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Da Vinci’s In Town


I have always been interested in the artist Leonardo da Vinci, not to be confused with the actor Leonardo Dicaprio. I believe it was in my childhood that I first was introduced to da Vinci’s name. It was the era of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles then, four turtles who eat only pizza named after four of the greatest  artists in the world, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo.

I think most of us are familiar with Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa. Who has not seen her? The girl with the funny smile and eyes that follow you around the room no matter from which side you look at her. Then there is the other favorite of mine, Vitruvian Man, a sketch of a man who stands legs widespread with his hands in the air forming a five pointed star.

In 2003 Leonardo was in the news again, this time because of Dan Brown who wrote a book wherein he tells the story of one of the greatest conspiracies ever. In his book he explores the possibility of Jesus being a married man, married to one of the women disciples that used to walk with him and his twelve apostles, Mary Magdalene from Magdala, and that they had children. The book claims that Jesus’ bloodline still lives on to this day and that this truth was hidden in one of Da Vinci’s paintings, The Last Supper.

Brown tells that in the painting there is a woman seated at Jesu’s right hand side and not the disciple called John as most people would have believed. There was much controversy surrounding the book. It greatly upsetted Christians and the Roman Catholic Church across the world who still believes Jesus was a virgin until the day he ascended into heaven. Some people believe that John had a very feminine face and that it was actually him seated at Jesus’s side. Dan Brown called the book The Da Vinci Code and it eventually went to the silver screen.

Back to the present, I heard that Leonardo was in Dublin and booked a ticket to go see a collection of ten drawings that are on display at the National Gallery of Ireland, on loan from the Queen’s’ Royal Collection Trust. The drawings forms part of a collection of 600 drawings that are kept in an album. They are on display in three of the rooms at the National Gallery. It was a once and a lifetime opportunity for me to see the next best thing to the real Mona Lisa. I was not unimpressed, but must add they are much smaller than the real Mona Lisa. The ten drawings are being exhibited in four museums and galleries across the UK and Ireland.

The drawings are studies of works he later completed. He used to sketch little pictures of live models that he would eventually paint. One of the sheets are a combination of studies of an infant’s limbs, this is the baby Jesus probably used in The Madonna and Child painting. There is also a study for the head of St. Anne in black chalk who stands with the Madonna and Child. In his study he worked on the headdress of St. Anne. Women back then would typically not have been seen without wearing a headdress.

Leonardo was an artist who studied anatomy, sculpting, painting, botany, mapmaking and optics and spend a lot of time developing these ideas. He was given permission by the hospitals of Milan to do autopsies on over 30 corpses that he used for anatomy sketches. One of the drawings on display is of a human’s upper body taken from one of his notebooks, where he practised drawing the heart and compared it to a seed when opened. On the same sheet there are also studies of the kidneys and liver and the vessels found in them. Experts say that Da Vinci was not accurate in the way he depicted the insides and organs of these corpses, but he was far ahead of his time. Today’s’ studies of the human anatomy differs slightly.

I really liked the pictures of the cats, dragon and lions. Being a cat lover I find these little creatures to be fascinating animals. More fascinating was what Da Vinci had discovered through his studies of these felines. He was interested in the spines of cats, dragons and lions. In his study he mentions that all three these animals can bend their spines in any direction they want to and in the sketches he has the cats and lions doing different things like rising their backs in a bow or coiling up when asleep. The little drawing of the dragon shows him bending his back as he looks behind him, capturing the flexibility of their movements.

Da Vinci used to use black and red chalk, pen and ink and watercolours when drawing or painting. It is remarkable how these sheets, now over 500 years old has survived, this says a lot of the quality of materials he used in his art. There is also a short film on the different techniques and materials he used when producing paintings or drawings showing in the Gallery if you are interested in finding out more about his art materials and techniques.

Leonardo Da Vinci who was left-handed wrote little notes on the sheets he worked on and would often write in mirror-image. He was a great inventor and would have used this method to keep his secret inventions a secret. If you are able to read Italian it might be a good idea to sneak in a little hand-mirror when  you go to see these little artworks of his.

Other studies on display are the studies for the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza (unfinished bronze sculpture), a map of a weir on the Arno East of Florence (watercolours are used in this study), a nude male for the Battle of Anghiari painting, expressions of fury in horses, lions and a man (for the Battle of Anghiari), a study of a branch with blackberries (for Leda and the Swan) and a drawing of a deluge.

The exhibition will be at the National Gallery of Ireland until the 17th of July 2016 before it moves onto Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery (30th July 2016 – 9th October 2016) and then to Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea (15th October 2016 – 6th January 2017).

“This is a rare and wonderful opportunity for the National Gallery of Ireland to show these exquisite drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection. The drawings, reflecting Leonardo’s wide interests from anatomy to nature, will bring so much pleasure to our visitors,” Sean Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland said.

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