What Leonardo means to me

don_leonardoRecently I paid a visit to the National Gallery of Ireland – one of my favourite haunts – to view the small exhibition featuring ten drawings by the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, on loan from the Royal Collection Trust.

It was a rare privilege to stand there and gaze upon images such as a study of the head of St Anne executed in black chalk, or the lively sketches of cats, lions and a dragon in pen and ink, looking at some of the swirling lines in the drawings in the knowledge that Leonardo was not only an artist, but sculptor, engineer, designer, philosopher, poet, musician, architect … One gets a clue that Leonardo’s mind must have been in hyperdrive, having left us reams of notes, sketch books, designs, cartoons, paintings, engineering projects for flight etc.

I remember the first time that Leonardo’s drawings really came to my attention. Believe it or not it was while I was awaiting a No 10 bus (sadly no longer in existence). A tall, friendly man standing at the bus stop asked me was a bus due, otherwise he would hail a taxi. I assured him one would arrive any moment. I asked was he American, recognizing the accent from the movies. I was not usually so forward at the tender age of eleven, but one didn’t often hear those tones on a bus from Donnybrook to the city centre. Then I remembered my sister telling me that Canadians would be offended if called American, and vice versa.

Well, this gentleman was from New York. He was carrying a large polished leather portfolio. He invited me to sit with him, as the bus was empty at that time of day. He asked me did I like drawing? Me? Like drawing? I loved it! How did he know? Yes, I beamed, I’ve been drawing since I was four. Would you like to see something very special? I nodded. Ritualistically, he opened the leather case at the same time throwing a glance at my hands. I sensed he was checking they were not grubby.

Slowly he revealed wonderful sketches of birds in flight, water swirling, plants and rocks, horses in various dramatic movements. As I poured over the amazing images he explained that they were copies of drawings by the great Leonardo da Vinci. He lovingly explained each plate and pointed out certain illustrations. He told me he was visiting several galleries and that he would soon be travelling to Florence. I found out the gentleman was a paper expert; he gave me a few small paper samples as a gift. And he suggested I visit my local library and check out more of the master’s works in book form. No problem, as I was a regular visitor to the Pembroke Library in Ballsbridge. Then all too soon he departed the bus, not before I thanked him for showing me what he called thumbnail sketches by Leonardo.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to see some original sketches and paintings by the great Leonardo, including the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda).

For me the most exquisite face in the visual arts is not the Mona Lisa but the angel featured in the painting The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo, on display in the National Gallery London. There is an equally beautiful version by da Vinci of the same subject in the Louvre in Paris.

Several years ago I was asked to do a drawing workshop in a Dublin prison for its Arts Week. As I entered the room full of young offenders, carrying my portfolio, they were yelling Draw with Don; How is Dustin? Is Zig and Zag in the bag? Zig and Zag are the puppet characters from Den TV – for those living on Mars!!

Well, instead of showing an owl or eagle or Dustin, Socky etc., I pulled out a print of the Burlington House Cartoon (finished drawing) of The Virgin on the Rocks from the National Gallery London, held it up and said: “What do you think of this?”

They all took a deep breath, one young man shouted, “That’s deadly, did you do that?”

So, I’ve included for this blog a drawing imagining the great man in his studio, surrounded by his works.

I believe people such as Leonardo da Vinci come to this world to enrich us and expand our consciousness. I think all great works of art are spiritually charged. Let’s leave the last words to the great man himself, here are two quotes from Leonardo I think you will like:

‘I awoke only to find that the rest of the world is still asleep.’

‘There are three classes of people: Those who see; Those who see when shown; Those who never see.’

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