Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is currently home to an exhibition of Ten Drawings by the Italian Renaissance polymath genius, Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a huge coup not just for the gallery, but also for culture in Birmingham as a whole. So it is with fervent anticipation that I ventured into the city centre to visit the early sixteenth century master.
For those who have not visited Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, it’s a grand imposing feat of architecture that really makes for a particularly dramatic journey on your way through to the Da Vinci room. Under the vast ceiling of the entrance hall, patrons are greeted by a statue of Lucifer, surrounded by a wall of different landscapes and shaking a spear. The Da Vinci exhibition is hidden deep in the bowels of the gallery, which is actually a masterstroke in terms of the layout: this allows time for visitors to contextualise Da Vinci in terms of all the art, culture and history, both before and since his time. Walking through the gallery almost creates a montage effect of the past 600 years of human history, whilst building the anticipation of seeing the work of a true undeniable genius up close.
Finally in the room with the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition, there was a tangible sense of reverent religiosity amongst the thirty or so patrons in the room, as though talking too loudly would damage the drawings. Certainly there was no question of flash photography because the images are over 500 years old and vulnerable to damage from exposure to bright lights. Perhaps most unusual about the exhibition is that, despite being beautiful, the works were clearly never intended for display. A striking contrast from Da Vinci’s iconic works such as the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper, instead this royal collection serves more as a narrative of his life and work. For a start most of them are not works of art at all but sketches and diagrams of academic interest. There are designs for weapons, chariots, maps, precise anatomical drawings of dissected humans, plants and even designs for men’s fashion. The wide cross section on display gives an insight into Da Vinci’s great, curious, enquiring mind: his fascination with and ability to excel in so many fields is irrefutably inspiring.
The anatomical diagrams displayed on two sides of a glass case are particularly impressive. They are drawn so precisely and accurately that it is possible to catch a glimpse of a great empiricist brain at work. The closer I looked at one of them, the more I noticed ink bleeding through the page, only to then realise that these two masterpieces were scribbled down on either side of one piece of paper. To Da Vinci, they were just scraps of sketches drawn on rag paper, but to us they are priceless and infinitely precious testaments to human endeavour.
The drawings hang in roughly chronological order, each with a short synopsis beside it providing a vague biography of Da Vinci and explaining the origin of the work. This becomes unexpectedly moving at the end of the cycle where we see drawings he made as an elderly man. It is disheartening to see the brilliant enquiring genius somewhat lose that curiosity that made him so vital, moving to becoming obsessed with drawing old bearded men and apocalyptic scenes. It is a deeply melancholic end to the collection, reflecting on ageing and death. One leaves the gallery not only with a respect and admiration of Da Vinci, but also with a feeling of kinship with him as a mortal fallible man.
The exhibition opened on Friday 20th of January and now, a week later, the huge initial crowds have largely subsided. The main room was busy, but with a quiet contemplative atmosphere and the gallery was dotted with a few rather sad forgotten looking ‘Da Vinci queue’ signs. Nevertheless, now is the time to go and fully appreciate Leonardo Da Vinci’s work without having to queue or travel to Italy. The collection is in Birmingham until the 25th of March so there is definitely no excuse for missing it.
Words by James Grady