THE BIG REVIEW | Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing – The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Out of the world’s collections of Leonardo da Vinci drawings, the Royal Collection’s holdings are the largest, totalling an impressive 550 sheets. For the 500th anniversary celebrations of the artist’s death, a third of these were exhibited at 12 simultaneous venues in the UK, before being reunited in a major exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in London.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is a no-brainer for long-time admirers of his work and for those who want to start. An excellent attempt has been made to balance the artist’s multifarious interests and present them coherently in a chronological fashion. As viewers will see, Leonardo frequently returned to old ideas and explored them intensely, often without any real purpose other than to satiate his thirst for knowledge and the natural order of things.

Room 1

The exhibition begins with a humble demonstration of the fortuitous circumstances that led to the Royal Collection’s acquisition of Leonardo’s drawings. Upon the artist’s death in France on 2 May 1519, ‘each and every one of his books’ and ‘other tools and depictions pertaining to his art and craft of painting’ were bequeathed to his pupil and heir Francesco Melzi; these presumably included his drawings. In addition to being one of Leonardo’s more skilful pupils, Melzi is widely known as the probable draughtsman behind a famous red-chalk portrait of Leonardo in profile, the first object to greet visitors in the exhibition. Despite the recent rediscovery of another probable likeness in the collection, similarly dated, the curator (Martin Clayton) has chosen to display them in separate rooms, offering visitors no opportunities to validate this ground-breaking claim with their own eyes.

Melzi’s inheritance of Leonardo’s possessions spurred him to spend the next 50 years compiling his master’s loose sheets broadly by subject matter. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will notice that most sheets bear the occasional number. These were annotated by Melzi himself and suggest that he grouped the sheets in at least five sequences with consecutive numbers. After his death around 1570, most of the sheets were acquired – through Melzi’s son – by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who compiled them into at least two albums: the Codex Atlanticus (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan) and a smaller album containing around 600 sheets mounted on 234 folios (pages). The Royal Collection’s drawings come from the latter and the so-called ‘Leoni binding’ – on display in this room – is evidence of their impressive provenance. By 1630, the album had entered the collection of the Earl of Arundel in England and acquired by King Charles II around 1670.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

This room also features the first of five display cases in the exhibition dedicated to the tools and materials which Leonardo would have used; the manufacturing of paper and their watermarks are discussed in this case. The second room has two cases about metalpoint, preparatory grounds, and inks, and the third room has another two discussing chalks, charcoal, and watercolour. These are all placed near drawings using the same technique and, in my opinion, these were excellent curatorial choices. The display of samples of raw pigments, drawing materials, and even shells acting as watercolour containers, offered visitors a tangible perspective to understanding these centuries-old drawings.

Room 2

Florence, to 1481

The next room gets off to a confusing start, spatially, likely for accessibility reasons. With the large introductory text panel about Leonardo’s early life placed on the far wall as they enter, visitors can choose one of two paths as their true starting point. On the left, a brief selection of eight outstanding drawings by Leonardo’s contemporaries provide fascinating glimpses of the methods and techniques used in Renaissance workshops in Florence where Leonardo began working by the age of 20. Most of these are by students of Andrea del Verrocchio – Leonardo’s likely master – and include the likes of Pietro Perugino, Filippino Lippi, and Lorenzo di Credi.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

There is a clear preference in the workshop for drawing with metalpoint and styluses – as all eight sheets attest – but what is most telling is the innovative combinations with other media, such as pen and ink, white heightening, and chalks. Although the captions choose to focus on life in a Renaissance workshop and the influence of the Leonardesque manner, these drawings also show how metalpoint can be used meticulously for highly-finished portraits, used with extraordinary freedom for quick sketches and life studies, or as hidden underdrawings for planning out the initial forms of a composition. Eagle-eyed observers will also notice that a drawing of a lily attributed to Verrocchio (c.1475; RCIN 912418) has been pricked for transfer, a commonly used technique which only gets mentioned later in the exhibition.

Attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio, A lily, c.1475.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Arresting studies of horses, cattle, and imagined dragons grace the wall on the right of the introductory text. Made in his late 20s, these constitute Leonardo’s earliest substantial group of drawings and relate to a composition for an Adoration of the Shepherds, perhaps for an unfulfilled commission in the Palazzo della Signoria (modern-day Palazzo Vecchio), Florence. These clearly carried over to the unfinished Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi, Florence), where galloping horses and horsemen in the background transform the peaceful scene into a dramatic adaptation fit for the stage.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Madonna and Child with the infant Baptist, and heads in profile, c.1478-80.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Leonardo is usually considered an innovator of Madonna and Child images and it is easy to see why in a double-sided sheet (c.1478; RCIN 912276) featuring the protagonists of the Adoration of the Magi. On the recto (front), one can see Leonardo’s mind pondering the tender relationship between a nursing infant Christ and his mother. His first idea seems to show the Madonna tilting her head and downcast eyes towards her true left, keeping watch on the encroaching infant Saint John the Baptist at lower right. For his second idea, Leonardo has shifted her attention to the infant Christ. In doing so, he has not only strengthened the intimate relationship between mother and son, but also created a three-quarter profile type that we would subsequently recognise as distinctly ‘Leonardesque’. In the final product – helpfully reproduced on the facing wall – he has mirrored the composition, altered Christ’s interactions, excluded the infant Saint John, but kept the Madonna’s graceful profile.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

The same sheet is also filled on the verso (back) with many of Leonardo’s early studies of heads in profile, an antique portrait type usually found on medallions and coins typically reserved for rulers and noblemen. This would go on to become one of his lifelong obsessions, not just as practical studies for paintings but also as reflections on ideal human proportions and the external characteristics of specific human emotions. The theme is revisited in the last room of the exhibition where a group of six drawings of ‘ideal male heads’ dating between 1510 and 1518 is displayed. Even towards the end of his life, Leonardo still produced independent drawings of heads in profile, establishing several standard male types throughout his career, from open-eyed youths to ‘warrior’ types possessing stern expressions and gravitas fit for classical portraits.

Milan, 1483-1499

Leonardo’s first Milanese period was a truly exciting time for the artist and the longest amount of time he stayed in a single city. Spearheaded by commissions to paint the Virgin of the Rocks (1st version, Louvre, Paris; 2nd version, National Gallery, London) and the Last Supper (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan), he also entered the service of Ludovico ‘il Moro’ Sforza, Duke of Milan, where he was famously commissioned in the 1480s to create an equestrian monument of Francesco Sforza, Ludovico’s father. It was a delight to see the studies associated with the latter, transitioning from spirited early drawings of a rearing horse and rider to more informed, proportionate studies of a walking horse with measurements. Delayed and eventually halted after more than a decade, it was intended to be the largest equestrian monument in the world, requiring the construction of an entire foundry, about 75 tonnes of bronze, and projected to reach about eight metres in height.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

The section opens with one of the best drawings in the collection, a pen-and-wash study on pale blue prepared paper for the angel’s drapery in the 2nd version of the Virgin of the Rocks (c.1491-94; RCIN 912521). This drawing is a pleasure to behold in person. The contrast between the small areas of white heightening and the dark layers of wash give it a sculptural quality which is only more pronounced in several drapery drawings in the Louvre.

Leonardo da Vinci, The drapery of a kneeling figure, c.1491-94.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

This period of Leonardo’s career is a treasure trove of metalpoint drawings on mainly blue or pink prepared paper. Here, in Leonardo’s hand, we are shown a wide spectrum of the medium’s capabilities. This is perhaps best represented by the two studies relating to A Lady with an Ermine (National Museum, Kraków). One of them features 18 rapid sketches of the sitter (Cecilia Gallerani) (c.1490; RCIN 912513) with little effort made to distinguish her facial features, instead focusing most of his hatching on her neck and bust. The spontaneity of these sketches in quick succession shows how freely a metalpoint stylus can be used in a short life drawing session. Beside it is a favourite among visitors, the sheet of studies for her hands (c.1490; RCIN 912558) – neither of which feature in the final composition – which glisten like marble (due to the use of white heightening) whilst retaining all the traces of pentimenti and the laborious build-up of layers due to metalpoint’s shallow tonal range.

The prepared ground was equally labour-intensive, requiring a mixture of bone ash and animal glue (recipes vary) to be coated on to the paper’s surface for the stylus to make a visible mark. Oftentimes, coloured pigments were added so that a mid-tone could be used as the basis of a drawing, enabling the artist to more accurately perceive light and shade if using chalks.

As one navigates from the earlier drawings to the studies for the Sforza monument, there is a noticeable change in how Leonardo chooses to use metalpoint as it had certain limitations. Lines could almost never be erased, preparing the ground was time-consuming, the tonal range was limited, and it was perhaps too faint for his needs. In time, he uses metalpoint more freely, as we can see in the Sforza monument designs, sometimes serving as quick underdrawings to fix his initial ideas. Meanwhile, he opts for the convenience and diverse properties of coloured chalks (wide tonal range, can be used wet or dry, different line thicknesses) and the precision and clarity of pen and ink. Best of all, none of these required prepared surfaces.

Leonardo da Vinci, A design for an equestrian monument, c.1485-88.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

A significant portion of the drawings in this section also feature scientific drawings and designs for gunpower-based weaponry, all of them drawn with pen and ink. Historians and enthusiasts will probably recall that Leonardo’s ‘job application’ to Ludovico Sforza heavily emphasised his knowledge of military engineering and plans to build bridges, cannons, covered vehicles, and architectural wonders, before mentioning as a side note:

‘Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.’

These designs are indeed wonderful and fascinating: there are figures wielding shielded bows, chariots featuring maces on a spinning contraption, mortars on boats, and designs for early paddleboats! The most impressive drawing, personally, is one depicting an arsenal (c.1485-90; RCIN 912647), where teams of nude men attempt to hoist a large cannon using a pulley system. Based on a woodcut from Roberto Valturio’s De re militari, Leonardo’s imagined scene is equally as dramatic as his drawings of soldiers in battle or the overwhelming Deluge drawings featured in the last room.

Leonardo da Vinci, A scene in an arsenal, c.1485-90.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Leonardo’s obsession with Vitruvian human proportions is also highlighted, featuring an annotated drawing (c.1490; RCIN 919132) that, for some of us, will be the closest we will ever get to seeing the famed Vitruvian Man drawing (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Immediately opposite lies a series of detailed studies of the human skull and a theoretical illustration of how visual images are processed and stored as memory. Behind them are his famous grotesque drawings, made to amuse himself and those around him; they offer an interesting counterpart to his studies of ideal proportions.

Finally, the climax of this room is the end wall featuring six drawings relating to the Last Supper, a failed experiment in painting directly on to a dry wall instead of wet plaster. Most of these are head studies in chalk as well as a study for the bent arm of Saint Peter, hung in such a way as to mimic the vertical positions of their corresponding figures in the fresco (reproduced on a panel above). They are all excellent demonstrations of his handling of black and red chalks, and the exploration of facial types in his early profile drawings and recent grotesques must surely have influenced his choices for the disciples.

Leonardo da Vinci, Sketches for the Last Supper, and other studies, c.1492-94.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

But the most interesting piece for me has always been the chief compositional drawing in the series (c.1492-94; RCIN 912542), where we see Leonardo adopting the early iconographic convention of positioning Judas across the table from Christ, isolating him from the other disciples, before deciding on a more harmonious and ambiguous composition. He has, however, retained other traditional visual tropes, such as the sleeping or swooning Saint John and the use of a long table, as in Taddeo Gaddi’s early 14th-century fresco in the refectory of Santa Croce, Florence.

This display offers little scope or mention of his interests in how gestures and expressions dictate visual narratives, a major part of why his Last Supper is so radically different to its predecessors; thankfully, the exhibition catalogue rectifies this and makes reference to a list of possible attitudes and actions in the Codex Forster II (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Leonardo da Vinci, A sheet of miscellaneous studies (recto), c.1490.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

As visitors will see in later rooms, Leonardo always had a million things on his mind at once. This is best represented in a sheet (c.1490; RCIN 912283) featuring everything from geometrical diagrams to studies of clouds and plants, mechanical designs, and figure studies, including one echoing the Sforza monument. Even our admiration for his application of chiaroscuro comes from a diagrammatic drawing showing how light falls on a face (c.1488; RCIN 912604). He also tried his hand at creating pictographs (picture writing), sprawled on top of an architectural plan (c.1490; RCIN 912692v).

Room 3

Florence, 1500-1506/8

Like most artists of the period, Leonardo is most associated with the city of Florence. This was the city where he painted the Mona Lisa (Louvre), the debatable Salvator Mundi (Private collection, whereabouts unknown), and was commissioned by the Florentine government in 1503 to paint the Battle of Anghiari for the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo della Signoria alongside Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina which was commissioned a year later. But as visitors to this room will find out, there was so much more going on in Leonardo’s mind and many more works of art which have not survived the course of history.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

The first drawing we see is actually a very fine and elegant study in red chalk over metalpoint for the bust of the Madonna (c.1500; RCIN 912514) in the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, of which there are two versions attributed in part to Leonardo’s hand: the Buccleuch Madonna (on loan to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) and the Lansdowne Madonna (Private collection, USA). Drawn on pale red prepared paper, the red-chalk lines just barely render the Madonna’s neck and bust visible, resulting in a surprisingly expressive example of Leonardo’s excellent application of mid-tones.

Leonardo da Vinci, The bust of the Madonna, c.1500.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

On the far right are the only two studies relating to the Salvator Mundi which sold at auction in November 2017 for $450 million. Visitors to the National Gallery’s 2011 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan would have had the opportunity to see them together; the similarities between the folds of the drapery and the decorative trim provided a strong case for the painting’s authenticity. As someone who believes that the sold Salvator Mundi was once by Leonardo’s hand (at least in part), if it was in fact executed later than proposed, I must also consider the possibility of Francesco Melzi’s participation in light of his technical proficiency with paint and that he conclusively owned both these studies.

I was delighted to see on the other end of the room an entire wall dedicated to the Battle of Anghiari drawings, with Peter Paul Rubens’ copy of the central scene (Louvre) reproduced above. Most visitors are probably unaware that this often-reproduced central scene occupied only a fraction of the intended composition; the completed mural was to show Milanese forces advancing from the left, a skirmish in the centre, and the Florentine cavalry amassing on the right beyond a bridge over a gulley. Except for one (c.1503-04; RCIN 912339), the drawings on show do not record other elements of Leonardo’s intended composition, but instead offer a myriad of horse studies and riders fighting which evoke the spirit and savagery of battle. There are also a few well-executed nude male studies in red chalk – an appropriate medium for rendering skin tones and subtle changes in light and shade – harking back to his earlier interests in ideal proportions.

Both Leonardo and Michelangelo abandoned their respective commissions due to other pressing matters – the former was temporary called back to Milan in 1506 – but the public display of their large preparatory cartoons provided the necessary fuel for later generations of artists before being lost to us completely.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

Following the Battle of Anghiari commission, Leonardo continued with his anatomical studies and performed some 30 human dissections in his lifetime. The double-sided drawings exhibited – all requiring the clarity and precision of pen and ink – feature detailed illustrations and notes pertaining to various internal organs, the most impressive being a large pricked double-sheet depicting the cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman which also unexpectedly bears Leonardo’s supposed thumbprint (c.1509-10; RCIN 912281). The last room also features a compelling grouping of his detailed studies of human musculature, the network of blood vessels, and the most exquisite drawings of a foetus inside a womb.

Speaking of unexpected, this room contains an extraordinary series of maps in coloured washes and bodycolour (a type of watercolour). His topography relates to his appointment in August 1502 to Cesare Borgia as ‘General Architect and Engineer’, requiring him to survey relevant towns in order to suggest improvements to fortifications, as in the map of Imola (1502; RCIN 912284). Leonardo’s proposed scheme to divert the Arno river is also illustrated with five separate maps. Yet, not all his maps necessarily relate functionally to his formal position. The most beautiful and picturesque maps by Leonardo depict entire regions of central Italy, such as the valley of Valdichiana (c.1503-06; RCIN 912278) and appear to have been made for personal reference or for the viewing pleasure of others.

Finally, this room also features a miscellaneous grouping of botanical studies and landscapes which cannot be chronologically tied to singular commissions.

Leonardo’s study of botany was about as persistent throughout his life as his anatomical interests. Plants feature heavily in some of his compositions, such as the Virgin of the Rocks, and it was important for him to represent them accurately. His early botanical studies from about 1506-12 are rendered carefully in red chalk, sometimes on red prepared paper; Leonardo exploited its ability to be sharpened to a fine point and often used it for writing in his notebooks. They are grouped in this room to come into dialogue with the drawings for the lost Leda and the Swan. Later botanical studies from around 1510-15 show him opting for pen and ink instead.

Likewise, landscapes of mountains and towns were a common feature in Renaissance paintings. However, unlike his contemporaries, Leonardo sometimes turned his ordinary landscape drawings into dramatic settings for oncoming storms, foreshadowing his Deluge drawings. He was evidently drawn to mountainous landscapes and rock formations, contemplating their sturdy presence yet changeable nature throughout the course of reality.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

Lost/unknown works

Within this room are a few drawings relating to works that have either been lost or undiscovered. For the sake of clarity, I have chosen to separate them from the rest of my discussion, but they nonetheless relate closely to his simultaneous projects and personal interests.

Firstly, two sheets of red-chalk drawings of a child’s head and torso (RCIN 912519 and 912567) have been linked to Gian Paolo Lomazzo’s written reference in 1584 to a terracotta bust of a Christ Child (supposedly by Leonardo) in his own collection. The new dating of around 1500 also seems to imply that the profile drawing has no link with the Christ Child in the Virgin of the Rocks, as previous literature has suggested. Since no surviving sculpture generally accepted as by Leonardo has been discovered – the recent attribution of the Virgin and Child terracotta (Victoria and Albert Museum) is still debatable – this Lomazzo’s terracotta Christ Child will continue to remain a mystery. Nevertheless, his training in Verrocchio’s workshop would lend support to at least some proficiency in small-scale sculpture.

Secondly, there was also once a highly finished drawing of Neptune in his chariot drawn by sea-horses, which Giorgio Vasari described in the 1568 edition of his Lives of the Artists as having been made for the collector and master of the Papal Mint, Antonio Segni. A preparatory charcoal drawing for this (c.1504-05; RCIN 912570) is on display, bearing all the excitement of his simultaneous studies for the Battle of Anghiari. In the last room of the exhibition, however, there appears to have been a revisiting of this idea in a later sketch (c.1508-10; RCIN 912591), in the form of Leonardo’s own interpretation of Michelangelo’s David (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) – for which he was among a committee discussing its placement in 1503 – where at least one sea-horse lies at its feet, perhaps a Neptune fountain design for a proposed pleasure garden.

Finally, there is the unfortunate fate of the Leda and the Swan. Known from several painted copies showing Leda standing, a sketch by Raphael (c.1508; RCIN 912759) after a lost Leonardo drawing, and a few surviving drawings showing Leonardo’s first idea to have her kneeling, three of which are assembled here. In his two head studies (c.1505-08; RCIN 912518 and 912516), his dedication to rendering Leda’s exquisitely plaited hair is nothing short of remarkable, its mesmerising curls evoking the sculptures of Verrocchio. According to the catalogue, a note beside a further head study in the collection (c.1505-06; RCIN 912515; not displayed) – ‘this kind can be taken off and put on without being damaged’ – implies that Leda’s hair was conceived as a wig, perhaps for a festival or theatrical production. Nothing is known of the painting’s patron or any documents relating to it; we just know that it was in the French royal collection at Fontainebleau by 1625 and eventually destroyed around 1700.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

Room 4

This little room serves as an opportunity for the Royal Collection to present some of their latest scientific research on Leonardo’s drawings, delving deeper into the artist’s materials and working processes. The display introduces visitors to several non-invasive techniques and the results they have wielded for specific drawings. For example, when one of the Leda head studies was photographed using infrared imaging, it was possible to see the preliminary chalk or charcoal underdrawing before he worked it up in detail using pen and ink.

Only one drawing is physically present: a sheet of metalpoint studies of hands (c.1481; RCIN 912616) which are practically invisible to the naked eye, due to having faded over time. However, when viewed under ultraviolet light, Leonardo’s sketches are revealed once more and have been reproduced beside the original drawing.

Two more text panels on the opposite wall discuss raman spectroscopy and x-ray fluorescence, two methods which can determine the chemical compounds present in Leonardo’s drawings without taking a physical sample. The first has been used to identify materials used for the preparatory grounds of his metalpoint drawings, revealing the presence of bone white, red lead, vermillion, haematite, indigo, and carbon.

The second uses high-energy X-rays on specific metalpoint lines and detects the wavelengths of the re-emitted lower-energy X-rays (after absorption) to determine which kind of metalpoint styluses he used: it was found that Leonardo must have used a stylus made up of copper-zinc alloy. Another point of this exercise was to find out why some of his metalpoint drawings have faded over time. The results allowed them to establish that the metals reacted over time to form transparent salts, rendering the lines invisible.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

Overall, this room presented complex information in a manner that was accessible enough for most visitors to understand these scientific processes and their usefulness in the study of drawings.

Room 5

Milan, 1506-1513, and Rome, 1513-1516

As mentioned previously, Leonardo was called back to Milan in 1506 by the French occupiers of that city whilst working on the Battle of Anghiari. At the time, he was already on the painting stage since June 1505. This call back was permitted by the Florentine government for diplomatic reasons, and Leonardo ended up working for the French court for the next seven years, mostly as a designer and scientist.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

The opening drawings in this room feature a curious selection of emblems and allegorical images. One of the most puzzling is a red-chalk drawing of a dog steering a boat, facing a crowned eagle perched on a globe (c.1508-10; RCIN 912496). It is considered Leonardo’s most highly finished chalk drawing, but its purpose is unknown. There are various interpretations and this exhibition proposes that it was made as an allegory for faithful devotion and loyalty to the King of France, Louis XII. Nearby, a pen-and-ink sketch (c.1506-12; RCIN 912698) shows material possessions falling out of the sky with an inscription below saying, ‘Oh human misery, how many things you must serve for money’.

Leonardo’s ideas for the Sforza monument also make a comeback. Twice.

After the commission was scrapped, there was still a full-sized clay model which he had originally used to create sectional moulds for the bronze-casting process. This model was then used for target practice and destroyed by the French troops in 1499, commanded by the military commander (condottiere) Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. Ironically, Trivulzio commissioned his funerary monument from Leonardo about a decade later.

The designs follow a similar trajectory to the Sforza monument, starting with a rearing horse and rider supported by a fallen foe. After more realistic considerations, Leonardo went with a pacing horse instead. The base of the Trivulzio monument also received a lot of attention. The drawings on display reveal no less than four designs featuring different ideas for the base, including a columned, circular structure resembling Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome. No evidence suggests that Leonardo carried out any physical work on this project.

Leonardo da Vinci, Sketches for the Trivulzio monument, and other studies, c.1508-10.
Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Just across the room, another series of drawings reveal plans to make a third and final equestrian monument during his last years in France. Same procedures. Same ideas. Same unfulfilled results.

Back in Italy, Leonardo had been planning a treatise on water, as well as a treatise on painting (published posthumously as Trattato della pittura), for quite some time, perhaps as early as his first Milanese period. This was explored in a separate exhibition this year at the British Library titled Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, featuring an assortment of sheets from his various notebooks including Bill Gates’ Codex Leicester (see my mini-review on Instagram HERE). In his notebooks, the basic condition for motion to occur was a disruption of balance, whether of the body, the mind, or the soul. This is based on an Aristotelian tradition which proposes that the natural state of the human body was when it was at rest.

Expanding upon this idea, Leonardo saw water as more than just an obstacle he had to factor into his engineering designs. Water was an omnipresent entity contributing to the natural processes around us, a necessary thing for sustaining life. It acts like the gentlest thing in the world yet can also weather the hardest of rocks, and it moves and responds to external forces gracefully and with ease, producing endless shapes and patterns which Leonardo sought to capture in countless drawings.

Those on display show how water responds when an obstacle interrupts its flow, or when it splashes onto a flat surface after exiting from an opening. At its most violent, Leonardo envisions it as successive curls, organised like strands of hair. Other times, little splashes appear like sprouting flowers or deep-sea corals. These ambitious book projects probably occupied his three years in Rome, following the ousting of the French forces from Milan. He achieved very little in Rome but was documented as being part of the household of Giuliano de’ Medici (brother of Pope Leo X), who set up Leonardo and his assistants (including Salaì and Melzi) in a workshop in the Belvedere wing of the Vatican Palace.

Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of water, c.1510-12.
Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Next comes a group of six drawings relating to the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (Louvre), a subject which occupied the last two decades of his life. Despite unclear circumstances, the original commission probably came from Louis XII of France around 1499. Written sources and surviving works suggest Leonardo made at least three full-scale compositions: a lost cartoon mentioned in two letters from Fra Pietro da Novellara to Isabella d’Este in April 1501, the so-called Burlington House cartoon (National Gallery, London), and the painting in the Louvre, probably started around 1508. The persistent changes may have been the result of a dissatisfied patron or the artist himself. Undelivered, the Louvre painting remained unfinished and was recorded in Leonardo’s French studio in October 1517.

Leonardo da Vinci, The drapery of the Madonna’s arm, c.1510-15.
Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The dating of the six drawings vary considerably, from as early as 1504 to about 1518. Collectively, they constitute a progressive visual record of Leonardo’s achievements in chalk and other media. The best of these is a drapery study for the Madonna’s arm (c.1510-15; RCIN 912532). Leonardo used his entire arsenal (except metalpoint) for this heavily built-up drawing, incorporating red and black chalks, wash, white heightening, and pen and ink on orange-red prepared paper. Utilising his favoured red-on-red technique, Leonardo strived to convey the translucency of her right sleeve and the rhythm of its concertina folds. This little drawing certainly holds its own in Leonardo’s entire graphic repertoire.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph

France, 1516-1519

In late 1516, the 64-year-old Leonardo accepts an offer of employment from the new king of France, Francis I, and relocates to France indefinitely, never to come back. His official title was paintre du Roy, but he also served as an architect, engineer, and designer to the king. He arrived by May 1517 with Salaì and Melzi, and was granted apartments in the Château du Clos Lucé, near the royal court at Amboise. The exhibition features a small red-chalk drawing of the castle at Amboise from the vantage point of their new residence, attributed to Melzi (c.1516-19; RCIN 912727). Leonardo also brought with him three paintings, believed to be the Mona Lisa, the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, and a Saint John the Baptist (Louvre).

Attributed to Francesco Melzi, The castle at Amboise, c.1516-19.
Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

As an architect, he helped to design a new, grander palace at Amboise on the banks of the river Loire whilst working at Romorantin between 1517 and 1518. Although nothing came out of it, in one drawing (c.1517-18; RCIN 912292v) Leonardo envisioned a vast, three-story high structure, flanked by bridges for crossing water. As a designer to a king who enjoyed lavish entertainments, Leonardo was responsible for designing costumes for the many notable festivities held at Amboise. Several drawings for these exotic fashions are grouped here, featuring plumed hats, spotted furs, and quilted sleeves. One can clearly see the elderly artist struggling with his grip – ‘a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand’ – compared to the confident, spirited draughtsmanship seen in his amusing drawings of domestic cats, lions, and dragons fighting Saint George on his steed.

Concluding this room – and thus the exhibition – we come face to face with all 10 drawings of the Deluge, a cataclysmic storm mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which would wreck the earth as a result of Jupiter’s wrath. This was the ultimate challenge of Leonardo’s natural studies, and he wrote several lengthy passages attempting to describe the Deluge in detail and with a scientific mindset; one of these passages (annotated with cute illustrations) is displayed with two translated excerpts on a panel next to it. He writes of uprooted trees, fallen mountains, valleys with burst banks, and monstrous waves destroying buildings and grinding them to dust in eddying whirlpools.

Yet the same passage also contains descriptions like the following:

‘And if the heavy masses of ruined mountains or buildings fall into the vast pools of water, a great quantity will be flung into the air, and its movement will be in a contrary direction to that of the object which struck the water; that is to say, the angle of reflection will be equal to the angle of incidence.’

Leonardo da Vinci, Notes and sketches on a deluge, c.1517-18.
Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

His Deluge drawings are something else entirely, a visual culmination of his understanding of the movement of water, of the appearance of geological entities and animals, and of the portrayal of landscapes. They radiate a compelling sense of damnation, describing various elements in his writings. Although most are fairly small in size, they have an atmospheric quality that is immersive. The expressiveness of smudged black chalk in each scene heightens one’s perception of dust in the air and fading structures, forcefully blown in all directions by strong gusts of winds. In one of the earliest-dated drawings in the series, the wind-gods can be seen blowing their trumpets and hurling thunderbolts, leaving only death and destruction behind. The use of pen and ink only escalates the reality of each scene and their inescapable demise.

In the last of his ‘ideal heads’, Leonardo’s hesitant hands rendered in black chalk the face of a bearded old man in profile (c.1519; RCIN 912500). This is not a literal self-portrait, as much as we might want it to be. Actually, we don’t really know what it is. All we can do is consider the possibility that it represents how Leonardo saw himself. An old man with a drooping nose, looking idly forward to an uncertain future with wistful eyes. A profound, honest self-image.

On 2 May 1519, Leonardo died aged 67 at Clos Lucé.

Leonardo da Vinci, The head of an old bearded man in profile, c.1519.
Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Own photograph


Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is the kind of exhibition which comes around once in a blue moon. It strives to do something quite simple, yet also quite difficult: presenting Leonardo’s drawings in chronological order and grouping them with specific projects. For any other artist, this might be a walk in the park. But for Leonardo – as this exhibition reveals – his ideas never stay in one place for very long. They are always at the back of his head, ready to be developed and re-used, emerging in random places as little scribbles or as highly finished designs. If one could dissect his brain (as he did others), one might discover a spider diagram overflowing with interconnected images from all areas of his life. The flow of ideas in Leonardo’s graphic oeuvre defies chronology, and the fact that the curator has managed to guide visitors through this in a comprehensible way whilst also educating them about complex drawing techniques is a feat worthy of admiration.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing runs until 13 October 2019 at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London,


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