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Group of Leonardo Drawings Shown for First Time in U.S.
Leonardo da Vinci, The “most beautiful drawing in the world,” Angel for the “Madonna of the Rocks,” ca. 1483-85, metal point heightened with white on
prepared paper, 181 x 159.

BIRMINGHAM, AL.- The Birmingham Museum of Art announced today that one of the most significant groups of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci will be loaned to a U.S. museum for the first time by the Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library) in Turin, Italy. Organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art, the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, will open September 28 and run through November 9, 2008 in Birmingham. The works encompass one of Leonardo’s most celebrated notebooks, the Codex on the Flight of Birds, and 11 important drawings, including one described by Bernard Berenson as the “most beautiful drawing in the world.” The drawings have never before traveled as a group nor in their entirety been made available outside of Italy.

This exhibition provides a rare glimpse into the mind of the greatest draftsman of all time, whose designs still fascinate and challenge us today. Often called “the universal genius,” Leonardo is recognized for his restless, inventive mind, and the drawings in Turin illustrate in microcosm the extensive range of his interests.

“It is a tremendous honor to be the first museum to present these drawings as a group to the United States,” says Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art. “We are deeply grateful to the Biblioteca Reale and to the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture for facilitating this initiative. The Birmingham Museum of Art is committed to bringing to our community objects of global significance that broaden appreciation for artistic endeavor, our understanding of the world and ourselves. These drawings by Leonardo da Vinci offer an unparalleled opportunity for careful observation and insight into the mind of a master.”

The drawings are acute observations, fantastical explorations, anatomical studies, and utilitarian working drawings; one sheet includes a fragment of a poem. They are executed in a variety of media, including red chalk, black chalk, metal point, and pen and ink—some on red, blue, and green prepared paper. Dating from about 1480 to 1510, the works traverse the most fertile period of Leonardo’s career.

Exhibition Highlights: “Most Beautiful Drawing in the World” - Among the most celebrated of the Turin sheets is the preparatory sketch of the angel for the first version of the Madonna of the Rocks (ca. 1483), originally intended for a chapel altarpiece in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Its powerful and expressive silverpoint parallel hatching led art critic and connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) to describe it as the “most beautiful drawing in the world.” Rarely displayed to the public, the Madonna of the Rocks made international news in 2003 when it was displayed for two hours outside of its protective case.

A sheet from ca.1505/06 is associated with several of Leonardo’s projects, above all, the Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo’s most celebrated commission, his unfinished mural painting for the assembly room of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, was pitted in competition with Michelangelo’s battle scene on the opposite wall. The sheet in Turin is one of several made in preparation for the painting. In addition to two figures seen from the back, with carefully delineated musculature outlined and hatched in pen and ink, brief musings of hastily scrawled figures in action flit across the page. Other figures, unrelated to the Battle of Anghiari, also are sketched in. The Turin sheet reveals the variety of projects Leonardo would consider on a single page, and is a prime example of his “thinking on paper” so often remarked upon.

Leonardo continually measured and mapped the world around him. He studied human anatomy with sketches of legs, the body in movement during battle, and proportion studies for the head and eyes on an extended sheet that includes notes and observations in his mirror writing. Three sheets from Turin are filled with equine studies, two in metal point and one in red chalk. They are probably in preparation for Leonardo’s planned monument of patron Francesco Sforza, which would have been the largest equestrian statue ever made. Leonardo’s desire to master the anatomy of a horse is found in each articulated detail of foreleg, shoulder, and flank. Drawings of insects, and even a minute sketch of a cloud of butterflies, reveal a glimpse into Leonardo’s investigations of the natural world.

The exhibition will also feature Leonardo’s Codice sul volo degli uccelli (Codex on the Flight of Birds) of 1505/6, which is contained in a bound notebook of 18 recto and verso sheets. It is filled with Leonardo’s observations on the movement of birds and ideas to reproduce these natural movements with a machine. His comments on flapping and gliding wings, equilibrium, and harnessing the power of wind and its currents are interspersed with sketches of birds, flowers, machines, architecture, turbulent rivers, and diagrams.

Leonardo’s ideas for flying machines from the mid-1480s concentrated on the power of the pilot to take off and stay aloft. After 20 years of studying aerodynamics, however, he came to realize that manpower alone would not make human flight possible. By focusing instead on the ability of birds to take advantage of the wind, and the construction of their wings, Leonardo hoped to overcome the issues of weight and gravity.

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