July 1, 2005

New Da Vinci Drawing Uncovered

LONDON -- Art curators have uncovered a new Leonardo Da Vinci drawing hidden beneath the surface of one of the Renaissance artist's most celebrated works, Britain's National Gallery said on Friday.

Da Vinci painted two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks between 1483 and 1508. London's picture has long been regarded as an inferior copy of the original now in the Louvre in Paris.

National Gallery curators found the uncompleted drawing while researching how Da Vinci copied his original, using infrared scanning to see through layers of paint on the London picture.

They discovered two levels of underdrawing: one for The Virgin of the Rocks, and another beneath for a different picture, showing the Virgin with outstretched arms.

"You can never call this a straightforward copy again because Leonardo clearly wanted to start something new," National Gallery curator Luke Syson told BBC radio.

Da Vinci was commissioned in 1483 to paint The Virgin of the Rocks by a religious order, the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, for a chapel altarpiece.

The 1.9 meter-tall (6 ft 2 in) painting shows the Virgin Mary kneeling in a cave with the infant Christ and Saint John.

Da Vinci demanded a huge bonus after finishing the painting, but this was refused and so he sold it elsewhere, with the work eventually reaching the Louvre.

Some years later, the Confraternity asked Da Vinci for a replacement -- the version now in London -- which was installed in their chapel in 1508.

The curators' detective work revealed that after receiving the second commission, Da Vinci began a new work for the Milan order, depicting the Virgin Mary adoring the infant Christ.

The hidden drawing shows the Virgin kneeling with a downcast gaze, one hand held to her breast, the other dramatically outstretched with the fingers meeting the picture edges.

Syson believes the Confraternity rejected Da Vinci's proposed composition and demanded a copy of their original commission.

"I suspect he was forced to abandon this new very beautiful idea," Syson said. "In a way it's a terrible pity."