Leonardo da Vinci: The Genius in Milan – Modern Style Master

Leonardo da Vinci, Detail, La Scapigliata, 1508, oil on wood, courtesy Galleria Nazionale Parma, Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Europe
Leonardo da Vinci, Detail, La Scapigliata, 1508, oil on wood, courtesy Galleria Nazionale Parma, Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Europe
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Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, c1512, red chalk on paper, Biblioteca Reale, Turin

Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) does not fit into any category you can think of either personally or professionally.

He was a man who exceeded boundaries, a man of his own time, one whose imagination and vision were integral to the mystique, which surrounded him while he was alive and has survived him to the present day.

In the spring of 2015, an amazing exhibition Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519 was held at the Palazzo Reale, or former Royal Palace at Milan.

It showcased a selection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, sculptures, paintings and manuscripts.

They highlighted and celebrated his ability to ‘combine scientific thought with creative talent, art and technology’. Completely booked out, such was the interest in the artist and his work a documentary was commissioned about the show by the city of Milan.

Leonardo Da Vinci: The Genius in Milan the film was presented by curator Pietro Marani. A very special event film, it cleverly and creatively presented the story of one of the greatest characters in world history; a complex man who believed that simplicity was at the essence of sophistication.

Marani has a great deal to say about this great man and his life when he was living in Milan.

Vitruvian Man by Michelangelo

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, 1490, drawing in ink, courtesy Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Leonardo’s most recognised drawing is perhaps his Vitruvian Man, one of the most famous in the world.

Integral to the display, it reveals the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry, as described by first century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius in his surviving architectural treatise, dedicated to Emperor Augustus.

The drawing completed in 1490 is usually conserved at the Gallerie dell’Accademia at Venice and is only occasionally shown to the public.

The rediscovery of ancient texts during that period known as the Renaissance in Italy was rapidly changing perceptions. Central to that development was the emergence of the former artisan as a creator, or artist, who became sought after and respected for his erudition and imagination.

The works they produced became valued, not only as a vehicle for religious and social instruction but also as a means of personal aesthetic expression.

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Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a lady known as La Belle Ferronniére, 1490-1496, Oil on Wood, courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris

Thirty drawings from the Atlantic Codex by Leonardo da Vinci housed at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milanm were also on display, plus three Da Vinci paintings all of which are masterpieces: St. John the Baptist, the Annunciation, plus La Belle Ferronnière, which travelled from le Louvre at Paris.

Indeed, the film opens with us witnessing the arrival and hanging of the so-called La Belle Ferronniére, a painting, which has always been shrouded in mystery.

Confusion is facilitated by the unique jewel on her forehead known as ‘ferronniére’, the word for an iron or metalworker.

The subject of the portrait, a very beautiful young woman has always been thought to have been a mistress of King Francois 1 of France.

Recently restored, revealing her very fine features, French experts are still unable to confirm the lady’s identity. The latest research reveals she was painted in Milan in 1490 so she may have been a mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza or of his spouse, Beatrice d’Este, although no one can confirm or deny these attributions either.

We do know Francois 1, King of France, cared for Leonardo da Vinci during his latter years, employing him to arrange his banquets and special event parties.

He paid all his expenses and accommodated the old man generously in comfort, even after he could not work any more, until the day he died. It is why a majority of his master works are in France, not Italy.

Death of Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci comforted by King Francois 1 by Ingres

Death of Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci comforted by King Francois 1 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Just some of the professions Leonardo da Vinci embraced in his lifetime included being a painter, sculptor, scientist, anatomist, botanist and architect.

The genius of his scientific inquiry and mechanical inventiveness, is based not only on works he completed but also on the countless drawings made, proving his mastery not only in the visual arts but also mechanical engineering.

Sforza Alterpiece

The Pala Sforzesca, attributed to Bernardino Zenale, 1496, this is the Sforza alterpiece, revealing Ludovico il Moro with his wife Beatrice d’Este, Duke and Duchess of Milan, praying with their sons at the feet of the Virgin Mary and Christ child

Leonardo da Vinci had all he needed in his head, his heart and his hands, which never let him down. When in 1454 the treaty of the Italic league was enacted and destroyed the old structures of feudalism, the course of European history was affected, as borders came down encouraging those involved in the artes liberales to travel.

Leonardo da Vinci was one and he left Florence and became festaivoli at the Court of Milan surrounding the House of Sforza, a ruling family, formerly condottieri, who emerged during the mid-fifteenth century. Many of the cities throughout Italy during the fifteenth century hired Condotierri (Soldiers of Fortune Mercenary commanders) to deal with military challenges.

This was a normal procedure during this period and enabled cities with a strong merchant base to carry on with business. Ludovico il Moro (1451-1508) known as ‘the Moor’ because of his dark complexion and black hair, was head of the Sforza family when he engaged Leonardo to combine technology with architecture, landscape, music, literature, drama, dance and sport and pyrotechnics to produce diverse forms of pageantry and spectacle.

Leonardo’s broad mastery of the arts and sciences enabled him to produce lavish events and he became known as the ‘Jewel of the Court’.

Ludovico also kept many mistresses and Leonardo was always at his best when painting women.

Mona Lisa in le Louvre at Paris

Leonardo da Vinci, c1503-06-17, Oil, possibly Lisa Gherardini, known as the Mona Lisa, La Gioconda, courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris

His enigmatic Mona Lisa remains the most well known painting in the world today.

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Leonardo da Vinci, La Scapigliata, 1508, oil on wood, courtesy Galleria Nazionale Parma, Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Europe

My personal favourite however has always been his La Scapigliata, meaning the lady is dishevelled. Her lovely face was revealed at a time when Leonardo was reinvigorating portraiture techniques.

Unorthodox in its time, she exudes natural beauty and grace, the strength of her features softened by the way he casts the light on her face, ensuring we engage with her as an image of other worldliness.

This ground-breaking work suggests the respect Leonardo da Vinci had for women and that men of the time should not underestimate their contribution to their own success.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Musician

Leonardo da Vinci, 1490, The Musician, oil on wood panel, courtesy Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

At the Sforza court Leonardo invented a revolving stage that was remote controlled and resembled a mountain when closed.  Constructed of wood, plaster, and cloth (1498 or c.1506) it was surrounded by a moat on which sailing boats carried performing musicians.

This was the period when he painted his enigmatic Portrait of a Musician c1490, now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, which has become an allegory of Renaissance youth at its best. Throughout the documentary we hear about the obscene youth Salai, whom Leonardo took into his studio at the age of ten and who remained with him his whole life.

The fact Leonardo left him well off when he died and in possession of some of his own property, assumes their strong connection.

The most important focus of this wonderfully realized documentary is above all Leonardo da Vinci’s incredible creative talents as he filled his notebooks with amazing drawings; insects, plants, flowers and studies of the human body.

They reveal the genius; a brilliant man, with the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer, who continues to dazzle us all still today with his vision and abilities.

Leonardo da Vinci himself remains in many ways a mystery, which like many of his paintings may never be truly revealed, as he continues to soar high above us all.

Last Supper Milan

Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498, tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic, The Last Supper, mural in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Leonardo’s rendition of an image of The Last Supper of Jesus the Christ a highlight of his career, is the fresco so many conservators have done their best to preserve for posterity. He has made them push the boundaries of what they know to find a solution to halt its journey towards oblivion.

Perhaps rendering such a holy image was for Leonardo, an exploration of the espoused humanist ideals of his generation, which dissolved the rules laid down by the previous generation of architects and artisans, when in a ‘crisis of knowledge’, man finally realized he was only a part of the vastness of the universe, not at its centre.

Leonardo-Da-Vinci-WaterfallAll art is modern in its time and Leonardo da Vinci was a master of the modern style, one that has remained fresh and relevant down to our ‘modern’ time, fashioned by his admiration for beauty and nature.

An illuminating wonderfully presented documentary, I was very pleased to spend 90 minutes in the presence of the master himself, a man whose thirst for knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Genius in Milan.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

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