Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, 1505-1508

 
Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
 

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Madonna of the Rocks, 1483
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Madonna of the Rocks, circa 1478
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The Madonna of the Rocks
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Madonna of the Rocks, 1483
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The central panel for an ancona is a second version of the Madonna of the Rocks and like the Paris altarpiece, which it closely resembles, was painted for the ancona belonging to the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception.

Why and when it was painted are elusive questions, even though much of the documentation regarding the commission is preserved.

In about 1494, approximately eleven years after the contract had been signed with the Confraternity and shortly after they had consigned the ancona (fitted out with the altarpiece and the two music-making angels), Leonardo and Ambrogio (Evangelista died about 1490) began a prolonged litigation with the Confraternity.

The artists appealed to Lodovico Sforza, asking him to intercede in their efforts to obtain a larger payment for their work than was stipulated in the contract.

The Confraternity should return "said Virgin executed in oil," they demanded, as an alternative to their receiving the additional money.

The Confraternity evidently refused both options, since a second appeal was prepared in 1503, this time by Ambrogio alone (Leonardo was in Florence), which was addressed to Louis XII.

It reveals that the ancona included a painting of the Virgin when it was delivered several years earlier and repeats the demand for additional money or the return of the painting.

A settlement was finally reached between the artists and the Confraternity in 1506: it stipulates that the painting of the Virgin must be finished in two years for an additional payment of 200 lire (the artists had asked for 400 lire).

Final payment was made in 1508, the year the painting was presumably returned to the Confraternity.

The cause of the litigation was most likely the London painting, because the Paris version was executed entirely in Leonardo's style of 1483-85, with no evidence that it was worked on in 1506-8.

On the other hand, the London altarpiece is still unfinished in minor areas, varied in treatment (suggesting a prolonged execution), and was in place in the ancona when the latter was dismantled (and ultimately lost) in the eighteenth century. Therefore, it is probable that when the ancona was turned over to the Confraternity in the 1490s it contained not the Paris version but the one in London.

The Paris painting was probably sold to another buyer, perhaps Lodovico Sforza, so a second painting was needed to complete the ancona. We can only speculate on Lodovico's desire to own it, and in this I take my cue from the talismanic use to which the London altarpiece was put years later (it was twice invoked against the plague, in 1524 and 1576).

Did the Louvre painting play the same role in the plague of 1485 and thereby set a precedent for the other painting? Would Lodovico have been impelled to buy it primarily for the presumed magical powers of its subject?

Did Louis XII then confiscate the painting when he defeated Lodovico in 1499 and take it to France, where it was seen at Fontainebleau in 1625 by Cassiano dal Pozzo? We may never learn the answers to these questions.

The facts and hypothesis I have outlined point to the likelihood that the London painting was executed in the years 1486-90 (after the plague of 1485) and 1506-8 (after the settlement).

The two panels with angels in the approximate relationship they had with the central panel in the ancona, were probably also painted in 1486-90.





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