Study of Fetus in the Womb circa 1511
Part artist, part scientist, Da Vinci embodies the Renaissance man par excellence.
Luckily for us, the workings of his inner mind in painting, sculpture, anatomy, military engineering and cartography have all been recorded in the notebooks he kept throughout his life.
One of these notebooks made it into the Queen’s Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign. For hundreds of years following, the 550 drawings were carefully preserved in the Print room at Windsor castle.
To mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, 200 of these drawings have travelled up to London for a show entitled Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at the Queen’s Gallery, London.
Leonardo began his career as an apprentice artist, a garzone, aged 14, working for the eminent Florentine painter and sculptor Verrocchio. Under his inspirational master’s wing, he was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal work, plaster casting, leather work, mechanics, woodwork, as well as drawing, painting and modelling.
To complement their education in the human body, Verrochio’s pupils were sent down to the local hospital to perform dissections. For Da Vinci it was a revelation, setting him along the path of scientific observation.
At the show the anatomical section is the most fascinating. Da Vinci’s documentation of muscles, nerves and vessels demonstrate the artist’s investigation into the mechanics of movement.
The act of procreation also preoccupies the polymath as you would expect. His artistic representation of coitus is both intriguing and poetic. Man’s ‘material’ is seen to enter the female uterus, and in Da Vinci’s drawing, it is the man’s brain which baptises it with an ‘animal element’ or soul. Meanwhile woman, the receptacle of the man’s offering, gives her soul to the child via her spinal cord.
Further on in the show, da Vinci’s dissection of a uterus reveals a mature foetus (see heading). Beautifully drafted, it is unsettling to think of the circumstances in which Da Vinci captured nature’s best kept secret. Burying its head in its hands, its placenta snaking around its back and thigh, the baby is both immaculate and lifeless.
Other highlights were Da Vinci’s outstanding botany drawings, the map of the Tuscan valley he drew up as a military engineer and cartographer, and finally a sculptural project for the Duke of Milan.
Da Vinci was commissioned to make a bronze equestrian statue to honour one of the Duke’s forebears. Unfortunately only the clay version survived until it was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan. As for the bronze required for the colossal equine cast totalling 75 tons, it was used instead for the production of cannon balls.
The theme of unfinished works is a reoccurring one with da Vinci. Personal procrastination and destruction seem to have blighted da Vinci’s existence. It is really poignant to think that though Leonardo was revered in his day as a painter, he was only able to complete 20 paintings.
The exhibition does give us the opportunity to view the preparatory sketches for several of the most famous works, The Last Supper for instance. The relatively unknown (The) Head of Leda was the main attraction at the show however.
Da Vinci’s charming sketches of a beautiful young woman with Renaissance hair, plaited, rolled and trained and seen from all angles, is enchanting. Da Vinci worked on the painting for the last 15 years of his life. It entered the French Royal Collection but had to be destroyed due to its ruinous state.
Head of Leda 1504-1505
For me, The Head of Leda’s studies are a precious record of what could have been da Vinci’s greatest painting of all.
All in all, I found this an inspiring show and one which leaves you wanting more.
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing runs until October 2019 at the Queen’s Gallery, London.