Leonardo: The Works

Alongside Miles Davis, another artist getting reframed by cinema is Leonardo da Vinci, 500 years after his death.

Exhibition on Screen have mounted a new doc I found enlightening and utterly gripping, not being a Leonardo aficionado, nor even a half-decent art history maven.

But I always find paintings, like photographs, do suit the cinematic treatment and docs about these artists and the stories behind iconic images are very often as dynamic and visually exciting as they are fascinating.

Plus, I’m off to Paris with my wife soon, to celebrate our joint 50th birthdays and there’s a blockbuster Leonardo exhibition just opened up at the Louvre, so this a timely film with which to brush up my da Vinci.

Basically, we watch Leonardo grow with each painting, from his student days in the Verrochio studio in Florence, to outstripping his master until, by about 1479, he was making masterpieces of his own. 

The Annunciation is in the Uffizi in Florence and I remember seeing it with some mates when we went InterRailing after A levels in 1988. It had struck me deeply even then, but I never really knew why nor had I looked at it again until this film glided over its meanings and depths and subtleties. 

“Leonardos look at us very hard, which is always unsettling,” says the wonderful expert Martin Kemp, one of many superb contributors to this film. And they do. It’s all in the eyes. His figures have a curiosity about them, an “elusive biography” says someone, that makes you want to know them, to find out more, to engage with them and their moment. In the Adoration of the Magi, it’s not the baby we gaze at but at the crowd scene, the details, the figures, “the disturbance of the arrival of Christ on earth”. Blimey, this painting’s not even finished, and it’s still incredible to behold.

Directed by Phil Grabsky, the film pops from Windsor, to Florence, St Petersberg’s The Hermitage, Munich, Washington DC, Edinburgh, London, Krakow and Paris – there’s Leonardo everywhere, and his curators talk with pride, passion and knowledge.

I’d never seen some of these paintings before – Ginevra de’ Benci is a wow – and it’s just great to have smart people explain them to you while you drink the canvas in, the Ultra HD camera roving like your eyes in close-up over the cracking temperer and oil mix. The Louvre’s Virgin on the Rocks, well that’s just wonderful, brining you “closer to the divine, closer to the truth”. 

Sometimes, lines from Vasari’s Lives of the Artist are read out, detailing some biographical details of Leonardo’s journeys and his ideas. He was a polymath, great at music and design and science, too – all in pursuit of rendering what was at first real and making it sublime.

La Belle Ferroniere, with her averted gaze; the Last Supper in the monks’ refectory in Milan – these are brought to life, the drama of their moments, the passion of one, the sheer tension of the latter.

I was quickly getting to love all of these paintings. Of course I knew La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa – and as they admit here, it is, after all, let’s not belittle the achievement: the most famous painting of all time. “It has become the emblem of painting itself, of all art,” says the brilliant Mr Kemp. And isn’t it time to have another look at an image we think we know so well – but frankly, how often do you really look at it? 

Even in the actual Louvre, you get 30 seconds in front of its glass cage before some other tourist moves you on. So here, you get to see the artistry, the beauty, the “sfumato technique”, the poetry of the rendering of this real human being and her beating heart under the paints. I’d also never paid attention to the geology in the background, the drapery, the psychology, all at play. All life is here. So, you know, that’s why it’s so famous: because it’s amazing.

You also get the shining glory of the disputed Salvator Mundi, and this film’s contextualisation of it makes it impossible to doubt that it’s the work of Leonardo. It radiates from the screen, glowing like a holy relic, the grail itself.

But it was two works I never knew that got to me the most – probably because they come last and I was jacked up on Leonardo knowledge by then, as well as him, by now, being a total master of his craft.

The St John the Baptist in the Louvre, with its haunting mystery and the out-and-out drop-dead masterpiece St Anne, with its vision of, well, everything, accompanied by a commentary that highlights the expressions, the melancholy, the science of nature, the poetry of the artist, the love of a mother. God, this was good to watch. My eyes and ears were on stalks.

Am I Leonardo expert now? Lord no, but do I appreciate his greatness, his majesty, his genius? Yes, yes and yes and I’m enormously grateful for the time spent in this film, with its stories and dramas and emotions. It’s a documentary of necessary simplicity which just lets the experts and the 500-year-old images speak so eloquently and elegantly for themselves, to the extent that you feel like you’ve lived through an epic film experience. What a show.