Leonardo In Oxford: A Da Vinci Trail Around The University Museums

By Sara Chare | 21 August 2006

Steeped in history and academia, where better to learn more about Leonardo da Vinci than Oxford? As part of Universal Leonardo, a European-wide project to deepen understanding of Leonardo da Vinci, Oxford University's museums have compiled an itinerary that takes the visitor through the City and introduces them to the different collections currently housed in the Ashmolean, the Museum of the History of Science, the Botanic Gardens, Christ Church Picture Gallery, and Magdalen College.

shows a photo of the exterior of a grand classically designed museum

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Steeped in history and academia, where better to learn more about Leonardo da Vinci than Oxford? As part of Universal Leonardo, a European project to deepen understanding of Leonardo da Vinci, Oxford University’s museums have compiled an itinerary that takes the visitor through the city and introduces them to the different collections currently housed in The Ashmolean Museum, the Museum of the History of Science, the Botanic Gardens, Christ Church Picture Gallery, and Magdalen College.

Until November 2006, works by Leonardo da Vinci will act as a gateway for the public into the University of Oxford’s collections. For those who equate Leonardo da Vinci with the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, this may come as a bit of a surprise.

The venues are taking the opportunity to showcase their own treasures, and the exhibitions are less about Leonardo and more about the era in which he lived and the influence he had. They celebrate the different aspects that made up this archetypal “Renaissance man”, who was an architect, anatomist, sculptor, engineer, inventor, musician, and one of the greatest painters of all time.

shows a print of a girl with a unicorn

The best place to start your visit is The Ashmolean, Britain’s oldest public museum, which can be found in the centre of town, opposite the Randolph Hotel. Make your way through the collection of European Art and don’t forget to pause to look at the silver and watches on your way to the temporary exhibition hall.

This picture - Ashmolean Museum: A Maiden with a Unicorn, c. late1470s, Leonardo da Vinci.

Here, the museum of art and archaeology has chosen to look at Leonardo da Vinci in terms of his influence and celebrity. A few examples of his work are on display, such as the pen and ink drawing A Girl with a Unicorn, but the majority of the space is taken up by recreations like André Dutertre’s The Last Supper, portraits of the men who donated Leonardo da Vinci works to the Ashmolean, and influential academics who wrote ground-breaking work about him.

Imagining Leonardo is on at the Ashmolean from 9 August – 5 November 2006

shows the exterior of a museum, with a classically designed round shaped building next to it

Down the road from The Ashmolean, on Broad Street and next to the Sheldonian Theatre, is the Museum of the History of Science.

As you walk past the Tourist Information Office and Blackwell’s, you come to this gem of a museum that is often overlooked. On entering, you are immediately in the first Gallery where Lewis Evans’ collection of mathematical instruments and portable sundials are on display.

The curator has highlighted the connection between these objects and Leonardo da Vinci. 16th Century Milanese instruments have been singled out; there are drawing implements, a surveyors’ cross and compass and an astrolabe (a mathematical instrument that represents the heavens in miniature).

There is a sense that these are objects that Leonardo da Vinci would have used, not only in his work as an architect but also as an artist striving to draw in proportion. This feeling is further reinforced by the display of 16th Century mathematical books in the basement, left open at relevant pages, and exploring such subjects as the camera obscura.

The three floors of scientific and mathematical instruments are fascinating, and the visitor can understand the wonder and excitement these objects generated during the Renaissance.

Leonardo and the Mathematical Arts is on from August 9 – November 5 2006.

shows a photo of a print of a man viewed from behind, over one shoulder, who has an odd shaped face

If you are more interested in Leonardo the artist, rather than the celebrity or the scientist, then Christ Church Picture Gallery is the place to go.

This picture - Christ Church Picture Gallery, A Grotesque Head, Leonardo da Vinci.

Christ Church College is tucked away behind the busy High Street and the picture gallery is just inside the entrance, hidden down a long corridor. Here, the John Guise collection explores the beginnings of Leonardo da Vinci, his influence on later painters, and the interest he generated in the 18th Century.

The exhibition starts with his early work in Florence, pictures by his contemporaries and fellow apprentices such as Lorenzo di Credi, and also work by his teacher and mentor Andrea del Verrochio. You can move round the room in chronological order, going from Florence to Milan and then exploring how Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas about proportion and the movement of the human body survived and influenced others.

Leonardo and Milan: Drawings from the Guise Collection is on at Christ Church College from August 9 until November 5 2006.

shows a photo of a garden

For those who don’t fancy the idea of a museum visit, just down the road from Christ Church are the Botanic Gardens and Magdalen College. The Botanic Gardens, the oldest in Britain, are home to hothouses, walled gardens, and water gardens, to name but a few.

All are part of the trails focussing on Leonardo da Vinci’s investigations of different species of plants. By the banks of the river and adjoining Christ Church meadow, this is a good place to escape the main road and admire the variety of flora and fauna.

Leonardo’s Plants is on from August 9 until September 30 2006. The Garden will offer activities for all - for younger visitors there will be a trail on which they will find examples of plants studied and drawn by Leonardo.

shows a photo of a painting of a group of people at a table eating and talking, the last supper

Above, Magdalen College: The Last Supper, attributed to Giampietrino (c.1495-1549) 1515, after Leonardo da Vinci. Photo - Royal Academy of Arts

As for Magdalen College, its chapel is currently playing host to Giampietrino’s painting of The Last Supper, on loan from the Royal Academy. If the college is open, pop into the Chapel just inside the entrance and then take the opportunity to explore the gardens, some of the most breathtaking college gardens in Oxford.

The Last Supper, from Leonardo’s circle, is on show in the College chapel from August 9 until November 5 2006. Entrance charges to college apply - see website

Unless you plan to dedicate your day to Discovering the World of Leonardo in Oxford’s Collections, you will probably have to pick and choose what you go and see, and don’t forget to take a map if you plan on visiting more than one of the venues mentioned above.

These exhibitions challenge you to think differently about Leonardo da Vinci, a great master who was best known during his lifetime for his drawings of grotesque heads and caricatures and who we now know as a genius who conceptually invented the helicopter, the calculator, and the use of solar power. If you take anything away with you, it will be a sense of wonder.

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