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Restoring Leonardo

Discover how years of collaboration and research helped in the cleaning of one of the world’s finest paintings.

The Virgin of the Rocks

Wandering around the National Gallery, you can get the impression that the works on the walls have always looked the same. Even though many of the paintings are centuries old, you could feel that the Gallery has just been very fortunate: perhaps these works are just particularly well-preserved.

To some extent you would be absolutely correct – the Gallery is very fortunate to have a remarkable collection. However, keeping art in this condition – and true to the artists’ original intentions – doesn’t happen by accident.

Larry Keith, Director of Conservation, carried out the restoration of the painting 

Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks is no exception. Surrounded by visitors at the Gallery, it is obviously in a different setting, quite far from the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan where it first hung in the early 16th century. Otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is as it always has been.

However, until 2010, Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ was covered by a cracked and yellowing varnish. Following 18 months of specialist treatment, visitors really can be confident that the painting looks as close as possible to the way it did when Leonardo finished work.

Larry Keith, Head of Conservation, explains how his work benefited from years of research:

“'The Virgin of the Rocks' is a fascinating example of how a treatment of a major work grows organically from a great deal of research by a number of people over generations.”

This research has included efforts by Gallery curators, conservators, and scientists, as well as colleagues around the world.

In particular, by looking at paintings by Leonardo, his associates and followers – such as Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Ambrogio de Predis – experts could gain real insight into the artistic intent and painterly techniques behind the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’.

Studying these works reinforced the view that it was not possible to appreciate the painting as Leonardo originally intended.

Read more about the restoration