of Western Australia Extension
Four Lectures by
Leonardos life was restless
and adventurous: He moved from Florence to Milan, to Venice and Rome and
ended his life in France.
We can organize his life into five main periods:
1452 - 1467 Childhood in Vinci to Verrocchios Shop in Florence
1467 1481 Youth and early Manhood in Florence with Verrocchio.
1481 1500 Maturity in Milan with Ludovico il Moro
1500 1516 wandering engineer and genius Venice, Florence, Rome
1516 1519 Old age in France with Salai, Melzi honoured guest of
Childhood in Vinci with Uncle Francesco
Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci (a notary) and Caterina
(a young peasant girl of Vinci). He was raised by his mother and grandmother
and did not see much of his father during his childhood. Although illegitimate
sons were quite common at the time and not an embarrassment to their families,
they did not enjoy the same rights as legitimate offspring.
As a bastard (not an insult at the time) he could not join
any arti maggiori guild (Merchants, bankers, notaries) but
only have a career in the arti minori, (painters, craftsmen,
Little has been recorded about his early childhood: He may have been brought
up by Caterina who, soon after Leonardos birth, married Antonio
di Piero di Andrea di Giovanni Buti (nicknamed Accattabriga: the quarrel-picker)
and had four daughters and a son. From what happened later in his life
he must have had a very affectionate relationship with his uncle Francesco
(who was sixteen when Leonardo was born) who left him his house in Vinci
when he died many years later. It was probably Francesco who taught him
to observe Nature and ignited his passion for kites. Francesco must have
been the real male figure in his childhood and adolescence. Francesco
was 16 years old when Leonardo was born and 32 years old when he left
Vinci. We do not have much information about this period: Francesco must
have been very close to him because when he died many years later he left
all his properties to Leonardo ignoring his brothers and their children
completely. A rather serious decision and quite meaningful too.
Also, soon after Leonardos birth, his father Piero married Albiera
di Giovanni Amadori (a young girl of the Florentine bourgeoisie).
Piero was to marry three more times (Francesca, Margherita, Lucrezia)
and by the year 1498 Leonardo had sixteen half/step-brothers and sisters,
though had very little to do with them as they were all much younger,
living in Vinci, whereas he was sent to Florence in 1467, when he was
16 years old.1467 1481
Youth and early Manhood in Florence with Verrocchio. A cool relationship
with Lorenzo il Magnifico
Since 1466, Florence was a Signoria governed by Piero de
Medici. Piero died in 1469 and Lorenzo became Signore later
to be known as The Magnificent. Lorenzo was a generous sponsor of the
arts, but he also kept a close control on the citys culture. He
was always on guard against many enemies and spies; ready to control the
feuds among jealous and powerful merchant Florentine families (Strozzi,
Pazzi, Rucellai, Tornabuoni, Pitti, Pucci, Corsini, Niccolini,
and extremely careful to keep at bay the continuous attempts of the Papacy
to interfere with Florentine interests. In communal Florence the power
was in the hands of merchants and bankers: royal or papal nobility was
unknown. The Renaissance and late Medieval European city is probably the
birthplace of the European bourgeoisie.
The experience in Verrocchios shop was exciting: Leonardo came to
know all the important people of the art and cultural scene in Florence.
He himself became well known for his natural talent in drawing and painting.
He was also very socially active: elegant and handsome, with a beautiful
voice and musically gifted. He had first-hand experience in the completion
of Brunelleschis Dome (Santa Maria del Fiore) by Verrocchio and
made sketches of the lifting machines used to elevate the lantern and
the huge bronze sphere. For many years, he was thought to be the inventor
and engineering genius of those machines, but they were, in fact, the
product of Brunelleschis mind and of Verrocchios craftsmanship,
quite a few years before Leonardo came to Florence.
In 1472 Leonardo joined the Guild of Painters and had his first commissions.
In 1476 he was involved in a trial for sodomy by an anonymous accuser
(possibly a young male prostitute named Saltarelli). He was cleared, but
his name was tainted and he probably deeply resented the accusation (possibly
for the rest of his life). There is no no direct comment to be found on
this in his notebooks, but many bitter comments refer to human ingratitude
which can be interpreted as this life long resentment A relative of the
Medicis (Tornabuoni) was involved in the same episode and that may be
the reason why the incident was dealt with quickly and relatively quietly
by the Florentine justice.
However, there may have been some grounds for the accusation as, during
his entire life, Leonardo had no known relationship with a woman, whereas
his close male friends were many and his lifelong relationship with Salai,
a young male model he met in Milan and took into his household for the
rest of his life, can be interpreted as a homosexual partnership, or maybe
of some more complex desire of Leonardo to give to the young lad what
he himself never received from his father Piero.
Sigmund Freud in his famous essay A Childhood Memory of Leonardo
da Vinci has no doubts on the matter.
Freud was the first to bring into the open the crucial problem of Leonardos
illegitimacy and his parents separation. He drew a picture of the
conflicts that raged inside the artist, deciphered the ambivalent feelings
he had toward his mother: the deep root of his sexual inhibitions, his
homosexuality and his eventual refusal of all sexual activity. Due to
the phenomenon of sublimation, this also fuelled his intellectual curiosity
and reinforced his instinct for investigation to the detriment, according
to Freud, of his artistic creativity. (Check the lengthy appendix with
Leonardos Horoscope on this specific matter).
In 1478 he left Verrocchio to set up his own bottega (workshop).
He received his first commission on January 1st, with an advance of 25
florins, for a painting in the Chapel of St. Bernard, but never fulfilled
the contract, later completed on his cartoons by his good friend, Filippino
Lippi, who often covered up for Leonardos vagaries. This is the
first recorded story of a pattern which Leonardo was often to repeat -
needing money, seeking jobs, getting contracts, getting advance payments
but not finishing, and sometimes not even beginning, the job.
One of the paintings he was allegedly working on during this period was
the Benois Madonna. The work was lost for many years but re-surfaced in
1914. Apparently, an Italian musician travelling in Astrakhan sold it
to a local merchant named Sapojnikov, whose grand-daughter (widow of the
Russian painter Leon Benois) bequeathed it to the Hermitage Museum. It
now hangs there, though is only a shadow of the original, after many disastrous
restorations and refurbishments by incompetent hands. Berenson refers
to this Madonna as : a woman with a bald forehead and puffed cheek,
toothless smile, blear eyes and furrowed throat. Apparently the
painting is beyond repair but is, nevertheless, an important work as Leonardo
departed from the paradigm of previous Medieval and Renaissance Madonnas.
His Madonna is humble in her attire and her posture is relaxed, while
happily smiling at the stout baby on her lap. Compared to the conformist
paradigm, Leonardos Madonna must have appeared almost blasphemous.
Though close to the Medici circle Leonardo was not given any
specific commission from them, possibly on account of his bad reputation
in terms of reliability, nor was he recommended to the Medici Pope in
Rome when Florentine artists were called upon to build and decorate the
city in 1477.
The relationship between Lorenzo and Leonardo is a matter of some interest:
It is true that there was no great sympathy between them. Leonardo never
received a commission from Lorenzo. Lorenzo chose different artists when
he sent a group of Florentine Masters to Rome when Sixtus IV asked for
competent assistance to paint the Sistine Chapel and carry out other major
art projects in the Vatican. Botticelli, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino
were in that powerful delegation and, above all, he favoured Michelangelo,
who had a mutual loathing of Leonardo. Lorenzo was more interested in
literature, poetry, ladies and political power than in the arts. He may
have snubbed/disliked Leonardo because of the consistent rumors about
his homosexuality, or to avoid a clash with Michelangelo. Lorenzo, who
himself enjoyed singing and music, might have appreciated Leonardo more
for his singing and musical skills than for his other talents, but there
are no doubt many obscure details that history has not recorded which
could explain the strange distance between these two great Florentine
personalities of the 1480 decade.
The relationship between Lorenzo and Leonardo may be described in a mysterious
quotation in Leonardos notes: I have been built and destroyed
by the Medicis.
This note from Leonardos notebook may also explain more:
I know that since I am not a man of letters, some may presume me
to be ignorant. Stupid people indeed! They do not know that I could answer
them as Marius answered the Romans saying:
Those who embellish themselves with somebody elses values
do not want to acknowledge my own values. They will say that since
I am not a man of letters I cannot state clearly what I want to deal with.
They do not know that my knowledge comes more from experience than from
the words of others. Experience is the master of those who write well,
so as a master I will keep her and on her I will always rely. (translation
Leonardo has his commissions in Florence, possibly due to the recommendations
and contacts of his father Piero (1481 contract for LAdorazione
dei Magi,) This painting was left unfinished and was later completed by
others: Lorenzo di Credi, Filippino Lippi, Pollaiuolo.
In 1481 Lorenzo sent Leonardo to Milan with a rather odd task. Lorenzo,
keen to establish a good relationship with Ludovico il Moro (who had just
succeeded in a bloody coup and nominated himself Milans Duke), charged
Leonardo to present the Duke with a special musical instrument. This was
a silver Lyre shaped like a horses skull, which Leonardo himself
had designed, In hindsight, this might have been an elegant way to get
rid of him.
Before leaving, Leonardo was working on the Adoration of the Magi for
the main altar of the Convent of the Friars of San Donato a Scopeto (just
outside Florence). This was a huge painting, 2.5 meters wide, with dozens
of figures in it.
The contract he signed was a strange one. Leonardo was to pay for his
own colours and gold leaf and would have been paid with an estate that
a merchant had left to the Friars in exchange for the dowry to his daughter
Lisabetta. The estate would have remained inalienable for three years
and the Friars could have bought it back for 300 florins (a huge sum).
Leonardo was to finish the work in 24 to 30 months or else leave whatever
he had completed to the Friars. To sign such a contract Leonardo must
have been in dire need, with the almost certain knowledge that he could
never comply -which is actually what happened.
St. Jerome in the desert
Probably painted in 1480 or 1481, There is no documentary evidence of
the exact date, nor information about who commissioned it or where it
was originally located. Also, this painting may be a disguised self portrait
- an emaciated nude crouching before the mouth of a cave and watched over
by a roaring lion. The painting is unfinished, like the Adoration, and
disappeared to turn up later, by accident, at the beginning of the nineteenth
century. One day, Cardinal Fesch, an uncle of Napoleon Bonaparte, was
wandering through the streets of Rome when he saw, in the back of a second
hand shop, a little cupboard with an extraordinary door panel. On closer
inspection he recognized it as a Renaissance masterpiece. It was the head
of Leonardos St Jerome, cut out to fit the dimensions of the cupboard.
Fesch bought it and set out to find the rest of the painting Months later,
he found it in the shop of a shoemaker, who had nailed it to his bench.
Restored, the joints covered with thick varnish, the painting was acquired
by the Vatican in 1845 six years after the death of the very observant
Cardinal. St Jerome lived in Rome, in Gaul, in the Chalcidian desert and
in Syria before retiring in Bethlehem. He translated the Bible and the
New Testament into Latin with a commentary. Legend (confusing two different
Saints) tells us that he won the friendship of a lion in the desert by
removing a thorn from its paw. Traditional iconography depicts him in
his study as a scholar (Carpaccio, Antonello da Messina) or as an anchorite.
In his treatise about painting Leonardo writes: How to represent
despair: Give the desperate man a knife, let him tear at his garments
with his hands and tearing at his wound with one of them
Leonardo s St Jerome is a skeletal body beating his breast with
a stone in penitence
The cry on his lips is of neo-realistic strength
most despairing work of the century.
Ginevra Benci 1475 approximately
Sold to the National Gallery of Washington by the Lichtenstein Collection
in Vienna: This is the only picture by Leonardo now in the States, since
1967, sold for the record sum (at the time) of one million US dollars.
This was later followed by the codex Hammer (1506-1508) bought by Bill
Gates and now in Seattle.
The painting lost a strip of about 20 cm at the bottom where the hands
were originally depicted (as documented by a Windsor cartoon). The loss
is also documented by the missing lower part of a juniper garland decoration
on the back of the panel with the inscription Virtutem Forma Decorat (Beauty
The completion would bring the painting back to the classic 3 x 4 dimension:
The fingers of the right hand were fiddling with the lacing of the bodice.
The hand may have been holding a flower. It is the first time we find
a portrait with hands. Verrocchio had introduced this in a marble bust
and Leonardo was the first to do so in a painting.
The daughter of a rich banker, Amerigo de Benci, she was a writer
of poetry and herself celebrated in many verses, notably two sonnets by
Lorenzo de Medici who praised her beauty and virtue: (She did not
yield to the courtship of the Venetian ambassador).
This portrait is a good example of Leonardos teaching: Give
your figures an attitude that reveals their thoughts, otherwise your work
will deserve no praise.
This young lady inspires severity and toughness, the spiky juniper being
a suggestive symbol for that. Many see in the background landscape an
integration of the character profile of Ginevra
With this painting
Leonardo started to experiment with his sophisticated technique of sfumato
(blending of shades and colours) that was to be evident in the subsequent
The way the background is treated - shades, colours and reflections
is so typical of Leonardos style that, for many critics, they represented
his own personal views and thoughts.
Maturity in Milan with Ludovico il Moro
Leonardo went to Milan and played the Lyre for the Duke with his friend
Atalante Migliorotti. Leonardo was received in Milan with curiosity and
interest, but success was neither fast nor easy. It took a long time before
Ludovico il Moro started to appreciate him and then gave him many commissions.
Organizing elaborate feasts and parties at the Milan Court, devising events
and shows, directing elaborate plays to amuse the Court seemed to be the
main task in the early Milan period. Only later was he to receive the
most important commission, which was the construction of a giant equestrian
monument to celebrate Ludovicos father, Francesco Sforza. Leonardo
had promised to build the largest equestrian monument ever, and started
it in 1489. The size of the monument and the structural problems related
to it, plus the difficult foundry organisation, worried Leonardo for many
years. He was eventually able to obtain the huge amount of bronze he thought
he needed (80 tons!), but another war of Ludovico required guns and so
the 80 tons were seized for that purpose. The clay model remained in the
Corte Vecchia for many years and when Milano fell into French hands it
was used as a target by the French longbowmen and destroyed, (300 years
later there was a curious recurrence by French gunners and artillery people
when Napoleons gunners smashed the Egyptian Sphinxes, seemingly just for
the heck of it).
It was for this failure that Michelangelo mocked Leonardo in Florence.Finished
and unfinished: the debate on the Adoration.
The incompletion of this picture has always perplexed historians,
even more than that of the Saint Jerome. Leonardo had put a great deal
of work in the Adoration, which some consider, even as it
stands, to be one of the most extraordinary pictures of the century. Truly
a great masterpiece and perhaps the quattrocento produced nothing greater
says the usually cool Bernard Berenson. In it one can find most of the
themes that were to obsess Leonardo all his life. The Magi prefigure the
Apostles in the Last Supper; the combat on horseback would reappear twenty-five
years later in the Battle of Anghiari; the figure pointing an index finger
to the sky and leaning against the largest tree prefigures the smiling
John the Baptist, which was to be a kind of last will and testament. (This
characteristic gesture occurs twice in the Adoration on the left, between
two horses, another character is raising his finger heavenward.) If further
proof were needed of the importance of this work, one has only to look
at the reactions it provoked in contemporary artists. Filippino Lippi,
il Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli all took inspiration from it - but timidly
without drawing on all its force. Raphael stood awestruck in front of
it and reproduced elements from it in his frescoes in the Stanza della
segnatura. Michelangelo himself seems to have borrowed from the hallucinating
faces caught up in the swirling ring of darkness around the Virgin some
of the grand elements he put in the Sistine Chapel. Why did Leonardo never
finish the painting? Several explanations have been suggested. Vasari
provides the most simple: Leonardo was capricious and unstable
he said, and did not finish the Adoration because he was not able to finish
anything. As a kind of justification, he adds: His intelligence
of art made him think of many projects but never finish any of them, since
it seemed to him that the hand would never achieve the required perfection.
According to Vasari, Leonardo conceived of problems that were so subtle,
so astonishing that he could never solve them despite his skill. Certain
modern critics, following Vasaris line of thought, have suggested
that the Ambitious Adoration might not have benefited from being carried
through to the end. Finish is only of value when it is a pure medium
of expression, according to Kenneth Clark, who thought that the
finished quality called by the Florentine ideal would no doubt
have shattered the magical charm of the picture. For other critics the
Adoration in its present state is finished and complete. At this
stage, wrote Spengler, the supreme achievement and the clarity
of intention have been reached.
Many were to follow him with the non finito technique and
the most famous of the followers was his arch-rival Michelangelo with
the Pietà Rondanini.
Leonardo certainly found it hard to finish most of his works: the Sforza
monument, the Musician in the Ambrosiana, the Battle of Anghiari, the
Virgin with Sainte Anne,
But the question opened by this debate is in fact another, well known
to any painter: When can you say that a painting is in fact finished?
When to stop and start a new painting is the best choice for the overall
painting experience. When all is said in one painting, why proceed any
? A brilliant idea just intuitively expessed can be spoiled
by useless toiling and fussing with details?
Vasari again describes the problem in his Life of Luca della Robbia, saying:
rapidly made sketches in the first flush of inspiration
express the idea marvellously in a few lines; whereas excessive labour
and too great meticulousness deprive the work of all force and character,
and the artist does not realize when to stop.
When he eventually finished them, for some strange and unknown reasons
the paintings found a way to go back to an uncertain undefined state:
the Last Supper is the most daunting example, as if they did
not want to be finished.
If you think that a sketched painting has the highest semantic potential,
while you go on painting you reduce such potential. The finished painting
has theoretically zero semantic potential: its all there. There
is an unfinished stage where the semantic potential is still high and
the meaning that you would add by painting further is very limited. Ritratto
di Musico 1490
Unfinished, one of the last before leaving Florence or one of the first
in Milan, possibly his friend Atalante Migliorotti
Cecilia Gallerani (Dame with Ermellino) 1488-1490
La Belle Ferroniere (Lucrezia Crivelli?) 1495-1498
In Milan, Leonardo found a very congenial social and cultural environment:
the Duke Ludovico il Moro, son of a military chief, was a man of power
and not of letters, with no cultural hang-ups. The court was not attended
by sophisticated philosophers, poets or literary snobs. Leonardos
practical profile was very much appreciated. His mechanical
ingenuity and versatility in many crafts made him the man of the
day. Whereas in Florence he was reputedly not a man of letters,
in Milan his eclectic geniality and his pragmatic approach were highly
Even today there is a huge cultural difference between Milan and Florence.
The Milanese are considered Yankees by the Florentine: down
to earth people, no fuss money-makers, workaholics. Efficiency, efficacy
and pragmatism will take you far in Milan.
It is a very ancient divide between the Lombard
ethnicity and the Tuscan (Etrurian) ethnicity that still remains
deeply rooted in the DNA of the people of the two regions.
The Etruscans formed the most powerful nation in pre-Roman Italy. They
created the first great civilization on the peninsula, whose influence
on the Romans as well as on 20th-century culture is increasingly recognized.
Evidence suggests that it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans the
alphabet and numerals, along with many elements of architecture, art,
religion, and dress. The toga was an Etruscan invention, and the Etruscan-style
Doric column (rather than the Greek version) became a mainstay of architecture
of both the Renaissance and the later Classical revival. Etruscan influence
on the ancient theatre survives in their word for masked man,
phersu, which became persona in Latin and person in English.
The 20th-century notion that there is a mystery regarding
the Etruscan language is fundamentally erroneous; there exists no problem
of decipherment, as is often wrongly asserted. The Etruscan texts are
largely legible. The alphabet derives from a Greek alphabet originally
learned from the Phoenicians. It was disseminated in Italy by the colonists
from the island of Euboea during the 8th century BC and adapted to Etruscan
phonetics; the Latin alphabet was ultimately derived from it. (In its
turn the Etruscan alphabet was diffused at the end of the Archaic period
[c. 500 BC] into northern Italy, becoming the model for the alphabets
of the Veneti and of various Alpine populations; this happened concurrently
with the formation of the Umbrian and the Oscan alphabets in the peninsula.)
The real problem with the Etruscan texts lies in the difficulty of understanding
the meaning of the words and grammatical forms. A fundamental obstacle
stems from the fact that no other known language has close enough kinship
to Etruscan to allow a reliable, comprehensive, and conclusive comparison.
The apparent isolation of the Etruscan language had already been noted
by the ancients; it is confirmed by repeated and vain attempts of modern
science to assign it to one of the various linguistic groups or types
of the Mediterranean and Eurasian world. However, there are in fact connections
with Indo-European languages, particularly with the Italic languages,
and also with more or less known non-Indo-European languages of western
Asia and the Caucasus, the Aegean, Italy, and the Alpine zone as well
as with the relics of the Mediterranean linguistic substrata revealed
by place-names. This means that Etruscan is not truly isolated; its roots
are intertwined with those of other recognizable linguistic formations
within a geographic area extending from western Asia to east-central Europe
and the central Mediterranean, and its latest formative developments may
have taken place in more direct contact with the pre-Indo-European and
Indo-European linguistic environment of Italy. But this also means that
Etruscan, as scholars know it, cannot simply be classified as belonging
to the Caucasian, the Anatolian, or Indo-European languages such as Greek
and Latin, from which it seems to differ in structure.
The Lombards were one of the Germanic tribes that formed the Suebi, and
during the 1st century AD their home was in northwestern Germany. Though
they occasionally fought with the Romans and with neighbouring tribes,
the main body of the Lombards seems to have pursued a settled, pastoral
existence until the beginnings of their great southward migrations in
the 4th century. By the end of the 5th century they had moved into the
area roughly coinciding with modern Austria north of the Danube River.
The Lombards gave their name to the northern Italian region that was their
stronghold, now known as Lombardy.
Incidentally, this is something which is true for many cities in the World:
each has a very specific character and the people who live in them also
have specific characteristics. In Italy this is even more true because
the different regions and cities have radically different ethnical origins:
Milan was inhabited from early times (centuries before Christ and before
the Roman conquer) by the Longobard Gauls, a Celtic tribe originating
from Northern Europe. Florence and Tuscany were inhabited by the Etruscans
a Middle Eastern ethnic population. Still today the basic Milanese and
Florentine characters are very different and can be specifically described.
despite centuries of common history and the powerful cultural levelling
of things like military service, public education, soccer and TV.
Leonardo had many commissions from the Duke and possibly also from rich
Milanese merchants and bankers: the record shows that he organized the
mega parties for the Duke, with events and stunning stage settings: marvellous
machines, tricks and mechanical gizmos.
The Duke gave him two very important commissions: the Horse for the Equestrian
monument of his father Francesco Sforza and the Last Supper, to be painted
in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie where the Duke intended to
place his familys mausoleum.
1500 - 1516
Venice, Florence, Rome:
with Giuliano de Medici, military engineer and advisor to Cesare
In 1500 the Duke was defeated and became a prisoner of the French: Leonardo
understood that he had to find another sponsor. He travelled with Luca
Pacioli, first to Mantua where he finally drew a cartoon for Isabella
dEste but never finished it as a proper oil painting. He actually
could not stand the preposterous and arrogant lady, who had been pestering
him for decades to obtain a painting. In fact, looking at the sketch one
can see that it is a very grudging Leonardo who did it: coarse and still,
without the usual subtle but tender loving correspondence between subject
and the painter. To him that lady was just a pain in the neck. (Isabella
had a habit of wanting paintings from all the most famous Italian painters
and to collect them).
This period of his life is marked by the discovery of geometry and mathematics
(under the guidance of Luca Pacioli), a very important cultural passage
that was to have consequences on all his subsequent works. Back in Florence
he was able to live for a while in the convent of the monks of the Annunziata
and in 1501 he painted for them the Virgin with Child and Sainte Anne,
then Venice proposing devices to defeat the Turks. He was also trying
to get a commission from the Turkish Sultan Baizet III proposing the construction
of a bridge over the Bosphorous, (without success).
In 1502 he was invited by Cesare Borgia (son of the Pope Alexander IV)
le Valentinois (il Duca Valentino) to be his military engineer and advisor.
He supervised castles and forts, thought of some extraordinary military
tricks, like deviating rivers to flood enemy cities, devised military
equipment (fragmentation bombs?) and multiple guns (the ancestor of the
modern machine gun)
Back in Florence the Republic (with the Gonfaloniere Pietro Soderini)
commissioned the Battle of Anghiari (1502-1504) to be painted in the main
hall of the Palazzo della Signoria in front of a fresco by Michelangelo
(La battaglia di Cascina). Leonardo botched up the work by his desire
to test new techniques, colours, media and wall preparation. Back in Milano
with the French Governor Charles dAmboise (his good friend) worked
on various theatrical projects and also probably began the Mona Lisa.
In this period Leonardo travelled back and forth between Milan andFlorence,
designed a residence for Charles dAmboise and worked on a mega equestrian
monument for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, the military commander of the French
Army who, under Louis XII, conquered Milan and defeated Ludovico il Moro.
He also made geological studies of the Lombard valleys, worked on plans
to channel the Adda river from Lecco to Milano, and developed an intense
fascination for anatomy
In 1513 the new Pope, a Medici (Giovanni son of Lorenzo il Magnifico)
was elected and chose the name of Leo X). Leonardo went to Rome under
the protection of Giuliano deMedici (not to be confused with the
late brother of Lorenzo). He worked on many projects: painting, perspective,
bird flight, mechanics and proposed a project for the drainage of the
Pontine swamps and for a new port in Civitavecchia.
La Scapiliata 1508 approximately
Monna Lisa (Gioconda) 1506-1510 and 1513-1516
In France with Francis I
Nothing keeps now Leonardo in Milan: he accepts the offer of the French
King Frances I and moves to France where he was hosted in the Royal Residence
of the Chateau dAmboise. He works on the Romorantin Castle Project
and on the Channeling project for the Sologne River. He still works on
the Monna Lisa. In these same years are the drawings of the Deluge (now
at the Royal Library of Windsor Castle).
Leonardo dies there on May the 2nd, reportedly in the arms of the King.
Moving on, running ahead and curiosity were the curse of Leonardos
life, as well as the reasons for his extraordinary achievements.
Here are excerpts from the Arundel Code that explain his drama:
Proemium for an autobiography.
Drawn by my incessant want and by the desire to see the great number
of various and strange forms made by the ingenuity of Nature, I wandered
for some time among the shady rocks and reached the entrance of a large
cave; in front of which I stayed for a while in wonder and ignorance,
I leaned forward and placed my left hand on my knee while with the right
hand I cast a shadow on my eyes I turned here and there to see without
discerning anything for it was very dark inside. Immediately two things
grew within me, fear and desire: fear for the menacing dark cave, desire
to see if inside there was any miraculous thing. (translation by
LM)Leonardos character and behavioural profile can be perceived
from his way of painting: We have a brilliant description by Matteo Bandello:
He sometimes stayed there from dawn to sundown never putting down
his brush, forgetting to eat and drink, painting without pause. He would
also sometimes, remain two, three to four days without touching his brush,
although he spent several hours a day standing in front of the work, arms
folded, examining and criticizing the figures to himself. I also saw him,
driven by some sudden urge, at midday, when the sun was at its height,
leaving the Corte Vecchia, where he was working on his marvellous clay
horse, to come straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie, without seeking shade,
and clamber up unto the scaffolding, pick up a brush, put in one or two
strokes, and then go away again
This syndrome is well known to anybody who paints!
Vasari made a good point on the subject:
It is at the moment that they are working the least that higher
minds achieve the most; they are then mentally in search of the unprecedented
and find the perfect form for the ideas, which they afterward express
by tracing with their hands what they have conceived in their minds.Leonardos
painting craftsmanship, technique and the famous blunder.
From a close observation of the Last Supper one can gather a lot of information
on Leonardos way of painting: his craftsmanship, his
He painted with his left hand; his strokes were at times elegant, quick
and light, or in different situations he used long firm strokes. He changed
his mind while working: the process of painting was itself a design and
thinking process, the work done suggested the work to be done. Once completing
a bit he could get ideas on changes that should be brought to already
completed parts. Changes in his mind were progress: continuous changing
was the essence of his creativity. No other Renaissance artist has produced
so many exploratory cartoons or sketches.
This is why he had prepared the wall for the Last Supper with a special
fine plaster, topped by lead white priming. He wanted to have a surface
that would allow him his normal painting process of changing
re-thinking and re- touching finished parts. He wanted to paint on the
wall as if it were a board. He neglected the fact that the thick wall
was subject to a complex condensation problem: the inner mass of the wall
would get very cold during the winter and during the early warm spring
condensation would form inside the wall.
In normal conditions the condensation would be dried up by ventilation,
but the lead white priming was water proof so the condensed water would
build up beneath the priming layer and in time it would allow mould growth
and decay. This eventually occurred.
Many authors refer to the Last Supper as a fresco: with this technique
the pigments are laid in the plaster and when the plaster is dry there
is no way to re-touch or to make any change. If you want to change you
have to scrape off all the plaster and start from scratch (which is probably
where the very idiom comes from) - exactly what Leonardo did not want.
His way of painting was very similar to a thinking process: new thoughts
are induced by previous thoughts. Leonardos painting was the development
of continuous discovery, fed by the sight of what he had already painted
He tried to reduce the complexity of the process with many preliminary
cartoons, sketches and studies, but even so there were still many further
changes in the course of the final painting. There was no way he could
do that with a fresco technique, his ideal medium being oil on board,
but the mere size of the Last Supper (8.82 x 4.59 meters) made this impossible.
This is the reason for the specific preparation with the fine plaster
and the white lead paint priming: the whitest available that gives light
and shimmer to the faces and figures as nothing else available at the
For many years the Last Supper has been referred to as a fresco
and Vasari is responsible for this mistake.
The actual medium used for colouring was an untested recipe: a very thick
tempera diluted in an emulsion of oil and egg-white. The egg-white with
the water from the condensation caused the disastrous decay that started
practically while Leonardo was still finishing the painting in 1499.
The positions of the Apostles at the table from the left to the right
of the observer:
Bartholomew, James Minor, Andrew
Judas, Peter, John (or Maria Magdalene)
Thomas, James the Elder, Philip,
Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon
Giuseppe Bossi discovered a fresco copy of the Last Supper in the parish
church of Ponte Capriasca (near the Lake Lugano Canton Ticino). The fresco
was attributed to Pietro Luini and on a frieze beneath the table there
were the names of the twelve apostles. This nomenclature has been accepted
by Stendhal and Goethe and has been challenged by various critics, but
is confirmed by Leo Steinberg who confronted the positions and the couplings
of the characters with the information given by the new testament. Leonardo
makes a precise statement with the positioning of the apostles which is
consistent with their meaning in the history of the church.
According to Steinberg the positioning of the apostles is very subtle
and yields complex messages. They are divided in two groups of six (to
the right and left of Christ) and then in four groups of three, but also
a coupling by twos is readable with semantic consistency.
Matteo Bandello (14801562) was an Italian novelist.
He was born at Castelnuovo, near Tortona, about the year 1480. He received
a good education, and entered the church, but does not seem to have been
very interested in theology. For many years he lived at Mantua, and superintended
the education of the celebrated Lucrezia Gonzaga, in whose honour he composed
a long poem. The decisive Battle of Pavia, as a result of which Lombardy
was taken by the emperor, compelled Bandello to flee; his house at Milan
was burnt and his property confiscated. He took refuge with Cesare Fregoso,
an Italian general in the French service, whom he accompanied into France
works entirely or very largely by his own hand
Annunciation Uffizi, Florence
Benois Madonna Hermitage, Leningrad
Portrait of Ginevra Benci National Gallery, Washington
Adoration of the Magi Uffizi, Firenze
Saint Jerome Vatican, Rome
Virgin of the Rocks Louvre, Paris
Portrait of a Musician Ambrosiana, Milan
Lady with Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani) Czartoryski Museum, Cracow
The Last Supper Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
Virgin and Child with S.te Anne and Lamb Louvre, Paris
Mona Lisa Louvre, Paris
Saint John the Baptist Louvre, Paris
Statue of Francesco Sforza
The Last Supper. (Milan 1495-1499)
The Battle of Anghiari. (Florence
The Statue of Francesco Sforza.
These three items have two things in common. The first is they were intended
to be Leonardo's greatest achievements. The second is that all failed.
Starting in 1483, a design was developed for a massive statue of Francesco
Sforza, Ludovico's father. He would be displayed mounted on a horse and
the entire piece would stand over 17 metres tall and weigh approximately
eighty tons. That would have made it twice the size of any an other equestrian
statue of the time.
Leonardo spent much time thinking about the statue and, as was his way,
he didn't do much obvious work on it until April, 1490 when he heard Ludovico
was threatening to find another sculptor. At this point he decided to
use one of the horses in Ludovico's bodyguard as his model.
The Statue of Francesco Sforza would have been Leonardo's only major work
of sculpture. He apparently did not hold this form of art in very high
regard and wrote in his notebooks that working with stone was a, "wholly
mechanical exercise." However, this statue was different. Not only
would it be cast in bronze, but Leonardo had a craze for horses and once
he started work he drew huge numbers of sketches on the subject.
Leonardo's original intention was to show the horse as rearing on it's
hind legs; this obviously would not work without some support for the
front end, so a fallen soldier or a tree log was to be under the hooves
of the horse to provide balance. Practicalities put an end to this design
as it proved impossible to cast.
The second version simply showed the horse as walking; this was a design
that would become the model for many later equestrian statues by various
During his development of the design Leonardo did exhaustive work, studying
horses, drawing one detailed anatomical study followed by another. He
drew directly from nature, frequenting the stables to ensure accuracy
of detail. It was noted that Leonardo exhibited no such interest in the
intended rider; he was treated almost as an afterthought. From what can
be ascertained through Leonardo's drawings, the rider was holding the
baton of high command in his right hand, the reins in his left, and was
By 1493 Ludovico was once again becoming impatient. He wrote to Leonardo
and instructed that the statue must be ready by November for the marriage
of his illegitimate daughter. Leonardo replied that he could deliver only
the clay model and, somewhat surprisingly, he did so. This then went on
display in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio and was received warmly
by the Milanese, becoming known as 'colosso'. At the unveiling it was
"see, he has had a great colossus of bronze made in the courtyard
to the memory of his father. I firmly believe that Greece and Rome never
saw a bigger. Just look how beautiful that horse is! Leonardo Vinci did
it all alone."
It was the statue that made Leonardo famous throughout Italy which was
somewhat ironic as he considered sculpting to be noisy and dirty work.
Leonardo drew up plans for the building of four enormous furnaces required
to cast the statue; he then designed a crate which would hold the clay
model during transport to the foundry. The next step was to collect the
enormous quantities of bronze needed for such an enormous piece. Almost
as soon as this was done Milan came under threat of attack by the French
and the bronze was taken to be used for the manufacture of cannons. Even
the clay model was lost when the French used it for target practice. The
little that remained was taken to the Court of Ferrara where it was claimed
by neglect and decay.
So, sadly the result of nearly 16 years of sporadic work was nothing.The
Re-Creation of Leonardo's Horse
No complete sketches exist of Leonardo's horse so any attempt to reproduce
it involves much careful study and a degree of guesswork. Nevertheless,
it has been successfully done with a team of enthusiasts from the United
States working to bring Leonardo's dream horse to life. This cannot be
considered a faithful reproduction due to the lack of a good blueprint,
but copies of his drawings were studied, along with drawings and photographs
by other Renaissance artists. From this an interpretation of Leonardo's
horse was built.
This is believed to be the world's largest equine statue and was gifted
to the Italian city of Milan. Building costs for the 10-12 ton, seven
metre high statue were almost US$6m and funding for the work took 20 years
to collect. An obvious question is why Leonardo requested 80 tons of bronze
for his statue and the answer is we really don't know. Leonardo's horse
would have had an elaborate rider which would account for some of the
The horse came about after amateur sculptor Charles Dent saw some copies
of Leonardo's sketches which were rediscovered in Spain in 1966. Dent
sculpted a clay model of the horse with the thought of building it, then
presenting the statue to the people of Italy. Ironically, Dent's death
in 1994 provided much of the funding as his will was primarily a bequest
for the horse and provided the needed money to take the animal to the
The manufacture of the bronze statue was entrusted to the Tallix Art Foundry
in New York, where it was cast in seven sections. Leonardo aimed to cast
his horse in one piece, however experts today say they would have been
quite impossible mainly because of the difficulties involved in handling
such an enormous amount of hot bronze, keeping even temperatures, and
ensuring the bronze coated all the crevices properly. The horse was also
easier to ship in sections (head/neck, body, four legs, tail) and was
welded together in Milan.
Then, on September 10th 1999, five hundred years to the day after archers
used Leonardo's clay model for target practice, the bronze horse took
its place in the city of Milan.
Love for the gift was not universal with some people branding it tasteless
and claiming that the great work of Leonardo could never be recaptured.
The Milan city council claimed to be thrilled with the work, but did not
choose to place it in a central area of the city, instead placing it outside
the Hippodrome racetrack.
The only other casting of the horse was be for Grand Rapids in the U.S.A.
Referred to as the American Horse, it was installed in October, 1999.
Another Leonardo horse is being built by the Japanese, however this is
of fibreglass.Appendix 2
On April 24th, 1478 Giuliano de' Medici, brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent,
was stabbed to death by Francesco de' Pazzi during high mass in the cathedral
of Santa Maria del Fiore. His brother, Lorenzo, was also stabbed in the
neck in what was an attempt at a double assassination sparked off by a
new inheritance law. Lorenzo had been the primary target but a friend
saw what was happening and threw himself in front of the intended victim.
In doing so he was killed, but this gave time for Lorenzo to escape and
barricade himself in with a young aide who was instructed to suck the
wound, lest the knife had been poisoned.
An accomplice of the assassins galloped into the area shouting 'People
and Liberty', the surrounding crowd replied with 'Ball!s', a reference
to the six balls of the Medici house. Realising they lacked support the
attackers fled towards the Santa Croce city gates, but the assassin and
his accomplices were quickly arrested and hanged. The Archbishop of Pisa
was thrown out of a window on a rope just after Francesco de' Pazzi, one
of the main men in the conspiracy; he managed to turn and bite Francesco
on the chest just prior to their dying. Others were lynched in the same
way and when their bodies were finally lowered they were carved up into
pieces. On top of this, any monks thought to be involved had their noses
and ears cut off prior to hanging; the main hired assassin gave himself
up, sign a confession and was beheaded.
It was made clear that the Pope would never forgive Lorenzo for the killing
of an Archbishop, despite his participation in the planned assassinations.
Even more than that, the Pope had supported the assassins so the failure
of them to successfully kill Lorenzo meant only one thing, Florence would
soon be at war.
The Tuscan reaction to the failure of the assassination was an interesting
one. Though many Florentines were appalled at the treacherous act many
others found it disgraceful for another reason; the conspiracy failed.
The reasoning of the day was that if one was to develop such an elaborate
plan, one ought to be efficient enough to carry it out successfully. This
was simply the attitude of the day, of Leonardo's day.
While all of this excitement went on around him a young Leonardo da Vinci
happily wandered the streets sketching the faces of alarmed and excited
people. Just in his twenties, he was already successful and sought after
by his patrons. He was also already gaining a strong reputation for being
unreliable and having a restless curiosity, which stopped him getting
down to work and dispersed his creative genius.
In the orgy of killing one man could not be located; he had managed to
escape to Turkey where he considered himself safe from arrest, but the
Signoria of Florence requested his extradition and the Sultan obliged.
As a result, on December 29th, 1479, Bernado di Bandino Baroncelli and
his wife were hung in a public ceremony. Leonardo drew this sketch of
that event and in his typical mirror writing also added the following
"A tan-colored small cap. A doublet of black serge. A black jerkin,
lined, and the collar covered with black and red-stippled velvet. A blue
coat lined with fur of foxes breasts. Black hose, Bernado di Bandino Baroncelli."
The notes on the pen and ink drawing are obviously references for a painting,
however there was no commission for this sketch and it is thought Leonardo
may have been hard up and hoping to sell this later for a sum of forty
florins; this never did eventuate