Leonardo A life in drawing

Leonardo A life in drawing – The exhibition at Buckingham Palace (until 13th October) displays two hundred drawings from Codex Arundel, an album of five hundred and fifty pieces once part of the collection of the Earl of Arundel then given as a present to king Charles II.

Science is the observation of the things possible, whether present or past.

Leonardo da Vinci

Five hundred years after Leonardo’s death is celebrated in Europe and around the world with exhibitions, events and shows. The works of the ‘divine genius’ are amply displayed and investigated both in his most famous pictorial corpus, such as ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, ‘Lady with an Ermine’, ‘St John the Baptist’ or ‘St Jerome’, and in his more enigmatic drawings and annotations, which are recorded in various Codexes, such as Codex Arundel and Codex Atlanticus. Though his precocious talent was directed towards painting since he was fifteen, as an apprentice at Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, his interests were broad, ranging from painting to sculpture, biology, mechanics, engineering, geography, philosophy, astronomy and anatomy. His endless and voracious search for knowledge was based on the observation of nature that encompassed both human nature, animals, plants, emotions and landscapes. He recorded the results of his attentive perceptions in mirror minute writing from right to left of which about seven thousand sheets of manuscript and drawings are left, a fourth of what he probably produced but never collected in a treatise or book. His ideas, researches and hypotheses are only apparently wandering off his main interest, which was art, specifically painting, as they comprehended a study of the nature of beings that was both physical and emotional, intellectual and practical. For example, his anatomical studies were not only fuelled by his interests in physiology and biology but were also extremely useful in his pictorial rendering of the human body, in depicting the limbs, giving the illusion of depth and foreshortening and in the movement of the figure or in the expression of facial emotions.

A similar approach is found in his botanical studies and landscape sketches where the studies of water, mountains and plants were eventually included in his paintings. This approach was often experimental and brought to delays in his production as well as to unfinished work. As Vasari remarked in his Lives, Leonardo ‘began many things and never finished them’. Examples are ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ or the equestrian monuments, which were eventually destroyed or barely started, or artworks that deteriorated soon as ‘The Last Supper’. Nevertheless, the ‘divinity’ of his genius is exactly in this capacity of interweaving and developing his multiple talents and passions that enhanced each other producing outstanding results.

The exhibition at Buckingham Palace, Leonardo: A life in drawing (until 13th October) displays two hundred drawings from Codex Arundel, an album of five hundred and fifty pieces once part of the collection of the Earl of Arundel then given as a present to king Charles II. From the works on display, carefully catalogued and explained, Leonardo’s objective, scientific approach to the study of nature applied to drawing and painting is clearly exposed.

The various studies of horses in movement for ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, the effects of light and shadow on the face and the head sectioned scalp well illustrate his principles. Painting and drawing were not a merely decorative art for him but a rational and objective instrument to study nature that could bring to deductions, speculations and new discoveries, infusing life into the subject. Besides exceptional sketches for some of his most important works, such as the head of St Bartholomew and the head of Judas for ‘The Last Supper’, the head of Leda for ‘Leda and the Swan’, or the study of drapery and arm for ‘The Madonna and Child with St Anne’, the exhibition displays a variety of astounding anatomical drawings. There are studies of legs, bones, the cardiovascular system, the vessels of the liver and the famous foetus in the womb dated 1511. The accurate drawings taken from dissected bodies are correlated with observations and deductions that are still relevant today. Probably they do not represent only Leonardo’s personal point of view but are the results of his exchanging ideas with scholars and intellectuals and his knowledge of other writers’ work. Certainly, Leonardo’s work is complex and extensive; nevertheless, it is not isolated but part of the technical and scientific development of an era, the Italian Renaissance, that saw a particular cultural development where art was the driving force.

When Leonardo worked at the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan and later for Cesare Borgia, he produced several projects of weapons and war machines such as mortars firing into a fortress, catapults and firing machines. The exhibition also displays maps of Valdichiana and the Arno area and some studies of water, deluge and tempest, as well as mythical animals and costume studies. This not only testifies Leonardo’s versatility and the variety of the work on display, but also the richness of his interests that aimed to give a multiple but also a unified idea of the cosmos.


A similar idea is conveyed in the exhibition at the British Library that completes in a way the major one at Buckingham Palace. Leonardo da Vinci: A mind in motion (until 8th September) is mainly focused on Leonardo’s study of the natural world, specifically on his observation of the movement of waters. The drawings and notes are from Codex Arundel, Codex Forster and Codex Leicester, which focus on mechanics, hydrology, astronomy and geology. Leonardo’s project of changing or channelling the course of Arno and his belief that waters played a fundamental role in nature led him to specific studies and interesting deductions. For example, his plan to master the course of river Arno was aimed to prevent floods, which was part of his work as a hydrology engineer for the government of Florence. However, his interest in water movements had also an aesthetic side as well as a scientific one. He thought that the water channels under the earth worked like the blood veins in human body and to master them meant controlling an important force of nature. As for other topics, he wished to write a treatise on water, and he went very near to it this time in the organization of his manuscripts though the work was left unfinished.

Two very different exhibitions are on display in Rome: Le invenzioni di Leonardo da Vinci (the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci) at the Portuguese Institute in via dei Portoghesi 2 (until 30th October), and the art exhibition Leonardo: Brivido Contemporaneo (Leonardo contemporary thrill) at the Veggy Food&Art restaurant Il Margutta in via Margutta 114 https://ilmargutta.bio/  (until 15th September).

Fifty life-size machines are on display at the Portuguese Institute; they are constructions inspired by the illustrations from various manuscripts, from Codex Arundel and Codex Atlanticus. It is likely that most of Leonardo’s projects were not realised during his lifetime and the importance of his mechanical and scientific studies was discovered later compared to his paintings.

The models from his drawings were constructed for the first time only at the beginning of the last century in Italy and toured around the world as a sort of propaganda for the ‘Italian genius’. Kenneth Clark and A.E. Popham were the first scholars who understood that the Vincian machines were not a prediction of the future but expressed his vision of the world. This was both the results of his observations of nature and acute deductions and also his attendance in workshops, where he exchanged his ideas with doctors and technicians as well as of his readings. He was part of a cultural development that produced outstanding artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi and others, as well as writers, philosophers and scientists.

The machines on display are fascinating and their functions well explained. Leonardo’s interest in flying is testified in the Flapping Wing, the Glider, which is supported to the body with straps the pilot can manipulate, and the Delta Wing. His projects included the use of winds and air currents to make his machines fly like in modern hang-gliders. The wings are shaped as that of a bat and the material used is wood and linen. Other interesting devices are the clock mechanisms, the projector that quadruplicates the light of a candle reflecting it into a rear mirror, the perspectograph that allowed the artist a better representation of the landscape, and the mirror room. Weapons are well represented, such as the ogival projectiles with an aerodynamic shape and holes filled with gunpowder, the multi-directional gun machine and the three-registered gun machine, a cannon, ancestor of the modern mortar, and the catapult. A wooden bicycle, from a drawing that was discovered only after more than three hundred years as the sheet of paper was folded over, is present with its incredible modern shape as well as the creation of a double flute, as for Leonardo music was second only to painting.


At Il Margutta, the visionary pop exhibition by the artist Marco Innocenti (Brivido Pop) reveals a disruptive and humorous approach to Leonardo’s art and legacy. The display is hosted in one of the most popular vegetarian restaurants of the capital whose owners, Claudio and Tina Vannini, combine food and art. Leonardo da Vinci perfectly fits in this context as he was probably a vegetarian himself.


The artworks on display are all collages that focus on Leonardo’s most famous paintings and ironically comment on their connections with modern art, cinema and the world of celebrities. They are reminiscent of Edoardo Paolozzi’s artwork as well as of pop art but without the political angle. In Brivido Pop’s work the emphasis seems to be on the social issues where the ludic intent is pervasive and the crowding of images on the canvas convey the comic aspect of our overloaded, hedonistic society. The collage works surreptitiously comment and allude to the weaknesses and fears of our society, indulging in an intentional binge of images of icon figures. This is clear in ‘Amiche Mie’ (my girlfriends) in which ‘Lady with an Ermine’ and ‘Le Belle Ferronière’ are juxtaposed to the stars of the cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Il Vigile Vitruvio’ (the Vitruvian traffic policeman) humorously alludes to the perfect proportions of the human body in Vitruvius’s treatise and portraits Italian actors such as Alberto Sordi as a traffic warden and Walter Chiari, as well as referring to Keith Haring’s artwork. Other intriguing works are the ones inspired by ‘The Last Supper’ (‘Supper, Supper’), with a display of vegetarian food on the table and famous Renaissance portraits in place of the disciples; ‘Facciamo la Pace’ (let’s make peace), with portraits of religious leaders and the face of ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo in the middle, and ‘ ‘Il Padrino, Er Mellino’ referring to The Godfather and to ‘The Lady with an Ermine’. It is a revisitation that provokes and entertains.

Leonardo’s work and life are an incredible demonstration of the boundless potentials of human beings. Vasari claimed that he had ‘supernatural gifts, gifts of god’ and that his intellect was ‘divine and miraculous’. According to his contemporaries, he combined ingegno (genius) and virtù (worth and merit). He was a great artist but at the same time he relied on science and mathematics. According to him, a painter had to learn perspective and proportions at first, then copy from great masters and nature, practice and finally surpass their master.

During his life, he moved from one court to the other searching for the ideal patron who could allow him to develop his art and his projects, ending his life in France at the court of Francis I. His characteristic sfumato style, that is, the technique of blending tones, well symbolises his vision that wished to explore what he saw in nature not as a simple imitation but as a source of progress in human thirst for knowledge.

Also By Carla; Review of Poems in The Case 

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