This is far too amazing an exhibition for me to even think of trying to describe it – so I will just urge anyone who is likely to be in London between now and the end of October to put it on their itinerary.
(Please excuse the quality of the images which often include the reflections in their protecting glass; they are only here to encourage you to visit the exhibition.)
Charles II had many faults but one of the seriously good things that he did during his reign was to acquire a collection of 500 of Leonardo’s drawing that had been together since the artist’s death in 1519. The drawings have remained in the royal collections and 200 of them are now on display to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death.
We tend to think primarily of Leonardo as an ‘artist’ but he was SO much more and while there are examples of his ‘art’ in this exhibition, much of it is devoted to his extraordinary scientific, technical, anatomical and botanical investigations, studies, inventions. His anatomical studies in particular, many made before he had been able to carry out any human dissection – are extraordinary.
In fact, the world of anatomy did not benefit from his painstakingly detailed studies for 400 years after his death. Although they were all designed to go into a treatise on anatomy, the treatise was never published and the drawings remained amongst his private papers only to be discovered in 1900.
His technical/engineerings drawings are equally fascinating and quite as beautiful as his paintings. This, for example, is an illustration of mortars firing into a fortress. To me it looks like massive fountains at Kew Gardens!
Interestingly I was waxing lyrical about the exhibition last night and one of my audience said he had heard a theory that in fact many of Leonardos’ technical ideas, especially for armaments, had originated with a visiting delegation of Chinese arms dealers, the Chinese being already far more technically advanced that Renaissance Italians. If so, he certainly made good use of his acquired knowledge – these are detailed designs for firearms.
To me it is the extraordinary level of detail and precision that is so fascinating. Here for example is a tiny sketch of a horse’s leg with every angle measured and noted.
A level of precision which was also carried backing his ‘artistic’ paintings. This, for example, is a page of sketches for the head of Leda for Leda and the Swan. Note not just the complexity of the hairstyles, but the fact that he has also made a detailed drawing of the back of her head with its plaits even though the back of her head was never to be seen in the painting.
But enough. Don’t listen to me – go to the exhibition. It is at the Queen’s Gallery until October 13th. The exhibition website, btw, is worth a browse and if you want a slightly bizarre but interesting take on Leonardo before you go, Freud’s 1910 essay, Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood (you can buy it for 48p on Amazon!)is fascinating and does not take long to read.
To get to the Queen’s Gallery you have to go round Buckingham Palace which, at lunchtime in high tourist season on one of the hottest days of the year is not an experience to be repeated. On leaving the gallery, to escape the inferno I headed off down the delightfully deserted Birdcage Walk to Westminster tube station.
On the other side of Birdcage Walk from the park is Wellington Barracks, home of the Household Division responsible for all those amazing ceremonial displays. And as I was enjoying the extremely welcome coolth of Green Park’s trees floating across the road came the sound of a brass band. And there, drawn up in the steaming midday heat on their parade ground, were one of the division’s brass bands, belting out – of all surreal melodies – Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet!!!
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