Marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, this exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, brings together more than 200 of the Renaissance master’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection. As the Royal Collection has more drawings by Leonardo da Vinci than any other Renaissance artist, it forms the largest exhibition of his work in over 65 years.
The exhibition follows 12 simultaneous exhibitions of Leonardo’s drawings from the Royal Collection at museums and galleries across the UK, which attracted more than one million visitors.
Not Just a Painter
Leonardo was revered in his day as a painter yet he completed only around 20 paintings. He was respected as a sculptor and architect, but no sculpture or buildings by him survive. He was a military and civil engineer who plotted with Machiavelli to divert the river Arno but the scheme was never realised.
As a scientist, he dissected 30 human corpses with the intention of compiling an illustrated treatise on anatomy. He planned further treatises on light, water, botany, mechanics and more, but none were ever finished. (It’s important to remember, he was not interested in all things at all times.) As so much of Leonardo’s work was unrealised, many of his achievements survive only in his drawings and manuscripts.
These drawings provide an unparalleled insight into the workings of Leonardo’s mind and reflect the full range of his interests.
We’re Lucky They Survived
Few of Leonardo’s drawings were intended for others to see. Drawing served as Leonardo’s laboratory, allowing him to work out his ideas on paper and search for the universal laws that he believed underpinned all of creation.
The drawings by Leonardo in the Royal Collection have been together as a group since the artist’s death in 1519. Leonardo bequeathed thousands of loose drawings and dozens of notebooks to his favourite pupil, Francesco Melzi, who spent the next 50 years looking after these papers and attempting to put them into order.
On Melzi’s death in around 1570, the sculptor Pompeo Leoni acquired the drawings and mounted them on pages of at least two albums.
By 1630, one of these albums had reached England and was in the collection of the Earl of Arundel. Around 1670 this album was acquired by King Charles II, perhaps as a gift from Arundel’s grandson.
The drawings were first widely published and understood only in the years around 1900 when they were removed from the album. Many were stamped with the cipher of Edward VII. Leoni’s empty album binding was fortunately preserved – the repository for three centuries of much of what we know today about Leonardo.
We know not all of Leonardo’s drawings are here in the Royal Collection. Wherever the others ended up, I do hope they are going on display this year too.
The exhibition includes examples of all the drawing materials employed by the artist, including pen and ink, red and black chalks, watercolour and metalpoint. It also presents new information about Leonardo’s working practices and creative process, gathered through scientific research using a range of non-invasive techniques, including ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence.
All of the drawings are on paper (usually white, but occasionally blue), made from rags of linen and hemp beaten in water to a slurry of pulped fibres. After pressing, the sheets were treated with gelatin to prevent ink blotting.
His use of a wide range of paper types was unusual for the time and further indication of the artist’s experimental way of working. He uses white paper, blue paper, fine and coarse, and he often coated his paper with a pigmented preparation to explore a range of colouristic effects.
The book-printing revolution of the 15th century had led to an expansion in the manufacture of paper throughout Europe. The price of paper was falling relative to that of parchment, and during Leonardo’s lifetime paper became an everyday commodity, encouraging artists to use it more freely and experimentally. The strength of hand-made paper and the stability of Leonardo’s materials – and good fortune, in the avoidance of flood, fire and simple loss – have ensured that many of his drawings have survived the last 500 years in excellent condition and that they can be seen much as Leonardo drew them.
Throughout his life, Leonardo drew and wrote with a quill pen, cut from a goose’s wing feather. He also often applied diluted ink with a brush, to add shading to his drawings.
The ink was usually ‘iron gall’, made by a chemical reaction between iron sulphate and a solution of tannins obtains from oak galls, with a gum arabic (a tree resin) to thicken the ink.
The iron gall and iron salts become transparent under infrared reflectography (IRR) allowing his black chalk underdrawing to be seen for the first time.
As a young artist, Leonardo learned how to draw using metalpoint – a stylus of lead, silver, copper or other metals. Lead can mark untreated paper but harder metals require the paper to be coated with a slightly abrasive preparation of ground bone ash, mixed with dilute glue to bind it to the paper. Artists often added a pigment such as indigo or red lead to colour the paper.
Varying the pressure on the stylus does not change the character of the line, and the mark cannot be erased. Metalpoint thus demands control and discipline. It was the standard medium for training young artists in 15th century Italy but Leonardo abandoned this laborious technique in the 1490s, and it largely fell into disuse after 1500 following the introduction of chalks.
Chalks and Charcoal
In the early 1490s Leonardo began to use natural red and black chalks – a red-ochre variety of haematite or iron oxide, and a soft carbonaceous schist respectively – which soon supplanted metalpoint in his drawings. (He used white chalk, calcium carbonate, only rarely). Pieces of the minerals would be cut to a point and wedged in the end of a split stick. The drawn line was dense and adhered well to the paper, with no need to fix it. He often used toned papers or coloured grounds for his chalk drawings, most frequently an orange-red ground for red chalk drawings, thereby restricting the tonal range to allow the most subtle modelling.
Charcoal (carbonised wood) is a much less precise and durable drawing material, though it has been identified in some of Leonardo’s drawings. The modern graphite pencil is a later innovation.
Leonardo used watercolour only in drawings intended for others to see – primarily his maps and courtly emblems. His brushes would have been composed of animal hair set into the shaft of a feather.
Recent analysis has determined that he used both plant-based dyes and copper-based mineral pigments, and occasionally ground lapis lazuli or ultramarine, with gum arabic as a binding medium.
In addition to more than 200 works by Leonardo, the exhibition features a number of works by Leonardo’s contemporaries. These include the only two drawings of Leonardo made during his lifetime. One is the well-known formal portrait of the artist, drawn by his pupil Francesco Melzi (A portrait of Leonardo c. 1515-18). The second, on public display for the first time, is A sketch of Leonardo (c. 1517-18), made by a second assistant.
Leonardo’s early biographers testify to his personal beauty, with well-kept hair and beard and a love of fine clothes, and to his charming, gregarious character.
Leonardo was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci in central Italy. He was the illegitimate son of a lawyer and a peasant girl. He was raised in his paternal grandfather’s house. As he was born out of wedlock he was unable to attend university.
By 1472, at the age of twenty, Leonardo was working as a painter in nearby Florence.
Around 1480 Leonardo began his most ambitious early painting, the Adoration of the Magi teeming with figures and animals. This remained unfinished when he left Florence for Milan.
From the Royal Collection’s Leoni Binding, what appeared to be two completely blank sheets of paper are on public display for the first time. Under examination in ultraviolet light, Leonardo’s Studies of hands for the Adoration of the Magi (c.1481) has revealed ‘disappeared’ drawings of great beauty, and visitors can see these ‘recovered’ drawings in a full-size ultraviolet image. It’s a wonderful discovery as these sheets are among Leonardo’s most beautiful drawings.
Leonardo executed the studies of hands in metalpoint, which involves drawing with a metal stylus on prepared paper. The sheets were examined at the UK’s national synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source at Harwell, Oxfordshire, using high-energy X-ray fluorescence to map the distribution of chemical elements on the paper. It was discovered that the drawings had become invisible to the naked eye because of the high copper content in the stylus that Leonardo used – the metallic copper had reacted over time to become a transparent copper salt.
Leonardo had moved to Milan in north-west Italy by April 1483, when he received a commission for an altarpiece now known as the Virgin of the Rocks.
While in Milan he began his early studies in science and engineering. Renaissance artists and architects often practised as engineers too. Leonardo had been introduced to the principles of engineering while working in Verrocchio’s workshop in Florence. After he moved to Milan, Leonardo began to sketch designs for machines of all kinds, mainly military in nature. It is unlikely that he constructed any of these designs and they may instead have been conceived as illustrations for a treatise on warfare.
Later that decade he entered the service of the ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza – initially to work on an equestrian monument, and later portrait painting, designing entertainments, and executing his greatest finished work, the Last Supper. This was Leonardo’s longest period in a single city, ending when an invading French army overthrew Ludovico in 1499.
The Sforza Monument
Ludovico Sforza commissioned Leonardo to make a bronze equestrian monument to his father Francesco. There are lots of drawings of the horse but few of the man.
Leonardo built a clay model of the horse, well over life-size, and took a mould ready for casting. But in 1494 the 75 tons of bronze assembled to make the cast was requisitioned to make cannon, and the project was suspended. Five years later Ludovico Sforza was deposed by an invading French army. Leonardo’s clay horse was used for target practice by the French troops and destroyed.
The Last Supper
Leonardo’s greatest work to reach completion was the Last Supper, completed in 1498, and the last surviving drawings are on display. It was painted for Ludovico Sforza in the dining hall of the Milanese monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
This is the only surviving head study for the Last Supper to be drawn from a live model. Leonardo handled the red chalk coarsely and rapidly, to capture the spontaneity of his model’s pose and expression. The architectural sketches are probably modifications to Castello Sforzesco in Milan.
After the fall of his patron Ludovico Sforza in Milan, Leonardo returned to Florence. He tried to re-establish himself there as a painter but was reported to be preoccupied with geometry.
In 1502 he left Florence to work as a surveyor to the papal army but was back the following spring. The Florentine government commissioned him to paint a huge mural, the Battle of Anghiari, in the Great Council Chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria.
He worked on this for the next three years but only the central portion was completed. At the same time, he was also working on maps and began Mona Lisa and Leda and the Swan.
In August 1502, the 52 year old Leonardo was appointed military architect and engineer to Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI and marshal of the papal army. Over the next few months, Leonardo surveyed Borgia’s stronghold to the north and east of Florence, creating his most impressive surviving map of the town of Imola.
After leaving Borgia’s service in 1503 Leonardo returned to Florence where he continued to make maps.
Botany and Landscape
Leonardo’s painting of Leda and the Swan was to have a foreground rich in plants and flowers.
Milan 1506-1513 and Rome 1513-1516
Leonardo was called back to Milan in 1506 by the French occupiers of the city. He served the French court for the next seven years. While he did do some painting, he was now working more as a designer and scientist.
Once again, military strife disrupted Leonardo’s work. The French were ousted from Milan and in 1513 Leonardo abandoned Lombardy for Rome. But by 1516 he left Italy forever and moved to France.
In the winter of 1510-11 Leonardo seems to have been working in the medical school of the University of Pavia, south of Milan, alongside the professor of anatomy. Leonardo may have dissected twenty corpses that winter and the resulting drawings and notes are among his finest scientific work.
Growing military turmoil in Milan deprived Leonardo of his access to human corpses. His final anatomical studies, of the fetus and the heart, were conducted on animal material.
Working with the hearts of oxen, he described the chambers of the heart, the arrangements of the vessels and the action of the valves. But he had no knowledge of the circulation of the blood, and his notes reveal his profound insights with ancient beliefs about the physiology of the heart.
He also recorded a brilliant experiment in which he poured molten wax into the cavities around the aortic valve of an ox’s heart. He then made a hollow glass model of the shape of the wax cast and pumped water mixed with seeds through his glass model to study the flow patterns. He witnessed turbulent vortices, correctly deducing that these are partly responsible for closing the valve after each beat of the heart.
The Madonna and Child with St Anne
The subject of the Madonna and Child with St Anne occupied Leonardo for the last two decades of his life. The initial commission may have come from King Louis XII of France, and in time Leonardo produced three full-size compositions, of which a cartoon (National Gallery) and a painting (Louvre) survive. Leonardo began the painting around 1508 and made detailed studies as work progressed.
The drawings on display here are a range of dates and techniques so show the care with which Leonardo prepared his paintings right to the end of his life.
In late 1516, aged 64, Leonardo accepted an offer of employment at the court of the young King Francis I. He moved from Rome to Amboise in central France where he held a privileged position as painter, engineer and architect to the king.
In October 1517 he was reported to have a paralysed right arm, perhaps from a stroke.
Leonardo died at Amboise on 2 May 1519, at the age of 67.
The young King Francis I held several lavish entertainments while Leonardo was working as his court artist in France.
Leonardo was the archetypal ‘Renaissance man’ and the exhibition is a real insight to the man and his work. You can see thumbprints, watch the play of his ideas, etc.
He wrote in mirror writing with his left hand. Why? I don’t know.
I really enjoyed this exhibition. It took me at least two hours to see it all and to take the time to understand the drawings. I hope you get to see it too.
Exhibition: Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing
Dates: 24 May – 13 October 2019
Admission: Adult ticket £13.50. All tickets become 1 year passes so you have unlimited returns for a whole year.
Address: Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1A 1AA
There are lots of events planned to go with this exhibition. Escape Room: Leonardo Artmergency! looks particularly good fun. It’s on Fridays and Saturdays from 14 June to 5 October 2019 with an escape room game for adults to get you thinking like a Renaissance genius to beat the clock. Teams of four to eight players. £150 per team.