— Louvre, Paris
— National Gallery, London
— Church of San Michele sul Dosso, Milan
Until the opening years of the 19th century, one of the most important churches in Milan, the basilica of San Francesco Grande, overlooked Piazza Sant’Ambrogio. The first chapel on the right hosted a painting of the Madonna and Child accompanied by an angel and the young St. John the Baptist which we know by the name of the Virgin of the Rocks (the Franciscan convent was decommissioned in 1798 and razed soon thereafter to make space for a new barracks, which still exists today).
Leonardo da Vinci was “brought to the Duke of Milan with great ceremony” in the spring of 1482. We know that his first commission there was for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. On 25 April 1483, “Maestro” Leonardo da Vinci is cited along with two Milanese painters, the brothers Evangelista and Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, in a contract for the realization of a complex altarpiece for the Confraternity’s chapel in the basilica of San Francesco Grande.
The resulting work would be the first complete manifesto of Leonardo’s pictorial language. The scene is set outdoors in front of an array of boulders that appear to form an apse of natural architecture, with ample openings framing the background landscape. Four sacred figures are arranged on a raised platform bristling with clumps of foliage and flowers. At the center kneels the young Virgin Mary, her head tenderly tilted and her right hand resting on the shoulder of the infant St. John the Baptist, nude and kneeling, his hands joined before him. Mary extends her left hand forward, her palm open above the head of the Christ Child who, seated naked on the ground, makes a gesture of benediction to John the Baptist. The Archangel Gabriel, portrayed as an adolescent, kneels behind Jesus and gently supports his back; directing his gaze straight at the viewer, Gabriel points to the young Baptist.
The painting that now hangs in London’s National Gallery was acquired in Milan in July of 1785 by the Scots painter Gavin Hamilton. A friend of Antonio Canova, he lived in Rome and had a side business selling works of art to English collectors. The painting would late be sold to the National Gallery in 1880.
X-rays show that the execution of this version is rather belabored: it is considered to be painted in large part by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis on a panel that certainly belonged to Leonardo da Vinci. The recent reflectography analysis in 2011 revealed a drawing of the Virgin in adoration in a three-quarter pose, unquestionably by Leonardo’s hand, to which the overlying paint layers do not correspond.
In 1506, when Leonardo returned to Milan, de Predis refiled a lawsuit demanding the intervention of the Florentine master, who would be obligated “ad finiendum aut finiri faciendum” – to finish – the painting within two years. In 1508 Leonardo was paid for the Virgin of the Rocks, twenty-four years after it was commissioned. Though it is difficult to locate Leonardo’s hand with any precision, it would appear to be limited to the faces of the Virgin and the angel.
This work is an extraordinarily precise copy of the first version of the Virgin of the Rocks conserved at the Louvre.
Only Leonardo used the free painting technique that we find in the colors of this work. The use of canvas as a support allows us to suppose that the painting was executed in France with the intention of eventually transporting it elsewhere.
This was born the attribution to Francesco Melzi, Lombard nobleman, refined and cultured painter, and intimate companion of Leonardo from 1510 onward. In 1517, when Melzi was 27, he followed Leonardo to France, after the great and by now elderly master had accepted the invitation of François I, remaining with him until his death on 2 May 1519. Melzi is best known as the executor of Leonardo's estate, and for having brought to Milan all the manuscripts and "Instruments and Draughts concerning his art and industry as a painter”.
He returned to Lombardy before 1523 and settled in Milan. During his stay in Amboise, it is thought that Melzi also contributed to the works of the master, whose right hand had become paralyzed. Perhaps, then, the Borghetto version is a copy of the original, painted by Melzi with Leonardo's technical finesse, using materials prepared in the French workshop and executed on canvas so that he could take it to Milan upon his return.