Render unto Caesar…

Photo: Maurizio Degl’ Innocenti – Associated Press

Two years ago the Uffizi Gallery in Florence unveiled a restored work by Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1481 and 1482. Commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinians of San Donato a Scopeto, the painting remained unfinished when Leonardo left Florence to go and work for the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.

The Adoration of the Magi was not the only unfinished painting Leonardo left behind. An earlier work also remained in the making – St Jerome in the Wilderness, which is now displayed in the Vatican Museum. Both these paintings are referenced by Sandro Botticelli in one of the many paintings he made depicting the Adoration of the Magi – the version housed with the Leonardo interpretation in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

That 600 years later both Magi paintings are kept under the same roof can only be fortuitous, as they are inextricably linked in a way that has remained unrecorded until now.

Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Perhaps because of its sketchy state, the confusing compilation of figures and background scenes of conflict, the Leonardo version has proved to be enigmatic to modern age viewers. There isn’t a heavenly angel in sight amongst “the great throng” of people to proclaim the message of peace. The world, it seems, remains in turmoil.

But for Florentines, at the time when Leonardo began to paint the Adoration scene, the world was indeed chaotic. One particular event that shook not only Florence but the whole of Italy, even reverberating through Europe, was the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers, Lorenzo (the Magnificent) and his younger sibling Giuliano. The attack took place on April 26, 1478, during High Mass at the Duomo in Florence. Giuliano was mortally wounded but Lorenzo escaped with only a slight neck wound.

Retribution was swift. Anyone perceived to be connected to what became known as the Pazzi conspiracy was slaughtered in the bloodbath that followed, hence the warring backdrop and sea of confused faces surrounding the Adoration scene in which the Infant Jesus is raised and presented to the kneeling Magi.

The presentation of Jesus, surrounded by mayhem and uncertainty, mirrors the timing of the assassination attempt in the Santa Maria del Fiore. The conspirators had agreed to strike when the bell rung at the time of consecration and raising of the Host during Mass, and when the congregation closed their eyes and bowed their heads in adoration of the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Observe the figure at the Virgin’s right shoulder, leaning forward and ringing a small bell. Another figure to note is the man behind the Virgin. He appears to hold a knife in his right hand.

Bell and blade… the signal to strike against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici.

Most historians agree that the standing figure on the extreme right, looking out of the frame, represents Leonardo. The figure standing in the opposite corner, described by historian Joseph Manca as “the unseen scholar” and a philosopher “in the broadest sense” is there to represent Julius Caesar, like his namesake Giuliano, assassinated by multiple stab wounds – 23 in total. Nineteen knife wounds were inflicted on Giuliano and a sword also cleaved his head.

It’s at this stage that we can begin to see the association between Leonardo’s Magi painting and the version featuring the Medici family produced by Botticelli. Which came first? On the basis that Botticelli has picked up on Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St Jerome and also included other elements associated with his contemporary, I would judge that Leonardo’s version came first and Botticelli adapted some of its features in way of a tribute to his departing colleague, echoing the homage and tribute the Magi gave to the Infant King.

Similar to Leonardo, Botticelli has placed his own image in the right corner of his painting, looking away from the Adoration scene. In the facing corner Giuliano de’ Medici strikes a similar pose to Julius Caesar, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere. It is this part of the painting that Botticelli refers to the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers, and also brings to light features which identify with Leonardo.

Matching pairs… Julius Caesar and Giuliano de’ Medici… Leonardo and Botticelli

If it is accepted that both Magi scenes refer to the assassination of Giulio de’ Medici, then the current date attribution of 1475 or 1476 given to the Botticelli version has to be moved back to take into account the date of the murder which took place on April 26, 1478. The painting presents other evidence to point to a date of at least 1480 before it was finished; and if it is also accepted that Botticelli has utilised features from Leonardo’s version, then that would push the date back even further, to at least the latter part of 1481, as Leonardo was not given his commission until March of the same year.

More on this in my next post.

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