Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘blockbuster’ art show

A once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work kicks off at London’s National Gallery this week, and excitement is building. What’s the appeal of this timeless genius?

He is the archetype of the Renaissance Man. A leader in fields as diverse as fine art and engineering, Leonardo da Vinci is one of the greatest figures in the history of Western culture and a profound intellectual influence.

The last time da Vinci fever took hold of the public it was fuelled by the sinister Catholic conspiracy in Dan Brown’s best-selling international thriller, which mixed high art with high adrenaline. Today, however, da Vinci’s paintings, rather than ecclesiastical history, are what’s being talked about by Londoners and art-loving tourists.

The cause of this excitement is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at London’s National Gallery. With nine of da Vinci’s paintings on show and scores of drawings, it’s the most extensive display of the master’s work since 1939.

Nine paintings might not seem a record-breaking number for one of history’s greatest artists. But just 15 or 16 paintings are known to have been produced by Leonardo during his lifetime, making each of them a highly recognisable masterpiece, worth millions of pounds.

One of the exhibition’s stars is a painting sold fifty years ago for a meagre £45. The Salvator Mundi – an image of Jesus Christ – was originally thought to be the work of an assistant. After being attributed to da Vinci himself its value rose to $200 million.

Some critics believe this painting lacks some of the unique beauty of other, better known images. da Vinci was a painstaking student of human anatomy, aesthetic proportion, and reproduction of light and shade, as his sketches and cartoons show. As a result, his greatest works seem at the edge of life, heavy with suggestion of movement and personality.

It’s for this reason, critics say, that portraits like the Mona Lisa and Lady with an Ermine, which depicts the young mistress of da Vinci’s patron, have such timeless appeal. Suggesting the hidden life of their subjects, they evoke intangible inner feelings and a profound sense of mystery that has fascinated observers for five hundred years.

Worship of genius?

Is it this ineffable quality that makes da Vinci’s work so venerated? Some people say Leonardo’s reputation is greater than the work itself. Because he is revered as an unparalleled polymath and genius, it could seem that this exhibition is displaying not da Vinci’s paintings, but rather his name or ‘brand’.

See the work and judge for yourself, others argue. In order to have a reputation like da Vinci’s, a painter needs to create something unique and enduring. And though a myth has grown out of the man, the paintings and drawings will always be the most compelling and fascinating part of his story.

You Decide

  1. What is more important, the artist or the art?
  2. Many of da Vinci’s paintings were explicitly Christian, and attempted to capture godliness in his subjects. How does our understanding of da Vinci’s work change if we come at it from a secular angle?

Activities

  1. Create your own reproduction of a Leonardo da Vinci piece. Think creatively about how you want to interpret the painting – it doesn’t have to be a straight copy.
  2. Research da Vinci’s achievements in art and other fields, and design your own exhibition to display his work. Think about what you find most interesting, and how different disciplines he pursued might complement and inform each other.

Some People Say...

“Better to master one thing than to follow da Vinci and dabble in many.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the exhibition’s focus?
The exhibition centres on the 1480s and 90s, when da Vinci was court painter for Ludovico Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan.
What paintings are included?
Several other portraits are included alongside theSalvator Mundi and Lady with an Ermine. Two versions of Virgin on the Rocks, are displayed next to each other for the first time, and a full scale copy of The Last Supper is included, as well as many drawings.
What’s the value of all this?
Five years in the making, and the result of negotiations with galleries in Italy, France, Russia, Poland and the USA, the exhibition has already reported record ticket sales.

Word Watch

Dan Brown
The author of The da Vinci Code, a best-selling thriller based on the idea that da Vinci’s paintings contain hidden religious secrets.
National Gallery
Art gallery in London's Trafalgar Square housing paintings from the 13th Century to 1900 and the venue for many major temporary exhibitions as well.
Mona Lisa
Also known as La Gioconda, this is da Vinci’s most famous painting. The Mona Lisa belongs to the Louvre in Paris. The seated portrait depicts Lisa del Giocondo, whose enigmatic smile is known for its realistic ambiguity.
Polymath
Someone who has mastered a diverse range of fields. As well as being a talented artist, da Vinci was a successful engineer, conducted extensive research in human anatomy, and was fascinated by science and maths.
Renaissance Man
Used to describe someone with an interest in many different fields. Based on the ideal of a gentleman-courtier during the Renaissance, the period spanning the 14th to 17th Centuries in Europe, which saw, literally, a ‘rebirth’ of art and learning after the Middle Ages.

Subjects

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