The Queen is opening a new gallery in Holyrood Palace. And her collection of LEONARDO DA VINCI drawings reveals the precursor of everything from Star Wars to Jade. Words: Ruth Hedges
ou suspect that when the turkey"s been gobbled. the presents
unwrapped and sheny swilled that should the TV flick onto
the queens speech this year. she will be putting a brave face on her family‘s recent troubles. The golden jubilee celebrations must seem a long time ago. And as the year closes with scandal and intrigue. the sudden recollection of a conversation has seen Lizzie cast in a less than golden light.
But she shouldn‘t despair: it‘s not all bad news for the house of Windsor. or for us. Opening 30 November is the new Queen’s Gallery with lx'ouurdo (la Vinci: The Divine and the Grotesque. It is the start of a new move to allow its loyal servants access to cultural riches otherwise usually obscured in secret vaults or on private walls. and stands just opposite the parliament building site. Monarchy and democracy will soon be rubbing shoulders under the imperious gaze of Arthur’s Seat.
The Queen's Gallery is surprising and beautiful. Being accustomed to shows of regal ostentation — golden carriages. crown jewels. palaces. signet rings and the like — finding the space to be simple. airy and modest makes a refreshing change. Designed by Edinburgh’s Benjamin Tindall Architects. the gallery space has been hollowed out of what was originally the Holyrood l‘ree Church and Duchess of Gordon‘s School. latterly used as storage space for the palace and grooms‘ quarters.
Now. entering huge oak doors. passing through a frosted glass screen. you are guided up and round impressive curves of natural wood into the main gallery. The conceit of curves is taken from the bows of archers who traditionally defended royals in Scotland. But here. in the staircase. the arched wood more closely resembles bleached whalebones. And there is a nice sense of the natural. spiritual and aesthetic rubbing along together.
So what better way to christen the gallery‘s walls than with drawings by one of the great masters of western art. Leonardo da Vinci. who sought to render divine proportion down here on earth'.’ Now if your idea of Leonardo conjures tip images of an enigmatic Mona Lisa or The Last Supper or that man who spun around in the opening credits to World in rlt'lhﬁl. then think again. And if it inspires recollections of a green ninja turtle. just forget it and give up now.
Leonardo (USE—ISM). as well as being a painter of all those iconic images. could be less than reverential. He was fascinated by ugliness and physical grotesqueness. Huge chins. toothless gums or wrinkly. saggy breasts would inspire him. He played with what it‘s like if you stretch the chin. swell the lips and squint the eyes — like a mixture of TH l-‘riiluy's L'eg Bloke and Fat Look-a-Like.
‘The idea that the human face can be laid out perfectly can be turned on its head to create perfect ugliness. perfect grotesquery.’ says Martin Clayton. curator of Leonardo (/u Viuei: The Divine and the Grotesque. It‘s an interesting paradox and one that. as well as giving Leonardo a good laugh. represented lowness and debauchery. lf Leda. post swan-love. was the ideal of womanly modesty with beauty and self possession. then a cackling old hag. head back and breasts spilling out. was the perfect grotesque. Big belly laughter was seen in Renaissance times to be a sign of peasantry and foolishness.
Leonardo and subsequent artists were fascinated by this and their obsession has never really gone away. This summer gave us a perfect example. Whose cornrnonness. stupidity. big nose. lips. breasts and stomach were dernonised and relished with scornful glee for weeks on end‘.’ Who was pilloried endlessly for being pig-like. fat and thick'.’ Why. the dental nurse from Bermondscy known to all as Jade — our own 21st century freak-show grotesque. Didn‘t we just love it'.’
But. like today's media. Leonardo didn't stop with the common grotesque. Contemjmrary writer and thinker. Dante. provided source
16 THE LIST 7", No; l? l)i:'.,1)fi(;'/
Big belly laughter was seen to be a
easantry and oohshness
Clockwise from above: A man tricked by Gypsies, c1493; Studies for the head of Leda, 1505-6; The skull sectioned, 1489; The ugly Duchess from Alice in Wonderland by the Brothers Dalziel (after John Tenniel, 1865; A masquerader as an exotic pikeman, 1517-18; Two grotesque profiles confronted, 01485-90
for ridicule. and the ugly Duchess from Aliee in Wonderland has been traced back to an original sketch made by Leonardo. In the drawing 'lito grotesque profiles eon/routed. the guming old man caressed by the bulldogesque woman reveals another theme of distaste. sex among the old — not exactly celebrated today either. But for Leonardo. though. women were never sexualised. 'Leonardo was almost certainly gay and didn‘t have much interest in female beauty as a sexual attribute. It was a more idealised. abstract vision.’ says Clayton.
He did. like a true queen. care about style. though. ‘He is described by contemporaries as very gregarious] says Clayton. ‘He seems to have been charming. a bit of a dandy and enjoyed debating and playing the lyre.‘
He also knew how to plait a good hair braid (at least in sketches). ln preparatory drawings for Lei/u and the Swan. Leonardo experimented with styles and one has been iconised by a very famous princess whose name is derived from the original Leda. Created by George Lucas. styling by Leonardo. Princess Leia of Star ll'urs sports the classic braided coils. Clever. eh'.’
So. this man of many talents (also astronomer. sculptor. geologist. mathematician. botanist. animal behaviourist. inventor. engineer and architect) has cast his inlluence far and wide. The Divine and the Grotesque may also provide some comfort to the queen and Jade in showing that ridicule and a perverse love of the ugly have been present since queens and reality TV shows began. And as for the divine. Leonardo‘s drawings probably get as close as is physically possible with pen and paper. Gawd bless yer. ma‘m. we‘re not worthy.
The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh, opens Sat 30 Nov; Leonardo da Vinci: The Divine and the Grotesque runs Sat 30 Nov-Sun 30 Mar.