top of page

Leonardo da Vinci: 'A Life in Drawing' at the Queen's Gallery

It is fun to relive some of the magic of one’s youth. For me, one of the defining points of my teen years was a trip to France. While there, I visited many picturesque locations, but one of my favourites was the enchanting Loire Valley and the town of Amboise. There, you can find a beautiful castle, Château d'Amboise, alongside the River Loire. This was the royal residence for many of those in the French monarchy including Francis I who was raised there (we’ll come back to Francis in just a bit).

However, Amboise was also once the home of one of the most iconic artists of all time- Leonardo da Vinci. Only a few hundred metres from the Château d'Amboise sits da Vinci’s former home known as the Château du Clos Lucé. That is the home where da Vinci spent his last few years and where he died in 1519. At that time, his working papers were gathered together. Flash forward 500 years later, and those papers- his notes and studies for paintings- have made quite a journey and have arrived at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Until the 22nd of March 2020, Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, is on display at the Queen’s Gallery. I first referenced this show back in our Kelvingrove Museum post, and again when I recently wrote about the Russia and the Romanov’s exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. I have been waiting for this exhibition all year, and I am quite pleased to share a little bit of my time exploring it at the Gallery.

It was quite fascinating to read about the history of how da Vinci’s drawings came to be on display in Edinburgh. Essentially, some time after his death, da Vinci’s papers were mounted on the pages of two albums. One of the albums went to a library in Milan, and the other to England. According to the exhibition, King Charles II acquired the album around 1670. Below, you can see the exquisite leather album with gold tooling. Eventually the papers were taken out of the album ‘in the years around 1900’ and ‘stamped with the cipher of King Edward VII’. We are so very fortunate that the album survived all these centuries because the drawings inside are a sight to behold.

Many of you reading this know of Leonardo as a Renaissance Man. In fact, this term came about during his time. It was an ideal that some men strived hard to achieve- to learn as much as they could and develop their capabilities accordingly. Leonardo was an exemplary Renaissance Man as he studied such subjects as mathematics, physics, anatomy and physiology, and botany. His knowledge of such complex areas of study is quite incredible if you stop and really think about it.

Examples of his work on these subjects is present throughout the Queen’s Gallery exhibition. What is interesting to note is that these drawings and writings were da Vinci’s working papers. Therefore, they were never meant to be seen. And, yet, I agree with the commentator on the exhibition audio guide when they point out that these drawings and papers tell us so much more about the mind of the iconic painter. They show the massive amount of time he put into understanding something before he painted it.

The exhibition is quite thorough and provides a widespread look at da Vinci’s work across his life span. In this article, I will just focus on a few highlights as I don’t want to spoil it completely for those who may want to attend the exhibition.

As a former student of anatomy and physiology, I was quite excited to see some of da Vinci’s drawings on this topic. His drawings of the organs, vessels, and skull were simply mind blowing; he certainly set a new artistical standard for this area of study. It was remarkable to hear a doctor on the audio guide commentary discuss just how accurate da Vinci’s work was. Specifically, his detailed drawings of the vessels of the liver, cardiovascular system, and the bones and tendons of the hand (just to name a few of the drawings on display). Looking over these drawings reinforced the amount of work and study he put into preparing for his paintings.

The exhibition also has Leonardo’s study for one of his most famous paintings, The Last Supper. It’s the only study where he works out how to arrange Jesus and his apostles. Strikingly, on the same piece of paper, it shows how da Vinci was trying to work out a geometrical shape- nothing to do with The Last Supper. This demonstrates how his mind would jump from one topic of interest to the next. It’s certainly something I can relate to. Well, perhaps not the study of geometry.

One set of studies I would like to mention relates to da Vinci’s time in France. In 1516, Leonardo was offered a job by King Francis I (I told you we would come back to him) as court painter. He moved to France and Francis gave him Château du Clos Lucé. While a part of the court, da Vinci was called upon to create lavish costumes for Francis’ entertainments. On display is a drawing of a design for a dragon costume as well as a masquerader as a lansquenet. In the latter, the exhibition points out how “Leonardo was aiming at great richness and layering of textiles, with ribbons, scalloping, plumes, fringes, spotted furs and quilted sleeves and breeches. Such clothing was associated with mercenary soldiers, fools, and minstrels”. This would have been quite ‘risqué’ for the King’s guests.

A final point of interest to highlight is how the papers throughout the exhibition show Leonardo’s famous mirror writing (written backwards but can be read with a mirror). It is something he is well known for and you can see an example of it below. In those notes, da Vinci was writing about a cataclysmic storm. This was a topic he became obsessed with in these later years and is surely a commentary of an artist thinking about ‘nearing his end’.

I hate to end on a sad note like that, but it is the reality of where da Vinci was in his last years. Fortunately, we have so much more we can think about and focus on when we think about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. And the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery certainly provides us with such an examination.

I hope you have enjoyed our wee look at da Vinci and his drawings. The Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse has many wonderful upcoming events and activities related to the exhibition and beyond if you happen to be in Edinburgh in 2020. For example, until Sunday 15 March, you can attend ‘Talking Leonardo’ which are daily short talks starting at 11:00. On Tuesday, 28 January, at select times throughout the day you can hear Renaissance music played by The Galloway Consort. These are just a couple of examples of upcoming activities and events. Please check the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Queen’s Gallery website for more information and a full calendar of events.

While you are here, make sure to check out our walking tours of Edinburgh. We offer daily wee walks at 11:00 am and 3:00pm as well as private walking tours. Booking is essential so head over to our homepage for more information. To make our tours even more special, our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer, often joins Sami (our human tour guide). If you can’t make it here, you can follow their adventures on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

bottom of page