2019 marks 500 years since Leonardo Da Vinci’s death. To celebrate his life and artwork, twenty museums across the country are simultaneously showcasing selections of his artwork, on loan from the Royal Collection. Each museum has different pieces, culminating in an overall exhibition in The Queen’s Galleries in London and Scotland later on this year. Derby Museum is the only location in the East Midlands to host such an exhibition.
The exhibition opens with several panels detailing a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci’s life and the local Renaissance context in the Derbyshire area. Each piece of art is accompanied by a panel explaining unique aspects of Da Vinci’s artwork and the mediums he used to draw or paint with. For instance, the panel beside a drawing of a head featuring three bulbous shapes explains that these represent mental faculties.
Another panel explains that Da Vinci focussed on anatomy in an attempt to create realistic artwork. Many of the pieces on display feature rigorously detailed anatomical sketches, such as drawings of muscles in the neck and foot, detailing individual nerves. Considering that these were drawn hundreds of years before X-Rays provided similarly detailed images of the human body, the exhibition indicates Da Vinci’s unique skill in creating anatomical sketches.
Each piece of art is accompanied by a panel explaining unique aspects of Da Vinci’s artwork.
Not only is Da Vinci’s art fascinating in its detail, but his attempts to capture movement. In one drawing, delicate lines of charcoal depict the movements of a horse bearing Neptune. Several of the pieces on display feature figures from Classical mythology. These are intertwined with Da Vinci’s anatomical focus, such as a portrait of Leda, which combines pen, ink and black chalk to capture the intricacies of Leda’s hair.
Several of Da Vinci’s completed works of art, often created for patrons, have been lost. The exhibition provides an opportunity to glimpse what this lost art might have looked like, with several preparatory sketches on display. Another sketch exploring animal movement is of a foot-soldier and his horse, in red chalk, again depicting the horses’ movement.
The exhibition also reveals Da Vinci’s polymath abilities, not only as an artist but an engineer and cartographer. One of the pieces on display is a map of the Pontine Marshes, showing Da Vinci’s technical proficiency. His scientific interests are also visible in his art through the minute writing that notes biological details, squeezed around a plethora of sketches upon a single page.
The exhibition provides an opportunity to glimpse what this lost art might have looked like…
Personally, the most intriguing work in this collection was a sketch of a cloudburst in which material objects have fallen from the storm clouds. This piece greatly differs to the others on display, as rather than Da Vinci’s usual precision, the drawing is reminiscent in style to sketches found in modern newspapers. Its accompanying display notes Da Vinci’s fixation upon death in his later storm-filled artwork. Yet rather than feature a God-like figure, as other doomsday artwork from the period did, Da Vinci instead depicts a mysterious lion in the top left of the sketch. Quite why he paints this is unclear, but the artwork offers an insight into Da Vinci’s personality beyond his technical and artistic inclinations.
Another piece which stood out for me was a sketch of a blackberry branch. Much like the anatomical sketches, this captures the precise details of each berry upon the branch and its surrounding leaves. Such precision gives Da Vinci’s art a photographic quality, and his depiction of the natural world connects his artistic and scientific interest, as these sketches were likely developed whilst Da Vinci worked on a treatise on the structure of plants and trees.
There is a focus on the wider context of Da Vinci’s artwork and scientific exploration within the exhibition, both historically and in the present day. The display panels encourage visitors to reflect upon the artwork they view. After viewing the exhibition, you enter a room called the ‘drawing lab’. This features local artwork and sculptures from the rest of the museum, showing how art has long been a means of communication and creative act. There are also desks where visitors are encouraged to produce their own artwork in response to what they have seen.
For the unique opportunity to experience the life and artwork of Da Vinci, this free exhibition is not to be missed.
Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing exhibition at Derby Museum. Free to enter. Runs from 1st February until 6th May. Find out more information here.