February 2019 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and to mark it, the Royal Collections Trust are planning a remarkable series of exhibitions. These exhibitions will ensure that the astonishing works of this Renaissance polymath will be available to view by the largest UK audience. The first of these exhibitions will see 144 of his most celebrated drawings covering all the spheres of his knowledge; painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany, spread equally around twelve venues. Eleven of these sites have so far been announced, and they cover all four countries within the Union.
The second phase will see these 144 joined by 56 others for an exhibition in the Queens Gallery in Buckingham Palace between May and November. This is the largest exhibition of his work which has been seen in this country for sixty-five years, and a selection of eighty will then travel up to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, again the largest exhibition seen in Scotland.
The works by Leonardo within the Royal Collection were originally amassed by Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor from Milan towards the end of the sixteenth century. It is thought they passed into royal hands nearly a century later, during the reign of King Charles II. Modern technology has not only allowed us to see the methods used by the great man but also to explain the mystery of what appeared to be two blank sheets with the set.
It turned out that Leonardo had used a metalpoint stylus with a high copper content which over time had become a transparent copper salt. What was revealed by high power X-rays was studies of hands which were later used in his masterpiece the “Adoration of the Magi”. The work on revealing these images has been shown in the recent series of BBC.
Technology has also been used to examine his techniques on some of the drawings. Infra-red light has rendered his ink lines transparent, and in a number of images, this has revealed some marvellous chalk images in the underlay. For example in Studies of water, (c.1517–18) he built up the image in stages, first creating an underlying structure of water currents in chalk and then adding little rosettes of bubbles on the surface in ink, almost as decoration.