The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (Italian: Madonna dei Fusi, “Madonna of the Spindles”) is a subject depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in at least one, and perhaps two paintings begun in 1499 or later. Leonardo was recorded as being at work on one such picture in Florence in 1501 for Florimond Robertet, a secretary to King Louis XII of France. This may have been delivered to the French court in 1507, though scholars are divided on this point. The subject is known today from several versions of which two, called the Buccleuch Madonna and the Lansdowne Madonna, are thought to be partly by Leonardo’s hand. The underdrawings of both paintings show similar experimental changes made to the composition (or pentimenti), suggesting that both evolved concurrently in Leonardo’s workshop.
The composition shows the Virgin Mary seated in a landscape with the Christ child, who gazes at a yarnwinder used to collect spun yarn. The yarnwinder serves both as a symbol of Mary's domesticity and as a foreshadowing of the Cross on which Christ was crucified. The painting's dynamic composition and implied narrative was highly influential on later High Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child by artists such as Raphael and Andrea del Sarto.
The earliest reference to a painting of this subject by Leonardo is in a letter of 14 April 1501 by Fra Pietro da Novellara, the head of the Carmelites in Florence, to Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua. Leonardo had recently returned to his native city following the French invasion of Milan in 1499; the intervening years he had spent first in Isabella’s court, during which brief stay he produced a cartoon (now in the Louvre) for a portrait of her, and then in Venice. Isabella was determined to get a finished painting by Leonardo for her collection, and to that end she instructed Fra Pietro, her contact in Florence, to press Leonardo into agreeing to a commission. Two letters of reply by the friar survive. In the second, written after he had succeeded in meeting with the artist, he writes that Leonardo has become distracted by his mathematical pursuits and is busy working on a small painting for Florimond Robertet, which he goes on to describe:
The passage is valuable for being one of the few descriptions by a contemporary viewer of a work by Leonardo; it matches the composition of the Buccleuch and Lansdowne Madonnas in all respects except that there is no basket in either painting. Robertet’s painting was probably commissioned late in 1499 just before Leonardo left Milan, and was possibly begun there.
Scholars disagree on whether Robertet received his painting or not. In January 1507 Francesco Pandolfini, the Florentine ambassador to the French court in Blois, reported that “a little picture by [Leonardo’s] hand has recently been brought here and is held to be an excellent thing”. The Madonna does not, however, appear in a posthumous inventory of Robertet’s collection made in 1532 (though the authenticity of the inventory has been called into question). One hypothesis holds that it passed from Robertet’s collection into that of the French king, thus explaining its absence from the inventory. It is unclear, however, why it would have left the royal collection.
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