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

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Mortars firing into a fortress
February 9, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

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, da Vinci 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 anatomy, 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.

Leonardo da Vinci – A Life in Drawing Exhibition Promo

The Master’s Innovations

Much of Leonardo da Vinci’s works were 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 Look published 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.

vinci study anatomy mona supper lisa painting vinci 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 2018

  • Leonardo 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 2018

  • Leonardo 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 lioness probably 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 2018

  • Leonardo 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 2018

  • Leonardo 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 2018

  • Leonardo 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 2018

  • Leonardo da Vinci - The head of Leda
  • Leonardo da Vinci - The head of a youth

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.

Featured images: Leonardo da Vinci – The head of Leda, c.1505-8. Black chalk, pen and ink. Walker Art Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018; Leonardo da Vinci – The head of a youth, c.1510. Red and black chalks on orange-red prepared paper. Manchester Art Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Studies of water

Studies of water, c. 1510-12

Recurring theme in Leonardo’s practice was the movement of water and this one is the most masterly version. The artist explored the variety of shapes produced by the flow of water, the effect of and bubbles resulting from water falling into a pool. The drawings show da Vinci’s ability to keep a temporary impression in his mind and deliver it on paper.

The final pen drawing is unmistakably a dense and layered, while the under-drawing, located for the first time in infrared light, is much simpler, so this particular drawing reflects the artist’s process of different stages of image construction.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Studies of water, 1510-12. Black chalk, pen and ink; Leonardo da Vinci – Studies of water, 1510-12. Black chalk, pen and ink. Under-drawing shown under infrared light. Millennium Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Designs for gub barrels and mortars

Designs for gun-barrels and mortars, c. 1485

Leonardo was trained as a painter in Florence, but in the 1480s he moved to Milan and became very interested in technology and science. The artist produced a number of drawings of weapons – guns, catapults and crossbows chariots, and mortars that exploited the recent introduction of gunpowder. This drawing illustrates mortars discharging a substance known as Greek fire in order to burn the equipment of an enemy ship, and a number of gun-barrels.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Designs for gun-barrels and mortars, c. 1485. Pen and ink. Southampton City Art Gallery. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Mortars firing into a fortress

Mortars firing into a fortress, c. 1503-4

This drawing shows how Leonardo explored the military tactics, so it is centered on an image of a fortress wall; four mortars outside the walls are practically stoning the fortress, which consists of hidden spaces with gun emplacements. One part of the wall is undermined and is falling apart. Cannon placed on earthworks direct their fire into the fortress, and are protected from assault by the debris of the collapsed wall.

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

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Studies of Hands for the Adoration of the Magi
  • Leonardo da Vinci - Studies of Hands for the Adoration of the Magi

Studies of hand for the Adoration of the Magi, c. 1481

These studies of hands were made on two blank sheets of prepared paper which were exposed to ultraviolet light. Namely, the high-energy X-ray fluorescence technology at the Diamond Light Source at Harwell in Oxfordshire showed that these drawings faded away because of the high percentage of copper in the metal stylus used by Leonardo; the metallic copper became a transparent copper salt.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Studies of hands for the Adoration of the Magi, sheet 2 under ultraviolet light, c.1481. Metalpoint (faded) on pink prepared paper; Leonardo da Vinci – Studies of hands for the Adoration of the Magi, sheet 1 under ultraviolet light, c.1481. Metalpoint (faded) on pink prepared paper. The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Neptune

Neptune, c. 1504-5

The final drawing on our list is the preparatory study for a lost drawing of the sea god, Neptune in his chariot. It was commissioned by the master of the Papal Mint, an erudite collector and patron of Botticelli, Antonio Segni.

The elongated composition is reminiscent of an antique cameo or carved gem, and Leonardo da Vinci was likely inspired by the relief of Neptune on an ancient sarcophagus located then at the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome. The scene of horses and man is connected to Leonardo’s unfinished mural of the Battle of Anghiari, on which he worked at the time.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Neptune, c.1504-5. Black chalk and charcoal. The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018