Skip to main content

Episode 62

The National Gallery Podcast

In the last instalment of 2011: Luke Syson, curator of the current 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' exhibition, explores the man behind the myth. Plus, Leonardo expert Martin Kemp examines the anatomy of Leonardo's drawings, and artist Jenny Saville reveals how Leonardo has inspired her own artwork.

15 min 18 sec | December 2011

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s episode...

The waiting is finally over. Sponsored by Credit Suisse, Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan has opened to the public and already thousands of visitors have enjoyed the chance to see this unprecedented gathering of works.

Leonardo is perhaps the most famous artist ever to have lived. But curiously, he’s also an individual about whom we know remarkably little. You won’t find a self-portrait on display, for instance – because he never made one.

Leah Kharibian spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Luke Syson, to find out more about the private man behind the myth.

Leah Kharibian: Luke, this is a fantastic exhibition and it gives us such an insight into Leonardo’s working methods; his ideas on art; and the sheer brilliance of his capacity to draw and paint, but I was wondering how visitors to the show might catch a glimpse of the man himself?

Luke Syson: Well, the funny thing is, I think that Leonardo has done as much as he possibly can to conceal himself. He believed that his painting should have an absolute and essential beauty, which wasn’t predicated on his own likes and dislikes, his own loves if you like, but in the first room there’s a painting of a musician which perhaps does contain a few clues to Leonardo’s biography and perhaps his own taste.

Leah Kharibian: Could you describe it for us?

Luke Syson: You’re looking at a portrait of an exceptionally beautiful young man, whose curls run down his cheeks like the ripples in a stream. But it’s a picture that’s unfinished and I think we might surmise therefore that it was done less as a formal commission and more as an act of friendship. It’s thought that it represents somebody called Atalante Migliorotti and this is a young man to whom Leonardo taught music and who accompanied him when he made his journey up north from Milan from Florence.

Leah Kharibian: I think for people who don’t know, we might not know Leonardo as a musician...

Luke Syson: Well, sometimes one wonders if there’s anything Leonardo couldn’t do, and it’s actually, yes, as a musician that he seems to have arrived in Milan, although obviously everyone concerned must have known he was a painter too. And I suspect it’s in that intimate relationship between painter and the young singer that we should explain the production of this beautiful portrait.

Leah Kharibian: So is this more than a friendship? Is this a portrait of love, do you think?

Luke Syson: Whether or not, since you’re asking, this is a boyfriend or not, I don’t know. Leonardo, certainly if he had a sexual preference, it seems to have been for young men, but he always said that you were supposed to conquer those desires in order to really suppress your own ego, as part of the idea of hiding your own personality in order to be a disinterested observer. I think what we can say very certainly is that Leonardo thought that this young man was beautiful and that it was his job to show that beauty to the wide world and forever.

Leah Kharibian: And what about Leonardo’s own looks – I mean he arrived in Milan, he’s about the age of 30... do we know anything about the way he looked himself?

Luke Syson: He was said to be extremely good looking and very, very well turned out, with special short little jerkins that he was known for. And it’s quite interesting in a sense that probably part of his appeal as a courtier, as a court artist, was in his own charm... his own wit... his own personality and we shouldn’t underestimate those things as factors in his success in Milan.

Leah Kharibian: Now you’ve been working on this show for an awful long time now – years – do you feel you’ve got any closer to understanding Leonardo the man?

Luke Syson: He’s extraordinarily elusive, and I think one of the things that’s very striking is the way in which every age and every scholar has the capacity to project themselves onto Leonardo. As somebody who’s not very good at deadlines myself and prone to uncertainty, I’m very struck by that aspect of him. My desk is a bit of a muddle always and I’m always struck by the slight chaos of his thinking. And in the end I don’t know whether that’s more to do with him, although it is there, or me, and so that’s the side of Leonardo that I guess I’ve sort of embraced – that extraordinary mixture of incredible ambition and certainty with moments of real hesitation and doubt and distraction. But Leonardo the whole three-dimensional man – no, I haven’t really got to know him at all.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Luke Syson, who – you might like to know – is also one of the stars of the exhibition audio guide.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leonardo’s work has influenced many artists down the centuries.... among them contemporary British painter, Jenny Saville. Fascinated by the body and the flesh, Saville is best-known for her outsized paintings of female nudes... and last year, exhibited a series of three drawings – collectively entitled 'Reproduction' – depicting multiple impressions of mother and child. The works were directly inspired by Renaissance nativity scenes, and in particular, a highlight of the current exhibition. Leonardo’s 'The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist' – also known as 'The Burlington House Cartoon' – depicts the Virgin contending with a lively Christ-child. Colin Wiggins caught up with Jenny after her visit to the show, and began by asking how long Leonardo’s 'Cartoon' had been important to her.

Jenny Saville: Since I can’t remember, actually. It was in my parent’s house – a reproduction of it – and I moved house quite a lot in my childhood and that drawing... for some reason my parents used to the paintings up, or the reproductions of paintings up, first, wherever we moved to and so this drawing would reappear somewhere, and I literally used to go and visit the drawing on my way to school so it was the last thing I saw before I left the house. And eventually it became such a thing that my parents actually used to hang it in the lobby on the door on the way out because they knew how much I liked to look at it. And I didn’t really acknowledge the subject matter that much... what it was, it was the revolving forms. I couldn’t work out which leg belonged to who...and this sort of endless movement, which seemed to have an internal structure that I didn’t understand – and the poetry of it...

Colin Wiggins: So you’re a child and it has a kind of talismanic importance to you?

Jenny Saville: Yeah, and when I was learning to drawn... I mean his anatomical studies, I used to copy those a lot... I’ve done endless copies of his hands... I mean when you’re interested in drawing the figure, there’s no one better to go and have a look at.

The hand works because the flesh sits on a structure and most artists don’t understand that structure. And it’s the combination of that scientific view, mixed with a very poetic view that makes him quite astounding. And I don’t think anybody in art history, probably, has studied to that kind of level really. But these interlocking legs – you see this in Michelangelo... I mean this dictates the next sort of 20 or 30 years of art. Even the climbing forms of Michelangelo come out of this sort of drawing. Because I noticed when you do multiple forms one on top of one another, new forms emerge, just by themselves – and that’s when it gets interesting... how come this form? How come that form? And then you’re on a ride that’s internal to the drawing. That’s what makes it so fascinating because it’s not about the external world, it’s about the internal world of the drawing itself, so it’s to do with the making and that’s what I think he was tapping into at that time.

Colin Wiggins: And the whole show – what was your reaction when we first dropped you in this amazing exhibition with hardly anybody in there, before it’s open to the public?

Jenny Saville: I think what I got off it that I didn’t expect was the level of exquisiteness – it’s unbelievably exquisite – and I think it’s so profoundly poetic and the drawings, I think are... I find the drawings more forgiving because I can work out what’s going on. And I think it’s a treat to see 'The Virgin of the Rocks', both versions of that – you’re never going to see that again – even Leonardo didn’t see that so it’s an unbelievable treat. And to see the 'Cartoon' at a better height for my viewing is really brilliant. But I love his curiosity – I mean he lives an artist’s life, like a real artist’s life, in terms of this endless child-like, not child-ish, but child-like curiosity and that desire to see – and the only way to understand is through seeing and the importance of sight – is just always with me.

Someone told me at art school, if you’re going to have heroes, make sure they’re very good. So I’ve always lived with that. I always like artists that are the really great ones (laugh).

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jenny Saville.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Finally, we come to Leonardo the scientist. It was during his 18-year-stay in Milan that Leonardo embarked on his studies of human anatomy. The results are documented in the exhibition in a wonderful collection of drawings, which see the artist explore every corner of the body, from the wiring of the nervous system to the functions of the brain itself.

Martin Kemp, the world renowned expert on Leonardo, has made a particular study of Leonardo as scientist – and chose two drawings from the exhibition to tell us more about this aspect of the artist’s work. The first shows the exterior of a human skull, the second what Leonardo thought was going on inside.

Martin Kemp: Leonardo, we know, is interested in art and a range of sciences, particularly anatomy, and the anatomy, clearly it comes partly out of his work as an artist, you know how does the body function? This skull drawing, dated 1489, so it’s a key moment for us in his anatomical work and it’s really the start of his serious anatomical investigations about the age of 37 or so. And here he’s looking at the outside of the skull with incredible precision... and tracking some of blood vessels. The skull is probably rather a battered skull... it’s not one from a fresh cadaver, as it were; it’s probably one that’s come up from a graveyard and it’s missing some teeth and so on.

Getting hold of anatomical material was difficult – but Leonardo, when he had the opportunity, did. But we look at this and think, oh yes, this will do the art very well, but in fact what’s he really interested in 1489 is what’s going on inside the skull... he’s interested in the eye, the brain, the mental processes. At the beginning of the exhibition, we’ve got this extraordinary drawing of the sectioning of the human head to show what’s going on in the brain – this in a way opens the exhibition, and it’s a very good one, because Leonardo is so interested in sight, in thought, in imagination – all these things. So behind all the paintings here, there is all this brain work going on.

The drawing of the inside of the skull, compared with the outside, looks very schematic. This is a vertical section and a horizontal section, and he thought – which is traditional – that the mental processes went on in the ventricles.... that’s these round vessels inside the brain. It’s not a daft idea, because unless you’ve got a microscope and staining, the grey matter looks like jelly... you know, it doesn’t look as if it does anything, so it was logical to think that mental processes happened in these interior spaces and he’s got three of them here. The first one is receptor of impressions, where things are gathered together. The second one is the big deal – that has got intellect, imagination, voluntary motion – all the mental processes and what he calls the 'sensus communis' – Latin – common sense, which is where all the senses gather together in a single point.

At the end of the system, he’s got 'memoria' ... he’s got memory, so it’s a kind of processing plant for all the sensory impressions, and the essential one, intellect, thinks about them... 'fantasia', imagination, as we would call it, invents new things... so that central one, right at the centre of the skull, this is the crucible for all the mental processes. These studies of the brain are done in Milan.

Now Milan was a major medical centre – it was a major centre with surgeons and people who Leonardo knew. Florence was obviously a great intellectual power house as well, but I think Milan, with its slightly more practical learning, suited him rather well. The other virtue of being a court artist – 'stipendiat', as it’s called, which means he’s got a stipend, a regular income – is it saves him from the job of making a living selling paintings. We know that he didn’t finish many paintings, so being a jack-of-all-trades at the court, doing festivals, doing weaponry, doing architecture, doing consultancy – as we’d now call it – suited him rather well. So being in the Milanese court was a very good environment for Leonardo.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Martin Kemp.

As a landmark show, 'Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan' is extremely popular, and advance tickets sold out early on. A limited number of tickets are available to buy in person from 10am on each day of the exhibition. These are subject to availability and likely to sell out quickly ­– so come early and expect to queue. Find out more at

A visit to the permanent collection is, of course, free – and we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays.

That’s it for this episode. Enjoy the holidays... and until next time, goodbye.