Da Vinci’s Hand
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2013 is over. But “The Year of Italian Culture,” a public relations effort by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has not yet run its course. The program brought a number of artistic treasures to the United States in 2013, including “Boxer at Rest,” the superb ancient bronze figure exhibited at the Met this past Spring. And some exhibits that opened in 2013 as part of Italy’s “Year of Culture” are still on view. The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome, a sculpture of a fallen warrior that rarely travels, opened at The National Gallery in Washington D.C. in December and will run until mid-March, a part of the Italian cultural program. And here in New York an exhibition organized around a masterful page by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is in its final weeks.
Art historian Bernard Berenson, famed for his connoisseurship, described Leonardo’s “Head of a Young Woman” as “one of the finest achievements of all draughtsmanship,” and Renaissance scholar Kenneth Clark called the drawing “one of the most beautiful, I dare say, in the world.” The metalpoint is the centerpiece of Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum.
Using a sharp-pointed metal tool on specially prepared paper, metalpoint drawing is inerasable but allows for very fine, delicate lines. Because of the unforgiving nature of the technique, in “Head of a Young Woman” da Vinci’s hand is on display.
Here a young lady with a faraway gaze turns her head over her left shoulder. The sitter’s face is modeled with hatched lines that accumulate to create subtle tonal gradations. A few sparingly placed areas of white chalk transform the cold, grey-colored paper into rock-solid form. The young woman’s eyes, nose and lips are fully rendered while loose, sketchy contour lines with the elegance of fine calligraphy dance off the portrait bust, providing insight into Leonardo’s compositional process. Exhibition organizers say the artwork was “presumably drawn from life,” a study for a figure in the Louvre’s “Virgin on the Rocks.”
Also on display from Turin by da Vinci are two sheets from “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” pages filled with ink sketches studying the flight patterns of birds and notes in da Vinci’s trademark backward writing, a lovely metalpoint of equine musculature, drawings of insects, figure studies and “Three Views of a Bearded Man.” The small exhibition also features works by Leonardeschi, a term for da Vinci’s followers, and the Morgan’s “Codex Huygen’s,” a manuscript by Carlo Urbino (ca. 1510/20–after 1585) said to contain copies of Leonardo’s lost notes.
“Head of a Young Woman,” never before exhibited in New York, will soon return to the Piedmont. An exquisite drawing by one of art history’s greatest minds, this sheet alone could justify a trip to Northern Italy, to say nothing of a subway ride to midtown.
Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin, on view through February 2, 2014, The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 212.685.0008, www.themorgan.org
More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at xicogreenwald.com