Looking beyond Leonardo's blockbuster National Gallery exhibition

Where next after Leo-mania?


Leonardo-mania officially ends at 10pm on Sunday 5 February—at least as far as London is concerned. That is when the National Gallery’s “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” will close its doors. Gone will be the early-morning queues shivering in the winter gloom of Trafalgar Square. The touts and event agencies, trading tickets on the internet for many times their face value, will have to turn elsewhere. The press stories will finally abate. Or will they?

Leonardo breaks all the rules. The silly season never ends where he is concerned. My email inbox testifies that the “Leonardo loonies” never tire of the ahistorical quest to discover some bizarre secrets hidden in his paintings. They never tire of sending images of “new” paintings supposedly by him. The “weekly Leonardo” is usually absurd, even when accompanied by a barrage of so-called evidence. At the end of the day I suppose it is better that Leonardo lives in today’s imaginations, however fevered, rather than lying in obscurity.

The exhibition has left us with a lot to digest and some serious thinking to do, not least in relation to the important, if uneven, catalogue. We could carp about the convenient redating of works to Leonardo’s years at the Sforza court in Milan (around 1492 to 1499)—The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is securely dated to the following Florentine period, and the newly discovered Salvator Mundi is post-1500. The National Gallery’s own cartoon for the Virgin, Child and St Anne has been redated to around 1499, although the hydraulic engineering on the preparatory drawing in the British Museum belongs with the Codex Leicester of around 1507-08. This last is typical of art historians’ propensity not to take into account datable scientific and technical studies on sheets containing drawings for works of art.

There was also the bizarre catalogue entry for the Hermitage’s Madonna Litta written by Tatiana Kustodieva—presumably a condition of the loan—who unquestioningly attributes the whole painting to Leonardo, when the catalogue entries for related drawings demonstrate that it was executed by Boltraffio (who emerges as something of a star of the show).

But it is worth looking forward with gratitude rather than niggling. After this intense experience, where does Leonardo scholarship go from here? The major advances unquestionably are being made through technical examination, the subject of a public conference organised by Ashok Roy on 13 and 14 January, reviewed in this issue by Martin Bailey (see p29). Most of the major desiderata of the next few years involve scientific analysis to a lesser or greater degree.

Technical examination rarely solves attributional issues in a definitive manner—unless some horrible anachronism emerges. But it often shows that our questions and presumptions are much too simple and stereotyped. The underdrawings in the two versions of The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the New York version of which was arbitrarily excluded from the show, demonstrate that the commercial categories of “original” and “copy” simply will not work where the production of paintings in a Renaissance workshop is concerned. The overall situation regarding how we calibrate the assertions of the connoisseur’s eye in relation to the scientific evidence is currently disastrous.

Much light is being shed on Leonardo’s techniques in general. I say “techniques” advisedly. It is becoming evident that he tended to tackle the job of making each panel, painting or mural on a fresh and experimental basis. It seems from the portraits of women, including possibly the Mona Lisa, that he abandoned white gesso plaster grounds in favour of a tinted white lead preparation, but later reverted to priming his panels with gesso. Generalisation is hazardous. He certainly was not a pragmatic picture-maker in the mode of Raphael.

We need each picture to be intensively examined in its own right, not least using comparable apparatus, methods of analysis and modes of publication. At present there is too often a chaos of incompatibility in the results issued by each laboratory. The kind of international collaboration signalled by the European Union-funded Charisma project needs to be sustained and extended (www.charismaproject.eu).

Examination of pictures from Leonardo’s circle is yielding real results, although the often dispiriting pastiches by the Leonardeschi tend not to encourage galleries to devote resources and time to their examination. Bailey draws our attention to the revelations produced by the Prado’s Mona Lisa variant (see p29). These go beyond questions of attribution. They reveal much about the sociology of the production and patronage of paintings, particularly with respect to multiples on a small scale and the series of devotional pictures compiled from mixing and matching the resources of drawings, cartoons and unfinished paintings in his own studio.

The scientific study of drawings, as Carmen Bambach of the Metropolitan showed, trails far behind the examination of paintings, even though techniques that deliver basic results are readily available, including microscopic scrutiny and multispectral scanning. There also is a big and largely unexamined question about the deterioration of the legibility of drawings that have been much exhibited. I subjectively sense that there are things I could once see in some of the drawings that are no longer visible. Systematic, non-subjective study is urgently required.

We also need to pay much more attention to the original format of Leonardo’s bound manuscripts (including those now dismembered) and reconstruct sequences of drawings and notes, cross-dating from one manuscript to another. This is a large and slow task, unattractive in the context of academic research reviews, which prioritise productivity. We can also ask demanding questions about the fashion for unbinding the manuscripts so the double sheets can be mounted separately, vitiating the eccentric coherence of Leonardo’s thought processes.

There are also a series of “political” desiderata, which cannot in practice be separated from the intellectual endeavours. In the aftermath of the conference there was a warm feeling of cuddly co-operation between the various experts and institutions involved. How long will it last before we revert to the partisan default position of the exercise of national, institutional and personal self-interest? I have a wish list to add to the hopes outlined above. It is produced here as much in hope as expectation.

Let us move the debate about restoration, which is intricately tied up with questions of scientific analysis, on to a more rational and less fevered basis. The Louvre and the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration in Paris have been doing much in this respect, but it is all to easy for galleries to retreat into defensive mode when faced by the same noisy opponents who generate news stories.

Let us untie the quest to examine works of art scientifically from the process of restoration. Too often a work is only examined as part of a programme to conserve it or as a justification for such an exercise. Knowing and intervening are different things.

Let us eliminate the virtual ostracism of accomplished private researchers. Pascal Cotte in Paris and Maurizio Seracini in Florence, to name just two privateers who are virtuosi of technical examination, have undertaken analyses that should have been acknowledged at the conference.

Let us try to separate the stances taken about attribution from the ownership and circumstances of the emergence of individual works. The contrasting fortunes of the Salvator Mundi (hanging proudly in the National Gallery exhibition) and the portrait of a young woman on vellum—La Bella Principessa, the origins of which in Sforza manuscript effectively eliminate the silly things that have been said about it—demonstrate vividly how what something looks like is radically coloured by non-visual factors. Whereas the sober owner(s) of the former carefully and quietly secured opinions and facilitated long-term research outside the glare of publicity, the latter underwent a series of premature and ill-judged exposures (in some of which I was personally involved) that have prejudiced its status. It is not the fault of the object how it is handled.

These issues extend beyond Leonardo but are sharply focused by him. And of course there is the question of his name. Can we hope that the ugly Americanism, “Da Vinci” will finally be abandoned? “Da Vinci” is not a surname. In Milan he was called “Leonardo da Firenze”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Where next after Leo-mania?'