Two Afternoons with Da Vinci

About trips to Milan and Paris.

Posted by Manjil Saikia on November 27, 2015

(Images are missing, due to importing from a different location. This will probably never be fixed. Sorry about that.)

In June of this year, I went to Milan for some work. It was my second visit to the city, having lived in Italy for a year from September of last year. In my first visit I had already seen the Milan Cathedral, the Santa Maria Della Grazie (which hosted Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper) and the other usual touristic sites. Since the place I had to go to was very close to the Duomo di Milano (duomo means cathedral in Italian), I decided to see this magnificent cathedral once again. In a desire to see the surrounding places of the Duomo, I stumbled upon an exhibition of the works of Leonardo Da Vinci is the Palazzo Reale di Milano (the Royal Palace of Milan, which was the seat of the kingdom of Milan for many centuries and in itself a very important cultural establishment now).

The exhibition was a part of the Milan Expo 2015 and was the largest exhibition of Da Vinci’s works to be ever displayed in Italy. I bought my ticket and audio guide and went inside. The four hours spent inside that exhibition left me mesmerized by the genius of Da Vinci. Not only did the exhibition have many of Da Vinci’s most famous works, but also it had an extensive collection of the scientific notes of Da Vinci from his famous notebooks. But the centrepiece of this exhibition was no doubt The Vitruvian Man, which normally resides in the Accademia at Venice and very rarely displayed to the public. Counted among one of the most recognizable images in the world, The Vitruvian Man seems puny at first sight. A single parchment of paper in a glass box if seen from a distance is quite unremarkable. But once you take a good look, the image will etch forever in your mind and the countless digital images you have seen of this man would never be able to do justice to the original.

The exhibition had many famous paintings of Da Vinci on display. Conspicuously missing however was The Monalisa. Among all the paintings that I saw that day, two of them striked out for me. One was the La belle ferronniere and the other was John The Baptist (both originally displayed in the Musee du Louvre in Paris). The genius of Da Vinci is unquestionable, but the minute details that his brush has given to these two works is beyond description. There were also a lot of sketches made by Da Vinci among the exhibits, one in particular stuck me. It was a Portraint of an Old Man in Red Chalk. The detailed portrait with all those flowing hairs and the beady eyes seemed surreal. It was only that day I realized why the world calls Da Vinci a ‘genius’.

The exhibition also had some works by other artists, mostly contemporaries of Da Vinci or his students. But the maestro’s work was evident among the others. It did not need a keen artistic eye to figure out which work was the maestro’s and which of the pupil’s. The exhibition was divided into ten different categories displaying different style of works by Da Vinci. There was also a portion of the exhibition devoted to some life-size models of the numerous inventions of Da Vinci, in his avatar as an engineer. That part was really exciting for me, having first learnt about the engineering skills of Da Vinci before his artistic ones. Another part of the exhibition was devoted to some modern depictions of Da Vinci’s works, including the coloured Monalisa by Andy Warhol.

When it was time for me to leave, because of an evening train that I had to catch, I felt a tinge of sadness at leaving this hallowed exhibition and returning back to the world of living. I went in as an art virgin, I did not know what meant for a piece of art to be good, and I came back with a renewed sense of aesthetics and beauty. I came out a different man that evening, and vowed to see more of this genius’ works.

The second opportunity to view some of Da Vinci’s works presented itself when I made a visit to Paris in August of this year, as a tourist. The list of things that I had to do in Paris included the Musee du Louvre at the top of it. Having previously read about the size of this museum, I was perfectly clear on the part of the museum that I had to see – the one that had The Monalisa! Upon arriving, we (I was with a friend) got the pleasant surprise that the entry was free for me, because I was a student (below 26 years) and residing in Europe. After getting lost for a while, we made it to the long hall whose walls adorned masterpieces by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Renoir and many others.

Three masterpieces of Da Vinci that I had seen earlier in Milan: John The Baptist, La belle ferronniere, the Annunciation greeted me like old friends. We saw The Madonna of the Rocks, Madonna and Saint Anne and many other great works of art. Although the goal was to see The Monalisa, it took a long while to see all of the other amazing pieces of art that were on display. The opening scenes of Dan Brown’s novel ‘The Da Vinci Code‘ played in my mind. I was actually standing in front of a painting that was very prominently mentioned in the book. And it took me a while to gasp at the significance of the place we were standing at, this was one of the most famous museums in the world!

Slowly making our way among the hundreds of paintings by master artists that adorned the walls of the Louvre, we spied the exit to the room which had La Joconde (or, The Monalisa). Once I was inside the room, it was apparent that there was a celebrity inside that room. Unlike the other paintings, the Monalisa was not accessible from less than 6-10 feet of distance and it was inside a glass case. It was the only painting I had seen inside the museum which had it’s own wall and there were lots of people just trying to get a glimpse of this painting that has captivated the world for so many centuries. We inched forward little by little and were close enough to get a good view. That smile, those eyes that I had seen countless times in the internet and the TV were before me. I stood there for sometime among the crowds and took in the view. Once it had registered that there were other beautiful works in the same room, I made my way to view some of them. But the euphoria of seeing The Monalisa had still not left me. I felt pity for the paintings that hung beside the black lady. They were beautiful, masterpieces in their own right, but they were the most ignored paintings in the whole museum.

Slowly, we made our way back from the Louvre and into the streets of Paris. I saw the big glass pyramids and thought for a while what I had seen. It was another afternoon of my life that I will never forget. Since then, I have had the chance to see works of Monet, Picasso, Klimt and Munch among others, but the feeling of those two afternoons spent with Da Vinci were very different. It was educative, entertaining and though-provoking. I did have a life-changing afternoon in Milan, it changed the way I see and appreciate beauty. Perhaps, it has made me a better man.

[This was submitted to an English daily based in Assam about a month back (at the time of writing), and I am yet to hear anything related to it. I think they are not going to publish it, so I posted it here because I think it would be a waste otherwise.]

I am happy to report that they eventually published this piece.

[There are no pictures from Milan as cameras were not allowed inside the exhibition halls.]

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