President officially opens an exhibition of ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci

Wed 4th May, 2016 | 18:30
location: National Gallery of Ireland

Speech at the Opening of an Exhibition Featuring 10 Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 4th May, 2016

A Dhaoine Uaisle,

A Chairde Gaeil,

Is mór an phléisiúr dom a bheith anseo libh anocht chun machnamh a dhéanamh ar íontas Leonardo da Vinci agus ar a ealaíon eisceachtiúl. Is mór an chúis áthais dom chomh maith go mbeidh deis ag an bpobal braithniú ar na pictiúrí éagsúla anseo sa Ghailearaí Náisiúnta atá ar iasacht ón mBailiúcháín Ríoga íontach i gCaisleáin Windsor. 

[It is my great pleasure to share with you, this evening, in the wonder of Leonardo da Vinci's art; and it is an equally great pleasure to welcome to the National Gallery of Ireland this selection of drawings from the superb Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. During my State visit to the United Kingdom, two years ago, I had the opportunity to view some of the pieces held in that incomparable Collection.]

I know that this is the sixth in a series of exhibitions of Leonardo's drawings that have toured museums and galleries across the UK since the year 2000, but it is the first one to come to the Republic of Ireland. May I, then, extend my sincere gratitude to the Royal Collection Trust for bringing these beautiful drawings, for the first time, to Dublin. I hope that the relationship between the Trust and the Gallery, two of our islands' most distinguished cultural institutions, will continue to grow and flourish.

This exhibition we are opening tonight provides a glimpse into the fascinating world of Leonardo da Vinci, a man whose prolific genius has never ceased to captivate, across the centuries. Through this relatively small selection of drawings we are introduced to both the breadth of Leonardo's interests - from painting and sculpture, to anatomy and cartography - and the impressive range of his command of a variety of media, including pen and ink, red and black chalks, watercolour and metalpoint.

Aside from the wondrous quality of his painting, Leonardo da Vinci's personality and work abound in ambiguities and enigmas that have contributed to shaping his legend across the centuries. The androgyny of his characters - whether those represented in The Last Supper, or, of course, the Mona Lisa - has, amongst other things, stirred up lasting fascination as well as countless studies by art historians.

Leonardo's unusual handwriting is another feature that has sparked the curiosity of many. As we can see tonight from his dissection notes on the drawing entitled "The heart compared to a seed and the vessels of the liver, spleen and kidneys", Leonardo wrote from right to left and created inverted characters that are not easily decipherable without the help of a mirror.

Leonardo da Vinci was, as Umberto Ecco put it, "a great mysterian" - and many generations have busied themselves trying to unravel the puzzle of his art and life.

Above all, if Leonardo da Vinci fascinates us so much, it is because more than any other artist, perhaps, he embodies an era of unrivalled intellectual and artistic flourishing, the Renaissance - a time when art, science and spirituality were entangled in a relationship of perpetual exchange.

Indeed the 15th and 16th centuries were an age of incredible creativity and innovation, when the artist's individual imagination could rise and prosper.[1]

The ten drawings we are admiring tonight thus illuminate Leonardo's boundless curiosity and imagination, his interest in all the facets of human experience and knowledge. We can see how drawing was not just for him a means to exercise his hand and eye, but a tool to explore the world around him. It was the medium through which Leonardo investigated, for example, the range of human and animal emotions and movement, or the detail of a plant, or the flow of the river Arno. There was, too, his design for procession and ranking within the art of protocol, in a way that would reflect the warm or deteriorating relationship between a patron and his visitors.

A number of the drawings selected for this exhibition combine sketches, notes and diagrams, reminding us of the great intersection between art and science brought about by the Renaissance as a whole, and by Italian humanism more particularly. Leonardo da Vinci himself was at once an exceptional painter and an inventor of genius. The fantastic devices he designed over the course of his life - flying machines, submarines, automata or diving suits - continue to fire human imagination to this day.

Admittedly, from the strictly scientific aspect, Leonardo's inventions were impractical and most of his sketches never became reality. Yet, as an artist, he anticipated all sorts of extraordinary technical possibilities, which, afterwards, technicians could come along and bring into existence. Without Leonardo's unworkable machines, would Jacquard's loom ever have been invented; without Jules Verne's novels, would man ever have ventured into outer space? Who knows? Humanity needs such visionary artists, it needs such immensely powerful creativity, to give wings to the imagination.

Chreid Leonardo féin go láidir i gcumhacht an phictiúir mar uirlis eolais. Toisc sin, ní gcoimeadfaibh mé a thuilleadh sibh le focla, ach tugaim cuireadh daoibh braithniú sibh féin ar íontas a chuid líníochta.

[Leonardo was a firm believer in the power of the image as an instrument of knowledge, therefore I shall not keep you any longer with words, but invite you, instead, to delight in the viewing of his drawing.]

To conclude, may I content myself with thanking, once again, the Royal Collection Trust - and in particular Jonathan Marsden, Director; Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings; and Theresa-Mary Morton, Head of Exhibitions - for allowing this exhibition to travel to Dublin. I also wish to thank the Director of the National Gallery, Sean Rainbird for his kind invitation, as well as Anne Hodge, Curator of Prints and Drawings, and all of the Gallery's staff, for ensuring that these fine drawings by one of the most fascinating artists of all ages are seen and admired as widely as possible in Ireland.


[1] This was manifested in the sphere of the arts but also in philosophy, most notably, perhaps, in Pico della Mirandolla's Oration on the Dignity of Man, largely held as the "Manifesto of the Renaissance", in which we see man becoming the master of creation, upon whom it falls to transform everything.