8 months ago

Artistic License: Leonardo da Vinci


LEONARDO DA VINCI: A Life in Drawing” exhibition is part of an event organised by the Royal Collection Trust to mark 500 years since the Renaissance artist’s death …

Anne Stewart and Theresa Mary Morton

Twelve museums and galleries across the UK and Ireland are hosting simultaneous exhibitions giving the widest-ever audience the opportunity to see the work of this extraordinary artist. The twelve drawings selected for display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast reflect da Vinci’s knowledge of architecture, anatomy, engineering, cartography and botany. The works mirror Ulster’s heritage in manufacturing and engineering such as his maps of Florence, Italy and studies of the Italian Trivulzio monument.

Anne Stewart, Senior Curator of Art at National Museums NI, tells us more about the exhibition.

When did you start work on this extraordinary exhibition?

Planning the exhibition began over three years ago, when the Royal Collection approached us with the idea of hosting an exhibition to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. The idea of opening twelve exhibitions of da Vinci drawings simultaneously in twelve venues across the UK and Ireland was very ambitious and we were delighted to have been chosen to take part in this exciting and unusual undertaking.

Did you have any say in the selected works from the Royal Collection on loan to the Ulster Museum? 

Each selection of twelve drawings was made by Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection to reflect the variety of da Vinci’s interests. Representatives of each of the twelve venues met at Windsor Castle, where the drawings are kept, and we were each given an envelope with our selection inside. It was a very exciting moment as we each opened our envelopes to see which drawings were going to form our exhibitions.

Can you tell us a little about the Royal Collection of da Vinci’s works as a whole …

At his death in 1519, da Vinci bequeathed his drawings and notebooks to his pupil Francesco Melzi, who arranged the drawings by subject matter and annotated them with numbers, as seen on several of the sheets here.

Around 1580, the sculptor Pompeo Leoni acquired da Vinci’s drawings from Melzi’s son, and mounted them on the pages of at least two large albums. One of those albums was in England by 1630, in the collection of the Earl of Arundel. Within 50 years the album had been acquired by King Charles II, possibly as a gift from Arundel’s grandson.

The drawings were removed from the album during the reign of Queen Victoria and mounted individually, and in the early 20th century many were stamped in the corner with the cipher of Edward VII. The empty binding of Pompeo Leoni’s album was preserved as a relic of the master – the repository for three centuries of much of what we know today about da Vinci.


What is the time frame of the twelve artworks at the Ulster Museum?

Da Vinci drew throughout his lifetime, probably every day. As an activity it was central to his way of thinking and the most natural way of expressing his ideas. The drawings in the exhibition date from the mid-1480s when da Vinci was in Milan until 1519, the year he died in France. Around 1482, da Vinci moved to Milan in northwest Italy, where his interests rapidly expanded. He began to design military machines, and to study the scientific subjects that would be of use to an artist – human anatomy, the nature of light and colour, and so on. For the ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, he painted the “Last Supper”, his greatest surviving work, and spent ten years working on a huge equestrian monument, only for the project to be abandoned.

In 1499 Sforza was overthrown and da Vinci returned to Florence, where he began paintings including the Mona Lisaand a great mural of the “Battle of Anghiari”, but he was soon called back to Milan to serve the French occupiers of the city. There da Vinci carried out his greatest scientific investigations, though he would never publish any of his research.

Are there any anecdotes surrounding the twelve artworks?

There is so much that we don’t know about da Vinci and what we do know is based on the drawings and the recollections of his contemporaries. For much of his career da Vinci dreamed of constructing a flying machine, but he had little understanding of aerodynamic lift, and assumed that a bird is kept aloft by upwards air currents or by flapping of the wings. The drawing of “The bones and muscles of a bird’s wing” is a dissection study and was probably intended to inform his designs for a flying machine. As with many of da Vinci’s projects his plans for a flying machine were never realised however this drawing brings us closer to his ambitious ideas and imagination.

Which is your personal favourite and why?

If I had to choose one it would be “Two studies of a standing male nude”. This is a very fine drawing on blue prepared paper made in a technique called metalpoint. This is a very exacting technique as it allows for no correction or adjustment. Every mark that da Vinci made is visible and it is faultless. I think it is this combination of immediacy and perfection which makes the drawing so arresting.

Need to Know: “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” is at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, until May 6 and is accompanied by a series of events including special tours, lectures, art sessions and sketching workshops. Admission to the exhibition is free www.nmni.com.

Penny McCormick

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