Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition Nottingham 2016

During the summer of 2016 a major artistic event took place at Nottingham Castle, proving to be a source of great excitement for many. Today we recognise da Vinci as one of the great artists of all time, an artistic, creative and scientific genius but this was not always so. During his life time da Vinci was recognised as an artist of great talent, a sculptor, a draughtsman, a surveyor, an engineer responsible for designing wartime defences and a respected scholar. Most of these remarkable talents and achievements have been forgotten by the general public, today most only think of him as the man who painted the Mona Lisa or as one of the Ninja Turtles. He was so much more.

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery was the temporary home of this tour of ten sketches from the Royal Collection, the personal collection of her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom. These are items seldom seen by the general public and rarely so outside of Windsor Castle. They are part of a series of tours organised by the Royal Collection Trust, whose aims include the bringing of such items from the collection to a wider audience than ever before.

After his death, the papers of da Vinci became the property of his companion Francesco Melzi and were eventually collected into volumes for preservation and display by Pompeo Leoni. Only two volumes of such papers still exist. One is the Codex Altlanticus, currently in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan. The second Leoni binding eventually joined the Royal Collection sometime after the ‘English’ Civil War.

In the ninetieth century the papers were removed from the binding, which has itself been carefully preserved, to protect them from abrasion when the pages were turned and placed on individual display. At the beginning of the twentieth century some were stamped with the cipher of King Edward VII, a surprising act of vandalism although the stamp is miniscule.

Since the 1970’s the da Vinci sketches have been subject of a major conservation programme, that included the mounting of some pages between ultraviolet filtered acrylic sheets, this not only protects them from light but enables the viewer to see drawings on both sides of the paper.

The exhibition at the Castle was an intimate display divided between boards giving historical context and the sketches themselves. The sketches mounted in a variety of ways, displayed not only the artist’s remarkable ability to observe the world but also exhibited his methodology in practise, before final completion of a work. This as an amateur writer and photographer, I found remarkable and interesting. I do not generally allow people to see my rough workings and poor photography, often destroying such. I find the idea of sharing my rough works after my death rather disturbing but I am not a da Vinci, so it is very unlikely anyone will want to see them.

Perusing the displays one could quickly appreciate that this exhibition was a very special one. It was a glimpse into the mind of a creative genius, the archetypal Renaissance man. Capturing his draughtsmanship and illustrating his enquiring mind at work.

One of da Vinci’s famous painting is ‘the Madonna and child with Saint Anne and a Lamb.’ The finished composition is on display at the Louvre in Paris. On display here is Nottingham was one of the sketches made in preparation for that work and others. It was my favourite exhibit, the exquisite beauty and human qualities of the woman are captured to perfection.

The anatomical drawings taken from actual dissections are naturally a major draw, capturing an early attempt to understand the body both as art and as physiology. The drawings are completed with such skill and accuracy, that it is relatively easy to name organs and associated structures.

The set of engineering drawings focused primarily upon the designs of a bronze horse that was never completed. The ideas and plans showing the concept of casting and assembly, illustrate the actual work behind the creation of any art. The finished project is only the pinnacle and often does not reflect the effort required.

Linked to these sketches is the wonderful cats, lions and dragon drawings, a study of muscle, pose and a precise capture of perceived movement. The master artist has practised over and over to depict the creatures, in obvious preparation for some future work.

One of the most interesting sketches on display was surprisingly a map, made in 1504 when da Vinci was employed as an engineer by the City of Florence. The object was to chronicle damage to the bank after the winter thaw and consider effective defences. The colouring is stunning and the depiction of the current captures the energy in a remarkably subtle manner. As a comparison to the other works of a more deliberate artistic nature, this and the anatomical drawings, truly captured the range of da Vinci’s skill.

Throughout the exhibition information boards helped to place the exhibits in context, with reference made to works not included, such as the Mona Lisa obviously and the famous Venusian Man. The exhibition was compact without being cramped and a treasure all the more for the intimacy that suggested, so beautifully presented that each work, each exhibit was a special delight. The exhibition was something to be savoured and something to be remembered.


Clayton M. (2016) Leonardo da Vinci: Ten drawings from the Royal Collection. The Royal Collection Trust. London

The Royal Collection Trust

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