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Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Virgin of the Rocks has gone back on display at the National Gallery in London, England, after 18 months of specialist conservation work. The painting had been covered with a layer of badly discoloured varnish from the late 1940s. Following expert cleaning, the painting has been restored to its former glory and has revealed new details about how Leonardo created this work.
The decision to restore the painting came after several years of intensive study of Leonardo’s work and that of his Milanese associates and assistants – the so-called leonardeschi – from within the Gallery’s collection. The experience gained from examining these pictures reinforced the view that ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ could not be appreciated as originally intended. The cleaning process began because some varnish that was applied in 1948–9 was particularly unstable and prone to yellowing. Fine cracking in that varnish, and atmospheric dirt which had become absorbed in its waxy surface, meant that the ability of the varnish to fully saturate the picture had become seriously compromised. As a result the subtlety of shading and the sense of space were markedly reduced, and the impact of this great work significantly lessened.
The conservation involved removing much of the badly degraded varnish from the painting, though leaving a very thin layer over most of the picture surface. While the cleaning did not effect a dramatic shift of colour, it produced a significant improvement in saturation which has allowed a much greater appreciation of the painting’s full tonal range, especially in the darker areas. This has in turn given a much clearer sense of the unified lighting, three-dimensional modelling and the intended spatial recession through the rocky landscape.
The restoration was undertaken by Larry Keith, the new Director of Conservation, working in collaboration with the picture’s curator, Luke Syson, and the Scientific Department, under the direction of Ashok Roy. There were also discussions and exchanges with colleagues from several other institutions in Europe and America, including the Louvre, which has an extensive Leonardo collection that includes the earlier version of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’.
The conservation and associated technical research has reaffirmed the sense that the picture is not finished in the traditional sense, and instead shows a range of completion from the level of the barely sketched hand of the angel to the fully realised heads of the principal figures. The associated study of materials and techniques has also been an important element of a more comprehensive reappraisal of the picture’s genesis and authorship. In the past, Gallery curators, like many scholars of Renaissance painting elsewhere, have explained the different levels of finish and resolution in the picture by arguing that Leonardo was helped by assistants in realising this second version of the composition; it now seems possible that Leonardo painted all the picture himself, leaving some parts just sketched or yet to be completely resolved, and others (such as the angel’s head) fully worked up.
In 2005, experts using infrared reflectography discovered two distinct underdrawings beneath the surface of the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’. The first of these underdrawings does not correspond at all to the image that we know so well today, and x-radiography shows that none of Leonardo’s first design was ever painted. The second is for ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ as it was finally executed, but with evidence of several considerable changes of mind. The first underdrawing in the London painting shows a kneeling figure. Her downcast gaze and pious gestures, one hand held modestly to her breast, the other dramatically outstretched with the fingers meeting the picture edge, indicates that when Leonardo was first asked to paint a second picture he decided on a new composition: an Adoration of the Christ Child. Further evidence for this theory comes in the form of a miniscule Leonardo drawing in the Royal Collection at Windsor – a compositional idea for an Adoration of the Child with an arch-topped panel exactly like the support of the National Gallery’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’.
‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ will be displayed in a new frame made by Peter Schade, Head of Framing at the Gallery. This incorporates parts – the pilasters and cornice – of a north Italian frame of about 1500, purchased specially in Italy in 2009. Schade has added the missing elements, referring to carved frames executed by Giacomo Del Maino who carved the altarpiece into which ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ was originally set. This new frame will therefore evoke the gilded setting of Leonardo’s masterpiece, accentuating its muted colour scheme, the artist’s revolutionary system of shadowing and the elements of his pictorial ‘relief’, already made so much more evident by the restoration. Newly cleaned and framed in this way, the Virgin’s left hand, for example, now seems to project into the viewer’s space.
The restoration process has provided the opportunity for a comprehensive study of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ by the National Gallery’s Scientific, Conservation and Curatorial departments, with the findings being published online in the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin in September 2011. The Gallery will expand its initial research on Leonardo himself to include the systematic investigation of Leonardo’s Milanese pupils, collaborators and followers.
‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ (‘The Virgin with the Infant Saint John adoring the Infant Christ accompanied by an Angel’) was commissioned in 1483 by the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and was intended to form part of their oratory altarpiece. However it was 25 years until a painting of this subject was finally placed in the chapel. In the interim Leonardo painted two versions of the composition: the first (in the Louvre) was probably sold in the 1490s to a private client after a financial wrangle with the Confraternity; a replacement – the painting that now hangs in the National Gallery – was installed in 1508.
Leonardo was born in or near Vinci in Tuscany and was trained in Florence by the sculptor and painter Verrocchio. In about 1483 he moved to Milan to work for the Sforza family and was there until the city was invaded by the French in 1499. He may have visited Venice before returning to Florence in 1506. A second period in Milan lasted until 1513; this was followed by three years based in Rome. In 1517, at the invitation of the French king, Leonardo moved to the Château of Cloux, near Amboise in France, where he died in 1519.
Source: National Gallery