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Leonardo da Vinci: A closer look, by Alan Donnithorne

18 April 2019

Nicholas Cranfield on a book and exhibitions that explore the genius of Leonardo da Vinci

Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Leonardo da Vinci, The Head and Shoulders of a woman, almost in profile, c.1485-90. See gallery for more images

Leonardo da Vinci, The Head and Shoulders of a woman, almost in profile, c.1485-90. See gallery for more images

TWO years into his retirement, Alan Donnithorne, the former Head of Paper Conservation at Windsor, has produced an ambitious volume that takes 70 of Leonardo’s celebrated drawings and uses a range of photographic techniques and spectographic analysis to make possible a much closer examination.

The results are extraordinarily beautiful, and reveal the complexity of the mind of an artist who died 500 years ago at the French court. But the book is much more than a generously illustrated coffee-table book produced to mark the quincentenary.

Donnithorne’s scholarship begins by explaining how paper was made in the 15th century, and then illustrates the various methods used by Leonardo: stylus, metalpoint, ink, chalk, and charcoal, as well as the brush. His final chapter finds Leonardo’s own fingerprints on his works.

Through the magnification of some images 50 to 100 times, the individual particles of metal become visible in metalpoint drawings that, to the naked eye, often appear as little more than grey or brown strokes across the paper, often where silver has tarnished.

Artists sometimes needed to transfer designs or to copy them on to a prepared surface, such as a wall perhaps or a panel. A design might be pricked out, and charcoal dust rubbed across the surface, to leave tell-tale trace pin-points. So, some of Leonardo’s finest creations result from just joining the dots. Another method was to coat the back of the design in chalk or charcoal and then trace over the lines with a stylus.

The examples that Donnithorne has scrutinised begin with one of Leonardo’s earliest drawings of the hindquarters of a stallion with a rider, which might date from the late 1460s, when he was an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, alongside Pietro Perugino (d. 1523) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94).

Close examination shows that Leonardo used paper that was already 100 years old at the time. The detail of the horse’s flared nostrils and the sweep of the horse’s flank suggest a precocious degree of craftsmanship in the emerging artist.

The book considers other drawings of horses suggesting that, as well as designs for murals such as that of the Battle of Anghiari, commissioned in 1503 by Piero Soderini, which some claim may lie behind the later overpainted mural by Giorgio Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio, Leonardo was also commissioned for equestrian statues, such as that for the Sforza in Milan.

Writing towards the end of his life, Leonardo once explained: “If you wish to make your imaginary animal seem natural, let us say it was a serpent, take for the head that of a mastiff or hound, the eyes of a cat, the ears of a porcupine, the nose of a greyhound, the brow of a lion, the temples of an old cock, and the neck of a water turtle.” Truly terrifying, as a design for a parade costume of a dragon (c.1517/18), strongly testifies. Over a smudgy charcoal drawing, Leonardo inked in the details of the head and the loin.

Donnithorne has also included several maps, works that we might not associate with Leonardo, but which show him as a consummate cartographer who could also write conventionally when he chose rather than just in his celebrated mirror-image annotations.

One of them covers the Validichiana region of Tuscany around Colle di Val d’Elsa; and another, that of the west sea coast of Tuscany, south of Leghorn, and one of the malaria-infested Pontine Marshes south of Rome. These are among the few works on paper in which Leonardo uses watercolours, reserving roughly ground lapis lazuli for the Tyrhenian sea.

By careful selection from a collection that he clearly knows well, Donnithorne enlivens deeper scientific discussion about 15th-century artistic practices and the likely audience for many of the works. He also introduces some well-known images that we encounter in a new way; the heads of the Apostles Bartholomew and Philip, as studies for the Last Supper, the male nude from behind, the red-chalk storm brewing above a valley, and the oak leaves and acorns next to dyer’s greenweed.

Until 6 May, 144 of the Renaissance master’s greatest drawings, loaned by the Queen, are on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK. “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” gives the widest-ever UK audience the opportunity to see the work of this extraordinary artist. A dozen drawings have been selected for each venue to reflect the full range of Leonardo’s interests: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology, and botany.

These are on show in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Derby, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton, and Sunderland. Later in May, some 200 drawings will be shown in the Queen’s Gallery in London, of which 80 will then be seen in Scotland, at Holyrood, throughout the winter.


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


Leonardo da Vinci: A closer look
Alan Donnithorne
Royal Collection Trust £49.95
Church Times Bookshop £44.95

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