Art: Leonardo da Vinci – A Life in Drawing

An individual who does not need an introduction is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. Marking his death 500 years ago, the Royal Collection is displaying more than 200 of the 500 drawings in the collection at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The exhibition will end soon on Sunday 13th October, so I thought that I would share my thoughts for all my readers so you have time to go before it closes! Tickets can be purchased here; it should be noted that the exhibition is extremely popular and it is recommended that tickets should be booked in advance.

I was extremely lucky that my best friend spotted there was a special talk being held at the gallery after hours. The tickets were limited we were able to explore the exhibition in relative peace (there were about 150 guests or so). I was extremely honoured to have listened to Martin Clayton, the curator and Heads of Prints and Drawings, give a unique insight into the mind of one of the history’s greatest thinkers. He also presents a lot of what he talked about in this wonderful video about his life.

The Exhibition

The exhibition spans across three (and a bit) rooms, starting off with what is deemed the most reliable surviving portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by his favourite pupil Francesco Melzi. Most interestingly is the provenance of the painting and others in the collection which was bequeathed to Francesco Melzi; from whose heirs purchased by Pompeo Leoni, c.1582-90; which then made its way to England to Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, by 1630; probably acquired by Charles II; Royal Collection by 1690.

Clayton explained that Da Vinci was revered in his day as a painter but only completed around 20 paintings. He was a respected sculptor and architect but none of these works or building survives today. He was also a military and civil engineer, but diverting the river Arno with Machiavelli was never completed. His astonishing works on anatomy was never published. I do wonder how the course of scientific discovery and understanding of the human body would have changed if only he shared his works with others!

Much of his life’s work never came into fruition or was destroyed, this is why the Royal Collection of his drawings and notes are invaluable to understanding his greatest achievements; and also why I encourage my readers to visit the exhibition. It is probably the last time in our generation that we can see all these displayed in one setting.

The Blue Room

In this room, there are other paintings by artists of the time and introduces a great variety of works and different subjects that Da Vinci researched and drew. One of my favourite pieces is the A man tricked by Gypsies (c.1943). Gypsies were banished from Milan in 1493 because of their reputation for fortune-telling and theft, this drawing was a satire on current events and probably for the entertainment of the Sforza court. This is the first time I had seen a more cultural/political drawing by the great artist, but I am extremely drawn to the piece because of the expressions and details on the faces. In this room, there is also a rather explicit drawing, again, not something I associated with Da Vinci – see if you can spot the piece – The hemisection of a man and woman in the act of coition (c.1490-92).

A man tricked by Gypsies

The Green Room

This room introduces Da Vinci as a military and civil engineer in addition to his cartography. In August 1502, the fifty-year-old Leonardo was appointed as a military architect and engineer to Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. Over the next few months, he created one of his most impressive surviving map of Imola. Leonardo paced the lengths of the streets, as recorded on an annotated sketch of each quarter of the town and given the irregularities in the rectilinear street plan testify to the accuracy of the map, which may still be used to find one’s way around Imola today.

Another wonderful piece worth noting is this room is The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman (c.1509-10); which you would also get the opportunity to see when you leave the exhibition as it is by the exit. It is an anatomical study of the principal organs and the arterial system of a female torso, pricked for transfer.  Leonardo’s only documented dissection was carried out in the winter of 1507-8 when he performed an autopsy on an old man whose death he had witnessed in a hospital in Florence. In this incredibly detailed piece of work, he combined his understanding of various organs into a single diagram of a woman rather than a man, with an astonishingly perfectly spherical uterus. 

The Red Room

This was my favourite room in the whole exhibition because there were many detailed anatomy works and also his “deluge” that was completed nearer the end of his life. I found it very hard to pick out my favourite drawing in this room because there was so many, but one of note is the fetus in the womb (c.1511). Colour is rare in his atomical drawings, but in his late studies, he started to use red chalk. It is believed that he may have dissected a pregnant woman at some point, but in this piece and looking at the notes, the placenta is drawn with multiple structures based on his understanding by an earlier dissection of a cow. Da Vinci never discovered that the human placenta is single and discoidal. The drawing is also a great example of his notes and infamous mirror writing.

At the end of his life, he seems to have become obsessed with destruction. A deluge (c.1517-18) is a drawing of a dramatic flood and cataclysmic storm. There is just so much going on with the drawing, which I found to be a stark contrast to his other neat, refined, and, well thought through works. During this time, he also started writing long passages – torrents of thoughts with no punctuation describing with relish a huge storm overwhelming a landscape, and the futile struggles of man and animal against the forces of nature.

There seems to have been a deterioration in his mental health during his final years when he was living in France at the court of Francis I. It is also understood that his physical health also deteriorated greatly, one observer noted that Da Vinci was an old man had lost the use of his right arm, possibly from a stroke. I am a great admirer of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work and in my mind, he was immortalised as a genius who never aged. It is heartbreaking and bittersweet to understand that in his last years, he knew that he was dying, and yet, was still able to create these stunningly intricate and chaotic drawings.

It is an exhibition of a lifetime and I recommend it to anyone who has time to see it. For those who would not be able to, do not dismay – the collection is available online on the Royal Collection’s website. What is your favourite Leonardo Da Vinci’s piece? As always, I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.

With Sweet & Sour Love,

Pineapple Chicken x

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