The most obvious puzzle is that the London picture was in the church until the late eighteenth century, but it seems impossible that this was the earlier of the two. It has been argued therefore that the Paris picture was removed from the church, probably in the 1490s, and that the London picture was a substitute. But the documents exclude this possibility. They make it clear beyond reasonable doubt that the picture commissioned in 1483 was still in the church in 1508. Had the patrons disposed of it before that time, the painters would have had no contractual obligation to provide a new version, and no payment was made to them for one. Equally, the documents indicate that the patrons did not return the picture to Leonardo. In order to make a second version, he needed access to the original, and this was not provided before 1508. Accordingly, one picture, evidently the one in the Louvre, was supplied between 1483 and 1490, and the London version cannot have been painted before 1508.
It is difficult to accept that such an acrimonious dispute should have dragged on for a quarter of a century, if it could have been resolved by Leonardo completing a picture that, for unspecified reasons, he had delivered unfinished, and that had remained on the altar in that state. This suggests that the real problem was something different, namely that when the patrons said that the picture had not been finished, they meant that it had not been completed according to the terms of the contract. Instead of showing the Virgin and Child with angels, as was required, it showed the Virgin and Child with an angel and Saint John. But why did Leonardo not follow the contract, and why did this matter?
The patrons had a particular devotion to the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine, championed by the Franciscans, that the Virgin, the mother of God, alone of all humans had been conceived without acquiring the stain of original sin. The altar was constructed before a standard way of illustrating this doctrine had been developed, but like all early representations of the subject, it showed a statue of the Virgin standing, without the Child, and a carving of God the Father. It is often claimed that Leonardo’s painting also alludes to the doctrine in subtle ways. But this would have been redundant, and it seems unlikely.
Instead, the picture shows the Virgin as the mother of God, with her divine child worshipped by John and accompanied by an angel. In the context of the altar as a whole, the imagery would have been entirely appropriate. But the subject specified by the patrons, the Virgin and Child with angels, also had a particular significance in a Franciscan setting, because Saint Francis had founded his order and later died at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, just outside Assisi.
We do not know how the patrons financed their altarpiece, but it is even possible that some of the funds were given on the condition that this particular subject was represented. If so, that would explain their extreme reluctance to accept what Leonardo had provided, beautiful though it was. As Ambrogio de Predis stated in his petition of 1503, they were not willing to consider an alternative. But it is easy enough to understand why Leonardo was unwilling to finish his picture as the patrons required, because this would have involved changing the composition very radically.
Leonardo and the de Predis brothers had hoped to receive at least 400 lire, and the patrons initially offered only 100. In 1506 they raised this figure to 200, on the condition that the picture was finished. Had this happened, Leonardo would evidently have considered himself out of pocket, even though after 1506 he and Ambrogio did indeed receive 200 lire. Although the documents are silent on this point, it looks as if the patrons finally accepted the second version, for a reduced fee, and returned the original to Leonardo, who was able to recoup his full fee, including Ambrogio’s share, by selling it to a third party. How and when it entered the French royal collection has been much debated. But it may well be relevant that in 1508 Milan was under French control and that Leonardo had been given a salary by Louis XII. Although he had proposed to Ambrogio that they should sell the copy and share the proceeds, it is certain that the copy remained in the church, and it is this copy that was later acquired by the National Gallery.
The London picture does not look much like the independent work of Ambrogio known to us today, but we have no idea of his competence as a copyist. Leonardo’s own involvement, if there was any at all, is likely to have been very limited. It seems entirely out of character that he should have made a copy of one of his own works, but on occasion he certainly allowed others to do so. In comparison with the Louvre version, there is a lack of individuality and inner life in the figures, which now have a strangely gray complexion. Although much of the modeling is of great delicacy and skill, it seems obvious, now that the two pictures can be seen together, that they are not by the same hand.
The kind of differences we see between the two paintings is also evident in many of the drawings in the exhibition. Other artists in Milan, and especially Boltraffio, were able to achieve remarkable subtlety in their representation of the structure of heads and the fall of light, but only Leonardo was able to capture movement and the play of emotion, whether in his metalpoint drawings of young women or in the equally marvelous chalk studies for the apostles in The Last Supper. No artist before him, and none of his contemporaries, ever matched his complete mastery of the drawing medium. And as Gombrich long ago pointed out in a famous article, Leonardo was the first to understand how to use the sketchy, spontaneous possibilities of drawings to develop coherent and lively compositions in his paintings.
But when they lack the kind of finish that only he could provide, Leonardo’s compositions have a frozen and artificial appearance, as can be seen in all the many copies of The Last Supper, the best of which, by Giampetrino, is in the London exhibition. If one compares this with the preparatory drawings, or with the famous cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, also in the exhibition, one can see how much has been lost. The only paintings on display that really show the qualities that made Leonardo so outstanding are The Virgin of the Rocks and La Belle Ferronière—both from the Louvre—and the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, although parts of the costume of the latter have evidently suffered, giving the hand of Cecilia a rather troubling prominence.
In the past, La Belle Ferronière has occasionally been doubted, but it seems far superior to the work of any other artist represented in the show. In the catalog the proposal is made that it may show Beatrice d’Este, the wife of the ruler of Milan, Ludovico il Moro. But the resemblance to other representations of her is not close, and if she indeed had been the subject, it is surprising that the portrait did not inspire poems by courtiers, in the same way as that of Ludovico’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani. Leonardo, of course, did not only paint the high nobility. His most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa, showed the wife of a Florentine silk merchant.
Compared with these pictures, the unfinished portrait of a man holding a sheet of music, from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, seems static, pedantic, and slightly lacking in character. This is the only male portrait regularly attributed to Leonardo, and I share the reservations that have often been expressed about it. Much more suspect, however, is a recently cleaned painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi from a private collection. This was recorded in a print of the mid-seventeenth century, and the composition is known in other versions. But even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull.
These comments, of course, do not detract from my admiration for this memorable exhibition, which provides a unique occasion for thinking about one of the most problematic periods in Leonardo’s career. To see his works along with those of some of his Milanese contemporaries, and to see the paintings next to so many of his most beautiful drawings, allows the visitor to appreciate how much the other artists learned from him, and also how far, even at their best, they were from matching his achievements.