Other incomplete work by Leonardo painted around the same time of the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1481) is the Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (ca. 1480). In this work we observe the union between the science of anatomy and the observation of the movement/expression of face and limbs with the science of physiognomy understood as a study of the physical manifestation of affective and psychic states both in humans and animals. Codex A: “Try to make it fun, when going for a walk, to see and meditate on the postures and gestures of men both in their talking, arguing or laughing or fighting, what postures are they taking and what gestures the people that surround them to separate them or simply while they look at them do”. Thanks to this careful study, in his Saint Jerome Leonardo manages to represent the extreme expressive exasperation of the Saint, which would later lead to the infinite and “mysterious” subtlety of the Mona Lisa (ca. 1502-1516) or Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1507-1516). Precisely in this search for accuracy in representing psychology and nature (also portrayed in the nervous reaction of the lion in the face of the ecstasy and torment of the Saint) is where we can appreciate a clear separation from the purely anatomical dynamism seen in the work of the last generation of Florentine artists, especially in Pollaiuolo. But in this St. Jerome, the “exposure”, obviously for expressionist purposes, of the muscular and skeletal features goes boldly beyond any limits previously depicted in painting. In this work we already find the mental, experimental and graphic “discourse” that Leonardo developed in his anatomical and physiognomic drawings (also including his famous “grotesques“) that were produced throughout his years in Milan to the last years in the French court. The draft of a treatise on anatomy is dated to 1489 (“April 2, 1489, book entitled the human figure”, an annotation by Leonardo on a folio from Codex Windsor). Another fundamental novelty in the Saint Jerome is the setting: for the first time in Leonardo’s work we see this primitive “geological” landscape placed “on the fringes of history” and more than hostile, ignorant of the presence and modifying intervention of man which had clear precedents in the painting of the Quattrocento, and that here more than an stylizing fantasy reflects a deep observation of the natural environment and the geological structures. In this way this environment is transformed from a decorative element into a deep and conscious symbol of nature in its primitive and fundamental essence. The composition of the painting is also innovative for the oblique trapezoid form of the figure of the saint. The angular forms contrast with the sinuous form of the lion which transcribes an “S” across the bottom of the painting. The lion is also a symbol of power and strength associated with the Gospel of Mark which Jerome translated into Latin. The form of Saint Jerome prefigures that of the Virgin Mary in the Virgin of the Rocks (see below). The fact that the painting is unfinished, in an even less elaborate state than the Adoration, only allows us to guess what the function of light would have been, the relationship between shadow and light and between the environment and the figures.

Il Condottiere, silverpoint on prepared paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1472-480, 285 x 207 mm (British Museum, London).  The drawing shows the bust of a warrior in profile wearing an elaborate winged helmet and armor with a lion on the breastplate. This character was frequently used by Leonardo’s master, Verrocchio.
St. Jerome in the Wilderness, oil draft on primed wooden panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1480, 103 x 75 cm (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City). In this unfinished panel, Leonardo represents the particular event in the life of St. Jerome, later a Father of the Church, when he went to live as a hermit in the Syrian desert in order to produce a translation of the Bible and live as an ascetic. St. Jerome is here depicted as a penitent, not a scholar, as it was customary. St Jerome is kneeling in a humble posture in a rocky landscape, in front of the sketched cross of Christ on the right, and before him lies the lion, his attribute, which became his loyal companion after he extracted a thorn from its paw. In his right hand he is holding a stone with which he is striking his chest in penance. On the left-hand side of the panel the background is a distant landscape of a lake surrounded by precipitous mountains shrouded in mist. To the right-hand side, the only discernible feature is a faintly-sketched church, seen through the opening in the rocks. The rendering of the muscles in the neck and shoulders is seen as one of Leonardo’s first anatomical drawings (see detail below). It has been speculated that Leonardo’s choice of subject matter here might relate directly to Leonardo’s own spiritual life, most particularly to an accusation in 1476 of his involvement in homosexual activities with a male prostitute named Jacopo Saltarelli, they were not convicted.
St. Jerome in the Wilderness (detail), oil draft on primed wooden panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1480, 103 x 75 cm (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City).

The reasons for Leonardo’s transfer from Florence to Milan are somewhat complex both in Leonardo’s personal life and historical. According to some sources, Lorenzo the Magnificent would have sent Leonardo to Ludovico Sforza as a musician leaving aside the original qualification of painter, which was probably implied. This maneuver perfectly agrees to the typical policy of Lorenzo who “exported” this type of cultural ambassadors as witnesses and participants of the splendor of his Lordship. But it seems that in contradiction to what has been said there exists a Leonardo’s letter to Ludovico (according to some this is a copy, but in any case authentic) in the Codex Atlanticus. In this letter it seems that Leonardo, by his own decision, offers his services to the lord of Milan and with a deep practical sense, typical of someone who already knows the very specific ideas and interests of the “tyrant” Ludovico with big economic and military ambitions, to serve him more as a “mechanical engineer” of instruments and warlike artifacts, as an architect and hydraulic engineer, than as a sculptor and painter, professions that Leonardo only mentioned in the last place, and concluding that thanks to such professions he could be in a position to prepare the bronze equestrian monument in honor of Francesco Sforza, the founder of the dynasty, an old wish of the lords of Milan. And indeed, Leonardo’s multifaceted activities during his almost 20 years in Milan developed precisely along the guidelines outlined in his letter, only extending the scope of the term “mechanical” to all aspects that surround human activity. These enterprises, together with the artistic ones based on a more concrete mechanical-scientific empiricism, corresponded perfectly to the changes in the spiritual and cultural climate that existed between Florence and Milan in those years and, more generally, in northern Italy. Perhaps one of the causes of Leonardo’s transfer to Milan also resided in his strong sensitivity (demonstrated on more than one occasion) towards “political” aspects.

Madonna Litta, tempera on canvas transferred from panel, traditionally accepted by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1481-1495, 42 x 33 cm (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was completed before Leonardo moved back to Florence in 1500. The attribution to Leonardo is debated although preparatory drawings in the Louvre prove that he directly participated in designing the picture. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ child, a devotional subject known as the Madonna lactans. The figures are set in a dark interior with two arched openings, as in Leonardo’s earlier Madonna of the Carnation, and a mountainous landscape in aerial perspective beyond. In his left hand Christ holds a goldfinch, which is symbolic of his future Passion. Some scholars debate its attribution to Leonardo and believe that it is probably a work of one of his pupils, most probably Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio or Marco d’Oggiono. The painting takes its name from the House of Litta, a Milanese noble family that owned the painting for much of the 19th century.

The Florence of the 1480s was getting poorer, especially in cultural and ideological terms, even for the “exports” of Lorenzo the Magnificent: in 1481, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino (who had been educated in Florence) were sent to Rome to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the same years that Verrocchio is in Venice for the casting of the famous Colleoni and Pollaiolo is in Rome for the execution of the papal tombs. The Neoplatonic literary and philosophical cultures were increasingly closed within the circle of courtly abstraction and in the intellectualism of the “mental sciences” so harshly criticized by Leonardo, while the then 30 year old Savonarola (the same age as Leonardo) was meditating his populist and iconoclastic “cultural revolution”. Lorenzo’s policy of equilibrium, after the Pazzi conspiracy, suffered its first crises during the war with Ferrara and in the Conspiracy of the Barons in Naples, and later showed signs of its inner fragility when it totally collapsed almost immediately after Lorenzo’s death in 1492. On the contrary, and in line with Leonardo’s interests, the North of Italy was known as the land of the empirical sciences and natural philosophy, thanks above all to the role played by the University of Padua. Milan was a sprawling center, dominated by a rough but concrete Lord with a lot of practical sense (with the only fault of being too adventurous and manipulative in his foreign policy), and with enough love for lavishness and prestige to want to rival culturally with the other Lordships to the point of bringing together under his patronage Leonardo, Donato Bramante (architect and painter), Luca Pacioli (mathematician and author of Divina Proportione, “Divine Proportion”, first printed in 1509), Franchinus Gaffurius (musician), and to fund magnificent art workshops such as the Grazie in Milan and those for the works of the Certosa di Pavia.

Study of five grotesque heads, pen and ink on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1494, 261 x 206 cm (Royal Library, Windsor). Scholars haven’t been able to interpret these five types within the context of Leonardo’s work and life. The figure wearing the laurel wreath is thought to be a portrait. This is the main figure in the group with its profile view occupying the most dignified position of the drawing, while the others are arranged around him. Leonardo recognized that the moving parts of the face, such as the eyebrows, eyes and mouth, were a prerequisite for the expression of various emotions such as laughing, crying, anger and fear, a deep study on human facial expression and psychology.

The meeting between Leonardo and Bramante in Milan was of enormous importance to both. As we have seen in the letter addressed to Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo also defined himself as an expert “in architecture, in the composition of public and private buildings”: indeed, Codex B (1488-1490) is so rich in studies on architecture (which can be integrated with folios from the Codex Atlanticus), that many modern scholars have logically reached the conclusion that they might refer to an outline for a treatise on the subject. The fundamental focus of these studies seems to be the religious building of central plan: if we now consider that this subject was started by Bramante with the centralized presbytery built for Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, with which many of Leonardo’s drawings present strong analogies, and also with the tempietto he built for San Pietro in Montorio in Rome and later in the development of the architectural project for the new basilica of St. Peter, we can realize the full importance of the mutual and undoubted exchange of ideas between Leonardo and Bramante whose work represented a radical transformation of the 15th century architectural tradition and that eventually evolved into the “classicism” and mannerism of the following century. The same ideas, although only on a conceptual level, appeared very clear in the architectural drawings of Leonardo’s Codex B.

In the same way and even more revolutionary, although bordering on the technological utopia, are the drawings and writings on urban development, which decidedly moved away from the intellectual abstraction of the “ideal cities” of the humanism of the Quattrocento thanks to their concrete anchorage in social reality and in the problems of human coexistence and labor. In a letter to Ludovico Sforza, in the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo proposes to “disaggregate” the crowded and unsanitary structure of the still Gothic city of Milan to create a typified satellite-city (“five thousand houses with thirty thousand inhabitants”) that could be trusted to the “magnates”: in the drawings, the new city is shown at two different levels, one for pedestrians and another, lower, formed by a complete network of canals (the Lombard “navigli“, partly already existing, and partly designed by Leonardo with their corresponding floodgates), which should have the double function of hygienic sanitation (a fundamental and futuristic concern of Leonardo) and a commercial communications network. At this moment Leonardo truly appears as a utopian, both with respect to the technological level and, in particular, in relation to the economic potential of the Duchy of Milan, but of course the brilliant and concrete aspect of his urban conception remains firm and undeniable.

Vitruvian Man, pen, ink, watercolor and metal point on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1490-1492, 343 x 245 mm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). This celebrated drawing, probably the most famous by Leonardo, of a man with an athletic physique inscribed within a circle and a square illustrates the measurements of the ideal human body according to the rules of the Roman architect Vitruvius in book III of his treatise De Architectura (from the first century B.C.). The drawing is accompanied by notes, written in Leonardo’s characteristic mirror writing, based on the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius though his drawing does not follow the description of the ancient text. The drawing represents Leonardo’s concept of the ideal human body proportions. The name of the drawing was first coined in the 1940s.

There has been much discussion about Leonardo’s “utopianism”, about the character of exclusive intellectual speculation (which conscientiously avoided the reality of the available scientific and technological means of the time) of many of his scientific, empirical and “mechanical” conceptions. The precursor, almost in science-fiction terms, of many of the mechanical and technological revolutions of the industrial civilization especially in the military field, from the submarine to the tank, from the glider to the machine gun, from the diving suit to the parachute. All of these are pre-figured in Leonardo’s drawings, especially during his years in Milan and Lombardy in accordance with the promises made to Ludovico Sforza. But Leonardo’s true actual exhibition of his genial intellect in the court of Milan was in the artifacts he produced to “astonish” and satisfy his patron: the complex mechanical games of automatic type sometimes accompanied with music, which marked the beginning of a fashion that flourished in the following century (the famous “water organs”).

Ceiling decoration for the Salla delle Asse, fresco and tempera, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1498 (Sala delle Asse, Castello Sforzesco, Milan). All that remains of Leonardo’s decorations in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan are some fragments in the Sala delle Asse (‘Room of the Tower’ or ‘Room of the Wooden Boards’) which were discovered towards the end of the 19th century. Leonardo’s plan was to cover the vaulted ceiling of the room with a complicated network of twigs and leaves growing from the tree trunks of the mulberry tree painted on the side walls, together with the blue of the sky in-between, thus creating the illusion of a tangle of branches beneath an open sky. As a huge trompe l’oeil, the branches and the leaves create the illusion of being in an open space, and not in a room of the castle. The red berries, besides providing charming bright spots of color, are probably an allusion to the Duke of Milan (Ludovico Sforza, called “Il Moro“). The mulberries, in fact, in local dialect, were (and still are) called “Moroni”. Interleaved with the branches, there are ropes and knots. The ropes twisting into knots, some of which are extremely complex, constitute a recurring theme in Leonardo’s work during the two decades he spent in Milan. In 1499, Milan was taken over by the French army, led by king Louis XII, and over the centuries, several other foreign dominations followed (Spanish, Austrians, …). The Sforza Castle was then used for military purposes, the walls of the room were painted over in white, and its memory was lost. Towards the end of the 19th century the architect Luca Beltrami began the restoration of the Sforza castle, and within the restoration, in 1893, some traces of the original paint were detected below the white surface covering the room. The last restoration, begun in 2012, is trying to uncover as much as possible of the original work by Leonardo.
Mural decoration for the Salla delle Asse (detail of a ‘monochrome’ area), by Leonardo da Vinci, 1498 (Sala delle Asse, Castello Sforzesco, Milan). The last restoration began in 2012 has revealed the lower parts of the painted walls with beautiful black drawings (called “monochrome”) and preliminary sketches. Some of them show the roots of the trees penetrating the side walls and breaking them.

But the mechanical ideas of Leonardo can truly be considered as the basis of the “technological revolution” of the two successive centuries: on the one hand, he surpasses the 15th century tradition of the “mechanical artists”, each of them a jealous guardian of their “secrets” to build machine models with certain functions. Leonardo instead intuits and analyzes the essential and interchangeable nature of the basic mechanical groups which were valid for the different types of machines existing at the time. On the other hand, Leonardo is the one who “scientifically” links those studies and practical analyses to the study and analysis, both theoretical and empirical, of the principles of dynamics, of the action and reaction of forces and weights. Then, he himself extended these principles, among other things, to the anatomy of the “human machine” and its movements.


Study for The Horse, silverpoint on prepared paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1490, 250 x 187 mm (Royal Library, Windsor). Since the preparation of the Adoration of the Magi Leonardo had become particularly interested in horses, and this is documented by a large number of studies of their proportions and movements. Leonardo’s Horse (also known as Gran Cavallo) was a sculpture commissioned in 1482 by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, but it was never done. It was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world, a monument to the duke’s father Francesco Sforza. Leonardo did extensive preparatory work for it but produced only a clay model, which was later destroyed. For the casting of the horse, Ludovico managed to collect 70 tons of bronze, which was supposed to be 8 meters (26 ft) height. In preparation for the work, Leonardo studied horses, and wrote a treatise on horse anatomy. Another treatise, titled Of Weight, included detailed plans for casting the statue. By November 1493, a full-size clay model of the horse (without its rider) was exhibited at one of the Sforzas’ weddings, gaining Leonardo significant fame. In a 20 December 1493 note by Leonardo, he stated his readiness to begin the casting process, but in November 1494, Ludovico gave the bronze to his father-in-law Ercole d’Este to be used to forge cannons to defend the city from invasion by Charles VIII, King of France. The clay model was used as an archery target by French soldiers when they invaded Milan in 1499 at the beginning of the Second Italian War; it was afterward destroyed by cycles of rains and subsequent freezes.
Study for The Horse, silverpoint on prepared paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1490 (Royal Library, Windsor). The initial design for the Sforza monument included a fallen soldier trampled below the horse’s hooves in order to support the rearing horse, but at some point Leonardo settled for a more traditional “walking” horse composition.

This “scientific” and intellectual process is also seen in the studies for the Gran Cavallo “Great Horse”, the colossal equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza. This project implied great challenges, both technological and mechanical, as it corresponded to a bronze casting of dimensions never attempted before and in actuality never carried out for reasons that still aren’t clear. This was an exquisitely artistic project in regards to the composition of the sculptural group, and is related to the Codex Windsor drawings dedicated to the external morphology, anatomy and movement of the horse, and even to specific horses observed in Milan and drawn with indication of the breed and the name of their owners. With the characteristic mental and thematic constancy of Leonardo, in his project for the Great Horse he continues the line represented in the struggle of warriors on horseback in the background of the Adoration of the Magi, and which Leonardo continued to imrpove in the years of his second Florentine period and those of the second Milanese period with the production of the Battle of Anghiari and a new monument, also never materialized, to the Marshal Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. As for the general composition Leonardo envisaged for this monument to Francesco Sforza, today we know thanks to the Madrid Codices that Leonardo started from the idea of ​​the prince-condottiero with a rearing horse trampling on a defeated man perhaps inspired by the famous monument by Lysippus to Alexander the Great, and he ended up adopting the “classical” equestrian type represented in the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (and in other Roman statue, in those days well known and now lost, the “Regisole” of Pavia), which was also adopted in its essence by Donatello and by Verrocchio with a “walking” horse.

This diversity of interests and occupations according to his position in the Sforza’s court wasn’t an obstacle for Leonardo to produce four paintings, in different ways and conditions, during the years he stayed in Milan: two of his best known masterpieces, the Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486) and the Last Supper (1490’s), the Lady with the Ermine (1489-1491) and the mural decoration for the Sala “delle Asse” (1497-1499) in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, which has been almost completely repainted over the original. Belonging to the same period is one portrait from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the portrait of the Musician (1483-1487) in three quarters, a painting of undoubtedly high quality and about which there are certain doubts more than anything for the fact of being less “revolutionary” than any other of the works more widely attributed to Leonardo. The Lady with the Ermine seems sculpted like a precious marble thanks to the diffusion of light, and her figure is already invaded by the subtle “inner vibration” that will reach its sublime point in the Mona Lisa. This was a work that paved the way for both the Lombard painters and Raphael, and even Leonardo’s undoubted influence on the portraits of Holbein the Younger corresponding to the last years of the second decade of the 16th century. Although no one can dispute the fidelity to the model, Cecilia Gallerani’s face already bears the traces of that feminine (or androgynous?) “type” which Leonardo’s Lombard students will repeat incessantly and that spread throughout the Trans-Alpine Renaissance. This “type” was defined by Leonardo once and for all in his interpretation of the heads of the Virgin and the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486), the first of his Lombard works.

Portrait of a Musician (unfinished), oil on walnut panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1483-1487, 43 x 31 cm (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan). The attribution of this painting to Leonardo has been highly debated and now is widely accepted under his authorship, at least the sitter’s face. Uncertainty over Leonardo’s authorship for the rest of the painting arises from the stiff and rigid qualities of the body, which are uncharacteristic of the master’s work. While this may be explained by the painting’s unfinished state, some scholars believe that Leonardo was assisted by one of his students. The portrait’s intimacy indicates a private commission, or one by a personal friend. The identity of the sitter has also been widely debated. The names of two important court musicians in Milan during the period Leonardo was there are known: Franchino Gaffurio (1451-1522), Atalante Migliorotti (1466-1532) and Josquin des Prés (c. 1450-1521). The portrait depicts a young man in bust length and three-quarter view, whose right hand holds a folded piece of sheet music. The painting is largely unfinished except for the face and hair. The sitter has curly shoulder-length hair, wears a red cap, and stares intently at something outside the viewer’s field of vision. His stare is intensified by careful lighting that focuses attention on his face, especially on his big eyes. He wears a white undershirt. The mouth hints at a smile, or suggests that the man is about to sing or has just sung. The stiffly folded piece of paper is a piece of sheet music with musical notes and letters written on it, the notes and letters are largely illegible.
Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani), oil on walnut wood, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-1491, 55 x 40 cm (Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland). Cecilia Gallerani (the mistress of Ludovico Sforza), here portrayed around 16 years old, is holding the heraldic animal of Ludovico Sforza in her arms. She was his favorite and gave birth to his child in the same year as he married Beatrice d’Este. The charming and vivid impression of Cecilia gave Leonardo the reputation of a talented portrait painter. The movement of this beautiful girl turning slowly from the shadow into the light is mirrored by the small animal she is holding. The inscription in the upper left corner (“La Feroniere Leonard d’Awinci“) is a mistaken addition from the end of the 18th century. Oil paint was relatively new to Italy at the time, having been introduced in the 1470s, and walnut was a wood favored by Leonardo, but not commonly used by other artists in Lombardy at the time. The painting shows a woman turned toward her right at a three-quarter angle, but with her face turned toward her left. Cecilia holds a small white-coated ermine and her dress is comparatively simple, revealing that she is not of noble birth or noble descent. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band, and a sheath over the plait. As in many of Leonardo’s paintings, the composition comprises a pyramid as well as a spiral movement. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of Leonardo’s many innovations. Cecilia’s outstretched hand was painted in great detail, with every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger, and its posture reminds us of the hands of Woman with Flowers (1475-1480), a famous marble bust by Leonardo’s teacher Verrocchio. There are several interpretations of the ermine’s meaning: in its winter white coat the ermine was a traditional symbol of purity and moderation, it has also been noted to Ludovico Sforza as he used it as his personal emblem, having been appointed by Ferdinand I as a member of the Order of the Ermine in 1488, the ermine could also be a pun on Cecilia’s surname, the Ancient Greek term for ermine, or other weasel-like species of animals, is galê (γαλῆ) or galéē (γαλέη). Leonardo’s fingerprints have been found in the surface of the paint, indicating that he used his fingers to blend his delicate brush strokes.
La belle Ferronière, oil on panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1490-1496, 63 x 45 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This portrait has long been a subject of controversy over its attribution to Leonardo but lately it has been widely accepted under his authorship. (The attribution to Bernardino de’Conti or Boltraffio can also be found in the literature). The identity of the sitter hasn’t been established. It is very probable that this enigmatic and highly intelligent young lady was also a noblewoman at the Milanese court. It is even possible that this is another portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (see Lady with an Ermine pictured above). The title of the painting is due to an erroneous cataloguing in the French royal collection, when it was mistaken for a portrait of Belle Ferronière, the mistress of King François I and the wife or daughter of an ironmonger (a ferronnier). The misunderstanding was increased by the fact that the band on the forehead of the sitter was also named “ferronière” in the 16th century.

The puzzle related to the history of the Virgin of the Rocks is quite convoluted: the purpose of the canvas was to decorate the ancona* in the chapel of the Immacolata in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. On 25 April 1483, the members of the Confraternity of the Conception commissioned this work, stipulating that it should include a Virgin and Child in the center and two Angel-Musicians for the side panels. The side panels were to be executed by the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista De Predis (these two panels are actually in the National Gallery in London). The Virgin of the Rocks panel kept in the Louvre has been universally accepted as entirely painted by Leonardo, and was the first placed in the altar in San Francesco Grande. It is believed Leonardo himself gave the painting to King Louis XII of France, in gratitude for the settlement of the suit between the painters and those who commissioned the works, in dispute over the payment. The later panel with the same subject (in the National Gallery in London), though somewhat modified, replaced this first version in the ancona and can substantially be attributed to De Predis’ hand who produced it under Leonardo’s direction. This second version was delivered in 1506, remained in its original place until the last years of the 18th century to later ended up in England and is currently kept in the National Gallery in London. Despite continuous attempts to constantly raise discussion, most of the scholars experts on Leonardo agree on the complete authorship of the Louvre panel and on the very limited one (for some completely inexistent in the sense that it is a true copy with some variants introduced by De Predis) of the London panel. To reach these conclusions, scholars rely on the extraordinary and unique pictorial features of the Louvre panel, on the indescribable balance that exists in the optical penetration of the natural phenomenon (from light to rocks and plants), on the definitive volumetric classicism of the pyramidal structure (determined by the Virgin, Saint John child and the angel), and in its deep and mysterious symbolism of the dematerialized vision by achieving an excellent sfumato understood as that optical and pictorial capacity to interpose between the viewer and the painting the immaterial, although perceptible, veil of the atmosphere. It is precisely through this sfumato and the studied relationship between the “mysterious” light of the sacred vision of the foreground and the natural light that filters from the background through the rocks that this kind of sacred mystery of nature comes to fruition, which was disconcerting from a religious and Catholic point of view. Both paintings (in Paris and London) show Mary and child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and the angel Uriel, in a rocky setting. Mary is placed in the apex of the pyramidal composition, stretching one hand to include John and raising the other above the head of the Christ child in a blessing. John kneels, gazing towards the Christ child with his hands together in an attitude of prayer. The Christ child sits towards the front of the painting, supported by the angel, and raising his right hand in a sign of Benediction towards the kneeling John.

Virgin of the Rocks, oil on panel, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-1486, 199 x 122 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). There are two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one (the earlier) in the Louvre, Paris and another in the National Gallery, London (see picture below). This is the first work that Leonardo executed in Milan, which actually expresses the theme of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that affirms Mary was conceived without original sin. The name of the picture reflects an iconographical peculiarity: the religious figures are depicted in a rocky grotto, in which they are sitting on a stone floor. The figures are subjected to a strict spatial arrangement called a pyramidal composition. For the first time Leonardo fully achieved in painting his intellectual program of fusion between human forms and nature which was slowly taking shape in his view and studies of art. Here there are no thrones or architectural structures to afford a spatial frame for the figures; instead there are the rocks of a grotto, reflected in limpid waters, decorated by leaves of various kinds of plants while in the distance, as if emerging from a mist composed of very fine droplets and filtered by the golden sunlight, the peaks of the mountains reappear. This same light reveals the gentle, mild features of the Madonna, the angel’s smiling face, the plump, pink flesh of the two children.
Head of a girl, silverpoint and white highlights on prepared paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1483, 181 x 159 mm (Biblioteca Reale, Turin).  The eminent art expert Bernhard Berenson called this sheet “the most beautiful drawing in the world.” It is thought to be a study for the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks, now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris (see picture above). In the Virgin of the Rocks the Angel’s sex is not defined, and it could easily be either a youth or a maiden.
Virgin of the Rocks, oil on panel, generally accepted by Leonardo in collaboration with Ambrogio de Predis, 1495-1508, 189,5 x 120 cm (National Gallery, London). Compared to its older version in the Louvre, the composition in this Virgin of the Rocks is slightly larger than in the Louvre panel. The main compositional difference between the two versions is that while in the London painting the angel’s right hand rests on his/her knee, in the Louvre painting the hand is raised and the index finger pointing at John. The eyes of the angel are turned down in a contemplative manner in the London painting, but in the Louvre are turned towards the viewer. In the London painting, all the forms are more defined, less use of sfumatto, including the figures. The rocks are painted in meticulous detail while the forms of the background in the painting in the Louvre are all more hazy. The contrast between light and shade on the figures and faces in the London painting are all much sharper. Another difference is in the coloring of the robes, particularly those of the angel: the London painting contains no red, while in the Louvre painting, the angel is robed in bright red and green, with the robes arranged differently from those of the angel in London. The London version contains traditional attributes missing from the Louvre version, like the haloes and John’s traditional cruciform reed staff. The details of the flowers are also quite different in the two paintings, with those in the Louvre painting being botanically accurate, and those in the London painting being fanciful creations. The Virgin of the Rocks in London has generally considered as having been designed by Leonardo and executed in collaboration with assistants. The Louvre website and various authors suggest that the entire painting is by Ambrogio de’ Predis, painted under Leonardo’s supervision.

The symbolic theme and composition of this “sacred conversation” with four characters was repeated by Leonardo, although with forms that are much more monumental and at the same time more “natural” even from a psychological point of view, in the first and only preserved study for Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Child (1499-1508), with the presence of Saint John child who on the right of the cartoon “closes” the marvelous and compact block of figures: in fact this drawing predates Leonardo’s departure from Milan but widely influenced other painters, from Fra Bartolomeo to Andrea del Sarto and including Michelangelo as well. If from a compositional point of view this study still bears a certain relationship with the Virgin of the Rocks, its plastic-monumental discourse is parallel to that of the Last Supper painted for the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan). In 1501 Florentine “men and women, young and old, as if they were going to a solemn festival”, had flocked to see an earlier drawing by Leonardo of similar size on a similar subject, probably made for an altarpiece to Saint Anne, one of the patrons of Florence, for the church of Santissima Annunziata. That altarpiece was never executed, and the drawing for it was lost. Sometime later Leonardo was commissioned to revise the composition for King Louis XII of France, whose second wife’s name, Anne, would have made the subject especially attractive. The French king’s painting, begun in about 1508, was left unfinished at Leonardo’s death and is now in the Louvre. This painting shows Anne smiling down at the Virgin on her lap, who bends over to restrain the Child playing with a lamb, symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and attribute of Saint John the Baptist. It was either executed in around 1499–1500, at the end of Leonardo’s first Milanese period, or around 1506–1508, when he was travelling back and forth between Florence and Milan. The majority of scholars favor the latter date.

The study for this painting though, is notable for its complex composition. The knees of the two women point in different directions, with Mary’s knees turning out of the painting to the left, while her body turns sharply to the right, creating a sinuous movement. While the lower halves of their bodies turn away, the faces of the two women turn towards each other, mirroring each other’s features. The twisting movement of the Virgin is echoed in the Christ Child, whose body, held almost horizontal by his mother, rotates axially, with the lower body turned upward and the upper body turned downward. This turning posture is first indicated in Leonardo’s painting in the Adoration of the Magi and is explored in a number of drawings, in particular the various studies of the Virgin and Child with a cat (British Museum). The juxtaposition of two sets of heads is also an important compositional element. The angle, lighting and gaze of the Christ Child reproduces that of his mother, while John the Baptist reproduces these same elements in the face of Saint Anne. There is a subtle interplay between the gazes of the four figures. Saint Anne’s hand, her index finger pointing towards the Heaven, is positioned near the heads of the children, perhaps to indicate the original source of the blessing. This enigmatic gesture is regarded as quintessentially Leonardesque, also depicted in The Last Supper and Saint John the Baptist. The composition differs from Leonardo’s only other surviving treatment of the subject, the painting we mentioned before of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne in the Louvre, in which the figure of Saint John the Baptist is not present.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, charcoal with white chalk heightening on paper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1499-1500 or 1506-1508, 141,5 x 106 cm (National Gallery, London). The cartoon of the Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the young St. John is also referred to as Burlington House cartoon, in reference to the building housing the Royal Academy.  One of the most precious and fragile works in the National Gallery, the cartoon now hangs in a specially built recess in the wall of a darkened little room. The drawing covers eight sheets of paper glued together. A reduced light level is necessary to prevent the chalk and charcoal from fading. As in the Virgin of the Rocks Leonardo has represented four figures in rapt communion charged with theological significance and intense human emotion. Shared glances and introspective smiles play across their faces, enigmatic expressions which Leonardo made famous. The open triangle formed by the figures in the Virgin of the Rocks (see picture above) is here condensed into a pyramid of interlocking forms; the figures increase in scale and the rocky landscape recedes into the distance, leaving only pebbles in the foreground. Potentially awkward areas where the bodies touch and overlap were left blurred and smudged. Saint Anne’s forearm, prophetically raised to Heaven, is barely sketched in. Cartoons were full-size drawings made to be transferred to panel, wall or canvas to serve as a guide to painting. The National Gallery drawing was surely preparatory for a painting, but was never used for transfer, since the outlines are neither pricked nor incised.


Ancona: A carved wooden altar with frames where paintings were inserted.

5 thoughts on “LEONARDO DA VINCI, part III

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