Visiting the Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Milan, Italy
Billed as, “The worlds largest collection of works by Leonardo da Vinci,” we couldn’t wait to get to this show. We visited the first day we woke up in Milan. Despite having more works by LD than anyone else, the exhibition managed to slightly (only slightly) disappoint. It’s only the pages of his notebooks. And because this is a rotating show; and the exhibition changes so often; it may have been the case we simply chose an unfortunate time to visit.
The main draw is the revolving exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus. The Codex is a massive book. It is comprised of 1119 pages of Leonardo’s notes, diagrams, sketches and engineering plans, all of which were joined together shortly after his death to form one large book bound in 12 volumes.
In 2009 they disassembled the Codex Atlanticus for the first time in 400 years, so that the individual pages could each be cleaned and displayed and then later stored separately. As they clean the pages they display them, and in a Series of 25 shows beginning in 2010 and culminating in 2015, they will have shown the entirety of the Codex. They show what seemed to me about 40 drawings at a time in pressurized cases which feature television screens rotating between Italian and English translations of whatever da Vinci had written on the page. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside or I’d post what it looked like.
The Codex Atlanticus was briefly stolen by Napoleon – like everything else in Europe (how do you think the Louvre grew fat with masterpieces) – but it made its way back to Milan after his defeat and has never left since.
The highlight of the exhibition for me actually wasn’t any of the drawings or pages on display because they weren’t really drawings in our traditional sense of the word… but the one solitary painting they had by him. “Musician” from approximately 1490. It is his only painted portrait of a male figure and has been thought to represent any of several musicians from his day. Scholars suggest it may be his patron Ludovico il Moro, or perhaps his good friend and fellow musician (did you know LD was also a musician, composer and vocalist?) Atalante Migliorrotti. It could also be one of several composers living in Milan at the time.
Most interesting, even exciting, idea put forth so far however is also The most recent. There is good reason to suspect it maybe a self-portrait. For a quick, easy, four minute introduction and explanation of this (which convinced me) check out this TedTalk.
In closing, this exhibit was definitely worth attending. I just wish there had been more ‘art sketches’ and fewer ‘engineering sketches’ on display when we visited. Nevertheless, even his technical notes and diagrams, which I don’t have the context to understand, were interesting to see. There is something inherently fascinating about any sketch from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci… and here there was a lot of it.