Six centuries and it barely shows. The genius par excellence, Leonardo da Vinci, has never fallen in popularity, with an allure that seems to increase with time: this year, two extraordinary exhibitions dedicated to this are opening in November in London and Turin.
On November 9th, the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan opened at London’s National Gallery, giving us a glimpse into Leonardo da Vinci as a painter during the period in which he resided in Milan, as part of the Duke Ludovico Sforza’s court -- with a never-before-seen collection of seven paintings, half of the number that’s been attributed to the Master, and more than fifty sketches.
On November 18th in Turin, instead, is the opening of Leonardo. Dal Genio al Mito (From Genius to Myth) at the Venaria Reale: his famous Self-Portrait will be shown for the first time, alongside works by artists who have been inspired by the Tuscan Master over the centuries.
The exhibition has been designed by another great Italian talent, the two-time Oscar winner Dante Ferretti, who displays Leonardo’s machines as faithful replications of the originals. One of today’s most respected set designers pays tribute to the designer and inventor of these grand, dramatic installations – the creation of which was one of the distinctive parts of da Vinci’s time spent in the Milanese court.
The year is 1482: a thirty year-old Leonardo moves from Florence to Milan, with statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici recommending him as a lute player for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. But Leonardo, not satisfied with this presentation, wrote “a letter of employment” directly to the Duke – a kind of modern CV that described his engineering projects, military apparatus, hydraulic and architectural designs, painting and sculptures.
The young Leonardo hit the mark perfectly and the Duke took him on as an advisor to the fortifications and the master of parties and banquets.
But Leonardo’s talents doesn’t stop here and at il Moro’s court, he dedicated much of his creativity in redesigning the kitchens of Milan’s Castello Sfozesco. Thanks to many of the inventions dedicated to “kitchen service”, Leonardo could even be considered a kind of ante-litteram food designer, having ideated a kind of roasting spit that works with hot air, various kinds of stoves and stovetops, grinders and distillers, a precursor to a fire-alarm made from a system of sprayers, mechanical nutcrackers, a left-handed corkscrew and other objects.
It’s said that Leonardo’s expertise extended even to the preparation of the Duke’s table: the mysterious and much-discussed Codice Romanoff is supposed to have included his notes on cooking and etiquette of the table. But today, no official institution has managed to locate it, making many sceptical as to whether it ever actually existed.
We mustn’t forget that we’re in the full swing of the Renaissance: an era in which all genres of art flourished, including culinary arts. Recipe books began to appear in kitchens, ones that didn’t just indicate a random list of ingredients but where quantities were actually specified to the gram or deciliter, and where manuals of proper table conduct, settings and the techniques of carving and cutting became popular.
At the stovetops, a true revolution was taking place with the appearance of “professionals” in the realm of gastronomy and dining, an organization governed by a very strict hierarchy. The highest ranking position was not that of the capocuoco, the head chef, nor was it that of the trinciante, the meat slicer, but it was the scalco or Maestro dei Convivii: a kind of orchestra conductor, often of a high social standing, who would personally choose the dishes his Master would be served. This was the role assumed by Leonardo.
The dining rooms would get transformed into veritable theatres that served as the setting for exquisite, sumptuous table settings: the food was no longer simply nutritious but artistic, tastefully complex, visual and elaborate. Leonardo created instruments and sets that had no equal when it came to designing the Duke’s banquets, and he reached his apex with his Festa del Paradiso (Heavenly Party), thrown to celebrate the marriage of Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Isabella of Aragon, he created a sumptuous set design and a theatrical spectacle.
Young ladies and men were dressed as angels and planets that rotated around Jupiter, illuminated by hundreds of candles that, reflected off of a curved, golden surface, threw points of light onto the room making it appear as if it were surrounded by starry skies.
Not much remains today of this one-of-a-kind party, except for the passionate recounting of it by some of those guests lucky enough to attend.