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Blockbuster da Vinci exhibition showcases the master’s ‘endless curiosity’
Judy Woodruff: And now to the blockbuster exhibition of the year, perhaps of many years, a celebration of Leonardo da Vinci 500 years after his death.
Lines are long, tickets hard to come by to see the work of an artist who was born in Italy and died in France, and who came to define what we mean by renaissance man.
Jeffrey Brown, of course, got there before the crowds. And he has our report.
It's part of our ongoing Canvas, coverage of arts and culture.
Jeffrey Brown: Leonardo da Vinci thought of painting as a science, even the greatest science, requiring constant research and experimentation.
How, for example, do light and shadow create a sense of movement, of life, what's beneath the surface of bodies or rock formations? And how does that affect the way they appear to our eyes? How can human emotions emerge from the most subtle and nearly endless applications of paint?
Vincent Delieuvin: His contemporaries, and still today, when we have a look at his paintings, we are amazed, because they look like nothing other.
Jeffrey Brown: Vincent Delieuvin is co-curator of an exhibition now at Paris' Louvre Museum.
Vincent Delieuvin: He decided to base his art on science. But as he wanted to reproduce all nature, he had to understand all the nature. So he took a long time studying geometry, mathematics, optics, botanic, anatomy, everything on earth, to be able to reproduce it in his paintings.
Jeffrey Brown: On display, some 160 works, including pages of notebooks showing Leonardo's endless curiosity.
Studies by a young Leonardo are paired with a magnificent sculpture by his teacher, Verrocchio. There are drawings, the famous Vitruvian Man, a study of human proportions, a swirling deluge, a lovely and delicate madonna and child.
And then there are the paintings. Only about 15 surviving paintings can be confidently attributed to Leonardo. Experts differ on the exact number. But nine of them are here, all world-famous, even if not all finished.
Leonardo worked on his canvasses for years, experimenting with an effect he called sfumato, the smoky shadings that create blended transitions between shadow and light, tones and colors.
The result? Lifelike vibrations, as in the late portrait of Saint John the Baptist.
Vincent Delieuvin: On the face, it's absolutely wonderful. And please have a look at the wonderful lip, the nose, and give the impression of vibration to the smile and give life to the expression.
Jeffrey Brown: A big reason the Louvre alone could pull off this exhibition is that Leonardo spent the last years of his life here in France, and he brought with him several important paintings to a large home about two hours from here.
In the Loire Valley town of Amboise, we joined French writer Serge Bramly, author of an acclaimed 1988 biography of Leonardo that he's continued to update.
Serge Bramly: Leonardo was looking for a patron who had some ambitions, the same ambition he had.
Jeffrey Brown: Which was what?
Serge Bramly: Which was everything.
Jeffrey Brown: Everything, yes.
The powerful patron, King Francis I, gave Leonardo a chateau called Clos Luce, a short walk from the royal castle. By that time, in his 60s, Leonardo sported his bearded philosopher look, familiar from a portrait by a younger contemporary that's shown in the Louvre.
By all accounts, walking the gardens here and throughout his life, Leonardo was outgoing and had many friends.
Serge Bramly: Freedom was so important Leonardo.
Jeffrey Brown: He was gay and also a vegan, opposed to killing animals.
How did people in his time see him, I mean, that even the king of France would want to bring him here?
Serge Bramly: Yes, sure. They were astonished, just like we are, because they couldn't understand how one man could do so many things, and, at the same time, be the most handsome, the most pretty, good-looking man, incredible singer, musician, horseman.
They called him Divino, for divine.
Jeffrey Brown: Inside the chateau, a recreation of Leonardo's life here, including a studio with reproductions of two of the paintings he brought with him and continued to work on.
Serge Bramly: Leonardo says that, in his work, there are two steps. The first one, he called imitazione, to catch the exact image of something, like with photography.
But that's not art. Mirrors do that. And mirrors are not very arty. The second step is what he called the idea, or concepto, the idea, the concept behind it.
Leonardo wrote a lot about his art. He says painting is a fiction. It's not reality. It's a fiction, but it's a fiction that tells great things. But, also, you have to move the viewer. If it's just pretty, it's not enough. It has to do something to your emotions, to your heart or your brain. It has to move you and change you.
Jeffrey Brown: The greatest example of all, of course, is back at the Louvre, the Mona Lisa. And this is as close as any of us will likely ever get.
Given its enormous popularity, some 30,000 visitors a day crowding and selfie-ing through, museum officials have kept it in its regular space. But it is in the exhibition in an infrared, reflectograph version that exposes the lines beneath the surface of the most famous smile in art history, more insight into how Leonardo worked.
One painting not here? The still-controversial Salvator Mundi. After several leading experts decided it is by Leonardo...
Man: So, ladies and gentlemen, we move to the Leonardo da Vinci, the Salvator Mundi.
Jeffrey Brown: ... it sold at auction in 2017 for a record $450 million.
Here, instead, a copy from the same period. And there were other curatorial dramas, including a last-minute lawsuit to keep the fragile Vitruvian Man from leaving its home in Venice. The suit failed, making curator Vincent Delieuvin a happy, if tired, man.
Vincent Delieuvin: Well, everybody in the Louvre Museum is today absolutely conscious that that was the most difficult exhibition we ever organized.
Jeffrey Brown: This was the most difficult?
Vincent Delieuvin: The most difficult, clearly. You know, when you are a curator of an exhibition, you are a little bit crazy. You want everything.
But, at the end, so, what we wanted to say on Leonardo da Vinci is already there and expressed with the works we have here.
Jeffrey Brown: Leonardo da Vinci was 67 when he died in Amboise in 1519.
Outside the small chapel where he was laid to rest, Serge Bramly reflected on his lasting impact.
Serge Bramly: It's a kind of model for today's man, woman, of a man so curious of everything, that he says it's not impossible to understand life, things, the creation.
Jeffrey Brown: The Louvre's Leonardo exhibition runs through February 24, 2020.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Paris.