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‘Immersive experience’ to reveal Leonardo’s secrets

The National Gallery in London will break new ground in an upcoming exhibition devoted to one of the great works of the most famous artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci. The gallery is seeking to create a new kind of experience for anyone who attends in what it is billing as an immersive rather than a conventional exhibition. The show, which will open on 9th November, will feature The Virgin of the Rocks as its centrepiece. However, it will not just be on display for the public to enjoy da Vinci’s mastery but will also include a detailed scientific investigation into the painting.

In a first for large galleries in the UK, the idea is to show the results of the scientists’ work in a manner that will lend more context to the image, specifically on how da Vinci’s composition evolved over time. Their research has revealed that there are two drawings underneath the finished piece which show that da Vinci was working on the compositional nature of the artwork as he progressed with painting it. One of the two is fairly close in composition to the final painting. However, this one does not present the infant Jesus in profile as he ends up appearing in the finished work.

The Virgin of the Rocks

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks (1491–99, 1506–08). The lines show the underdrawing for the first composition, incorporating information from all technical images. Photo © National Gallery, London.

The other so-called under-drawing that has been revealed by the scientific investigation has a completely different composition, showing how radically da Vinci must have updated his ideas as he progressed with the overall design of The Virgin of the Rocks. In this one, viewers will be able to see how the old master originally chose to depict the Virgin Mary kneeling over her baby as an angel looks on tenderly from the right-hand side of the image.

Tracking da Vinci’s Creative Thought Processes

What the revelation of the under-drawings offers both academics and art fans is the chance to examine just how even a noted genius of art was able to adapt his ideas and, in some cases, to radically alter them in order to come up with something that he was satisfied with. This is why the exhibition is being billed as an immersive one – because it offers an amazing insight into the mind of a creative individual that has never been possible until the advent of modern analysis techniques. Famously inventive, da Vinci may never have been able to imagine that one day his earlier ideas would be able to be explored in this way. But who knows? Perhaps these under-drawings have been left for future generations to mull over just as much as the finished piece?

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks

Detail from imaging data of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks (1491–99, 1506–08), showing the underdrawing for the original composition. Photo ©the National Gallery, London.

Museum professionals should take note of the specific details of the exhibition, which is widely expected to be extremely popular with the public. Firstly, of course, the show involves an incredibly famous work of art which would undoubtedly have attracted large numbers in its own right. However, the immersive experience will allow fine art students, fans of Renaissance art and general members of the public alike to gain insights into the mind of da Vinci without any prior technical knowledge of the scientific processes that lay behind the forensic revelations. As such, it looks to be something that is both informative for academic minds as well as for those with a more casual interest in art.

What Does the Science Reveal?

The scientific research team was able to expose da Vinci’s earlier compositions made use of up-to-date techniques including infrared and hyper-spectral imaging and macro X-ray fluorescence mapping to come up with their astounding images of da Vinci’s under-drawings. This is because they discovered the artist had used zinc in his sketching. The techniques they employed could trace this material underneath the finished paintwork. Furthermore, we already know that da Vinci did not simply settle for his final composition but worked towards it gradually because he was so notoriously slow at finishing pieces. In fact, he worked on The Virgin of the Rocks over two long sessions, one from about 1491 to 1499 and then again from 1506 to 1508. This means the under-drawings were not first stabs at the painting. They represent a visual conversation da Vinci was having with himself over a prolonged period.

The Virgin of the Rocks, which has been in the National Gallery’s possession for many years will be moved from the main space to a lower level for the exhibition. This is so that an adjacent room can be dedicated to the immersive experience via a presentation put together for the gallery by 59 Productions. In fact, the exhibition will end up taking over all of the space on the lower floor galleries including the show’s secondary paintings which will be displayed to put the masterpiece in a wider context of art history.

The exhibition will close on 20th January 2020.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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