Even in an age celebrated for its limitless scientific discovery, technological innovation, and sublime artistic achievement, the range of Leonardo's knowledge and accomplishments was recognized as extraodinary. As the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote in his mid-sixteenth-century compendium of artists' lives: "Truly marvelous and celestial was Leonardo . . . so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease."
Leonardo's achievements are all the more extraordinary, given his fairly inauspicious beginnings. Born in the small Tuscan hilltown of Vinci, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary and a local peasant girl. His early school education did not prepare him for his later career as author of treatises, and he seems to have attained only a cursory knowledge of Latin, the language of most scientific texts and the "lingua franca" among the Humanists who comprised the intellectual elite of his day. As Leonardo himself explained in the preface to his treatise On Painting, "Though I may not know . . . how to cite from authors, I will cite from something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters."
The full scope of his achievement—with its legendary emphasis on observation as the source of all knowledge—is best preserved in Leonardo's drawings and notes, for almost four thousand sheets survive. (Notwithstanding the iconic status of such works as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, the number of extant paintings by Leonardo is actually very small—at most fifteen, including both finished and unfinished works as well as autograph and collaborative works.) For Leonardo, the medium of drawing was of crucial significance—indeed, more so than for any other figure of his time, or since—as it offered him a highly ordered language for invention, exploration, evocation, and illustration in both an artistic and scientific sense.
Installed chronologically, the exhibition enables visitors to trace Leonardo's artistic and intellectual development through each of the major phases of his career: his apprenticeship and early artistic maturity in Florence during the 1470s; the highly productive years at the Sforza court in Milan, from about 1481/3 to 1499, where he first emerged as a scientist and inventor; his return to Florence, about 1500 to 1506, where he was acclaimed and employed both as an artistic and engineering genius; the unsettled decade from about 1506 to 1516, when he moved between Florence, Milan, and Rome, seeking respite from political turmoil; and his final years in France, from 1516 until his death in 1519, where he lived as the honored guest of King François I.
The chronological installation also enables visitors to appreciate Leonardo's astonishing ability to work on different—and often widely divergent—projects at almost the same moment. For example, on the reverse side of a compositional study for his famous fresco of the Last Supper, Leonardo has drawn a series of designs and mathematical calculations for a device for hoisting weights.
Among the first highlights encountered in the exhibition is a comparative presentation of the large finished studies of young women's heads by Leonardo's teacher, the Florentine master Andrea del Verrocchio (ca. 1435–1488), whose style and techniques the young Leonardo closely imitated. These drawings—known since the sixteenth century as teste divine (divine heads) for their exquisite drawing technique and elegiac beauty of form—transcend their original function as exercises in draftsmanship. Drawings by the young Leonardo include several drapery studies, remarkable for their subtle explorations of light, shadow, and texture, and a group of charming silverpoint studies of cats, dogs, dogs' paws, and a bear.
The exhibition brings together some twelve compositional and figure studies believed to be related to Leonardo's altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi, Florence), one of his first independent commissions, begun in 1481, and left unfinished when he departed for Milan, around 1482/83. Also from the artist's early maturity comes one of the exhibition's most important objects—the panel painting of St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness (Vatican, Vatican City). Left unfinished, like the Uffizi Adoration, it provides visitors with an extraordinary glimpse into Leonardo's creative process, as he moved from underdrawing to the realization of forms in paint. (The painting also preserves, in the upper left, the imprint of the artist's fingers.)
Works from the years Leonardo spent at the Sforza court in Milan (from ca. 1481/83 to 1499) include his design for a proposed colossal equestrian statue of the Duke Francesco Sforza. This wonderfully spirited study of a rearing horse (Royal Library, Windsor Castle) is exhibited together for the first time with Antonio del Pollaiuolo's working modello for the same project, probably prepared in competition. A luminous metalpoint drawing of the head of an elderly bearded man (Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna) has been identified as a study for figure of St. Peter in Leonardo's celebrated Last Supper, painted for Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Leonardo's dramatic red chalk study of the head of a shouting soldier (Szépm¸vészeti Museum, Budapest), probably drawn from the life, is among the group of ten sheets related to his now-lost Battle of Anghiari, a monumental wall-painting commissioned in 1503 for the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. The original appearance of the mural—one of Leonardo's largest and most complex paintings—is best preserved in a large-scale drawing that was reworked by Peter Paul Rubens of the central section, on loan from the Louvre, showing a frenzied tangle of men and horses.
Other drawings from Leonardo's second Florentine period include recently discovered sketches intended for an unexecuted sculpture of Hercules that may have been meant to compete with Michelangelo's David; studies for the lost Leda and the Swan; and a presentation drawing of Neptune with Seahorses (Royal Library, Windsor).
The exhibition also brings together a group of drawings for the beloved painting Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Paris, Musée du Louvre), offering an opportunity to redefine the chronology and evolution of this complex late project. The magical study for the head of the Virgin also provides insight into the development of Leonardo's innovative graphic techniques—most particularly his use of sfumato, an art-historical term created to describe his seamless blending of tone in the manner of smoke.
Also on view is a number of Leonardo's whimsical allegories, caricatures, and penetrating studies of grotesque physiognomies.
Quite surprisingly, many of Leonardo's drawings for his nonartistic projects have often been viewed more as illustrations of intellectual content than as aesthetic objects in and of themselves. As the exhibition demonstrates, Leonardo brought the same clarity and elegance seen in his studies for paintings and sculpture to his scientific and technological drawings. In his Star-of-Bethlehem (Royal Library, Windsor Castle), one of Leonardo's most famous botanical illustrations, the ribbon-like leaves of the plant are rendered in flowing, rhythmic lines, beautifully evocative of vitality and growth.
His pioneering anatomical researches are documented in a double-sided sheet of studies of the human skull (Royal Library, Windsor Castle), based on direct observation and rendered in exquisitely fine parallel hatchings, and a drawing, inscribed "Tree of Veins" (also from Windsor Castle), illustrating the main organs relating to the blood vessels.
Although Leonardo abhorred war, he prided himself on his designs for weaponry ("I can make cannon, mortars, and light ordnance of very beautiful and useful shapes, quite different from those in common use," he once declared). The exhibition features a number of his ingenious drawings of various types of assault machines, crossbows, shields, and incendiary devices.
The selection of folios from The Codex Leicester (Seattle, Washington, Private Collection), one of his latest extant notebooks, includes drawings, diagrams, sketches, and written observations (in the left-handed artist's distinctive mirror script) on subjects ranging from the reflective properties of celestial bodies, to the nature of gravity, to hydrodynamics.
Leonardo's fascination with the properties and power of water is also revealed in the series of so-called Deluge drawings. Executed towards the end of his life, about 1515–17, these are terrifying apocalyptic visions in which giant waves furiously rebound over the diminutive forms of man and nature. Although classified as works of the poetic imagination, they are nevertheless realized with a keen understanding of the scientific principles governing the behavior of water.
The exhibition concludes with a small selection of drawings by Leonardo's Milanese pupils—Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (his earliest pupil), Francesco Melzi (his companion and artistic heir), Bernardino Luini, Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, and others.