‘Leonardo da Vinci’s art was better than photographs’

Ten of the artist’s drawings are coming to the National Gallery


Ten works by the artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci are coming to the National Gallery of Ireland in May, allowing visitors to get up close and personal with these wonderful drawings.

We won’t be seeing the Mona Lisa or Last Supper, however. Nor the Vitruvian Man drawing, which depicts a superimposed man in a circle and a square, as seen on Italian euro coins.

A mix of the various styles and subjects of interest to da Vinci (1452-1519) will be on display, including anatomical drawings of internal organs and images of cats, horses, lions and even a dragon. Visitors will see examples of his work in zoology, botany and engineering.

The art is on display until mid-July. It will come to Ireland via the Royal Collection Trust, the body that oversees and manages the more than one million books, paintings, prints and furniture items accumulated by the British royal family over the past five centuries.

Queen Elizabeth owns the huge collection as sovereign but not as an individual, says Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings at the trust. “It is a working collection, not a museum collection. The aim is to make it [accessible] to the public by opening up the palaces and lending works,” he says.

The royal collection includes almost 600 of da Vinci’s drawings. In 2002 the trust began taking these on tour, bringing 10 at a time to venues across the UK. In 2012 they appeared in Northern Ireland. At that stage Clayton forged links with our National Gallery, and he hatched a plan to take the tour out of the UK for the first time.

Many Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions comprise only copies, but this tour involves the real deal.

“You will be able to get face to face with the drawings,” says Clayton. “You can see the movement of his hand. It is that sense of intimacy you get from drawing rather than from painting.

“Drawing was the laboratory where he was trying out these ideas. He was drawing what he thought about the world and about the phenomena of the world.”

Close observation might give people an insight into the complex mind of this genius, who was as much a scientist as he was an artist. He produced wonderful paintings but he also designed an early version of a tank, produced drawings of a 33-barrel gun and came up with an early version of the helicopter.

Exceptional range

The 10 drawings chosen by Clayton demonstrate da Vinci’s exceptional range, says Sean Rainbird, director of the National Gallery of Ireland. For example Studies for Casting the Equestrian Monument to Ludovico Sforza is an attempt to develop the hoisting and casting apparatus needed for the preparation of the heavy metal statue. He even adds lines of poetry in the drawing’s margins.

“He is thinking through the techniques needed in order to create something like this large equestrian monument,” Rainbird says.

Leonardo takes on the role of hydroengineer in his A Map of a Weir on the Arno East of Florence, a commission he took on for the city officials, who wanted to prevent flooding. He drew a representation of the weir and how it influenced the flow of water down the channel.

“You can see how the water moves across the weir,” says Rainbird. “It is like he was up in a drone looking down, but he actually did the drawings on the ground.”

“You really see a scientific bent. But then you also see his drawing of a branch of blackberries, which displays someone who is really observing nature.”

Rainbird believes you can gain insight into the mind of the artist by studying his work. “In all of these drawings he is working something out. Of course, they were considered art, but this is how he worked things through visually. It was what the world looks like and how the world works.

“He was such an amazing draftsman. The detail and the sheer technical quality is unparalleled.”

A great anatomist

Unfortunately, medics who might have benefitted from seeing, say, the anatomical drawings, were not exposed to them. Leonardo was a court artist for much of his career, working for wealthy households in Milan, Florence, Paris and Rome, where he worked for the brother of Pope Leo X, says Clayton.

“He was a great anatomist but was not an important anatomist. He did not publish. And because he never published no one understood what he had done.

“One of the tragedies of his career was that all of his advances in anatomical understanding didn’t see the light of day. To this day they are the best drawings of particular structures that have ever been made. His art was better than photographs.”

Anne Hodge, curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery, describes the exhibition as “hugely exciting”. She and colleagues went to see the drawings at Windsor Castle in April 2014.

“That was great,” she says. “You rarely get to see his drawings very close up, and now people in Dublin are going to get a chance. People are going to be blown away. The amount of detail and skill. He has the technical facility and also the technical mind to bring forward these ideas.”

Leonardo’s dual existence as an artist and as a scientist is apparent in the drawings. “He was known as a scientist as much as an artist,” says Hodge. “No one else at the time was doing that kind of thing. His work as a scientist in his own time was not that well-known. Only in later generations did it become known.”

There is also an exuberance in these drawings. “He had a superb imagination, for example his drawing of domestic cats with a dragon in the middle,” says Hodge. “His imagination is constantly coming through. It is almost as though he can’t stop himself.”

And, continuing a practice he learned as a child, his thousands of annotations in the margins are all in his “backwards” writing, written by the left-handed artist as a mirror image of ordinary writing.

Leonardo da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection is open May 4th-July 17th. Admission to the exhibition is free, but entry is by timed ticket. Online booking will open in April on nationalgallery.ie