“The biggest show ever of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings” is just one of the breathless headlines that hailed an exhibition also described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For what? Nine paintings (plus drawings, plus works by others that to some degree relate), brought together in the bank- vault isolation of the National Gallery’s lowest basement. Paintings such as the two versions of Virgin of the Rocks, from the Louvre (ca. 1483–85) and the National Gallery (ca. 1491–1508) itself, confronting one another for the very first time; paintings displaying the artist’s chauffeurlike obsession with polishing the bodywork until it shone. For the Renaissance devotee, this show, subtitled “Painter at the Court of Milan,” is indisputably a key event; for anyone else, intrigued by the hype and anxious not to miss out, it is an oddly chilly mix.
Leonardo arrived at the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan around 1482. There he served as a cultural phenomenon, exercising his genius for embellishment and inquiry. Naturally, at the National Gallery, all eyes turn first to the paintings—portraits, plus Saint Jerome suffering (from the Vatican Museums) and several innovative Madonnas. Much—arguably much too much—is made of the ways in which Leonardo plumped up the poses of mother and child, going for twisty bodies and faces suffused with unearthly glow. And then there is Salvator Mundi (ca. 1499), recently restored and now fairly firmly attributed to the artist: a painting as iconic as the Shroud of Turin and equally sunk into ghostliness. As for the bringing together of the two Virgin of the Rocks, this is rather a flop in that they face each other at such a distance that direct comparison is impossible; and anyway the Louvre’s version is so encased with glass and climate controls that, in its uncleaned state, it is difficult to see.
The drawings, on the other hand, many lent from the Royal Collection, are easily overlooked, though some of them, notably the faintly dimpled torso of a child, nearly as small as a child’s hand, have the true Leonardo magic: that inquisitive attention and exquisite precision. In drawing he could clarify minutiae and harmonize a deluge; in painting he buffed up his effects to such a degree that they either shone or stifled. Or, in the case of The Last Supper, fading into the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, sunk into tinted shadow. The latter is represented by a nearly life-size photographic reproduction and by a heavy-handed copy belonging to the Royal Academy of Arts, made around 1520 by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, in which apostle feet appear and everything but the tablecloth is in disconcertingly full color (both are on view in a small second-floor gallery).
It’s not just poor states of preservation and glutinous hype that make the works of Leonardo off-putting. However much they are lauded, rated off the scale of all-time human achievement, ultimately they are tested by being seen direct. At the National Gallery it is a relief to ascend afterward to the upper floors, there to see in their various forms of brilliance the great Titians and Botticellis and van Eycks. Then to look back and think how wonderful, surprisingly so in these ballyhoo circumstances, that painting from Krakow, The Lady with an Ermine (ca. 1489–90), actually is: the 16-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza poised, pert as can be, luminously elegant, holding a stoat, a symbol of purity, tense with animal instinct.