Charles Saumarez Smith discovers Leonardo da Vinci's legacy includes Alice's ugly duchess and a Star Wars heroine.
Given the enormous complexities that are now involved in the organisation of international loan exhibitions - the haggling over loans, the costs of transport and indemnity, the anxieties attached to the shipment of great works of art across the world and an environment of increasing international art theft and terrorism - it is hard to imagine an exhibition that could assemble more than a small proportion of the 16 or so paintings by Leonardo da Vinci in the same way as is still just about possible, although with increasing difficulties, for later artists.
Instead, one has to make do with smaller interpretive exhibitions based around single paintings: for example, the admirable and beautiful small exhibition "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women" held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington two years ago and devoted to an examination of the National Gallery's own portrait of Ginevra de' Benci in the light of attitudes to 16th-century portraiture in sculpture as well as in painting; or the exhibition devoted to Leonardo in Poland, called "Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland", which was shown at the Milwaukee Art Museum last autumn and then in Houston and San Francisco this spring and that uses as its centrepiece A Lady with an Ermine ( Cecilia Gallerani ) from the Museo Czartoryski in Krakow.
As a result of the difficulties of borrowing Leonardo's paintings for exhibitions, it is perhaps not surprising that museums and galleries have concentrated instead on organising exhibitions of Leonardo's drawings, which survive in such great and magnificent profusion, thanks not least to the assiduity of his studio assistant, Francesco Melzi, who assembled them after his death, and to the admiration in which they were held even during his lifetime. This year, there have been no fewer than three important exhibitions devoted to an examination of this aspect of Leonardo's oeuvre: a huge and comprehensive exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the early part of the year, which attracted enormous crowds; a subsequent version of it held at the Louvre this summer and a smaller, but still important exhibition held at the recently refurbished Queen's Gallery in London, where it was possible to study some of the riches of the Royal Collection without all the razzmatazz that now tends to surround big exhibitions in capital cities worldwide.
A legacy of these exhibitions is their catalogues, which are themselves substantial additions to Leonardo scholarship. At the Metropolitan Museum, they went for a blockbuster catalogue, proportionate to the scale and endeavour of the exhibition itself and so weighty that it could not possibly be carried while one visited the exhibition but instead is to be studied and consulted at leisure. It is magnificent, beautifully produced, with excellent reproductions of each of the works on display and admirably detailed in the entries devoted to individual drawings. But, in terms of the scholarly essays that accompany the entries, it is a slight hodgepodge, consisting of short essays by some of the leading Leonardo scholars from all over the world and without the sense of editorial guidance that might have led to the comprehensive analysis of Leonardo's studio technique as promised in the introduction. Thus, we are offered an interesting account of the implications of Leonardo's left-handedness by Carmen Bambach who organised the exhibition (interestingly, it has always been assumed that left-handedness provides a clue to Leonardo's character in a way that it is not regarded especially relevant with other contemporary artists such as Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo). This is followed by an inscrutable essay by Carlo Vecce on "Word and image in Leonardo's writings", which looks at the relative significance in Leonardo's work of writing and drawing. Carlo Pedretti, who worked with Kenneth Clark on later editions of the catalogue of Windsor drawings, provides an intriguing set of reflections on changing attitudes to the attribution of Leonardo drawings.
I did not know, for example, that a Leonardo drawing passed through the market in Milan in 1982 for only 260,000 lire - then the equivalent of about $300 (£179) - was disregarded because it was not thought to be of sufficiently high quality to be by Leonardo himself. After an examination of Leonardo's drapery studies by Francoise Viatte, Alessandro Cecchi demonstrates how much information there is still to be gleaned about Leonardo's life and circumstances by close attention to the Florentine archives, ending his essay with a footnote to the effect that "much remains to be investigated before we have even a remote picture of the cultural and artistic environment of Florence during the quattrocento and cinquecento ".
This seems an unduly pessimistic view of the past two centuries of Renaissance scholarship, but I suppose he means that more remains to be discovered through diligent research.
After the randomly eclectic essays of the catalogue to the Metropolitan Museum's exhibition, it is a relief to turn to Martin Clayton's admirably lucid and well-written catalogue of the much smaller exhibition at the Queen's Gallery. This was one of the catalogues shortlisted for the AXA Art Newspaper prize for exhibition catalogues (of which I was a judge) and deservedly so, because this is an exemplary catalogue, taking a theme in Leonardo's work, the combination of idealisation, portraiture and the grotesque, and then subjecting it to a comprehensive and systematic analysis, both in the text and in the choice of work for the exhibition. Of course, Clayton is helped by having in the Royal Collection and available for loan one of the great collections of Leonardo's drawings, derived from an album that came from the studio and passed through the hands of the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, before being bought by Thomas Howard, second earl of Arundel. But he maintains a particularly satisfactory balance between short essays on aspects of Leonardo's work, such as his examination of proportion in the human body and, also, in horses, while at the same time he provides admirably precise catalogue entries, including an exegesis of the way that Leonardo's Bust of a Grotesque Old Woman (RL 12492) was copied by Quinten Massys in his A Grotesque Old Woman , now in the National Gallery (NG5769), and subsequently became the model for the Ugly Duchess in Tenniel's illustrations to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (he also, incidentally, points out the way in which Leonardo's Studies for the Head of Leda became the model for Princess Leia in Star Wars ). I should add that not only is the book extremely well written, but it is also a model of good-quality book production, beautifully designed and laid out.
Alongside these exhibition catalogues, which were intended for a specific purpose, the German art publisher Taschen, which has made a fortune from publishing coffee-table books about loft living and cheap hotels, has produced a monumental, trunk-sized book on Leonardo that can be delivered to your home if you are too weak-willed to carry it. It is the coffee-table book to end all coffee tables. I am afraid that, despite all my efforts to take it seriously as a work of real scholarship, I cannot really regard this book as anything other than a joke. It is so magnificently unwieldy.
Of course, it has the most wonderful, double-page reproductions, bled to the edge of the page, which means that it is a pleasure to leaf through; and it does have a perfectly serviceable, scholarly text by Frank Zöllner and Johannes Nathan. But, while I was able to use it to check the state of the debate surrounding the attribution of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder , stolen this summer from Drumlanrig Castle by two men in baseball caps, I cannot imagine that it will be used for any other purpose than flipping through to admire its stupendous reproductions.
Charles Saumarez Smith is director, The National Gallery.