Rare Leonardo sketches at art museum

Published 10:24 am Friday, October 31, 2008

What’s perfectly porportioned, travels in a private plane and draws crowds when seen in public? If you guessed Paris Hilton, you’re way off base.

This celebrity – mostly anatomically correct sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci – is five centuries old. On Oct. 14 the North Shelby Library hosted Birmingham Museum of Art volunteer Clyde Oyster, who discussed the Museum’s current exhibit of this artist’s work.

Leonardo, a Florentine (1452-1519), was one of the great masters of the High Renaissance and is most famous for Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile. The Last Supper was another great painting by Leonardo, one of his very few works which came to completion. It is believed that none of his planned sculptural or architectural drawings were ever finished. What he did do well, was to analyze and record information about our world.

Leonardo’s purpose for observing birds was an effort to learn aerodynamics, develop a way for man to fly. In order to paint the perfectly proportioned human, he dissected 30-40 cadavers and studied their musculature. Leonardo studied the flow of rivers and engineered hydraulics. He was a musician who made his own instruments. Such a busy man – many projects left unfinished – never married, had no children, but moved a lot between France and Italy.

All artists must be well-trained observers. But Leonardo was an incredibly talented man and, some say, the world’s first scientist. He studied the flow of blood and the action of an eye, the effect of the moon on tides; he studied plants, animals, bugs and rock strata. He invented an underwater diving suit. He anticipated the developments of modern science.

The Museum’s exhibit – 11 drawings and one 18-page codex of bird sketches – is Leonardo’s work done as a study for a larger painting or other piece, and are from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy. The artist used a method called metal point, a precise process using a silver stylus. The result is very intricate drawings, so realistic that some almost look like photographs. A few are red chalk drawings with fine lines and exquisite detail.

These works of Leonardo have never left Italy before this visit. Birmingham was their first stop. From here they will travel to San Francisco before returning to Italy. This rare chance to see such a valuable group of original sketches will be at the Birmingham Museum of Art until Nov. 9.