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The Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Examined through 12 Seminal Drawings

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The syntagm greatest artist of all times is not attached to Leonardo da Vinci without justification. The reasons for such a claim are multiple; this iconic historical figure firstly set the foundations of modern art-making, and secondly, he embodied the concept of the polymath to the full extent, and therefore the ideal of Renaissance of man.

Namely, Leonardo da Vinci is definitely best known for the world’s most iconic masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but he also devotedly explored architecture, human anatomy, botany, music, engineering, cartography and was practically the first human in history to anticipate humanity flying.

The most important tool for articulating these interests was drawing; through this particular medium, Leonardo was able to express in humble means his ideas in quick, yet elaborate manner. Spanning preparatory sketches for large scale paintings, surgically precise depictions of the human inside and outside, and refined maps representing demographical features of a certain area, his drawings seem to expose all the layers behind this outrages genius.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, and in order to honor it, the UK’s Royal Collection decided to show the highlights of their extensive collection (consisting of one hundred and forty-four Leonardo drawings) in twelve exhibitions across the country.

The Master’s Innovations

Much of Leonardo da Vinci’s work was destroyed or lost, so his highly progressive ideas survived only in manuscripts and his drawings. The artist worked with various materials such as metal point, watercolor, pen and ink – he often used special kind of ink made from iron salts and oak galls, and red and black chalks. The layers of each work were closely analyzed with the use of non-invasive techniques, infrared reflectography ultraviolet imaging, and X-ray fluorescence.

Therefore, the selection of these works is expected to reveal details concerning Leonardo’s creative process and working methods. Head of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust Martin Clayton, explained the importance of these exhibitions:

The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci are a national treasure, both incredibly beautiful and the main source of our knowledge of the artist. We hope that as many people as possible across the UK will take this unique opportunity to see these extraordinary works, which allow us to enter one of the greatest minds in history, and to understand the man and his achievements.

Leonardo da Vinci Drawings On View

A new publication Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Lookpublished by Royal Collection Trust will accompany the exhibition. After the end of all the exhibitions, the drawings will be united for purposes of the great Leonardo retrospective at The Queen’s Gallery in May 2019, which will then travel to Scotland’s Palace of Holyroodhouse in November 2019.

In order to honor the 500th anniversary and the following exhibitions, we decided to present you with the twelve Leonardo gems through our following top list.

Editors’ Tip:Disavowals: or Cancelled Confessions

On the heels of Walter Isaacson’s beloved new biography (Fall 2017), and increased media attention (as 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death), this book’s appeal will extend beyond the devoted and numerous members of Leonardo’s audience to reach a popular one. The most comprehensive collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings provides an intimate look at the mind and hand of the genius.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Mortars firing into a fortress, c.1503-4. Black chalk, pen and ink, wash. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.Leonardo da Vinci - The skull sectioned

The skull sectioned, 1489

The first drawing on our list depicts the section of a human skull. As it was already mentioned, Leonardo was very much interested in anatomy and spent some time dissecting the body in order to explore its complexities. In 1489, the artist made a drawing of the skull outside and inside. The drawing features the juxtaposition of the two halves followed by numeration of different teeth types.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – The skull sectioned, 1489. Traces of black chalk, pen and ink. Ulster Museum, Belfast. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018Leonardo da Vinci - A Map of the Valdichiana

A Map of the Valdichiana, c. 1503-4

During his lifetime, Leonardo gained quite a reputation for his projects in land management and civil engineering, so the artist produced a number of maps. One of the surviving ones belongs to the collection and it represents the region of Valdichiana in southern Tuscany. Perugia is at upper right, North is to the left, Arezzo at upper left and Siena lower center. The scholars believe that the map is made in an attempt to drain the malarial marsh despite the fact it does not feature the scheme.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – A Map of the Valdichiana, c.1503-4. Watercolor, pen and ink, ink wash over black chalk. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018Leonardo da Vinci - Cats lions and a dragon

Cats, lions and a dragon, c. 1517-18

These Leonardo drawings represent the studies of carefully observed domestic cats, highly stylized coiling dragon, as well as several studies of a lionessprobably seen by Leonardo behind the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence where these animals were kept as symbols of the city. The artist even kept a note on the sheet by stating – Of flexion and extension. The lion is the prince of this animal species because of the flexibility of its spine.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Cats, lions and a dragon, c.1517-18. Black chalk, pen and ink, wash. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018Leonardo da Vinci - A deluge

A deluge, c. 1517-18

The next drawing on our list is representing one of Leonardo da Vinci’s favorite subjects during the last years of his life. It is the depiction of a cataclysmic storm surpassing the earth, and it encapsulates his personal fear of a near end of life. Namely, the mighty storm is surrounding the city, a mountain falling apart, sweeping all the matter. The drawing was executed with pen and wash, and the infrared technology showed that the black chalk under-drawing is much focused on the mountain’s impact.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – A deluge, c.1517-18. Black chalk, pen and ink, wash, under-drawing shown under infrared light. National Museum Cardiff. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018Leonardo da Vinci - A star of Bethlehem and other plants

A star-of-Bethlehem, and other plants, c. 1506-12

The botanical drawings Leonardo made were actually preparatory sketches for his painting Leda and the Swan which was destroyed. At the heart of this composition is a small group of plants of the star of Bethlehem followed by wood anemone, and the study of sun spurge with details of its seed heads below. The position of the plants suggests that the artist observed them in the wild.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – A star-of-Bethlehem and other plants, c.1506-12. Red chalk, pen and ink. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 201Leonardo da Vinci - A design for an equestrian monument

A design for an equestrian monument, c. 1485-8

The ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza commissioned Leonardo during the 1480s to produce a life-size bronze equestrian monument of his father Francesco. The drawing shows Francesco, nude and holding a baton, on a horse. Such an expressive pose was too ambitious to produce in bronze, so the artist changed to a more reasonable solution of a walking horse. For four years, Leonardo worked on the clay model and mold to cast the monument, however in the bronze he assembled was used to make a cannon in 1494. The monument was never cast; a few years later the invading French forces destroyed Leonardo’s full-size model.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – A design for an equestrian monument, c.1485-8. Metalpoint on blue prepared paper. Leeds Art Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018Leonardo da Vinci - The head of a youthLeonardo da Vinci - The head of Leda

The head of Leda, c. 1505-8 and The head of a youth, c. 1510

Next up is the preparatory sketch for the mentioned painting Leonardo intended to produce during his last years; it was found in his studio after his death and was the most highly valued item in his estate.

As the title suggests, it is based on the myth of princess Leda who was seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan. Her face is rather simplified, while the hairstyle is elaborately executed by the artist; the parallel plaits are positioned over the top of her head and a pattern of interlacing at the temples.

The head of a youth was made two years later and it features the head of a young man executed with red chalk on red prepared paper. The realistic effect is achieved with tonal contrasts; Leonardo accentuated the smoothly rounded surface a layer of juvenile fat with red, and the hair curls with black chalk

Here it is important to mention that two male types based on ancient Roman models are omnipresent throughout Leonardo’s career – an adolescent with a straight nose, lightly rounded chin and open expression, and an older man with a curved nose, prominent chin, and beetling brow.



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