Leonardo da Vinci and the body beautiful

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Leonardo da Vinci's pioneering anatomical studies are now on show at the Queen's Gallery. Genius is the only word for them, says Adrian Hamilton

We've had Leonardo the painter at the National Gallery.

Now it is back to Da Vinci the scientist with a show of his drawings at the Queen's Gallery. Not just any show but an almost complete exhibition of his anatomical studies, on which he spent a lifetime's observation and which, happily, entered the royal collection as a single set in the 17th century.

Totalling 100, they are simply magnificent, endlessly fascinating in their detail, continuously probing in their exploration of the workings of the human body and always lucid in their presentation. It's become a little too simple to separate this great Renaissance master into artist on the one side, the man who painted the Mona Lisa, and observer on the other, the draughtsman who invented war machines and dissected frogs and monkeys to learn their mechanics.

But Leonardo didn't see it that way. Neither should we. He aimed, with an ambition that seems impossible today, to embrace the whole universe with a study that could discover its rules and delineate its principles. Drawing and painting were the means to an end that was finally beyond any man's reach. The result was that Leonardo, always the perfectionist, completed only some 18 paintings before his death at 67 and, while he made thousands of sketches (over 5,000 survive), he never produced the treatises on anatomy or painting that were to communicate them to the public. For one of the most dedicated and prolific of all artists his final achievement was surprisingly small.

But what paintings and what drawings. Genius is a much overused word. In Leonardo's case, it is the only one that fits. His was a mind of extraordinary breadth and an eye of astonishing precision . He could not finish a bad painting or draw a weak line. His graphic works are no mere addendum to his painting. With them you enter a mind at work covering everything from mechanics to flight, geology and botany. With the anatomical drawings in the Queen's collection you follow that mind through a single passionate theme, man as the perfection of nature.

The works divide into two periods. In the first, from 1485-90, Leonardo, then in Milan, was working largely from external observation of the human body, the strain of muscles and veins in action and the structure of skulls and bones. The operations of blood and organs within the body he took mostly from the dissection of animals. It wasn't that the Church didn't allow it it was just that he had little opportunity.

Nonetheless, Leonardo, with his belief that all creation was part of a universal plan, was able to take such information as he had to a surprisingly sophisticated view of the workings of the body. He starts, as the show begins, with a wonderful series of metalpoint drawings on blue paper of a bear's foot and a magnificent male figure showing the principal veins and organs as received wisdom had them. With his careful handwriting, written in mirror reverse from left to right (Leonardo was left-handed), he attempted to describe blood flow and reproduction with a mind always testing theory with the evidence he actually found in examining bone and tissue from the living and the dead.

In the second phase, from 1504 to around 1512-13, a period when he had returned to Florence and was shuttling back and forth to Milan, and he had readier access to human dissection. He claimed he did some 30 dissections himself and it shows. His notes become more detailed, his drawing more penetrating as he sketches the bones and muscles of shoulder, neck, leg and foot and maps out the veins and tendons of man's moving parts. Although he never quite broke away from the traditional view of blood circulation as a distribution of life in which blood was finally consumed, he came close to capturing it in his studies.

All this adds to the interest and to the respect inspired by his anatomical sketches. But to label Leonardo as a proto-scientist of high distinction is to belie the force of these notebooks as works of art. Even in his meanest or roughest sketch, there is a boldness and clarity that is compelling. Whenever he draws the head it is the head of a real person. When he pictures the muscle of the torso or the leg, he adds red chalk to pen and ink to give it presence. His sketch of the human foetus in the womb is justly famous, but to view the page in which he depicts the curled foetus from different angles, together with the pubis, just takes you breath away. His notes concern the precise way how the unborn child can fit in such a restricted space and the workings of the muscles around the uterus. But step back from the writing and the accompanying explanation, and you view a grouping of figures fleshed out with red and black chalk that are little masterpieces in their own right. He does the same with a remarkable group of drawings, The Superficial Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck, carefully finished as if for publication in engraved form. Not satisfied with just illustrating tendon and muscle, he models the upper torso with confident hatching of pen with wash over black chalk and gives the head the face of a real man, broken nosed and pensive.

Had he published this work as intended, the curators claim he would have transformed the study of human anatomy. This is no doubt true in the sense that his painstaking examination took him well beyond the confines of conventional belief at the time. Unpublished, they remained forgotten for nearly four centuries. But even without the science this is a show of artistic excitement, beautifully displayed and lit (I've rarely seen a show done better). If you want to witness genius at work you can't miss it.

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1 (020 7766 7300; royalcollection.org.uk) to 7 October

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones