LEONARDO DA VINCI; Dazzling Greatness Defined in Renaissance Drawings

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Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

NEW YORK - Dismissed as "the chamber music of art," works on paper don't get the same respect from the general public as paintings and sculptures, but maybe that will begin to change with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new blockbuster exhibit, "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman." Displaying 120 drawings by the representative genius of the Italian Renaissance - culled from 25 public and private collections scattered around the world - the exhibit, which went on view this week, is the largest ever of Leonardo drawings in America.

Despite its lack of box office appeal, drawing's soft nuances and expressive subtleties have made it an indispensable tool to artists through the centuries. It can't be beat as a way of exploring new ideas, and Leonardo (1452-1519) compulsively drew on every scrap of paper that came his way and advised his students to always carry around a notebook in which to sketch their impressions. There are 4,000 Leonardo drawings still in existence.

It's easier to show paintings than drawings. Paintings have strong personalities and shout their way into our consciousness. Drawings are more subtle. They whisper.

It's fair to ask: Will anyone be able to "hear" them amid the insect whine of acoustiguides and the jostling of the overflow crowds expected to stream through the museum for this exhibit? Exhibits on the scale of this one don't always mind their manners.

Carmen C. Baumbach, a curator in the museum's department of prints and drawings who organized the show with department chair George R. Goldner, says that the only way to create a full picture of Leonardo the artist, scientist, writer, inventor, teacher and theorist is through the drawings.

Ms. Baumbach roamed the world for the past six years seeking loans for the exhibit, and because of the fragility and rarity of the drawings, it wasn't easy. Major loans came from the Royal Library of Windsor Castle, the Louvre, the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, the British Museum in London and the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany. She says the exhibit, with its somewhat unwieldy 786-page, 81/2-pound catalog, was an opportunity to stimulate new avenues of research.

Journeying through the 250 works displayed in the museum's seven Leonardo exhibit galleries is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, comparable to the "Johannes Vermeer" exhibition at the National Gallery of Art a few years ago. It is a road map to the astonishingly far-ranging intellectual explorations of the man regarded as the exemplar of the Renaissance ideal of the universal genius. "We've become more interested in process now than when earlier shows emphasized certain subjects, such as the horses, or anatomical drawings, or drawings of weapons and machines," Ms. Baumbach says.

Born in the small Tuscan hill town of Vinci, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero di Antonio da Vinci, a prominent Florentine notary, and a local peasant girl. As a youngster, he wasn't taught Latin, the language of most scientific texts and the common tongue of the day's intellectual elite. Making a virtue of necessity, he became an aesthetic empiricist, observing nature and people directly. "Though I may not know ... how to cite from authors, I will cite from something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters," he declared in his famous treatise, "On Painting."

The best record of his lifelong study of nature is in the drawings, whether the quickly sketched "primi pensieri" ("first thoughts") or the carefully finished preparatory and presentation drawings.

Through his work for many of the most important private and public patrons in Florence, Ser Piero was able to wangle many commissions for Leonardo. Patrons could be highly exacting in the Florence of the artist's early career. …