In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci traveled to Milan with the hopes of becoming a court painter for Ludovico Sforza. In an effort to impress the distinguished patron, the artist created an immaculate metalpoint drawing titled Head of a Young Woman (Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’).
Unlike most of Leonardo’s drawings, the Young Woman is highly finished. The contours of her face are meticulously shaded. Highlights on her cheeks give her a glowing complexion. Her deep-set eyes communicate a wistful and lifelike gaze. Elegant and arresting, she is what Bernard Berenson called “one of the finest achievements of all draughtsmanship.”
Visitors to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York now have the rare opportunity to view this drawing, which seldom leaves Italy, in person. The Young Woman is one of nearly 20 works by Leonardo and his followers featured in the intimate exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin,” on view through February 2.
The show—which was organized by Per Rumberg, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Morgan—is divided into two parts. The first of which, called “Making Art,” is devoted to Leonardo’s achievements as a painter and draftsman. While the Young Woman is the focal point of this section, several other drawings provide context to the piece and insight into Leonardo’s artistic methods. The red-chalk-on-paper work Three Views of a Bearded Man (ca. 1502), for example, demonstrates his skill at depicting figures from multiple vantage points. As the title suggests, this drawing features a bearded, middle-aged man shown in profile view, frontal view, and ¾ view.
At the time of Leonardo’s arrival in Milan, portraits were primarily executed in profile view. But as Rumberg explains, the artist’s use of the ¾ view, seen here and in Head of a Young Woman, changed that. He presented the court with an alternative mode of portraiture.
The second section, “Exploring Nature,” focuses on Leonardo’s talents as a scientist and engineer. It consists of designs for machinery, sketches of wildlife, and figure drawings informed by the artist’s human-cadaver dissections. Most notably, this section presents—for the first time in New York—the Codex on the Flight of Birds (ca. 1505/6), Leonardo’s methodical 36-page documentation of birds in motion.
The notebook includes several side projects, such as sketches of leaves, architectural drawings, and even a grocery list. But primarily, it is a study of aerodynamics—how birds maintain their balance, turn their bodies, and ascend through the air. Many pages feature Leonardo’s observations on the creatures’ movements, written in his signature mirror script. The text is accompanied by small images of birds in flight. Leonardo hoped this research would yield practical findings on how to construct and operate his own flying machine. To see renderings of his proposed apparatus, visitors to this show can leaf through a digital version of the codex on a large monitor.
This exhibition highlights two divergent aspects of Leonardo’s practice because, as Rumberg explains, the artist frequently vacillated between them, often simultaneously occupied by his interest in both fields. “The separation between art and science is never rigid,” says Rumberg. At least, “for Leonardo it wasn’t.”
Click through the slideshow below for more images from the exhibition: