When you first enter the gallery, the churlish impulse is to worry about scale – with only ten drawings, the fear is we may just be getting some scraps. However, closer inspection reveals that to be a misconception. In fact, these drawings have been extremely well selected; among them, one finds work representative of each stage of Da Vinci’s career, and each piece displays different aspects of his character and interests – from metal point designs for an unfinished statue (catalogue no.2), through anatomical studies in ink (nos. 5a & 5b), to innovative chalk sketches (nos. 4 & 10).
The earliest work on show (no. 1) dates from 1485 and depicts fanciful designs for weaponry. The latest work (no. 10) dates from 1519, the year of Da Vinci’s death, and gives the profile of an elderly man. These pieces act well as a beginning and end for the exhibition’s narrative. By the standard of the other works on show, the military designs are neither well drawn nor remotely practical; odd as it is to say of Da Vinci, what charms about them is their naivety. In contrast, the sketch of the old man is masterful, displaying great economy of composition. A portrait of one bearded old man by another in the year of his death might be seen as an unsubtle full stop on the exhibition, yet the image is more than a mirror; rather, it is art possessed of a purely contemplative calm, creativity liberated from the imperative to sell.
In between these images, we encounter a selection intimating Da Vinci’s range. Three highlights deserve special mention: an ink study for the lost work, Leda and the Swan (no.3), a minutely detailed sketch of the river at Vaprio d’Adda (no.6), and a series of dark apocalyptic scenes (no.9). The braiding of Leda’s hair is rendered studiously, and the sketch is justifiably a central feature of the exhibition. In the second image, we encounter a Lilliputian world in motion – intimations of an entire universe on a 10 x 13 cm paper scrap. In the third, scenes of humanity’s desolation are counterbalanced by a scientific description of clouds – the master’s mind drifting in two curiously different directions.
Surveying the whole, one senses the enduring importance of drawing for Da Vinci. As he became more involved in scientific pursuits especially in his later years, painting fell by the wayside; not so for drawing. Throughout his life, drawing remained a backdrop to all Da Vinci did. The reason is on full view with this collection: drawing is an intimate medium rich in possibility, plastic enough to develop wondrous ideas throughout the full range of the arts and sciences. Da Vinci’s paintings were produced to be enjoyed aesthetically; his scientific treatises to be consumed intellectually. With his drawings, we touch the creative bedrock of his work in both fields.