giovedì 2 febbraio 2017

The many secrets kept by "The Virgin of the Rocks", a painting by 
Leonardo Da Vinci

By: Riccardo Magnani, Lecco (Italy), December 14th, 2016
English version edited by: Michel van Roon

There is not one painting by Leonardo da Vinci that doesn’t hide one or more secrets, secrets disguised within the skilled brushstrokes of the genius from Florence. As a result much of his paintings have triggered the imagination of researchers and writers around the world. 

But none more than the Virgin of the Rocks, a painting which history is muddled since its mysterious origin.

The Virgin of the Rocks is a painting that was commissioned to Leonardo on April 25th, 1483 by the secular Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. Objective was for the paining to be placed in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, now destroyed. The painting, according to scholars, was the first official contract Leonardo received since his move to Milan a few months before. 

The contract, which also involved the De Predis brothers, two local painters with whom Leonardo had found his initial lodging upon his arrival in Milan, prescribed that work should be created as a triptyque, a work in 3 parts: a center-piece to be made by Leonardo involving the Madonna before God surrounded by a group of angels and two side-panels to be made by the De Predis brothers, showing 4 angels per panel, one where the angels are singing and the other where they are playing music.

There is no consensus amongst scholars why Leonardo disregarded this contract by the Brotherhood, nor is there a commonly shared opinion regarding the hypothetical but improbably attempt by Leonardo and his fellow painters to extort the Brotherhood out of more money. The only element where there is consensus on is that the original version of the work was never delivered to the Brotherhood and that after a long dispute a second version of the work was delivered...

Scholars count three copies of this paining which are all erroneously attributed to Leonardo: one in Paris at the Louvre Museum, another one in London at the National Gallery and a third one – called Cheramy - stored in a vault in Switzerland. Based on a number of specifics and details that I won’t discuss here these last two works are clearly the work of students of Leonardo, the London version most likely by Ambrogio De Predis whereas for the Swiss one it is more difficult to attribute the work to any particular disciple. Certain however is that the work is not by the hand of Leonardo.

The only version of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ that has been painted by Leonardo is the first version. This is the version that is held by the Louvre museum in Paris and which was never delivered to the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception who had originally commissioned the work. The Louvre also holds a drawing by Leonardo – fairly unknown to the public – which appears to be a study for the actual painting and which forms a perfect overlay with the actual painting.

Subject of this drawing is Virgin Mary surrounded by an angel and the figures of Christ and John the Baptist represented as children. Given the infinite amount of apprentices that followed Leonardo an equally infinite amount of reproductions exist of this particular scene, like the ones for example by Giampietrino and by Marco d’Oggiono.

And when one closely observes the background of the different paintings, this is where the first anomalies emerge. The copy of the “Virgin of the Rocks” held in London (and according to me attributed to De Pedris) and the one kept in Affori (without a certain attribution) both have a series of mountain peaks as background in line with the original by Leonardo himself, whereas copies and drawings by other followers of Leonardo have included different sceneries in the background, including on occasion a lakeside town at the foot of the mountains. 
The actual setting of the painting – so the actual cave – in my views is the cave of St. John the Baptist, situated just above Laorca, a small community outside Lecco. As referred to in some of my other work, there is a strong link between Leonardo and the city of Lecco, and when you analyze the actual surroundings of the physical cave there are a lot of elements that are reproduced in Leonardo’s original of the “Virgin of the rocks”.

Observing the mountains which surround the cave from the south one can make out the characteristic peaks of the Val Calolden and Bastion of Segantini that define the southern Grigna mountain range, which are recognizable one by one in the actual painting, including the Sasso Cavallo and the Sasso Carbonari, that appear to be the hands that surround the upper profile of the cave itself.

Here, as the cave is paid from the inside, it was somewhat ‘unatural’ for Leonardo to insert the surrounding from the outside of the cave into backdrop of the painting. This choice made by Leonardo however is clearly intentional and is almost certainly aimed at giving the observer an ‘address’ or a sense of location for the actual cave.

Also some of the ‘structural’ aspects of the actual Laorca cave confirm my theory that this particular cave was the setting of Leonardo’s “Virgin of the rocks”; here I refer to some of the specific spiers in the actual cave as well as a particular limestone formation in the upper right corner of the painting which otherwise could be mistaken for part of a wooden structure.

To further endorse my theory please consider the plant species represented in Leonardo’s work, the Columbine, dear to Leonardo, and Mapello, both species endemic to the area where the actual cave is located and present in the immediate vicinity of the cave.

Although these considerations represent a substantial material contribution to the renewed understanding and interpretation this work by Leonardo, which to date already has been subject to fierce controversy, there is another fascinating element to this work which I am about to reveal … On the right side of the large opening of the actual cave, an opening formed by erosion during the last deglaciation, roughly where Leonardo placed the Virgin and the angel in his painting, we can make out the remaining contours of two figures in the limestone. Unfortunately the time and the elements have had the upper hand on the rock but nonetheless their silhouettes can still be made out.

Although in cases like this it is easy to fall prey to suggestion, especially when approaching complex matters like the one at hand which have already been subject to an infinite number of studies over the centuries and which have been the center of so many different readings over time, in this particular case I believe that I have not only given you objective elements that confirm my theory as to the location of the cave, but even more, I have given you further elements as to the actual interpretation of the original painting. 

Let’s look at this step by step. 

The first, there is an unexpected and extraordinary similarity between the two rock silhouettes and two statues in the painting, especially if you take into account that the rock has been subject to significant erosion. Limestone is not very hard and is easily effected by the elements. All the more remarkable the similarities between the remains of the rock statues and the statues in the paining.

Especially when viewed from the front and/or by night with the use of artificial lighting the similarities are fascinating, making the comparison with any face as painted or drawn by Leonardo  immediately recognizable, including the same shape of the body and the particular hairstyle of a Leda.

At this point one even dares to raise the question whether Leonardo saw the same faces and poses in rock which he then translated onto his painting or whether there was really a carved statue in the cave?
This will be one of the further secrets the Virgin is not likely to reveal with certainty.

When closely comparing the presumed statue of the Virgin in the cave to the image of the Virgin in the painting as present in the Louvre Museum one notices an odd difference: the statue of the Virgin has a curious bulge on the right side of her body whereas this is absent with the Virgin in the painting.

When comparing this with other more traditional representations of the Virgin during the renaissance period one notices that often the Virgin is depicted holding a child instead of depicting the child separately on the side as is the case in Leonardo’s painting. This gives raise to the hypothesis that the perturbation of the rock Virgin is (or better was) what remains after erosion of a child in her arms.

Again, the Virgin with her many secrets raises another question; in this case with respect to the identity of who might have carved a statue which, even after 500 years of erosion, maintains the grace and beauty to still be compared visually to the work of Leonardo.

But the Virgin proves generous with those who are able to look to the work of Leonardo with the pure eyes of a child, free from the conditioning of misleading mental and cultural superstructures.

When preparing the material for one of the many conferences that I hold around Italy I was working on a drawing of the Virgin of the Rocks which is held in Paris and I found myself before the solution of this yet other secret, a secret guarded discreetly despite the millions of eyes that have scrutinized the image of the Virgin over the last hundreds of years.

Where I assumed that there might be a child in the arms of the Virgin, at least based for a second on the hypothesis that the statue in the cave was the original and the painting in the Louvre a kind of reinterpretation, and when thinking about the rumors circulating the commissioning of this picture which I touched on in the beginning of this article, I was trying to imagine what made Leonardo decide not to hand over his painting to the Prior of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, I realized that the “Virgin of the rocks” by Leonardo has a third arm!

This third arm in all likelihood was actually her normal second arm and it was where Leonardo had originally conceived it, right where it would be would the Virgin be holding a child on her lap. 

This new element further changes the sequence of events and makes it likely that the statue in the cave was actually carved by Leonardo before he painted the painting for the Brotherhood. Or at least based on this discovery it is highly likely that the statue and the painting on origin were similar but that something intervened causing Leonardo to change his original setup to the version of the painting that we know today and as his contemporaries observed and copied.

This would not be the first time that Leonardo heavily modified one of his paintings; the most striking example is Leonardo’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa.

The Frenchman Pascal Cotte has demonstrated that this work was altered quite significantly.

In his work Cotte’s mentions a number of ‘iron spikes’ - 12 to be precise - around the head of the Mona Lisa which Cotte can only generally relate to her hairstyle.

This detail is quite important as this further strengthens the connection between Leonardo and the Lecco region.

The hairdo as uncovered by Cotte in the Mona Lisa painting is actually and unmistakably the Sperada hairdo.

This was a typical Lombard hairstyle with which young women separated themselves from adolescence and declared themselves as ‘promised brides’.

It is for this reason for example that the Sperada was worn by Lucia Mondella, the promised bride to Renzo Tramaglino, in the historical novel by Alessandro Manzoni set between Lecco and Milan.

But lets get back to the “Virgin of the rocks”.

In trying to further uncover her mysteries we need to take into account that the site where the cave is located in Laorca is a site that was visited since the antiquity by the Celts.

The memory of their presence is evidenced by a ‘fertility seat’ located in the cave, a seat perfectly oriented towards the rising sun during the summer solstice on June 21st when it is regularly illuminated behind the Montain Due Mani on that precise date at sunrise. In a sense we are not revealing anything new here.

After all, in the academic field it is now universally acknowledged that Jesus Christ is based on the solar cult of Sol Invictus and that the figures of John the Baptist (in who’s presence Leonardo has set the “Virgin of the rocks”) and Christ himself are the expression of respectively the summer and winter solstices.

And this might exactly have been the reason which prompted Leonardo to change the setup of the original painting, intending to tie the work to Jesus and John the Baptist as the revival of two essential moments of the solar cycle in every culture?

Also this case would not be the first time for Leonardo to associate his work with a message linked to the worshipping of the sun while hiding this behind a representation with a Christian flavor.

Another and more obvious example of such a work is the “Last Supper”, where the windows are dedicated to the moments of the solar cult, solstice and equinox. And churches themselves follow this tradition.

At the moment it is too early to determine whether my hypothesis will generally be regarded as plausible or not, but for sure the cave and its surroundings have provided ample evidence for this theory.

Also between December 21st and 23rd, the date of the Winter solstice, the sun rises directly in front of the case, rising above the Magnodeno mountain in the morning and lighting up the entire cave and the ‘statue’ of the Virtue.

Again, as for the seat of fertility which was placed in the direction of the summer solstice, in the Celtic religion the spirit embodied by the winter solice was that of the Great Mother which gives life, protects fertility and guards the frontier between the ‘present’ and other ‘spiritual’ worlds.

This Celtic goddess was typically represented as a seated goddess with a large ‘horn of plenty’ in her hand (a myth that among the Romans became the celebration of Saturnalia, celebrated between 17 and 23 December).

Whatever the reason for Leonardo to actually change the agreements signed at the time with the Prior of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception remains an unsolved mystery. Possibly that what lies beneath Leonardo’s version of the painting as held in the Louvre could shed some light: a second arm which in all probability had been designed to support the son of Venus?

At this point I can only ask the Director of the Louvre, Monsieur Jean-Luc Martinez, to allow for a specialized team of experts, linked to an Italian University and recognized internationally for this type of research, to undertake a non-invasive scan of the painting as to ascertain the presence of this arm and possibly gain other insights. I have already reached out to Monsieur Martinez personally with this request and at the date this article was written I am still awaiting his feedback. A non-invasive scan of the paining as mentioned would provide insight into certain elements and details of the painting that are not present to the human eye which can shed further light on the possible change in intention of Leonardo when creating this work of art.

In parallel I am asking the relevant local authorities in Italy (and outside) to ensure that the cave near Lecco is protected so that its integrity is preserved over time while possibly the access to the cave can be improved as to make it safer and to ensure that any visiting of the site does not impact the actual integrity of the site as to guarantee it preservation over time.

Riccardo Magnani 

4 commenti:

  1. Affascinante, veramente affascinante. Tutte queste piccole tessere che Riccardo Magnani va ad unire e che fa combaciare, ti fanno fermare a riflettere sulla mente eccelsa di Leonardo.

    1. Hi Franca! And the mind of Riccardo too, is not bad, in this case ;)

    2. Non riesco a scrivere correttamente, né in inglese né in italiano, perché viene tradotto in automatico !
      Ci riprovo: la mente di Riccardo non è male!
      (se mi traduce ancora "male" con "maschio" ci rinuncio :P