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Leonardo’s greatest disaster: “The Last Supper”, 1495-1498, in Milan

Milan is unquestionably one of the great cities of Italy, but it is at the same time surely the least loved of them all as far as Brits beguiled by the appeal of the warm south and of Rooms with Views are concerned. Nevertheless, and not just for opera fans in pursuit of the incomparable treat of a night at La Scala, this year lovers of the arts have been flocking to Milan for the Expo, or to be more precise for the associated exhibitions.

Of these, the most memorable — which ran from April 16 to July 19 at the Palazzo Reale, virtually in the shadow of Milan’s spectacular gothic cathedral — was devoted to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Organised by two eminent authorities on the artist, Pietro C. Marani and Maria Teresa Fiorio, it managed the rare feat of combining a whole procession of illustrious old favourites with the odd surprise, necessarily from among the works by Leonardo’s contemporaries included for purposes of comparison. One or two of these surprises were genuinely all but unknown works, while others were illuminated by the company they kept here. A case in point was the anonymous panel painting of an Ideal City from Urbino, whose grandiose geometrical rationalism is inconceivable without the example of an earlier painter-cum-scientist, Piero della Francesca. It is undeniably the work of a major artist, but its authorship remains frustratingly enigmatic.  

It may sometimes feel as if there is hardly even time to catch one’s breath between the closing of one Leonardo show and the opening of the next, but there is almost nowhere — even including Florence and Paris, which between them share most of his paintings — where it makes more sense to celebrate his achievement than Milan. The two-horse town of Vinci (population in 2008: 14,375) is a mere 27 miles from Brunelleschi’s dome, but as a matter of fact Leonardo spent more of his adult life in Milan — roughly 20 years in two goes — than in the capital of his homeland. Amusingly enough, we know that he never lost his Florentine accent, in which the intial c’s become h’s so that Coca-Cola is pronounced Hoca-Hola, because an early Milanese source refers to the Mona Lisa La Gioconda in Italian — as “La Honda”.

This Leonardo exhibition was in no way exclusively focused on his time in Milan. Instead it sought to present his weird and wonderful career in its entirety, but there was a different kind of connection with his adopted home. For most of its run, the Leonardo show overlapped with a stunning exhibition elsewhere in the Palazzo Reale entitled Lombard Art: From the Visconti to the Sforza (March 12-June 28), which in effect set the scene for Leonardo’s arrival in the Lombard capital by presenting a superb anthology of paintings, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts from the region dating from the 14th century to the end of the 15th.

What it revealed was the fact that Milan was absolutely not an artistic backwater, but at the same time that in the main the work which was being produced there was scarcely affected by the kinds of new developments that were the calling-cards of the Florentine renaissance. As a result, scientific perspective of the sort pioneered by Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio in the first quarter of the 15th century was only of minor interest to most of the artists represented even decades later, and moreover they were still perfectly happy to set their figures against depth-denying gold-leaf backdrops that smack of the previous century. In view of all this, Leonardo really was a breath of fresh air in Milan, and unsurprisingly had a huge effect on the local school of art.

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