In The Journey of the Magi, a poem based on the Christian tradition of the epiphanic discovery of a then newly born Jesus Christ by three wise men, TS Eliot presents a monologue of the surviving magus. As the birth of Christ marked the death of the magus’ “old dispensation,” which he became comfortable with, Eliot depicts him as contemplating whether the journey the Magi took was worth it. So, he says in the poem, “At the end we preferred to travel all night/Sleeping in snatches/With the voices singing in our ears, saying/That this was all folly.”
Interestingly, the sentiments of Eliot’s magus seem to be analogous with those of master painter Leonardo da Vinci, who abandoned his painting named The Adoration of the Magi a year after he started it. With the iconic painting now in the process of being cleaned in Florence, art restorers try to decipher what was going on in da Vinci’s mind when he left it unfinished. Perhaps, just like Eliot’s magus, he thought it would be “all folly” to proceed with it.
“The fascination of this project was seeing something we were not supposed to see, standing behind the artist and imagining what the final version could have looked like,” said Patrizia Riitano, one of the two restorers who cleaned it. Started in 1481 when da Vinci was 29, the painting was left by the artist in various stages of conception and development, reported Reuters.
The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres depicts the three wise men, who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, and also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies. Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.
“This is, perhaps, the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art,” said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery next year. “Leonardo [da Vinci] never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like,” she said, standing in front of the piece.
Da Vinci received the commission to paint an altar piece depicting the Adoration from the monks of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto near Florence. He stopped abruptly when he left to take up an offer of steady income from the Dukes of Milan. In the late 1500s, the painting was acquired by Florence’s Medici family, whose restorers added layers of both clear and sepia-coloured varnish to it to give it a homogenous, monochrome look when they put it in their collection.
The current restoration project, which began three years ago, has removed much of the dull, oxidised varnish as well as traces of past restoration attempts, revealing many previously hidden details, facial expressions and subtleties of light and shadow. There are sections where the same horse’s head is drawn in various positions, where horses in battle still have three-hind legs because da Vinci still had not decided which would go and which would stay. After the wood backing of the painting is restored, it is due to return to a special room in the Uffizi, where it will be on display with two other da Vinci works.
The painting is reminiscent of the genius of the artist, who epitomised the spirit of the Renaissance. “We have gotten close to this inexhaustible genius who is never satisfied with his work, who wants to be totally free... even from his own self,” said Frosinini. “It is as if we are privy to a private conversation; Leonardo talking to himself, perhaps even arguing with himself,” she said.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2014.
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