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The soil is treated with all the tenderness the Primitives bestowed on accessories. Mantegna could not have been more exact, but Leonardo adds fancy to exactitude. Slabs of rocks, pebbles, plants (irises), make up the foreground. The grotto seems to breathe forth a strange and penetrating moisture : we dream of nymphs, of sylphs, of gnomes, of all that world of fantasy evoked by Shakespeare in the Midsummer Night's Dream, a world only Leonardo could have translated on canvas. The background is composed of a series of perpendicular rocks, like sugar-loaves.
Leonardo, spirit of hesitations and experiments though he was, shows a rare tenacity in his choice of landscape motives. Throughout his works, in the Virgin of the Rocks, the S. Anne, the Mona Lisa, we find the same dolomite mountains, abrupt peaks rising from high plains in bizarre outline.1 He very probably made a journey in his youth through the Friuli, and retained a vivid recollection of its scenery.2
I think it not impossible that the famous Madonna Litta bought at Milan for the Hermitage, S. Petersburg, in 1865, may also have been painted at this period.
The fact that the beautiful study in profile for the Virgin's head, in the Vallardi collection at the Louvre (see our pi. xi.), is on greenish paper of the same sort as that used for the studies of the Virgin of the Rocks tends to prove that the Madonna Litta is a more or less contemporary work.
This drawing contains the master's first idea. A pen drawing in the Windsor Library shows the Child at the mother's breast, in an attitude differing little from that of the picture.
In the picture, we see the Virgin seated, a half-length figure, in a room the two windows of which open on an arid landscape. Dressed in a red robe bordered with gold embroidery, and a blue mantle lined with yellow, she wears on her head a grayish scarf striped with black and enriched with gold ornaments, not unlike those worn by Raphael's
1 In his drawings, too, there are many of these sugar-loaf rocks. See Richter, vol. ii., pi. cxvii.-viii. A picture in the Berlin Museum attributed to Verrocchio, The Meeting of the youthful Saviour and S. John Baptist, contains dolomite rocks like those of Leonardo's backgrounds.
2 In one of his notes relating to the canal of Romorontino, he speaks of sluices established in the Friuli by his orders. (Richter, vol. ii., p. 253.)