Angel Gabriel, from the Annunciation, 1472-75 (Detail)
Leonardo da Vinci
12 in. x 9 in.
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In spite of certain faults, the Annunciation remains a lovely and original picture, in which shortcomings of composition are outweighed by beauties of detail and of mood. No other work of Leonardo does so much to support Vasari's account of his early sympathy with nature. Other painters of his century had painted nature decoratively or accurately, but none, unless it were the blessed Angelico, had interpreted her moods, and used them to set the emotional key of a picture. In the Annunciation Leonardo has taken one of the simplest and most touching of all such moods--the moment after rain when trees are black against a grey evening sky--and by total lack of over-emphasis has deprived it of the sentimental character it too easily assumes.
The distant view of a river with high hills beyond is more in the Flemish fashion than any other of Leonardo's backgrounds, but the lesser landscape to the left of the angel, dimly perceptible through the dirt and varnish, has the personal vision of the Uffizi drawing. Even more strongly Leonardesque are the flowers in the foreground. The artists of the quattrocento had spread their flowers like verdure tapestry, or drawn them in isolation, like botanical specimens, but Leonardo has given to his flowers and grasses something of the turbulence which he felt to be the essence of nature. They twist and surge like little waves over the space between the angel and the Madonna, giving vitality to what would otherwise have been a dead area in the composition.
Soon after the Annunciation Leonardo must have painted the portrait of a lady in the Liechtenstein Collection. It is based on the same sequence of tones as the angel's head--the pale flesh, the dark mass of foliage, the luminous grey sky; but the head is more firmly modelled than the Virgin Annunciate, and must be slightly later. The Liechtenstein portrait is of an exquisite melancholy beauty, far outside the range of Verrocchio and beyond the power of Credi; and personally I have little doubt that it is the portrait of Ginevra Benci, mentioned in Vasari and the Anonimo Gaddiano, although Vasari says that this was painted during Leonardo's second Florentine period. It seems to represent a lady called Ginevra, for not only does a bush of juniper form the background of her head, but on the reverse of the panel is a sprig of juniper encircled by a wreath of laurel and palm. Ginevra Benci was married in January 1474, and this is a possible date for the picture on grounds of style. Like so many Florentine portraits it was probably painted to celebrate the marriage.
We can guess by its unusual shape that the picture has been cut at the bottom, and this fact is confirmed by the truncated wreath at the back. By completing the curve of the wreath and allowing for decorative ribbons, etc., we can calculate that the amount cut off must have been at least nine centimetres, which would give it the classical proportion of 3 to 4. This would also make it large enough to contain the lady's hands, and Bode, who was the first scholar to give the picture full attention, suggested that these hands were known to us in a famous and beautiful silverpoint drawing at Windsor.
The hands at Windsor, with their longjointed fingers, are like enough to those of the Virgin in the Uffizi Annunciation, and the style of the drawing is just possible for 1474. We may perhaps doubt whether at that date Leonardo was capable of the wonderful firmness and mastery of this drawing; if he was, the scarcity of his early work becomes even more surprising. Assuming that the drawing was for the Ginevra, we see that the fingers of her right hand would have been touching the lower laces of her bodice; and in the picture these laces are in fact repainted. Unfortunately, we can tell from the back that the bottom of the picture has been damaged and the old paint has flaked away, so that an X-ray would not reveal the vanished fingers.
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