A collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches offers a glimpse into the intellect of the prolific artist.
“Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin,” which opened Oct. 25 at the Morgan Library and Museum, showcases his astounding “Codex on the Flight of Birds” and “Head of a Young Woman,” among other pieces both by him and his contemporaries. These works are on display for the first time in New York as part of the Year of Italian Culture in the U.S.—a year-long effort to acquaint Americans with cornerstones of Italian art and culture.
Upon entry into the dim yet dramatically lit exhibit, an interactive manuscript of “Codex” greets you and allows you to explore every page of the text via touch screen. The book itself sits behind glass deeper into the exhibit. The book contains numerous anatomical sketches of birds in motion, as well as observational notes on how they maintain and control flight. The work embodies da Vinci’s profound and insatiable curiosity with the ability to fly and his desire to build a flying machine. The book of sketches shows da Vinci’s finesse not only as an artist, but also as scientist and an inventor. His work based on observation of natural phenomena acts as an emblem of its time of Renaissance humanism and the origin of empirical science.
Another iconic piece in this exhibit is da Vinci’s “Head of a Young Woman.” This young woman captivates you with her round eyes like opalescent pearls in the silverpoint medium and her playful half-smile, similar to that of the artist’s “Mona Lisa.” This work served as a model for his more famous “Virgin of the Rocks.”
On the back of another sketch, “On Musculature of the Leg,” da Vinci wrote a short poem about a moth attracted to the light of a candle, a metaphor for the search for knowledge and enlightenment. In this dark exhibit, I found myself, like the moth, drawn to the brightly illuminated works.
The intimacy of this exhibit is by far its greatest strength. One can examine every line, detail, and shade from inches away, visualizing his hand drawing them. The nature of sketches is that they are intimate, showing the artist’s thought process and new ideas as they loft into the conscious. It was fascinating and peculiar to observe that da Vinci wrote in mirror script from the back of the book to the front.
This exhibit brings a unique opportunity not only to see beautiful artwork, but also to get to know the artist. Whether you visits to see his observational sketches, his designs of maritime assault weapons, or the equally fascinating work of his students, you’re sure to be drawn into his light.
“Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin,” runs through Feb. 2, 2014 at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue (between 36th and 37th streets).