Photography: Gareth Jones

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life In Drawing

Walker Art Gallery - until 06/05

To commemorate 500 years since the death of LEONARDO DA VINCI, the Royal Collection Trust have released 144 of the Renaissance master’s pieces to be shown across 12 UK venues, before being brought together for the largest exhibition of his work in 65 years, to be held at Buckingham Palace from summer 2019.

It is a rare moment for these works to be allowed to leave the Royal houses by the RCT. The trust’s overall wish that their collection of over a million objects collected over 500 years can be viewed and enjoyed by the people is hampered somewhat by the fact that they are confined usually to the Royal palaces and estates in the south of England. So, to have the Leonardo pieces travel north, or indeed anywhere, is an event worthy of some celebration.

Leonardo 500 is a study in study. What we see in these, the private notations of the master never intended for public view, is the meeting point of artist, scientist, mathematician and philosopher that formed the genius of Leonardo. A place where, in his quest to visualise and enrich his own knowledge, detailed notation and instruction works alongside the drawings with equal importance, highlighting his profound world vision of limitless interpretation and endless possibility.

These are not paintings, but moments of intense inquisition delicately expressed through chalk, ink and quill. He used drawing to think, it helped him converse with the world around him, to see more and to be more by seeking a better understanding of the elements and how natural processes affect us. His fascination with botany, architecture, the human form, engineering and cartography are shown here in this collection of delicate fragments of genius. There is a deep and rich purity to these images held, for instance, in his vital need to understand the mechanism of muscle and bone in a piece such as The Muscles Of The Upper Spine from 1510-11. Working at the medical school at the University of Pavia for an entire winter, dissecting and drawing human bodies, each muscle, every sinew and bone became an individual study, forming a quest for deeper understanding. This was a process Leonardo enjoyed hugely, until the death from the plague of his mentor, anatomy professor Marcantonio della Torre, at which point the artist was forced to move on to other projects.

"These are not paintings, but moments of intense inquisition delicately expressed through chalk, ink and quill"

The detail in his preparatory work for an ambitious work depicting the Battle Of Anghiari in 1503, a work which would later be destroyed as were so many of his pieces, is another search for detail. His attempts to capture the hellish fury and rage of war in the flared nostrils and bared teeth of a horse’s head, repeated on this one piece, with a lion’s head pictured for comparison, are further example of the urgency of his study, the repeated attempts to perfectly define the form, scrupulous and absorbing.

There is added context given to the Walker’s Leonardo 500 exhibition by a display of the links between the artist and gallery. William Roscoe was a renowned collector and donator of work of the Italian Renaissance – as well as writing the first biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici – and donated many prints, drawings and paintings from before and during this period. Because of this, the work of Leonardo’s many peers and mentors are represented on permanent display in the Walker.

This is a unique opportunity for art lovers in Liverpool and beyond (there are a further 12 of the Leonardo 500 pieces, focusing predominantly on his anatomical work, currently at Manchester Art Gallery). With the Walker welcoming a collection of over 250 pieces of work from Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his contemporaries in The Glasgow Movement in March, and Tate Liverpool given over to a Keith Haring retrospective in the summer, Leonardo 500 should be celebrated as much for its beauty as for the fact that it has been allowed to leave the Royal Collection if only for as little as three months. While the sheets that make up Leonardo 500 are on paper, so easily damaged by exposure, there must surely be a need for more of the Royal Collection’s million plus items being on permanent display somewhere outside of the English or Scottish capital cities.

For the people, and for all time.

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