Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan – an exhibition at the National Gallery, which was billed as a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was indeed so, with most of his surviving paintings together in one place for, probably, the first time and, probably, the last. So, by definition, by reputation, by the word of the press, this was always going to be a significant event. People are going to say ...
“I remember when I stood in front of the ...”
Actually, I do remember when I stood in front of a da Vinci painting (no, no that one in the Louvre!), in the Pinacotecca Ambrosiana in Milan, in 2006; me, Jayne, the painting, and no one else in the room. I wasn’t aware then that there were so few surviving da Vincis, and I hadn’t known this particular painting either, but it still had an impact on me (both of us, actually). Stunning detail; an arresting look in the subject’s eyes, not looking at us but out of the frame to our right; vibrant colour, especially in his hair; a slight sense of inconsistency across the surface of the painting, I recall. We could examine it in that level of detail because we stood right in front of it, could have touched it if we’d chosen (dared). There was a definite sense of personality, the subject as a real, living, breathing, speaking, thinking natural human being.
We stood in front of it again, last Thursday evening and, amazingly, with no one else in the room, close enough to touch it had we dared! The painting is ‘Portrait of a Young Man – (The Musician)’, and it was now hanging on a wall at the National Gallery, on loan from Milan. We also stood in front of several others – the ‘Madonna Litta’, the two ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, and so on. But it was the renewal of acquaintance with ‘The Musician’, and the thoughts which followed, that had the most impact.
It is an object, in the end. I saw it in Milan; I saw it in London; and it has been transported from one place to the other, so that I can stand before it again. But it is a unique physical object, empowered by what I and others make of it. Leonardo stood and looked at it with his own eyes, more than 500 years ago. He didn’t look and say ‘it’s finished’, because it isn’t – hence the slight sense of inconsistency across its surface. I’m pretty sure he didn’t look at it and say ‘that’ll do’ either!!! But he did look at it with his own eyes – and now I’m looking at it with mine. It won’t look exactly the same but it won’t look dramatically different. He applied his brush to this surface at which I am looking. And, in the few moments we beheld it in Milan, and the few moments we beheld it in London, Leonardo’s efforts were made for no others than Jayne and me. In that moment, there was no other interpretation, no other reading of this object, than those brought on by our eyes, our minds, our experiences. What’s more, whilst we were certainly the direct recipients of da Vinci’s purpose and his labours, he had no control, however skilled and learned, on our interpretation and reading.
But it remains a unique object that will return to its wall in Milan, spatially close to where it was created, back from perhaps the longest journey it has ever made. It is much reproduced but remains utterly unique. Compare that to the digital portraits I will make for Assignment Five!