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THE “VIRGIN OF THE ROCKS” IN THE LOUVRE
the entrance of a cavern. These figures are arranged in the pyramidal form afterwards so much in favour with Raphael. The Virgin, in the centre, but in the middle distance, dominates the other actors. A blue mantle fastened at the breast by a brooch, hangs from her shoulders. One hand on the shoulder of the little S. John, at whom she is looking, the other extended over her Son, she invites the precursor to approach him. The Infant, seated on the ground, and steadying himself with his left hand, blesses his young companion with the right; the angel, one knee on the ground beside the Child, supports him with one hand, and with the other shows him the little S. John. Here we have already the germs of the consummate art of gesture, of which Leonardo afterwards made so brilliant an application in the Last Supper at Milan. It is this which gives such extraordinary animation to the composition.
The master, however, is far from perfect as yet. A certain inexperience reveals itself, side by side with the most exquisite sensibility, the rarest faculty for observation. There is, in particular, something slightly archaic in the Virgin's type. (The painter seems to have lagged behind the draughtsman, for the studies for this picture are free and supple in the highest degree.) The nose is straight, not aquiline, the mouth but slightly curved, the chin low and square, as in certain faces of Perugino's and Francia’s. As to the angel, who wears a red tunic and a green mantle, his expression is vague and undecided. He is more firmly modelled in the two preliminary drawings, the one in the Royal Library at Turin, the other in the École des Beaux Arts. Note the affinity between his type and that of the Virgin.
In the two children there is also something hard and arid ; the desire for objective truth occasionally gets the better of a sense of style and expression. But what a knowledge of colour and of modelling! The result is a mingling of Correggio and Rembrandt. In the Infant Jesus, with his somewhat mournful expression, his chestnut locks, his chubby contours (there are dimples on the elbow and shoulder), the effect of the wonderful foreshortening, the broadly treated surfaces, is little short of miraculous. In the little S. John, the foreshortening is curt and abrupt, after the manner of Verrocchio. The type, too, has striking analogies with those of Verrochio. I may add that the light
falls full on the Infant Saviour, whereas his young companion is in shadow.
It is not easy to sum up the beauties of such a work. First of all, I must point out the profound originality of the conception, and the
infinite charm of the execution. Like a balloon soaring in the air to such a height that presently all but a few points on the earth are out of sight, it rises above all anterior and contemporary works! Once more an artist has arisen, who, casting off the trammels of tradition, looks at things face to face, and renders them as he sees them, with sovereign grace and distinction. Before Raphael,
Leonardo treats the little intimate drama : the Virgin caressing her son, watching his play, directing his education--and treats it with as much charm, if not with quite the same precision of touch. The playfulness, the lightness, and at the same time, the conviction with which he endows these scenes of two or three actors, are not to be rendered in words. They are idyls of the freshest and most innocent kind, without that note of melancholy which the prescience of pain to come often puts in the eyes and on the lips of the young mother.
The composition is curiously modern. How much of freedom there is, even in the faces! The artist, unfettered by traditional portraits, takes as model for the Virgin, Christ, the Apostles and Saints, the men and women around him. He troubles himself little about attributes, preserving or suppressing them according to the exigencies of his scheme. He goes so far as to represent the Virgin with bare feet, a heresy into which Fra Angelico, nourished in the severe tradition of
LEONARDO'S IDEA OF COLOUR
the Dominicans, would never have fallen, a heresy which orthodox painters abjured once more after the Council of Trent. But if Leonardo, like the majority of his Florentine contemporaries, brought his divinities down to earth, he gave a warmth and poetry to his conceptions, well calculated to awaken religious fervour, and no painter, indeed, has passed for a more devout artist. Strange paradox! Leonardo and Perugino, the two artists Vasari charges with absolute scepticism, are just the two whose works breathe most eloquently of faith!
Leaving warmth and intensity of harmony to his fellow-student, Perugino, with his deep and brilliant greens and reds, his precise contours, his firm, and often hard modelling, Leonardo, in his Virgin of the Rocks, as in all his later works, determined to win colour from shades apparently the most neutral, greens verging on grays, with silvery reflections, bitumen, dull yellow. Nothing could be more strongly opposed to the scale adopted by the Primitives. All high, frank tones are banished from his palette ; he renounces gold, rich stuffs, and brilliant carnations. It was indeed, with a sort of camaïeu that he achieved his marvels of chiaroscuro, and the incomparable warm and amber harmony of his Mona Lisa. No artist before him had made so severe a demand on the possibilities of pure
(Mancel Gallery, Caen.) painting.
The ease of the composition and the richness of the handling claim our admiration in an equal degree. The Florentines, those incomparable draughtsmen, might justly have exclaimed: “At last a painter is born to us!” The angles and articulations of the figures have disappeared, giving place to the most harmonious lines; these, in their turn are bathed in light of infinite suavity, or rather, the figures themselves are conceived with a view to the light which bathes them. This art of wrapping objects in atmosphere, of enveloppe, to use a modern phrase, was, in fact, if not invented by Leonardo, at least first brought by him to that high degree of perfection to which it now attains. In his effects of chiaroscuro, in the unprecedented subtleties of his colour-harmonies, we recognise the born painter. Leonardo was as well versed in the laws of linear perspective, anatomy, and kindred sciences as any of his rivals. But far from looking upon them as an end in themselves, he treats them as accessories, a mechanism, to be concealed as soon as it has played its part. A picture, according to his idea, should betray no effort ; it must only show the result—the ideal of grace, beauty, or harmony in full perfection.
The landscape of the Virgin of the Rocks calls for special analysis.
From the first, Leonardo manifests a love for rocky and broken landscape, in preference to scenery of broad lines and undulations. The Italian painting of the Renaissance hovered, so to speak, between these two tendencies. The one was followed by the "trecentisti,” whose successor Leonardo was on this point ; the other by Perugino, and to some extent, by the Venetians. The partisans of the first system affect marked contrasts; rugged boulders, alternating with smiling vegetation ; scenery tunnelled by ravines, and ravaged by convulsions, as in some parts of the Apennines. They are one with the Flemings in their love of detail. The others incline to large surfaces; their hills descend to plains and lakes by gradual undulations. Their landscape, in short, is the Roman Campagna, rendered with masterly effect by Perugino and the Umbrian school.
Leonardo, however, loves to complicate and refine upon the traditional material. The gorges of Chiusuri and of Monte Oliveto do not suffice him. He is not even content with the erratic boulders of the monastery of La Vernia, in the Casentino. The mineralogist and geologist dominate the artist. He is fascinated by the strange and monstrous dolomite rocks of the Friuli, gigantic cones emerging from vast table-lands, jagged peaks, grottoes no less imposing than the dolmens and menhirs of Brittany.