HE is best known as the artist behind Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. But a new exhibition is painting a fresh picture of the world-famous Old Master, revealing Leonardo da Vinci’s astonishing talents in everything from botany, mapmaking to costume design.
Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, which opens in Hull tomorrow, could prove an even greater hit than last year’s David Hockney exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery.
The drawings range from one no bigger than a playing card and which needs a magnifying glass to appreciate the detail, to a double-sided drawing of a dissected foot and arm – all in as good condition as the day they were drawn five centuries ago.
Martin Clayton, senior curator of prints and drawings at the Royal Collection, said: “I think what will surprise people most is how easy they are to understand.
“People have this image of Leonardo being this semi-mystical figure who did the mysterious paintings of Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. But in these drawings you can see every movement of his hand over 500 years ago and get this real sense of connection with him.
“They are so immediate, so fresh. People have this idea about Leonardo as a Renaissance man, but apart from his flying machine and submarine, people don’t have an idea of how diverse his range of interests were. The drawings allow you to see real examples, studies of science, botany, maps, costume design, all different activities he was involved with in the course of a long career.”
The drawings have broken records in the first three venues they were exhibited in Birmingham, Bristol and Belfast. They have just left Dundee, with Hull their final venue.
They begin when da Vinci was in his early 30s with his “Designs for chariots and war weapons” dated around 1485, and end with probably one of his very last drawings, a rough study of an old bearded man in profile, with shaggy eyebrows, hanging over a drooping nose and deeply wrinkled eyes.
In contrast the beautiful Head of Leda – the princess who was seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan – shows Leda modestly glancing downwards, and pays extraordinary attention to her elaborate hairstyle.
Mr Clayton said: “Although he was gay, he had a love of female beauty and beauty in hair, which was almost fetishistic in some of his drawings. He was obsessed by these extremely elaborate hairstyles.”
By the age of 60, da Vinci “was much more interested in dissecting corpses” than painting pictures, said Mr Clayton.
“He didn’t regard himself principally as a painter; by the end of his life he thought he was a scientist,” he added. “He didn’t begin a single painting for the last 15 years of his life.”
Apocalyptic scenes, which would grace a disaster movie, a ball of fire and smoke overhanging jagged mountains and skeletons rising from their graves, shown in one drawing, were apparently favourite subject matters towards the end of his life.
“He was 65 years old, he probably had a stroke that year, he knew his body was failing him and this sense of impending death found its outlet, not just in his drawings but in his paintings as well,” said Mr Clayton.
After his death, the drawings were bequeathed to his favourite pupil Francesco Melzi and later bought by the sculptor Pompeo Leone.
He put them into albums – two of which survive today, one in Milan, the other in the Royal Collection.
Their pristine condition owes to the fact that they have been kept away from the light – and the type of paper used, which was made from pulped clothing rags.
There are hopes the exhibition will break records set by David Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter, which attracted 63,000 visitors.
Assistant curator of exhibitions, Claire Longrigg, said: “There’s been a lot of excitement around this exhibition and a lot of people coming in and asking when it is. It is a high profile show so we are expecting it to be as big as Hockney – if not bigger. The drawings are very small and we are encouraging people to get close up, we have magnifying glasses and a projector showing the pictures enlarged.”
Also on display are the materials and equipment he used – red and black chalk, a metal stylus and goosequill pens.
Paper conservator Richard Hawkes will be recreating Old Master techniques in a two-hour workshop on Tuesday, November 20. Booking is required on 01482 613902 for the exhibition which runs to January 20.