The Genius of Leonardo


Malcolm Storer Malcolm Storer

In addition to his interest in art, Malcolm Storer is a published author and accomplished ghost writer.


On May 02, 1519 the great artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci passed away in Amboise, central France. To commemorate this seismic event, the Louvre Museum in Paris has opened its doors to what has to be the most important retrospective on the Renaissance genius ever staged, writes our art critic Malcolm Storer.

A decade in the making, this prestigious international-loan exhibition was not without its challenges – even avoiding a diplomatic row with the Italian government.

Leonardo’s anatomical drawing Leonardo’s anatomical drawing

Leonardo’s works are scattered around the globe, yet the Louvre has managed to bring together more than 160 exhibits (paintings, drawings, medals and sculptures) to dazzle the viewer as well as to shed new light on the Florentine master’s innovative techniques.

A few weeks before Christmas, after skilfully negotiating a 5-day national strike and the rioting Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), I was lucky enough to visit the Louvre for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Spread across thirteen rooms beneath the famous glass pyramid, the exhibition is grouped around four themes — ‘Shadow, Light, Relief’, ‘Liberté’, ‘Science’, and ‘Life’ — forming a kind of visual biography of this extraordinary man.

Born in the tiny Tuscan village of Vinci, Leonardo’s life is very much a tale of three cities: Florence, Milan and, latterly, Rome.

In the 1460’s his family left Vinci and moved to Florence. He was sent to train at the workshop of well known sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio where, as a garzone (studio boy), he quickly absorbed his master’s style, and very soon surpassed it.

Virtruvian Man Virtruvian Man

At the age of thirty, and by now a successful artist in his own right, he offered his services to the powerful Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. As well as overseeing engineering and military projects for the Duke, he was commissioned to paint two of his great masterpieces: The Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazia.

In 1499, after 17 years working in Milan, he returned to his native Florence, throwing himself into the city’s creative milieu. He not only painted the Mona Lisa and The Battle of Anghiari but was part of a committee formed to select the place where his great rival Michelangelo’s iconic statue, David, should be situated.

La Belle Ferronniere La Belle Ferronniere

In 1512 he moved to the Rome of Pope Leo X, living in the Belvedere Courtyard in the Apostolic Palace, where both Raphael and Michelangelo were active on various papal projects. Leonardo’s three-year stint in Rome saw him dissecting corpses, studying botany, geometry, mathematics, and even working on plans drawn up by Leo X to drain the Pontine Marshes.

After suffering a series of strokes, he spent his twilight years in Amboise, in the company of Francis I of France, where he died in 1519. Legend has it he passed away in the arms of the king.

Strolling through this amazing exhibition I was struck by Leonardo’s multifaceted genius, each of the four themes illuminating the Renaissance master’s passions and interests.

‘Shadow, Light, Relief’ – illustrates the trio of stylistic influences vital to his training in 15-century Florence, during which time he developed his trademark Sfumato; the smokey shadings between shadow and light resulting in lifelike vibrations that seem to imbue his figures with the power of movement.

Liberté gives a fascinating insight into the newly independent painter’s creative freedom following his release from Verrocchio’s workshop.

‘Science’ – features his astonishingly accurate anatomic and scientific drawings – many of which have been loaned by Queen Elizabeth II from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle – as well as flying machines, studies of water and numerous architectural sketches.

The Virgin of the Rocks The Virgin of the Rock

‘Life’ – takes us into the mind of a mature Leonardo when his seventeen year stay in Milan came to an end and he returned to Florence.

The highlight of this exhibition for me has to be the paintings. To see so many masterpieces in one place is something I’ll never forget. They include the Benois Madonna from the State Hermitage of St Petersburg; the Saint Jerome from the Vatican; the Musician from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, La Scapigliata (head of a woman) from the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, and two paintings both known as the Madonna of the Yarnwinder.

They join the five Louvre Leonardos: La Belle Ferronnière, the stunning Virgin of the Rocks, the Mary and Child with Saint Anne, Saint John the Baptist and the iconic Mona Lisa. Sadly, this greatest of all masterpieces is not in the show and can only be seen using virtual reality.

This VR experience involves using a headset that shares the history of each painting, and what it looks like beyond the frame.

Da Vinci thought of painting as ‘the greatest of all the sciences’, requiring constant research and experimentation. And this is the final revelation of this monumental exhibition, the fact that all those years of study was carried out for one thing and one thing only, for the sole purpose of making himself a better painter.

This ticket-only exhibition at the Lourve runs until February 24, 2020.


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