During his career, spanning half a century, he probably began no more than 20 paintings. Only about 15 survive on which art historians agree are entirely his, and, of these, at least four are incomplete. When it came to making drawings and notes, however, Leonardo couldn’t stop. He began keeping notebooks in his mid-thirties, and covered on average one or two sheets with text and drawings every day until his death aged 67 in 1519.
Art historian Kenneth Clark called Leonardo “the most relentlessly curious man in history”
We think of Leonardo as a painter, but for the majority of his life he behaved more like a scientist — studying the properties of water, endeavouring to understand the secrets of flight, designing robots, and so on. And the scientific field in which he most excelled was that of human anatomy.
A series of drawings from the middle of the 1480s suggests that, to begin with, his knowledge was based not on first-hand observation, but on speculative classical literature stretching back to Galen and Aristotle.
The first breakthrough, though, came at the end of the decade, when Leonardo inscribed a new notebook with the words “On the 2nd day of April 1489”, later adding “Book entitled On the Human Figure”, and began a number of brilliantly observed studies of the human skull.
His complex yet lucid drawings, surrounded by precise left-handed notes written using his habitual right-to-left “mirror script”, are obviously close to perfection.
From an aesthetic point of view, Leonardo’s draughtsmanship is breathtaking. In technical terms, the way he depicted the human body — mobilising cross-section and the engineering device of the “exploded view” — was far ahead of his time.
Examining these manuscripts also affords an irresistible sense of proximity to a great mind. Every sheet jostles and teems with reflections, ideas and observations — the fossilised remains of someone’s synapses firing on all cylinders half a millennium ago.
Ever the disciple of experience, Leonardo refused to follow slavishly the flyblown teachings of the ancients. Instead, his restless, questing spirit demanded that he observe things for himself — which meant overcoming any aversion to cutting up cadavers, which in those days was a much sloppier and more disgusting business than it is today. In this respect, Leonardo offers a paradigm of the profound shift that occurred during the Renaissance, from a medieval mindset to a modern sensibility.
Had he published the treatise on anatomy that he’d planned, Leonardo would be considered one of the great scientists of the Renaissance — if not all time. But because he never managed to do so, his anatomical drawings essentially disappeared from view for hundreds of years — which meant that they had little impact on scientists of a later age.
What a curious thing: to dominate a field so thoroughly, and yet for the fruits of your research to wither into oblivion for almost four centuries, before blooming back to life.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings are marvellous. I adore the way he uses line to build up tone and the way he utilises the space on the page for his studies and words. They are truly breathtaking. Visually they are delicious and also so very intelligent. It is difficult not to be in awe by the pure genius and undeniable talent and dedication of this man. I admire his dedication to learn and absorb and illustrate information. He is inspirational. It is difficult to find the words to describe his work. So informative and simultaneously beautiful!