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Rare Da Vinci sketch displayed in Washington

Wed Dec 6, 2006 5:42pm ET145
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By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch for the background of his painting, "Adoration of the Magi," will be displayed publicly outside of his native Italy for the first time on Thursday at the Library of Congress.

Measuring only 6 inches (163 mm) by 11 inches (290 mm), the sketch gives clues to how the 15th-century artist used his mathematics expertise to compose the entire 9-foot painting on wood.

Da Vinci created a grid of precisely drawn lines using a ruler marked in millimeters, a pointed stylus and very fine threads. The resulting sketch looks like an architectural blueprint haunted by ghostly depictions of clashing soldiers and straining temple workers.

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Da Vinci, who is as famous for his thoughts on physics as his work in fine arts, applied science to art in this sketch, said Stephen Bryen, president of Fiemeccanica, the aerospace company sponsoring the brief, two-day exhibit.

"What struck me when I first saw it was, well I couldn't figure out how he did it," said Bryen. "It's tiny. When you get right up against it and look at it, the precision is stunning."

"Adoration of the Magi," stored in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, has fired up passions in the art world recently, after conservator Maurizio Seracini found that Da Vinci may have begun the painting in 1481 but another artist finished it.

"The monks waited 15 years hoping for Leonardo to come back," Seracini said about the San Donato monastery that commissioned the painting, only to have da Vinci leave to work for Ludovico Sforza. They finally asked artist Filippino Lippi to finish the piece, and Seracini found Da Vinci's original work under Lippi's paint.

In the painting's foreground the baby Jesus greets the "wise men" the Bible says were led to him by a star. The background contains symbols of Christian struggles, such as a new church being built above the ruins of a pagan temple.

The sketch, also kept at the Uffizi, diverges from the painting in many ways, said Seracini. Near the sketch's top are markings for a large tent that would have wrapped around the scene to symbolize the universal importance of the new religion, but the painting does not show a tent. In the sketch, men have gathered on a balcony and stairs, but they are gone from the painting.

These differences help show how one of art's masters approached the task of painting and envisioned his work, he said.

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