The head of Leda – sketched with pen and ink over black chalk circa 1505 – displays Leonardo da Vinci’s immaculate, sensitive draughtsmanship. The hair is intricately, elaborately braided, the eyes downcast, demure, the expression one of quiet resignation, the head languidly set to one side.
This was a study for a painting, thought to have been destroyed around 1700, of an iconic moment in classical mythology: the seduction of Leda by the god Jupiter who came to her in the form a swan, leading to the birth of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux.
Elsewhere in this surprising, fascinating collection of sketches by the Italian Renaissance artist (1452 - 1519) so celebrated for the sheer range of his interests and talents – da Vinci was an architect, scientist, mathematician, inventor and botanist as well as one of the most important artists of his day – we see astonishing anatomical studies, another subject that so captured his voracious intelligence and curiosity.
Here we find detailed drawings of the muscles of the arm, then a study of the bones of the foot and shoulder, both displaying da Vinci's eagle-eyed attention to the construction of the body. His anatomical studies are legendary, of course.
They remained unknown for 400 years because of the death of the artist’s collaborator and the invasion of Milan, meaning Vaslius’s Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543 wrongly became regarded as the first anatomy textbook. The sketches here give a small window into a gargantuan area of Leonardo’s expertise.
Elsewhere we see apocalyptic scenes with notes. Here fire rains down from a thundercloud and wind seems to trouble the land, the next is a costume design for a masquerader on horseback, flamboyant and playful in its characteristically immaculate composition.
A beautifully detailed map of the Pontine marshes – cartography was yet another of this ultimate Renaissance man’s passions – sits near a view of the river at Vaprio d’Adda. The latter shows such tiny, precise strokes that the mind boggles at the deft, near-microscopic precision of its delineation.
There is also a sketch of designs for chariots and other weapons done in pen and ink with wash, some time during the 1480s. There is a study for an equestrian monument which is rudimentary and inchoate but still notable for its fluid suggestion of movement.
A study of sprigs of oak and dyer’s greenweed follows, in red chalk on pale red prepared paper, suggesting da Vinci's abundant love of the natural world.
Finally, the head of an old bearded man, painted around a year before the artist’s death. Here we see a figure with aquiline nose, prominent chin and beetling brow, lank hair hanging from the balding cranium, the lips parted to reveal a couple of peg-like teeth.
The latter image retains, simultaneously, a quality of the noble and the pathetic. Leonardo was himself an old man when he composed this sketch, so it perhaps embodies some of his personal ambivalence about the loss of his salad days and the march of the reclining years. A certain gravitas and wisdom accompanying the decrepitude of the body and sadness as he squares up to the fact of his mortality.
Obviously, the greatest moments of da Vinci’s artistry are paintings such as 'The Last Supper' and the 'Mona Lisa'. These sketches, which are otherwise held in the Royal Collection, stll give us a compelling insight into his techniques of composition, his visual shorthand and incredible knack for accurate depiction. There is also a rich sense of his incredible hunger for knowledge across a mind-bending reach of subjects.
This exhibition offers a brief but completely enthralling glimpse into the workings of the effervescent mind of a true genius.
Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci runs in the Ulster Museum until August 27.