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Art & artists

Range, depth and sophistication: Leonardo’s drawings

— September 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Leda, c. 1505–1510 © Windsor Castle, Royal Library

‘It is in the drawings that Leonardo’s real genius resides’, says Alexander Adams, and Taschen's new book displays them to advantage

Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work by Johannes Nathan and Frank Zöllner

Despite his stellar reputation, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) often disappoint. Anyone viewing the exaggerated features of Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John (c.1510) and the frankly repellent St John (c.1508) cannot help wondering how Leonardo was ever acclaimed so highly. The master’s good paintings are few and early. The range, depth and sophistication of Leonardo’s mind is present in his numerous drawings of men, animals, landscapes, plants and natural phenomena, not to mention his mechanical inventions. It is in the drawings that Leonardo’s real genius resides.

The Graphic Work organizes Leonardo’s drawings by theme: general sketches and studies for paintings, anatomy (human and animal), faces, drapery, plants, landscapes, maps, architecture, optics and engineering/machinery. Although the list gives an indication of the range of Leonardo’s interests, it does not convey the depth of his engagement. Many sheets have been lost, so we can only guess at the treasures that are missing. The authors have included copies by Leonardo’s pupils of some now-missing drawings.

Each section is preceded by a short essay providing an overview. There are a number of sheets with a mixture of subjects: anatomy studies next to architectural plans, notes on optics next to caricatures, mechanical designs interspersed with prancing horses. This gives us the impression we are looking into the creator’s mind, complex in its multifariousness. Paper was not always cheap or plentiful, so Leonardo reused sheets whenever he needed space to draw. The sheets form illustrated notes that were later to be worked up into treatises, which never happened in his lifetime. There were many more sheets of multiple subjects but they have been cut into separate sketches; hence we have a large number of tiny fragments showing individual heads, animals, etc. It is impossible to reconstruct the whole sheets, so the fragments are reproduced separately.

Leonardo was engaged by so many subjects that it was easy for him to become diverted. Patrons complained when he missed contractually stipulated deadlines for supplying paintings and many of his paintings were not finished. It must be said that Leonardo also suffered from the problems Michelangelo and Raphael did – he was constantly obliged to turn his hand to different activities in the service of different masters in a time of political turmoil. The Renaissance man was often forced to be versatile to earn a living, not just because he was incapable of confining his brilliance to one or two areas. Leonardo’s notorious fickleness and lack of achievement was partly temperamental and partly circumstantial. Despite being claimed as an architect of originality, not one of Leonardo’s designs was built.

The most sustained area of work was his study of the human anatomy. He went well beyond what an artist might use in a painting – studies not just of proportion, skeleton and musculature but of internal organs, blood flow, nerves, embryology and so forth. Leonardo was not, of course, simply studying to improve his art; he wanted to significantly expand human understanding of human biology and understand human beings in relation to common principles of nature. Hence he undertook comparative anatomy, comparing structures in a bear’s leg and a cow’s heart to those of men. These sheets numerically dominate others. Sometimes the drawings are thumbnail sketches used to illustrate a page dense with text. Other drawings are exquisite studies of light and shade, as meticulous as any study for a painting. The cross-section drawings of skulls act as indirect mementoes mori as well as skeletal analysis.     

The studies of horses were to act as a foundation for two planned monuments, though Leonardo had a great love of animals and the early drawings are done as much for pure pleasure and fascination as for any practical foundation for a commission. We see proportion studies of horses – sometimes gently shaded in silverpoint on coloured paper – as well as close-up studies. Later there were variations of poses for the intended Trivulzio and Sforza horse-and-rider equestrian monuments. In these drawings we see Leonardo wrestling with faithful representation, a desire to evoke grandeur and drama and the pragmatic considerations of physical balance and support of the statues, planned to be cast in bronze. Leonardo also had to design detailed diagrams of innovative casting devices to execute such large bronzes. Those drawings are just as fascinating and elegant as the studies for the monument itself. Leonardo got as far as building a giant clay model of a horse before war forced him to flee. Occupying French soldiers used the model for target practice and it was destroyed before it could be cast.

Potential purchasers should be aware that this title is not a complete collection of Leonardo’s drawings. Certain prominent drawings are not reproduced, for example the profile portrait of the Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, an intellectual art patron, a painted version of which (produced by Leonardo’s assistants) has recently been identified. Another notable absence from this book is theBurlington House Cartoon (c. 1500–10) – the large drawing of the Virgin and St Anne with the infant Jesus and John the Baptist, now owned by London’s National Gallery. 

This book scores highly for its handsome colour illustrations, as Taschen books usually do. Drawings that are familiar to us from other publications as black-and-white illustrations are here brought fully to life in subtle colour. The book succeeds in being wide-ranging, attractive and small enough to be practical, all at a reasonable price.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work  by Johannes Nathan and Frank Zöllner is published by  Taschen, 2014. 768pp., 663 colour Illus (hbk). ISBN 978 3 836 554411


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

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