Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing review
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If you’ve ever seen Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, then you know you’ve never really seen it. What you’ve really seen is a jostling crush of irritable tourists with their cameras obscuring your view of an enigmatically grumpy Renaissance woman somewhere in the distance.
Leonardo is arguably the most important artist ever. He’s a superstar, a god, a legend who once walked among us. Only a handful of his paintings have survived the 500 years since his death – many in poor shape, like the crumbling ‘Last Supper’, and one of dubious provenance, ‘Salvator Mundi’. But forget those, because the Queen has 200 of his drawings in her collection, and they offer something far more intimate than his over-popular, unreachable paintings.
Pulled from an album of drawings acquired by Charles II, the works here are as private as drawings get. There are figure studies, maps, engineering and weapon designs, anatomical explorations and architectural plans. It’s all of Leonardo, spread out and put on display.
There are pages filled with the same repeated face, perfect drawings of hands cradling crudely sketched fingers, a sheet combining clouds, figure studies and engineering diagrams.
Some moments are breathtaking. The head studies for ‘The Last Supper’, the shower of mortars landing on a fortress, the faceless bust of the Madonna, the series of botanical drawings, the staggering abstract deluges. Leonardo was obsessive, passionate, maniacal in his need to analyse and deconstruct, and here you get to be face to face with his pen marks, nose to nose with his bulrushes, guts to guts with his corpses.
It’s almost too personal. It feels intrusive, like you’re reading his diary, like you shouldn’t be seeing this. And you shouldn’t, really. These were never meant for public consumption. What you’re getting to watch unfold across these walls is Leonardo’s own thought process. It’s him figuring stuff out, making mistakes, learning and adapting. Leonardo might have been human just like us, but he was pretty special all the same.