- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Dismissed as "the chamber music of art," works on paper don't get the same respect from the general public as paintings and sculptures, but maybe that will begin to change with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new blockbuster exhibit, "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman." Displaying 120 drawings by the representative genius of the Italian Renaissance culled from 25 public and private collections scattered around the world the exhibit, which went on view this week, is the largest ever of Leonardo drawings in America.
Despite its lack of box office appeal, drawing's soft nuances and expressive subtleties have made it an indispensable tool to artists through the centuries. It can't be beat as a way of exploring new ideas, and Leonardo (1452-1519) compulsively drew on every scrap of paper that came his way and advised his students to always carry around a notebook in which to sketch their impressions. There are 4,000 Leonardo drawings still in existence.
It's easier to show paintings than drawings. Paintings have strong personalities and shout their way into our consciousness. Drawings are more subtle. They whisper.
It's fair to ask: Will anyone be able to "hear" them amid the insect whine of acoustiguides and the jostling of the overflow crowds expected to stream through the museum for this exhibit? Exhibits on the scale of this one don't always mind their manners.
Carmen C. Baumbach, a curator in the museum's department of prints and drawings who organized the show with department chair George R. Goldner, says that the only way to create a full picture of Leonardo the artist, scientist, writer, inventor, teacher and theorist is through the drawings.
Ms. Baumbach roamed the world for the past six years seeking loans for the exhibit, and because of the fragility and rarity of the drawings, it wasn't easy. Major loans came from the Royal Library of Windsor Castle, the Louvre, the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, the British Museum in London and the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany. She says the exhibit, with its somewhat unwieldy 786-page, 8-pound catalog, was an opportunity to stimulate new avenues of research.
Journeying through the 250 works displayed in the museum's seven Leonardo exhibit galleries is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, comparable to the "Johannes Vermeer" exhibition at the National Gallery of Art a few years ago. It is a road map to the astonishingly far-ranging intellectual explorations of the man regarded as the exemplar of the Renaissance ideal of the universal genius. "We've become more interested in process now than when earlier shows emphasized certain subjects, such as the horses, or anatomical drawings, or drawings of weapons and machines," Ms. Baumbach says.
Born in the small Tuscan hill town of Vinci, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero di Antonio da Vinci, a prominent Florentine notary, and a local peasant girl. As a youngster, he wasn't taught Latin, the language of most scientific texts and the common tongue of the day's intellectual elite. Making a virtue of necessity, he became an aesthetic empiricist, observing nature and people directly. "Though I may not know … how to cite from authors, I will cite from something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters," he declared in his famous treatise, "On Painting."
The best record of his lifelong study of nature is in the drawings, whether the quickly sketched "primi pensieri" ("first thoughts") or the carefully finished preparatory and presentation drawings.
Through his work for many of the most important private and public patrons in Florence, Ser Piero was able to wangle many commissions for Leonardo. Patrons could be highly exacting in the Florence of the artist's early career. "Artists had to produce art on a commission-by-commission basis, where they had to stick to the contract and the agreed-upon deadline," Ms. Baumbach says.
The father probably also got his son, Leonardo, into the workshop of Andrea del Verrochio (1435-1488), the important Florentine sculptor. Verrochio's enlarged studies of young women's heads, enthusiastically imitated by the young Leonardo, lead the exhibit. The teacher's heads were known as "teste divine" ("divine heads") for their preternatural beauty.
The training stayed with Leonardo through the rest of his life. Verrochio drew infants turning in different attitudes. Leonardo used these groups of figures seen from a variety of angles through his late drawings. Leonardo's sketching of several figures on one sheet of paper like, for example, his later "Figural Sketches" sprang from his early apprenticeship with Verrochio.
Verrochio also introduced Leonardo to "sfumato," an art historical term describing his seamless blending of chalk tone to resemble smoke. Leonardo used sfumato not only for such superb drawings as the "Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing to the Right," but also as the underdrawing for the pronounced modeling of such paintings as the National Gallery of Art's "Ginevra de' Benci."
The exhibit ends with a selection of folios from "The Codex Leicester," one of Leonardo's latest extant notebooks. It is filled with notes in the left-handed artist's unique, backward "mirror script" on far-ranging themes like the reflective properties of celestial bodies, the nature of gravity and hydrodynamics.
His "Deluge" drawings horrific apocalyptic visions where gigantic waves angrily consume man and nature arose from his interest in the properties and power of water. They are a fitting end to an extraordinary revelation in visual terms of the mind of one of history's greatest geniuses.

WHAT: "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman"
WHERE: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday; closed Monday; 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; through March 30
TICKETS: Suggested admission: $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, free for members and children under 12 accompanied by an adult
PHONE: 212/535-7710

Studies for the unfinished "Adoration of the Magi" altarpiece, the double-sided "Hercules," the double-sided "Skull" from Windsor Castle, the unfinished "St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness" from the Vatican, the "Head of the Virgin," two of the famous deluges, several grotesque heads, and eight pages from Bill and Melinda Gates' "Codex Leicester," a notebook filled with more than 300 illustrations and scientific writings. (The software mogul bought the Codex at Christie's auction house for
This "Possible Self-Portrait" of Leonardo da Vinci, done with red chalk and stylus on brown paper, is a rare rendering of the Renaissance genius. It is not in the new exhibit of his drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but 120 of his works are, including "Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing to the Right" (left), done in black and red chalk.

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