Arts Arts & Books

How Britain laid claim to Leonardo

This year is the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci – and if you’re planning a visit to London this summer, check out the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

Forget Dan Brown’s execrable books and films. Leonardo completed fewer than 20 paintings that we know of, but he would have been hugely significant if he’d never picked up a paintbrush. He spent most of his life as a designer and an obsessive scholar of detail – and as Leonardo da Vinci – A Life in Drawing shows, his drawings were integral to his scientific research.

Leonardo left his thousands of drawings and dozens of notebooks to his assistant Francesco Melzi, who drew one of only two surviving portraits of him. Both are in this exhibition. Melzi spent the next 50 years looking after his master’s papers. On his death they passed to the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who put them in two large albums. One of these is now in a museum in Milan; the other, of about 600 drawings, came to Britain – and eventually into the ownership of Charles II, who was rebuilding the scattered Royal Collection after the Restoration.

In Queen Victoria’s reign the drawings were removed from the album and mounted individually so they could be displayed – but the original leather album, roughly 18 by 12 inches, is itself on display at the start of the exhibition.

Because the drawings passed through so few hands they are in remarkably good condition, and give a startling insight into how Leonardo worked.

What strikes you most of all is his attention to detail. Studies for paintings (including his Last Supper and Madonna and Child with St Anne) aren’t just limited to faces; he must have spent hours studying folds of cloth – how exactly it hangs, how the light and shadow fall.

His anatomical studies are astonishing. Leonardo dissected around 30 human corpses, producing incredibly detailed drawings of bones, musculature, blood vessels and internal organs – so when he drew or painted someone’s arm or leg or shoulder, he knew exactly how it worked, how it moved, how the muscles and veins would lie below the skin.

Leonardo wasn’t just an artist; he was also an engineer and inventor. In Milan in the 1480s he did numerous drawings of cannon and other weapons. In 1502 he became military engineer to Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI; the exhibition features a number of beautifully drawn maps. Leonardo brought the same attention to detail – and the same beauty – to landscapes and botanical studies, mainly in red chalk. He probably drew horses more than any other animal, but his sketches of cats, lions and a dragon are playful and, like much of this fascinating exhibition, delightful.

Leonardo da Vinci – A Life in Drawing is at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, until October 13