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Leonardo Drops by Washington

For two days last week, Washingtonians had the chance to view a small sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, from the collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi. In Share the Perspective of Genius: Leonardo's Study for the Adoration of the Magi (December 7 and 8 only), the tiny piece of parchment (about 6 x 11 inches) was accompanied by some technological bells and whistles in its small room on the upper floor of the Jefferson Building's exhibit space. Many of those digital enhancements can be viewed at the online exhibit hosted at the Library's Web site.

Leonardo da Vinci, study for Adoration of the Magi, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Leonardo da Vinci, study for Adoration of the Magi
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The sketch is a partial study, for the upper background of the artist's Adoration of the Magi, a wood-panel altarpiece intended for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto. However, like so much of Leonardo's work, it was never finished. Worse, later hands obscured much of what Leonardo had finished with other layers of paint. Recent work with non-invasive scanning technology, carried out comparatively on this sketch and the wood panel, have given scholars a more complete understanding of what Leonardo was planning to make.

What stands out in viewing the study by itself is the mathematical rigor of Leonardo's working out of perspective in the scene. The orthogonal lines are reinforced with sharp edge and ink, almost like the computerized grid you see behind digital images. When you transfer the image mentally to the wood panel, in which the orthogonal lines are mostly hidden, the vanishing point is slightly off center, behind the trunk of that obtrusive tree. That adds to the shift of the background, in general, to the right, unsettling the symmetry of the scene in the foreground. The sketch, by itself, does little to make sense of the crazy scenes Leonardo had in mind for the background: an architectural ruin with staircases, a battle scene swarming with horses. It becomes a little clearer in some of the infrared scans of the study. Happily, you can still examine those online, but the sketch has gone back to Florence.

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