Paintings that make you go “ooh”: da Vinci, BBC 1, 9pm, 30/10/11
What a fantastic programme on BBC1 tonight, and it had nothing to do with watching the quite wonderful Fiona Bruce in a yellow summer dress drinking white wine in Florence. It was more to do with an even more beautiful woman, da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” Cecilia Gallerani, who is starring in an exhibition at the National Gallery from November.
I remember seeing the “Lady” in Krakow in 2004. The fact that I didn’t know the city was home to the most stunning da Vinci of them all shows just how little I knew at the time of the history of what I thought was a provincial capital. It was my first visit to Poland, and had a profound effect on me because I realised that my father’s homeland wasn’t some far off, uncultured backwater that was only worth fighting over for coal and farmland, as school history books had always led me to believe: it was the very Heart of Europe.
The Lady was housed in the The Czartoryskis Museum, a tiny place compared to the great museums of Paris or London or Rome. And, as it was November, the museum was pretty much deserted. So my time with her was relatively intimate, and she utterly dazzled me. It’s one of only two paintings that have made me breathlessly weak at the knees and given me heart palpitations: the other, Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, is the type of painting that bludgeons you with its audacious use of empty space, its utter inhumanity and its sheer bloody size. The “Lady” is different: tiny, elegant, seductive. I love her. I can’t wait to see her again. I’ve booked my ticket.
There will be other da Vinci delights, including the newly rediscovered “Salvator Mundi” featured in the programme. It looks ethereal, odd, wonderful. I’d like to see the Oxford copy of the Last Supper too. It’s going to be a ground breaking event because never before have so many da Vincis been under one roof together. And I’m going to be there and, despite the crowds, I’m going to say a little private hello to Cecilia and hope she remembers me. I’m odd that way…