The “Borghetto” Virgin of the Rocks
Francesco Melzi (attr.), 1517-1520 (?)
Tempera and oil on canvas, 198×122 cm
Copy after the Da Vinci original in the Louvre
Milan, Church of San Michele del Dosso
Congregazione Suore Orsoline di San Carlo
On 10 December 1998, the Ursuline Sisters of San Carlo organized a conference at their Collegio in Viale Majno to present the Borghetto Virgin of the Rocks, with a lecture by renowned Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti, along with Gabriella Ferri Piccaluga and Sandrina Bandera.
After a thorough formal analysis of the painting, the professor compared it with various drawings by Leonardo for the Virgin of the Rocks, stressing the fact that one particularly beautiful study of the angel’s hand is on French paper. It was on this occasion that Pedretti pointed out that Leonardo, in his Treatise on Painting, mentions the “manner of painting on canvas”.
And, in a letter written the following year to Professor Lopez, he would add, “The more I think about it, the more this seems an extraordinary, perhaps unique document. It is clear that the colors of the Ursuline painting revealed by the restoration are splendid and intense […] I believe this version was painted during the high Renaissance, when the archetype was still legible, perhaps in France; a version executed – why not? – by a student who may have been Melzi, possibly even beneath the watchful eye of the old master. The original was already there […]. Perhaps it would not have displeased Leonardo that a good and faithful copy should find its way back to Milan, where the ‘second version’ (the London painting) had already established itself with its revised and ‘corrected’ iconography”.
It is now thought that Leonardo used a mixed painting technique that we find in the palette of this work (despite, alas, having lost the glazes of the ‘sfumatura’). The use of canvas as a support allows us to surmise that the painting was executed in France with the intention of eventually transporting it elsewhere: thus the attribution to Francesco Melzi, Lombard nobleman, refined and cultured painter, and intimate companion of Leonardo from 1510 onward.
Nasce così l’ipotesi attributiva a Francesco Melzi, nobile uomo lombardo, raffinato e colto pittore, intimo compagno di Leonardo dal 1510.
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 heir and 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 Virgin of the Rocks is a copy of the original, painted by Melzi with Leonardo’s technical finesse, using materials prepared in the French workshop along with an apprentice and executed on canvas so that he could take it to Milan upon his return.
In the mid-19th century, this painting belonged to the noble Milanese family of the Belgiojoso.
The Countess Ricciarda Belgiojoso donated it to Clementina Brambilla Balabio, who placed it in the oratory of Santa Maria Assunta.
This little church, built in 1822, was ensconced in the ‘alley of the Borghetto’, near the customs house of Porta Venezia. The oratory was sold in 1849 to Congregazione delle Suore Orsoline di San Carlo in 1886.
In 2012 the Order decided to move the Borghetto Virgin to the small church of San Michele sul Dosso, part of their other Milanese convent situated across from the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.
He was the son of Gerolamo Melzi, a captain in the Milanese militia, he became the favorite pupil of Leonardo da Vinci.
Melzi was born in 1491 to a rich patrician family, owners of a villa that still stands in the town of Vaprio d’Adda. After meeting the master during his second Milanese period (1508-1513), he accompanied Leonardo on his trip to Rome in 1513, and later to France in 1517, where he remained by his side until his death on 2 May 1519.
On 25 April 1518, in the Château du Cloux, Amboise, Leonardo da Vinci named Melzi the heir to his entire estate.
After the master’s death, Melzi, having inherited all the artistic and scientific drawings and manuscripts, moved to his family’s villa in Vaprio d’Adda and steadfastly conserved them until the day he died.
In 1520was was named chamberlain by Francois I. He married Angiola of the Landriani counts and had eight children.
In the years that followed he edited the Treatise on Painting, compiling the master’s scattered ideas and writings in a single manuscript appending brief notes in his own hand with rigorous philological method.
His eldest son Orazio, a Doctor of Jurisprudence, relinquished the Da Vinci bequest to Pompeo Leoni, official sculptor of King Philip II of Spain. This was the beginning of the dispersion of Leonardo’s graphic work.
The only certain works by Francesco Melzi, signed in Greek letters by the artist, are the Vertumnus and Pomona at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, the Flora at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Young Man with a Parrot, from the Gallarati Scotti collection in Milan. He was an artist of some talent, as evidenced by several of Leonardo’s very last works, in which Melzi’s hand often replaces that of the master, by then unable to draw.