Leonardo da Vinci drawings coming to Birmingham

By on 10/05/2011 in Culture, News

The head of an old bearded man in profile, c.1517-18  ROYAL COLLECTION c. (copyright c.) 2012 HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH IIBirmingham Museum and Art Gallery – 13 January - 25 March 2012

To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen, ten of the Royal Collection's finest drawings by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci will travel to five museums and galleries across the United Kingdom. 

The exhibition has been selected to show the extraordinary scope of Leonardo's interests - painting and sculpture, engineering, botany, mapmaking, hydraulics and anatomy - and his use of different media - pen and ink, red and black chalks, and metalpoint. 

Through drawing Leonardo attempted to record and understand the world around him. He maintained that an image transmitted knowledge more accurately and concisely than any words, although   some  of   his   drawings  are  extensively  annotated.

Leonardo was left-handed, and throughout his life he habitually wrote his personal notes in mirror-image from right to left (although he wrote in the conventional manner when the text was intended for some other reader). This was not an attempt to keep his investigations secret, as has been claimed, but probably a childhood trick that he never abandoned.

Beyond a handful of paintings, most of Leonardo's great projects were never completed. His surviving drawings are therefore our main source of knowledge of his extraordinary achievements.  According to Martin Clayton, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection, 'we can often grasp the true nature of Leonardo's intentions only through his drawings'.

Rita McLean, Head of Birmingham Museums and Heritage, said, “We are delighted that the Royal Collection has chosen Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to be the first UK venue to show this outstanding exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.  This will be a rare and extraordinary opportunity for local people to see works by one of the world's greatest artists, as part of the city's celebrations of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.”

The ten da vinci drawings

Designs for chariots and war weapons, c.1485
This drawing was possibly intended for a manual on warfare.  It was made when Leonardo was employed by Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, in the 1480s and gives some idea of the range of work expected of a court artist.  As the chariots were ridden into the ranks of the opposing infantry, the wheels turn the central axis and propel the weights or spiked clubs outwards to gruesome effect.

A study of an equestrian monument, c.1485-90
Leonardo's most important project for Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, was a bronze equestrian monument to Ludovico's father, Francesco Sforza. This is one of the early designs for the sculpture, showing Francesco's horse rearing over a fallen enemy. The study is executed in metalpoint?-?drawing with a silver stylus on paper coated with a coloured preparation of ground bone.  The monument was to have been three times life size, and work on the model occupied Leonardo for perhaps ten years. But it was never cast, and the bronze was diverted to make cannon.  When French forces invaded Milan in 1499, Leonardo's huge clay model was used for target practice and destroyed.

The head of Leda, c.1505-6
This is a preparatory drawing for the painting Leda and the Swan (the mythical princess Leda, seduced by the god Jupiter in the form of a swan), which was destroyed around 1700.  Leda has the modest downward glance of most of the women in Leonardo's paintings.  The artist has devoted minute attention to her complicated hairstyle of braided and interwoven plaits.

Oak and dyer's greenweed, c.1505-10
Leonardo's painting of Leda and the Swan had a foreground teeming with plants and flowers to emphasise the fecundity of the subject-matter.  The artist made many preparatory studies of plants, which surpass any illustration to be found in a contemporary herbal. Leonardo uses sharpened red chalk on paper prepared with a coating of ground chalk of the same colour, allowing him to capture the most subtle effects of light and shade.

The bones of the foot, and the shoulder, and the veins and muscles of the arm, c.1510
Leonardo's pioneering scientific work is exemplified by a double-sided sheet of anatomical studies, based on human dissection carried out by the artist in the medical school of the University of Pavia.

The chain ferry at Vaprio d'Adda, c.1511-13
This tiny landscape is no bigger than a playing card.  It shows the river Adda flowing through the shallow rapids below the family villa of Leonardo's assistant, Francesco Melzi.  An ox-herd can be seen carrying two beasts across the river on a chain ferry. Leonardo made the drawing from a window in the Villa Melzi.

A map of the Pontine marshes, c.1515
Towards the end of his life Leonardo painted less and less, and worked more as a scientist and engineer. Periodically he made detailed maps, some for military purposes, and others for hydrographic projects such as this.  The map shows about 40 miles of the coast to the south of Rome, centring on the Pontine marshes.  Leonardo's patron Giuliano de Medici had been put in charge of a project to drain the marshes by his brother, Pope Leo X.  He must have instructed Leonardo to prepare this map to show the existing streams through the marshland and the channels that were proposed to drain it.

A masquerader on horseback, c.1517-18
At the age of 64 Leonardo moved to France to work for the young King Francis I.  As a court artist, he was expected to fulfil many roles.  This costume study for a man on horseback is evidence of one of his duties, as a festival designer for the King.

Scenes of the Apocalypse, with notes, c.1517-18
These studies of apocalyptic scenes show fire raining from heaven and burning up tiny figures as mountains crumble, fortresses collapse and the sea boils.  Leonardo's fascination with destruction towards the end of his life echoes his awareness of his own failing body.

The head of an old bearded man in profile, c.1517-18
This is probably one of the very last drawings made by the artist. The rough study of an old, decrepit man in profile is not a literal self-portrait, but surely captures something of Leonardo's own feelings about his imminent demise.

Notes to editors

1. The Royal Collection contains a group of around 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. These delicate works are preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and are among the greatest treasures of the Collection. Although the drawings can never be on permanent display, because of the potential for damage from exposure to light, they are regularly lent to exhibitions around the world and examples are always on show at Windsor.

For further information and photographs, please contact the Royal Collection Press Office,
+44 (0)20 7839 1377, press@royalcollection.org.uk.

A selection of images is also available from www.picselect.com.

Media contact

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: Jason Lewis, Communications Officer, 0121 303 4266, Jason.lewis@birmingham.gov.uk

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