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Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

At the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

The Walker Art Gallery is currently the home to 12 of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings. These are only 12 of the 144 drawings which are currently being displayed in galleries across the UK. This UK- wide exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of his death and will culminate in the largest exhibition of Leonardo's work, in recent years, in May 2019, at Buckingham Palace.

Leonardo was an Italian polymath who had many vocations and passions throughout his life including the role of artist, engineer, scientist, architect, and theorist. Leonardo is widely regarded as a man of unquenchable curiosity, who's extensive list of talents awarded him the label of "universal genius." He lived and created during the golden age of Renaissance art, alongside contemporaries like Michaelangelo and Raphael. The iconic Mona Lisa is still considered to be one of the greatest immortalized images attributed to the art world today, 500 years after Leonardo first began painting it in 1503.

Leonardo created some of the most well known paintings in the European art world and although many were left unfinished or destroyed, his legacy long outlived his creations. He continues to be revered as one of the greatest artists and geniuses to ever live and no name better encapsulates the essence of the Renaissance age of art, literature and invention than Leonardo da Vinci.

The Battle of Anghiari was one of Leonardo's most ambitious works and is sometimes referred to as, "The Lost Leonardo." It was intended to be a large wall painting which depicted three men riding wild-eyed war-horses. The Florentine government commissioned it around October 1503 as an installation for the Great Council Chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria, during the first years of the city's republican government. However, it would remain unfinished when Leonardo was forced to abandon it in 1506 and it was destroyed half a century later.

All that remains of Leonardo's original painting are his sketches - currently being shown in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool - and a few copies, most famously, the one by Peter Paul Rubens in the 17th Century.

Expressions of fury in horses, a lion and a man c.1503-4

Leonardo first brought his vision to life through sketches. He studied the anatomies and postures of men and horses in a variety of poses. Here, you can see the studies of horses mid-gallop and one in a rearing position. Leonardo takes particular interest in the expressions of ferity in the faces of horse and man. Their maniacal expressions of rage reflect the raw, fevered frenzy of battle. This is one of his most emotive works as he is able to explore the extreme emotions which war instills in man and beast. His other masterpieces such as the famous Last Supper, although passionate, was inevitably limited by the apostles' decorum. He even includes the sketch of a lion's head in comparison.

The Head of Leda c.1505-08

The Head of Leda, along with the Battle of Anghiari are some of my favourite sketches on display at the gallery. The Head of Leda is one of a few studies Leonardo did in preparation for the lost painting of Leda and the Swan. In Greek mythology, the god, Zeus appeared in the form of a swan, and seduced Leda, the mortal queen of ancient Sparta. Leonardo devoted most of his attention to the intricate details of his subject's hair, which can be seen in a complicated up-do. Thus, little attention was placed on her face who's downward glance lent a sad grace to her virginal expression.

Leonardo did not traditionally paint portraits. However, he did keep journals which he filled with prolific studies of real people, his muses, who he often followed and obsessed over for prolonged periods of time. He made sketches of everything that captured his interest and detailed his journals with notes and diagrams in a truly Leonardian manner.

Renaissance humanism did not recognise a rigid divide between the worlds of science and art. Leonardo's journals fuse the fundamentals of art and natural philosophy which we all know today as the forerunner of modern science. He maintained his journals throughout his life, wherever he traveled and used them to document his inspirations, his innovative ideas and his meticulous observations of the world that was continuously changing around him.

Leonardo's interest in anatomy first began around 1490, however he would not return to it until much later. Around 1510, Leonardo allegedly worked in a medical school where he assisted in some 20 human dissections. This informed his anatomical knowledge of the human body further and helped create one of the greatest anatomists of the Renaissance. He was particularly fascinated by the mechanics of the human body's bones and muscles. Leonardo then pioneered novel ways of illustrating these complex, natural mechanical systems, while appreciating their elegant design. It is even believed that he intended to publish his own illustrated work on the subject of anatomy. Sadly, like a lot of his work, it was left unfinished.

The muscles of the upper spine c.1510-11

This particular study shows the sequence of dissection from superficial to deep of an area of the upper spine. He includes both the upper back and shoulder in his sketches. Notes accompany his drawings which is typical of his sketches. A thread diagram can be seen on the bottom right. Each muscle is represented by a cord along its line of action. This is an example of Leonardo's breadth of understanding on the subject of human anatomy. He understood that the muscles operated using a 'tug of war' action, where there is a muscle that acts on a vertebra, there is another that will act in the other direction. This action both results in movement and serves to stabilize the spinal column.

A seated old man, and studies of the movement of water c.1512-13

Here Leonardo is studying the movement and flow of water around an obstacle. In his notes he compares the water to braided hair, weaving around itself. When I first saw the sketch in the gallery I noted its resemblance to an unraveling piece of rope. The old man appears to be sitting, gazing out at the water, however, this is unlikely as the sheet of paper was folded over when he drew the figure.

Apocalyptic scenes, with notes c.1517-18

The final sketch on display was a compilation of apocalyptic scenes of destruction. Among the individual sketches are scenes where fire rains from the stormy clouds onto the people below, a great fire rages over the mountains, the sea can be seen boiling and skeletons climb out of their graves. In contrast to these fanciful, horrific scenes, Leonardo's notes are indifferent and scientific, narrating the appearance of clouds lit up by the sun's rays.

In his final years Leonardo revisited apocalyptic imagery often in his sketches and notes. This obsession with death and the impermanence of man and the world he lives in, is typical of the mortal struggle of an artist reaching his end. A man who had to watch many of his creations be left abandoned, unfinished or destroyed. During the final years of his life, Leonardo considered his own mortality and that even as one of the greatest minds of his time, he could not be remembered forever as the world will ultimately succumb to its own oblivion.

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