In the opinion of many, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most important artists from the Renaissance era. Over the course of that period, he was responsible for several famous works, including the beautiful The Virgin of the Rocks. But in August 2019, though, a group of specialists made an incredible discovery beneath the painting’s canvas that amazed the world.
Da Vinci grew up in Vinci, Italy, alongside various members of his family after his birth in 1452, before moving to Florence. And in the years after that, the artist would go on to produce some remarkable paintings, such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. However, his famous works didn’t end there.
Indeed, da Vinci was also behind two similar pieces called The Virgin of the Rocks. These particular paintings depicted Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, along with an angel and John the Baptist. The older version is currently displayed in the world-famous Louvre museum in Paris, France, while the second is housed at the National Gallery in London, England.
Interestingly, an intriguing discovery was made about the latter work back in 2005. During that period, experts at the National Gallery found an alternative composition of the Virgin underneath the painting. Then, some 14 years later, a larger revision came to light thanks to an ambitious research project.
During our younger years, we’re given the opportunity to learn more about certain aspects of our history. Whether it’s through our families or our time at school, these lessons can be incredibly fascinating. But for some of us, though, those teachings weren’t truly appreciated until we visited places such as museums.
Those trips often proved invaluable, as they provided us with a firsthand look at items from the past. For that reason alone, museums are still very popular for people of all ages today. Meanwhile, galleries offer a very similar experience to their patrons, many of whom no doubt hoping to learn more about historical art.
Indeed, in various galleries around the world, people are able to view the work of some of the most famous artists in history. On that front, Leonardo da Vinci is arguably one of the biggest names of all, as he produced several masterpieces during his time. However, da Vinci’s talents extended beyond his paintbrush.
Following da Vinci’s birth in 1452, he lived with his mom in a village named Anchiano, located in Tuscany in modern-day Italy. Then, a few years later the youngster moved in with his dad, Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, who plied his trade in the legal sector. And during his time in Vinci, he also stayed with his uncle and grandparents too.
Off the back of that period, da Vinci’s family went on to pack their bags for Florence in the 1460s, which led to a pivotal moment. Not long after their move, the teenager earned a position under the celebrated artist Andrea del Verrocchio. He subsequently spent around three years working as a “studio boy” for the painter, ahead of a significant promotion.
Aged 17, da Vinci was named as one of Verrocchio’s apprentices, learning plenty of lessons along the way. While working at the studio, he dived into several different subjects including chemistry, woodwork and draftsmanship. In addition to that, the Florence resident also honed his talents in painting, modeling and drawing.
While da Vinci continued to develop his skills in Verrocchio’s studio, the latter was working on a piece known as The Baptism of Christ. And in keeping with his other work, the master employed the help of his apprentice when putting the painting together. As a result of that, it’s believed that da Vinci was responsible for one of the angels in the picture.
Due to da Vinci’s efforts in the workshop, he was eventually named as a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in 1472. Alongside that success, his dad bought a studio for him as well, but the painter had other ideas. Instead of striking out on his own at that time, da Vinci resolved to stay on alongside his mentor.
So on that note, da Vinci remained in Verrocchio’s studio and worked on some other pieces with him. However, that didn’t stop the Vinci native from producing his own work during that period, starting in 1473. That year, he produced a picture of Tuscany’s Arno river with his pen.
Then, a few years later, da Vinci’s career took an exciting turn as he was tasked to work on a painting to sit above an altar in 1478. The work was intended to be hung in the chapel located inside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s administrative hub. But while he worked on that, the former apprentice was also asked by monks in Scopeto to complete another project in 1481,a painting titled The Adoration of the Magi.
Da Vinci continued to work on those pieces for another 12 months, before he made a bold decision. The artist opted to give up on the two jobs in 1482, as he chased down a different opportunity with Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan. From there, he packed his bags and headed for the famous Italian city.
Once da Vinci arrived, he went on to make Milan his home for the next 17 years, as he worked on numerous jobs for Sforza. In addition to that, the multi-talented painter was asked to produce some other pieces as well, leading to an important period. As it turned out, two of those works would help cement his name in history.
To begin with, da Vinci worked on the first The Virgin of the Rocks painting, completing the job in the mid-1480s. Then, he produced The Last Supper a few years later for a monastery, the Santa Maria delle Grazie. Following those efforts, he eventually went back to Florence at the turn of the new century.
After that, da Vinci continued to produce some other famous pieces of work, including the now-world-renowned Mona Lisa. During that period, he also painted the second version of The Virgin of the Rocks, which shared a number of similarities to the original. However, when the artist reached his mid-60s, he began to encounter a few difficulties.
Unfortunately for da Vinci, his health started to deteriorate at that point, with his right hand becoming paralyzed. Despite those issues, though, he pressed on as best he could, before his condition left him confined to his bed. Sadly, the polymath eventually passed away in May, 1519.
Despite centuries having passed since da Vinci’s death, his work continues to fascinate people across the globe. And while the Mona Lisa still attracts millions of visitors to the Louvre in Paris, The Virgin of the Rocks is another very popular piece. In fact, the two near-identical paintings have inspired plenty of discussion between art-lovers over the years.
By way of illustration, after the National Gallery shared a picture of the second painting on its Facebook page in 2016, a couple of users offered up some interesting insights. “One of my faves,” wrote the first individual. “Love the copy in the Louvre too, although technically, this is a copy of that one!”
The social media user continued, “After da Vinci painted the one in the Louvre, he was asked to do a copy for an English noble. And by the time he got round to doing it, his technique had changed. The one in the Louvre is painted with brushes, the one in the National Gallery is painted with his fingertips.”
The user’s insight didn’t end there, though, as they made one last point in the comments section. They added, “You can see [da Vinci’s] fingerprints all over it. This was because he said he had realized that his talent was God-given, and the brush was just an encumbrance between him and God.”
That admiration was shared by a fellow social media user on Facebook, who offered their own thoughts on the painting. In their comment, they also looked at one of the key differences between the pieces in London and Paris as well. And according to them, that particular detail was fairly significant.
“Always loved this painting, and the older version in the Louvre, but this one is much stronger and real to me,” the user wrote. “Also, I prefer not to have the angel’s right hand pointing across, as in the Louvre version, because I think it just distracts from Mary’s beautifully foreshortened hand! Da Vinci is so cool!”
Meanwhile, as fans continued to hail da Vinci’s work on those paintings down the years, some stunning news came to light back in 2005. That year, a group of researchers at the National Gallery discovered a sketch underneath the piece. As it turned out, it was an alternative composition of Mary in another position.
The incredible find was made thanks to the use of “infra-red techniques,” with the experts picking up on some other outlines. Then, at the start of 2019 more research was conducted by the gallery, as it prepared to open up a new exhibition. However, few people could have predicted what would be revealed.
In their most recent examination, the group of researchers scanned the painting exploiting a new technique, known as macro X-ray fluorescence. This meant they were able to uncover more of da Vinci’s initial sketches beneath the piece. This was made possible due to the drawing material the artist had used, which included traces of zinc.
Thanks to those scans, the experts could see additional drawings of both Jesus and the angel, alongside the previous sketch of Mary. A representative of the National Gallery spoke to U.K. newspaper The Guardian about the discovery. “Why Leonardo abandoned this first composition still remains a mystery,” they said in August 2019.
The spokesperson continued, “Handprints resulting from patting down the priming on the panel to create an even layer of more or less uniform thickness can also be seen. Probably the work of an assistant – but perhaps even by Leonardo himself.” That wasn’t all, though, as they also touched upon the composition itself.
“Both figures are positioned higher up in the drawing,” the representative added, “while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the infant Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace.” A short time after that, the gallery’s conservation head Larry Keith shared his reaction to the findings.
During an interview with BBC News in August 2019, Keith explained what the discovery signified to him about the painter’s process. “[The sketches] give new insight into how da Vinci was thinking,” he said. “[It fits] into a wider narrative of how we understand him as an artist who was always changing, adjusting and revising.”
Keith added, “We had an awareness of part of the composition. And now we have a great deal more understanding of the whole group arrangement.” As for the exhibition, the piece will play a starring role at the National Gallery, with guests being given the chance to look at da Vinci’s work.
The exhibition is due to open in November 2019 and will stay open for around two months. Titled “Leonardo: Experience A Masterpiece,” it will take place within four different rooms at the gallery, noting various points about the piece. Then, to conclude the showcase, da Vinci’s masterpiece will be on display in the final room.
Furthermore, this particular exhibition has been put together by both the National Gallery and 59 Productions. The latter company is already highly regarded in the creative industry, having been involved in various other projects. For instance, it had a hand in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012.
So ahead of the grand opening in November, 59 Productions’ managing director explained what visitors could expect from the showcase. “It’s somewhere between an exhibition and an experience,” Richard Slaney told The Guardian newspaper in August 2019. After that, he shed some light on why they only focused on one particular piece.
Slaney continued, “Da Vinci’s view of the world meant he was fascinated at looking deeply into anything that interested him. And by giving people the chance to refocus on one painting we’re allowing people to do the same thing. It’s a bit like mindfulness in a way, as it slows things down and people can focus on one idea.”
Slaney’s thoughts on the matter didn’t end there either, as he made another interesting point about the project at the National Gallery. “This is scholarly research that has been turned into an experience that feels theatrical,” the managing director added to the newspaper. “You’re learning by seeing, rather than reading a paper.”
Meanwhile, da Vinci’s hidden artwork wasn’t the only fascinating discovery made in 2019. For you see, back in May a hand-drawn self-portrait of the artist was uncovered in Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Collection, which contained many of his sketches. And as it turned out, that was just the second known picture of him.
With that in mind, Martin Clayton of the Royal Collection Trust offered his take on the find. “It is a very quick casual sketch of Leonardo,” he told The Guardian. “It is the closest that we get to a snapshot of Leonardo during his own lifetime. It may be trivial as a work of art, but it’s hugely important as a record of the man himself.”