Leonardo da Vinci at the Morgan!

da Vinci Angel

Dear Commons Community,

The Morgan Library & Museum is presenting an exhibit called “Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures From the Biblioteca Reale, Turin.” It is a one-room show that focuses on two sides of his life:  the scientist and the artist.   As described in  a New York Times review:

“From the Biblioteca Reale come studies of equine anatomy and human musculature. Scrupulously observed, these drawings could all easily qualify as textbook illustrations; at the same time, they served as raw material for Leonardo’s painting, early and late.

He brought his interests in nature and technology together in the extraordinary illustrated treatise called “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” which dates from around 1505 and is making its New York debut at the Morgan. Written in his lefty’s mirror script, it exhaustively describes the aerodynamics of avian flight, and simultaneously lays out a virtual how-to for giving humans wings.

The images of birds with which Leonardo peppers the text are at once exacting and charming: he draws whoosh lines around them to indicate the movement of air. But this record of observed fact is also a futuristic vision. After pages dense with data, it concludes with a prediction that one day “a great bird” will lift off from a mountaintop, “filling the universe with wonder, filling all literature with its fame, and with eternal glory the nest in which it was born.” The bird was a dreamed-of flying machine; its nest was his mind.

Nor was Leonardo’s interest in airborne phenomena restricted to science. The prize entry in the Morgan show is a portrait of an angel( see above). More precisely, it’s the metal-point drawing called “Head of a Young Woman,” which was probably done from life, as a study for the painting “The Virgin of the Rocks.”

…The face in the study is spacey… slightly androgynous, age uncertain (what would “young” mean here?), with the faintest hint of a smile (knowing and withholding, in that Mona Lisa way), and a sleepy, almost narcotic gaze. (The pupil of the left eye seems about to slide onto her face.)

Connoisseurs have been crazy about this image. Bernard Berenson declared it “one of the finest achievements of all draughtsmanship.” Kenneth Clark called it one of the most beautiful drawings in the world. It is certainly beautiful, though with a complicated, slippery beauty, very different from that of, say, Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” with which the study shares features: a bust-length format, an over-the-shoulder pose and a viewer-engaging glance.”

I saw the exhibit yesterday and highly recommend it to admirers of da Vinci.  While there you might also want to take in the exhibit on Edgar Allen Poe.


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