Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man
Whenever drawings by Leonardo da Vinci go on show at the Queen’s Gallery, you have to go. It’s as simple as that. These otherworldly artefacts of a genius’s mind, made at the apex of a cultural revolution, cast a spell you. They let you into a thousand secrets, and even the most gruesome insights are conveyed with exquisite delicacy.
The Royal Collection contains hundreds of Leonardo’s breathtaking drawings, but all of them at once would lead to serious art overdose. The 30 in this show – including a collection of 18 sheets never before shown all together in the UK – are quite enough to satisfy, without the aid of props.
And that’s where I get into difficulty. The 30 drawings on their own would have been perfect. But this show’s angle (because what’s a show without an angle) is to bring in modern medical technology to prove the accuracy of Leonardo’s anatomical discoveries 500 years ago.
A computer animated spine pirouettes next to Leonardo’s first accurate depiction of the spine in history. With 3D film (glasses provided), a dissected, plastinated shoulder swings brutally close to your nose. In a modern medical context, these films are probably quite beautiful, but next to Leonardo’s finely shaded drawings, they are vulgar, graceless, an unnecessary distraction.
I get it. Leonardo was accurate. But I don’t need to see the proof. The modern images just can’t compete with Leonardo’s: his fine shading and fluent outlines; his dense patchworks of mirror-writing filled with new thoughts as they form; the occasional inclusion of portrait studies where the body on the slab caught his attention for more than its muscles and bones (in the early 1500s he dissected more than 30 human corpses).
New technology does its job perfectly, however, in the special app made to go with the show. There, you can switch translations of the artist’s mirror-writing on and off, drilling deep into his thought processes.
There is one other extra which made an impression on me. At the very end of the exhibition sits the large leather book cover used by a collector in 1580 to bind the drawings. In 1690 the album entered the Royal Collection, but it wasn’t published until 1900. By then, it was too late to inform medical science, but for all those centuries before, what a potent book that must have been: quietly hiding within it the secrets of human life.