Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Annunciation: Da Vinci’s Early Experimentation with Optics

The Annunciation is one of the earliest works attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci and exemplifies many of the characteristics of his developing style. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at this early work and at the stellar career which gave Leonardo Da Vinci the reputation of the definitive Renaissance Man. 

Who was Leonardo Da Vinci?

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath and the archetypal “Renaissance Man”. Although he is most renowned today for his skills as a painter, his interests and skills ranged from drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and history to engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, astronomy and cartography. 

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, author of The Annunciation.
Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Piero Da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman named Caterina, and was born in Vinci, Florence. Ruled by the Medici family, Florence was considered the cradle of the Renaissance during Da Vinci’s lifetime. He was educated in the Florentine studio of the painter Andrea del Verrocchio in the mid 1460’s, where he received a thorough theoretical training. By 1472, he had qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors, and although his father helped him set up his own workshop, he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio. Da Vinci’s earliest surviving work is a pen and ink drawing of the Arno Valley from 1473. Soon after he established his own workshop, he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio and another for the monks of San Donato in Scopeto. However, Da Vinci completed neither of these projects as he abandoned them to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan from 1482 to 1499. During this time he painted, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. 

Political Unrest and Relocation to Venice

Ludovico Sforza was overthrown at the beginning of the Second Italian War and thus Leonardo, along with his assistant Salai and his friend, the renowned mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled to Venice. Here he worked as a military architect and engineer, designing defense plans to protect the city from naval attack. He returned to Florence in 1500 and lived as a guest of the monks of the Santissima Annunziata monastery, where he painted The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, which according to the art historian Vasari, was hugely popular. 

Da Vinci then went on to work for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, as a military architect, engineer and cartographer until he returned to Florence and the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. It was at this time that he began to work on his most famous painting, a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, now known as The Mona Lisa. It is speculated that he worked on this until his final years. 

In 1515, King Francis I of France captured Milan and the following year Leonardo entered his service where he drew up architectural plans for a castle town and other inventions. Da Vinci died in France in 1519, in the house given to him by Francis I. 

What is the story behind The Annunciation? 

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Annunciation, 1472-1475

The Annunciation is believed to be one of the earliest works attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, dating from the period when he was still working in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. It depicts the popular subject matter from the Gospel of Luke, 1.26-39 where the Angel Gabriel is sent by God to announce that the Virgin Mary will miraculously conceive a son, who would be named Jesus and would be the Son of God. The provenance of this composition is unknown and it was only identified as a work of Da Vinci’s in 1869 by Karl Eduard von Liphart. In particular the angel and the background are most certainly thought to have been painted by the young Leonardo, as Verrocchio used lead-based paint whereas Leornard did not, and x-ray examination has proved the different paints used on the different parts of the composition. 

The symbolism behind the composition of The Annunciation

The composition of The Annunciation is fairly classical of this subject matter. The scene takes place within an enclosed garden in front of a Renaissance palace. The enclosed garden (or hortus conclusus) symbolises Mary’s purity. The Archangel Gabriel kneels before the Virgin to the left of the composition, offering her a lily, simultaneously symbolic of Mary’s virginity and the city of Florence. The Virgin responds demurely, raising one hand in greeting from her seat behind a marble lectern where she was reading. She is portrayed dressed in blue and red, with a golden halo. The marble lectern between Mary and Gabriel is thought to be modelled off the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de Medici in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, that Verrochio had sculpted around the time of The Annunciation. 

Da Vinci’s developing style 

As one of his earliest attributed works, The Annunciation does contain a few mistakes, which is understandable as it is thought to have been completed during Da Vinci’s formative years. The most notable of these inconsistencies concerns the perspective in the composition of the Virgin Mary, whose right arm appears too long. This may also be an indication of Leonardo’s early experiments in optics and perspective. However overall, it is a masterful early collaborative work between Leonardo and Verrochio’s workshop. The details of the shadows and the drapery are enhanced by the strong crepuscular light which emanates from the landscape in the background. Da Vinci’s use of chiaroscuro can also be identified here, in the contrast of light and dark between foreground and background and in particular between the trees in the mid-ground and the source of light emanating from behind the mountains. His use of naturalism is also evident in the figures and the shadow that falls before the angel and its wings which were based on studies of birds of prey. Thus in The Annunciation can be seen many of the elements that would come to shape Leonardo’s signature style.

See similar artists and artworks in Singulart’s Inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci collection.

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