Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi’s (Galleria degli Uffizi) belongs to an iconographic and semantic tradition, which beneficed of an extraordinary evolution during the second half of the fifteenth century. In such representations the poor wooden construction described by the Bible is combined with the ruins of splendid classical buildings and mean the beginning of Christianity on one hand and the submitted pagan era on the other. A comparison of the two drawings of Leonardo, held in the Louvre and the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi, and the unfinished painting reveals the various steps of the development of the architectural background. Recent ultraviolet studies identified different solutions, conceived and then abandoned by Leonardo, which allow to reconstruct the ruins and architectural fragments in a more detailed manner. In the first version, the Holy family is placed before a heterogeneous structure of wood and stone, while an antique ruin with two flights of stairs raises on the right side. The drawing of the Uffizi focuses its attention on this ruin now shifted to the left side, while the stairs advance strongly toward the centre. On the right side a fragment of a classical order completes the feature, which evokes an antique forum. In the painting the Holy family is situated is the foreground, without any wooden construction to protect them, and the ruin, whose structure and position is slightly changed, is linked to it by the moving of figures and animals. Like in the drawing of the Uffizi many busy craftsmen reveal that the ruin is intended as a building site.
The parallel flights remind us of the church of San Sebastiano in Mantua, built according to Leon Battista Alberti’s project, and seems to have been inspired by the Roman temple of Claudius. In Lorenzo de’ Medici’s villa of Poggio a Caiano, begun in 1485, such a pattern had been adopted for the first time in a private building, introducing a complete metamorphosis of this type. Vasari records that several architects proposed drawings for this villa and if such a competition had taken place before Leonardo left Florence in 1482, the latter could have seen sketches or models, like those of Giuliano da Sangallo, and perhaps even proposed his own project. This could explain his interest for architectural features in his Adoration, a concern less present in his other paintings. No document confirms the hypothesis of a direct link between Lorenzo’s villa and the ruin of the Adoration, but it is sure that the latter one is nearly connected to the entourage of Lorenzo de’ Medici who promoted in this years a renewal of architectural typologies and idioms, founded on the principles of Leon Battista Alberti, the spiritus rector of Lorenzo’s youth.
When Perugino finished in 1496 another Adoration for the Augustans of San Scopeto he privileged the poor stable conformingly to the biblical tradition, perhaps as required by the monks. Leonardo’s ruin as building-site, as an original metaphor of the new Christian religion, had only little Nachleben. A significant testimony is however an Adoration about 1522/1523 attributed to Sebastiano Serlio, who could have known Leonardo’s bold architectural background through his master Baldassarre Peruzzi.