Leonardo Da Vinci and The Virgin of the Rocks

Leonardo Da Vinci and The Virgin of the Rocks

First the list shows a predominant interest in the human figure. Among the sketches are misure d’una figura, molti nudi integri, molte bracci, gambi, piedi e attitudine; among the subjects are those beloved of the Florentine anatomical painters such as Castagno and Pollajuolo–ottoS. Sebastiani, and certi S. Girolami. Of the eight St Sebastians there remains only a hint in two slight drawings. Of the St Jeromes there exists the unfinished monochrome in the Vatican, which on grounds of style alone should be placed in this period. Both in pose and treatment it is close to the Uffizi Adoration, and like the Adoration, it may have been unfinished when Leonardo left Florence. If so, the entry on the list may refer to studies for this picture.

The Vatican St Jerome is one of the few works by Leonardo whose authenticity has never been questioned. But although he alone could have invented this magnificent image, the original makes less impression than it should. This is probably due to the fact that it has been badly damaged. The two halves of the panel are said to have been discovered by Cardinal Fesch in two different places, and one was being used as a table-top.

As a result the nervous drawing has been overlaid with retouchings, and some of Leonardo’s magic has evaporated; but we are still able to appreciate the composition as a whole, dominated by the grandiose gesture of the Saint. Both as an embodiment of passion and as what Roger Fry would have called a plastic sequence, this figure is a great invention. It stands midway between Signorelli and Michelangelo, recalling the former in the sharply defined planes of the torso, the latter in the rhythmic continuity of the pose. The concentration on a single theme is unusual for Leonardo. More characteristic are the accessories of the composition, the snarling lion, the landscape, and the dark cave foreshadowing the Virgin of the Rocks.

Finally, we reach the two consecutive items, una nosstra donna finjta: un altra quasi che n proffilo, “our lady finished; another almost, who is in profile”. Of the first picture we know nothing, but the second I have always believed to be the Madonna Litta in the Hermitage. It is the only one of Leonardo’s Virgins which could be called “in profile and we know from drawings that the design must date from about 1480. Unfortunately, the Madonna Litta has been totally repainted at least twice, once when it was finished by a Milanese artist about 1495, and once in the nineteenth century, when it was transferred from panel to canvas. It now looks like an oleograph. But even in this ruined condition it has qualities which are not found in shop work.

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