It is in his drawings, even more than in his paintings, that you truly glimpse the greatness of Leonardo da Vinci. It’s in his drawings that you see the depth of his curiosity, the breadth of his imagination, and the heights of his technical accomplishments.
His studies of human anatomy, in particular, still astound. What is particularly extraordinary is his ability to meld scientific precision with a sensuous imagination that makes you look at, and think about, the human body anew. As the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones puts it, ‘He finds within us a mysterious architecture. The interior of the heart is laced with fan vaulting like a gothic cathedral. Our bodies are labyrinths of tunnels and cavities, spheres and tree branches.’
But look also at the delicacy of Leonardo’s botanical drawings, the beauty of his maps, the ethereal infusion of his landscapes.
The greatest collection of Leonardo’s drawings are in the hands of the (British) Queen. After Leonardo’s death, the sculptor Pompeo Leoni collated and mounted the drawings into two large albums, one of which was acquired in 1630 by the Earl of Arundel, and subsequently donated to King Charles II. In the nineteenth century the drawings were removed from album and mounted individually. They are now part of the Royal Collection.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, and to mark the occasion, the drawings are coming out of royal storage and, from this week, will be displayed at a number of UK museums and galleries from Southampton to Cardiff to Sunderland to Belfast to Glasgow.
So, here are some of my favourite works from the collection.
The human form
The top image is a Leonardo’s self-portrait. The subsequent images are all from the Royal Collection. They are, from top down: Muscles of the leg; Muscles of the shoulder and arm; The cranium; Studies of the foetus in a womb; A bear’s foot; Star of Bethlehem and wood anemone; Job’s Tears; Storm over an Alpine valley; Sketch of a mountainous landscape; Map of Imola; Map of the Valdichiana; Study of a male nude from behind; Study of an old bearded man; Head of the Madonna.