By his contract with the monks of San Donato a Scopeto, dated March 1481, Leonardo undertook to finish the altar-piece in twenty-four or at most thirty months. During July and August he was paid regularly, but after 28 September there is no further payment, and we can infer that the picture had reached its present stage. The Uffizi Adoration is the work of seven months: a fact which forces us to reflect on the significance of the word finish. No doubt the picture is unfinished; parts of it are lost in darkness--many of the heads and hands have no bodies; and parts are merely sketched on the ground, so that they seem to be dissolved in light.
The central figure of the Virgin and Child is little more than a large drawing. Moreover, the whole clarity of the composition depends on leaving the Virgin and chief magi blank against the circle of dark figures; and an academic critic might say that Leonardo has made the common mistake of young painters who attempt large compositions: he has made the greater part of it too dark. All this would be relevant if the creation of works of art were a sort of obstacle race, in which that painter won who overcame the greatest number of difficulties. But we believe that the nature of art is very different. Finish is only of value when it is a true medium of expression.
Could finish have made the Adoration more expressive? Only Leonardo knew. To have carried the picture any further without depriving it of magic would have taxed even his genius, and would have taken him seven years instead of seven months. For one thing the composition is immensely ambitious. The precepts of classical art had warned the painter above all things to avoid representing a crowd; but the figures in the Adoration are innumerable--as we begin to count them they vanish and reappear again, like fish in a muddy pool. To have brought every one of them to the conventional degree of finish, without destroying the unity of the whole, would have required super-human mastery, and there are many passages where detail would inevitably have arrested the intricate rhythmical relations. Indeed, the whole subject is conceived in a spirit opposed to clear statement. It is an allegory, with an allegory's equivocations; a dream, with the dissolving protagonists of a dream.
The Virgin and Child, Joseph and the chief magi, these are clear enough, and capable of further elaboration. But in that circle of adorers, peering, swaying, gesticulating, are many of those half-formed thoughts which must remain inarticulate unless they are expressed by a hint or a cadence. Nowhere else in Italian art, unless perhaps in Giorgione, are intuitions so remote and so fragile given visible shape. Could they have survived the Florentine ideal of finish? Such thoughts must occur to a modern critic, for Tintoretto, El Greco, Degas and Cézanne have shown him how the greatest artists can achieve a complete and coherent style with a degree of definition no greater than that of Leonardo's Adoration.
But to Leonardo and his contemporaries these reflections would have seemed ridiculous or incredible; and in fact a great part of his Trattato della Pittura is concerned with how to bring a work in the state of the Adoration to the state of the Last Supper. For although the finest passages in the Trattato are those in which Leonardo describes the springs of the painter's genius, a far larger part is concerned with the science of representation, and that thorough knowledge of natural appearances without which the painter cannot assume his godlike rôle of recreating the visible world.
A rendering of nature complete and learned enough to satisfy his interest in its function seemed to involve the idea of finish, and his own preternatural sharpness of eye tempted him in the same direction. Photography, reacting on the aesthetic theories of the last century, has led us to believe that he was mistaken; that all the knowledge of anatomy, botany and geology with which he enriched his art could have been suggested rather than described, and could have found more vivid expression in a few spontaneous touches than in an accumulation of careful statements.
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