Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery organized Exploring Leonardo Study Day as part of the Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration exhibition. The day saw four leading experts speak on Leonardo’s strategies for innovation in art, the pitfalls of working with him, da Vinci’s anatomical studies and the work that went into restoring the famous Leonardo cartoon at the National Gallery following its damage in a shotgun attack in 1987.
This was my first Study Day and I wasn’t sure what to expect – but whatever bar I set for the day was completely blown away. The experts spoke in 45 minute allotments – providing in-depth evidence for their arguments while ensuring the audience comprehended. In other words, they spoke to us, not over us.
The first speaker was David Hemsoll from the University of Birmingham. His argument was Leonardo’s strategies for innovation in art. David explained that within Da Vinci own lifetime, he had a reputation of being a modem day artist. To build this reputation, he became an apprentice for Verrocchio at the age of 14. Here he started to learn the techniques such as flesh and perspective and became more knowledgeable with placement.
An example that was used was Verrocchio’s Madonna and Child with Angel in which you can see the Da Vinci’s work on the angel and how the drape on the angel corresponds with his other works.
How did he achieve these techniques when dealing with oil paints?
The theory is that Da Vinci took best practice from other works that he has seen, especially works from the Netherlands. Hemsoll showed collaboration between Ghent and other artists of the time. Da Vinci’s work in the 1470s starts to show some of this influence, but by the mid 70’s there is a more definite application of the technique.
Using the Adoration of the Magi (unfinished commissioned piece) Hemsoll explored each area which reflected influence from other sources. For example, making Mother and Baby central focus of picture, using soft lines for outline and dark landscape for contrast.
Hemsoll also used Botticelli Birth of Venus to highlight his argument.
I didn’t manage many photos from David’s talk as wasn’t sure I was allowed photos.
Jill Burke, University of Edinburgh then argued: The pitfalls of genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons
Jill provided a very convincing argument relating to the issues that arise when working with someone who is not known for following through with his work commitments.’
Da Vinci was work shy but a genius.
Most of the talk is on the pictures provided but it was stated that a few things influenced some of da Vinci’s thought process:
- 1494 French invasion of Italy and Florence loses its port which was located in Pisa.
- 1498 Girdamo Savonarola was burnt at the stake
- 1500 da Vinci goes back to Florence (French took over Milan)
Jill talked about the influence Verrochio had on Da Vinci as he allowed him to learn to work with so many different materials (bronze, marble, etc).
Even though he was commissioned for Adoration of the Magi, he left it unfinished.
In 1503 Da Vinci was commissioned to use his engineering talents to help build canals (as the Port was lost from Pisa). However this project was doomed before it started. He did work on the Map of Arno Valley.
Some of the work Da Vinci didn’t completed was finished by Michelangelo. This is where we start to see that the contrast between Michelangelo and Da Vinci. For example, Michelangelo was a saver, something da Vinci never bothered with. Michelangelo was an investor also. But we also see that Michelangelo is shrewd. While Da Vinci would not take payment for unfinished work, the same can’t be said of Michelangelo. [This is also when we learned that Michelangelo wore the same trousers for years – so much so, ‘his skin started coming through them’. ]
The majority of Jill’s brilliant talk can be seen through the pictures as she shared wonderful quotes and pictures with her presentation.
Martin Clayton, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, the Royal Collection. Leonardo’s anatomical studies I’ve met Martin before on the launch of the Queen’s Jubliee collection. He is such an unassuming font of knowledge with anything related to Da Viinci (probably more, but I can only speak for this project).
Martin had a very detailed discussion on the work Da Vinci put into his anatomical studies describing him as ‘Discipliner of experience’. Clearing a myth early in the conversation, apparently churches did not forbid dissections which was good as he performed over 10 (usually on criminals).
Originally, Da Vinci assumed and guessed on some of the anatomical works and originally dissected bears and monkeys as evidenced by a picture in the presentation. In 1489 Da Vinci obtained a skull to study. Vitruvian Man, while slightly inaccurate, is still used today in medical reference.
Leonardo became obsessed with geometry and anatomy, and as mentioned by Jill Burke, did not complete commissions due to this obsession.
One Da Vinci dissection was the old man (who it was claimed was 100 years old) to see why he died. He then did an autopsy on a 2 year old and compared the findings. This direct investigation and comparison helped him in his knowledge of how the human body worked.
Interestingly we also learned that Da Vinci worked in a medical school. There is no proof but assumed to be the winter of 1510. There he would have found a regular supply of bodies to dissect.
Da Vinci kept copious notes, 30,000 words over 18 sheets. Out of this, one sheet proves Da Vinci envisioned the notes to be used and studied. These sheets were completed *after* the dissection – leaving scope for error on transferring the knowledge. They know it was indirect note-taking as there was no blood on the paper or any indication of them being near the body. The sheets were uniform in size but loose when Da Vinci was working on them. He used a wide range of ink showing progression in work – possibly adding more detail when recalled. Some of the labels did not correspond to what was on the sheet. For example, one was labelled butt but drawings were of arms.
The heart became the structure of Da Vinci’s study.
On May 2 1519, Leonardo passed away leaving everything to his assistant.
Eric Harding OBE, former Chief Conservator of Western Pictorial Art, the British Museum. Two years in the life of the Leonardo cartoon. Eric’s discussion was regarding the shooting of the famous piece ‘Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist’ after it was shot with a sawed off shotgun by an ex-Army man in 1987.
As Eric Harding put it ‘he drew the short straw’ after the museum crowd sourced opinions on best practice to repair the damage. There was a lengthily procedure on how to fix overall poor condition prior to the gunshot.
Eric’s talk was very visual and I’ve captured as many pictures as I could to correspond with the painstaking work that went into the restoration. Part of the process required new equipment to be created (vaccum mist).
On a very humorous front, Eric shared some issues they received with this painting in particular, the fact that one person contacted them repeatedly to state they were sure St Joseph was within the painting (its not). However, throughout the talk, Eric kept asking if we’ve seen him. We didn’t.
At one point, they tried to recreate the bullet hole with the theory if they knew how to replicate it they could work on how to repair it. On first attempt, they used a fire extinguisher to smash a mock up of canvas of identical material. This proved inaccurate. So they went back to the MET and asked if the original shotgun could be used. It still didn’t produce the results they were hoping for (and it made everyone but the police who wisely used headphones, deaf!). This is when they realized the dust and natural damage that occurs over time was the hindrance. The overall condition was extremely poor.
The media coverage of the attack was also quite humorous as after they learned that the gunman stood 6-7 feet away they ran headlines such as ‘Art vandal helps in restoration’.
Ending with a funny anecdote, Eric shared with us the following conversation that happened after the gunman was captured (he never ran, he stayed in place after the shot).
Keep in mind, this is during the Thatcher Years
Cop: Why did you do it?
Gunman: No job, no home, no hope.
Cop You shot the wrong women!
Panel discussion was chaired by Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings and Curator of Italian and French drawing pre-1800 British Museum
Did Da Vinci find any evidence of the illnesses that were so popular at the time (rickets, etc)? No, however he did document abnormality in one anatomical drawing that now looks to be repaired fractures. On the whole Da Vinci tried to choose perfect specimens to work with.
Were the drawings a gift or purchased? As far as they can tell (records are unclear) it seemed that King Charles II is to thank for the collection although how he acquired them isn’t documented.
How did da Vinci become familiar with Netherlands techniques? We don’t know a lot of da Vinci’s travels. Some dates on works but don’t always match up to travels, etc. Can build a profile from patterns of learning and work.
Do you think da Vinci’s work is full of symbolism and hidden puzzles? All agree – No. It’s the Dan Brown question. If he had the Renaissance would have mentioned it.
Why was he so in demand? One theory is that he left and came back, bringing with him credit of his ability. Also, there is no denying his talent. He was willing to experiment and learn from his experiments. The fact that he didn’t produce that many drawings also put him in demand.
There were some people who didn’t understand his art.
In 1462 a letter sent to the King listing da Vinci’s skills, painting and art came last.
Da Vinci would have been much more famous had he published his work.
A huge well done to all involved with the Study Day and for the wonderful host Victoria Obsourne and everyone at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
An extremely thought provoking and educational day. There was a lot of information and data provided and I’ve done my best to capture the essence of the day. Please feel free to ask me any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.