite, sound and elegant—but for scholars, not the general reader


For an informed public, Leonardo da Vinci looms large as the embodiment of the versatility, the innovations and the exuberance of the Italian Renaissance—above all, as one of its most charismatic artists. For scholars, however, the admiration is perennially tempered by regret over work left incomplete, and by the constant, nagging difficulty of attribution. One has but to look at the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery in London (until 5 February), “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, to see how striking is the divide. The show is a major blockbuster, with all advance tickets sold out, as visitors celebrate the opportunity to see what is billed as the only chance ever to view nine of the master’s 15 known surviving paintings in one place. Yet the catalogue, our subject here, regards celebration as but one of its goals. Dealing with an artist who remains notoriously elusive, despite hundreds of pages of notebooks and sketches, it addresses a litany of problems of attribution, dating and intention. Nearly 1,000 works are listed in the bibliography, and they testify to the imponderables as well as the fascinations that Leonardo inspires.

Of the sensitivity, acuteness of judgement and broad erudition of Luke Syson and his collaborators, there can be no doubt. They have plumbed an enormous literature, and have brought it to bear on the many knotty issues that all of Leonardo’s works provoke. The focus is on the time he spent in Milan, nearly 25 years during his 30s, 40s, and 50s—a time of teeming projects and ideas—and especially the 16 years when the city was ruled by the Sforza family. The centre of attention is his connection with Ludovico, who presided over a brilliant court as regent and then as duke (from 1494) until expelled by the French in 1499. What Syson argues, convincingly, is that the influence of this court patronage needs to be placed alongside Leonardo’s persistent experimentation and his religious outlook as one of the principal forces that shaped his work.

To document these influences, the catalogue reaches beyond the nine paintings for a total of 91 items, including drawings and works by other Milanese artists, such as Giovanni Boltraffio and Ambrogio de Predis. The drawings document primarily the extent of the preparations and explorations that lay behind Leonardo’s finished, and even unfinished, panels. And the paintings by his contemporaries demonstrate not only his impact but also the drop in accomplishment in his disciples’ work, which in turn makes possible a number of suggestions about authorship in the many cases of contested attributions.

Syson and his colleagues do not shrink from the fearsome problems that Leonardo scholarship poses. As with the Rembrandt project, but here on a much smaller and therefore more intensely contested ground, the constant question is what the master did or did not do, a question made more fraught by the effort to unravel his intentions. Less sceptical than some predecessors, such as David Alan Brown, and grateful for the findings of others, such as Carmen Bambach, Syson follows a thoughtful and plausible path through the issues that these works raise. He is convincing even on the most controversial of the exhibition’s claims, the discovery of a hitherto lost painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi, around 1500. Though not as beautiful as the other eight in the show, let alone the magnificent charcoal and chalk drawing known as The Burlington Cartoon, around 1499, this oil is credibly assigned to the master by an accumulation of grounded evidence, and linked to the familiar image of the Christ of the Mandylion of Edessa.

While it is lucidly written, and splendidly illustrated, this is not a book for the general reader. In that regard, too, it offers a contrast to the accessibility and dramatic impact of the exhibition. The target is a scholarly audience that will relish the assessments of the literature on individual works, the extended discussion of the interaction between Leonardo and Ludovico il Moro, and the incisive interpretations of the artist’s aims. A good example is in the way anatomical studies, the ability to combine age and youth in a single figure, innovation, architecture, and studies of nature are shown to unite in making the Vatican St Jerome, around 1482 though glaringly incomplete, one of the most powerful evocations of the saint in the history of western art.

Another tour de force is the discussion of the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks. Here Syson and his colleagues bring to bear not only a mastery of the extensive literature on the two panels, but also an awareness of aesthetic and spiritual elements that are not often stressed in studies of Leonardo. In both of these paintings, and also in his portraits of women, there is a striving to capture idealised beauty that animates the work, and at the same time serves—as it should—to help distinguish between the master and his associates. It is repeatedly a reference to the quality of a work that enables Syson to persuade us of an attribution. What is so remarkable is how the positioning of figures, the sense of movement and the love of nature enhanced Leonardo’s quest for beauty. Moreover, as is made clear in the analysis, the two Virgins represent an intricate statement about God’s will and the doctrine of the immaculate conception. Although separated at the time of its completion from the Paris version, around 1483-86, by more than 20 years, and noticeably different in its details, the London Virgin, around 1491-1508, is firmly and convincingly given the catalogue’s imprimatur as Leonardo’s reworking of a subject that (considering his chronic inability to finish what he started) obviously meant a great deal to him.

It is by no means easy to do justice, in little more than 200 pages, to a set of paintings—never before seen together—that represent one of the pinnacles of artistic creativity. But this catalogue easily meets the challenge, achieving in the process a rare combination of probing scholarship, sound argument and elegant presentation.

The author is emeritus professor of history, Princeton University

To read Rabb’s review of the exhibition, visit

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The mysteries of Leonardo'