Sharing the Perspective

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi Reproduction of painting Florence, Uffizi Gallery

Adoration of the Magi

In 1481 the monks of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint an altar-piece celebrating the Adoration of the Magi. Leonardo sketched a series of preparatory studies which allow us to understand the process of conceiving the wooden panel, that he left unfinished when he moved to Milan in 1482. In one of these drawings, Leonardo drew with meticulous accuracy a refined perspective grid in order to place the architectural structures, the human figures, and the animals, which he intended to use to animate the scene, in a realistically proportioned way.

This precious study, kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is shown for the first time ever in the United States on Finmeccanica's initiative and because of the collaboration between the Uffizi Gallery and the Library of Congress.

Study for the Adoration of the Magi

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The Preparatory Drawing Magnified

The drawing is a preparatory study for the Adoration of the Magi, the wooden panel painting that was commissioned to be painted by Leonardo for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence.

The perspective study for the background is striking for its extraordinary precision in both the execution and the measurements, as well as for the wealth of details that Leonardo sketched on such a small sheet of paper. He drew the ground first, then a plan of the buildings, and finally animated the scene with human figures and animals. In order to transfer the drawing on a larger scale as a painting on a wooden panel, Leonardo used a millimetric ruler, a pointed stylus, perhaps with the aid of pins and very fine threads to set up the perspective grid.

Numerous differences can be observed between the preparatory drawing and the wooden panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi. First, the perspective grid of the painting differs from that of the drawing: Leonardo moved the viewpoint, compressing the background space, freeing it from the need of a fixed viewpoint. Moreover, the ruins of the pagan temple on the right are missing in the wooden panel, while the building on the left is nearest to the central axis.

Recent Scientific evidence, provided by analyses using the most advanced, non-invasive technology, and carried out on both the preparatory drawing and the wooden panel, is surprising. We now have the proof that Leonardo left the panel unfinished when he moved to Milan in 1482. At that point he had made a detailed drawing with lamp black and covered it with a thin white lead priming, to guide the spreading of the paint. The latter appears limited to a sample of sky and faint shadows of parts of the figures and architecture. In a later period another artist added various layers of black and brown paint, thus hiding significant parts of Leonardo's original work. Thanks to recent scientific investigations we can now appreciate Leonardo's masterpiece in its original intent.

Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1481, Study for the Adoration of the Magi Pen, watercolored-brown ink and white lead with metal point traces on light brown paper 162 x 290mm Florence, Prints and Drawings Department at the Uffizi, inv. 436E