1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leonardo da Vinci
LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452–1519), the great Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mechanician, engineer and natural philosopher, was the son of a Florentine lawyer, born out of wedlock by a mother in a humble station, variously described as a peasant and as of gentle birth. The place of his birth was Vinci, a castello or fortified hill village in the Florentine territory near Empoli, from which his father’s family derived its name. The Christian name of the father was Piero (the son of Antonio the son of Piero the son of Guido, all of whom had been men of law like their descendant). Leonardo’s mother was called Catarina. Her relations with Ser Piero da Vinci seem to have come to an end almost immediately upon the birth of their son. She was soon afterwards married to one Accattabriga di Piero del Vacca, of Vinci. Ser Piero on his part was four times married, and had by his last two wives nine sons and two daughters; but he had from the first acknowledged the boy Leonardo and brought him up in his own house, principally, no doubt, at Florence. In that city Ser Piero followed his profession with success, as notary to many of the chief families in the city, including the Medici, and afterwards to the signory or governing council of the state. The son born to him before marriage grew up into a youth of shining promise. To splendid beauty and activity of person he joined a winning charm of temper and manners, a tact for all societies, and an aptitude for all accomplishments. An inexhaustible intellectual energy and curiosity lay beneath this amiable surface. Among the multifarious pursuits to which the young Leonardo set his hand, the favourites at first were music, drawing and modelling. His father showed some of his drawings to an acquaintance, Andrea del Verrocchio, who at once recognized the boy’s artistic vocation, and was selected by Ser Piero to be his master.
Verrocchio, although hardly one of the great creative or inventive forces in the art of his age at Florence, was a first-rate craftsman alike as goldsmith, sculptor and painter, and particularly distinguished as a teacher. In his studio Leonardo worked for several years (about 1470–1477) in the company of Lorenzo di Credi and other less celebrated pupils. Among his contemporaries he formed special ties of friendship with the painters Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino. He had soon learnt all that Verrocchio had to teach—more than all, if we are to believe the oft-told tale of the figure, or figures, executed by the pupil in the picture of Christ’s Baptism designed by the master for the monks of Vallombrosa. The work in question is now in the Academy at Florence. According to Vasari the angel kneeling on the left, with a drapery over the right arm, was put in by Leonardo, and when Verrocchio saw it his sense of its superiority to his own work caused him to forswear painting for ever after. The latter part of the story is certainly false. The picture, originally painted in tempera, has suffered much from later repaints in oil, rendering exact judgment difficult. The most competent opinion inclines to acknowledge the hand of Leonardo, not only in the face of the angel, but also in parts of the drapery and of the landscape background. The work was probably done in or about 1470, when Leonardo was eighteen years old. By 1472 we find him enrolled in the lists of the painters’ gild at Florence. Here he continued to live and work for ten or eleven years longer. Up till 1477 he is still spoken of as a pupil or apprentice of Verrocchio; but in that year he seems to have been taken into special favour by Lorenzo the Magnificent, and to have worked as an independent artist under his patronage until 1482–1483. In 1478 we find him receiving an important commission from the signory, and in 1480 another from the monks of San Donato in Scopeto.
Leonardo was not one of those artists of the Renaissance who sought the means of reviving the ancient glories of art mainly in the imitation of ancient models. The antiques of the Medici gardens seem to have had little influence on him beyond that of generally stimulating his passion for perfection. By his own instincts he was an exclusive student of nature. From his earliest days he had flung himself upon that study with an unprecedented ardour of delight and curiosity. In drawing from life he had early found the way to unite precision with freedom and fire—the subtlest accuracy of expressive definition with vital movement and rhythm of line—as no draughtsman had been able to unite them before. He was the first painter to recognize the play of light and shade as among the most significant and attractive of the world’s appearances, the earlier schools having with one consent subordinated light and shade to colour and outline. Nor was he a student of the broad, usual, patent appearances only of the world; its fugitive, fantastic, unaccustomed appearances attracted him most of all. Strange shapes of hills and rocks, rare plants and animals, unusual faces and figures of men, questionable smiles and expressions, whether beautiful or grotesque, far-fetched objects and curiosities, were things he loved to pore upon and keep in memory. Neither did he stop at mere appearances of any kind, but, having stamped the image of things upon his brain, went on indefatigably to probe their hidden laws and causes. He soon satisfied himself that the artist who was content to reproduce the external aspects of things without searching into the hidden workings of nature behind them, was one but half equipped for his calling. Every fresh artistic problem immediately became for him a far-reaching scientific problem as well. The laws of light and shade, the laws of “perspective,” including optics and the physiology of the eye, the laws of human and animal anatomy and muscular movement, those of the growth and structure of plants and of the powers and properties of water, all these and much more furnished food almost from the beginning to his insatiable spirit of inquiry.
The evidence of the young man’s predilections and curiosities is contained in the legends which tell of lost works produced by him in youth. One of these was a cartoon or monochrome painting of Adam and Eve in tempera, and in this, besides the beauty of the figures, the infinite truth and elaboration of the foliage and animals in the background are celebrated in terms which bring to mind the treatment of the subject by Albrecht Dürer in his famous engraving done thirty years later. Again, a peasant of Vinci having in his simplicity asked Ser Piero to get a picture painted for him on a wooden shield, the father is said to have laughingly handed on the commission to his son, who thereupon shut himself up with all the noxious insects and grotesque reptiles he could find, observed and drew and dissected them assiduously, and produced at last a picture of a dragon compounded of their various shapes and aspects, which was so fierce and so life-like as to terrify all who saw it. With equal research and no less effect he painted on another occasion the head of a snaky-haired Medusa. (A picture of this subject which long did duty at the Uffizi for Leonardo’s work is in all likelihood merely the production of some later artist to whom the descriptions of that work have given the cue.) Lastly, Leonardo is related to have begun work in sculpture about this time by modelling several heads of smiling women and children.
Of certified and accepted paintings produced by the young genius, whether during his apprentice or his independent years at Florence (about 1470–1482), very few are extant, and the two most important are incomplete. A small and charming strip of an oblong “Annunciation” at the Louvre is generally accepted as his work, done soon after 1470; a very highly wrought drawing at the Uffizi, corresponding on a larger scale to the head of the Virgin in the same picture, seems rather to be a copy by a later hand. This little Louvre “Annunciation” is not very compatible in style with another and larger, much-debated “Annunciation” at the Uffizi, which manifestly came from the workshop of Verrocchio about 1473–1474, and which many critics claim confidently for the young Leonardo. It may have been joint studio-work of Verrocchio and his pupils including Leonardo, who certainly was concerned in it, since a study for the sleeve of the angel, preserved at Christ Church, Oxford, is unquestionably by his hand. The landscape, with its mysterious spiry mountains and winding waters, is very Leonardesque both in this picture and in another contemporary product of the workshop, or as some think of Leonardo’s hand, namely a very highly and coldly finished small “Madonna with a Pink” at Munich. The likeness he is recorded to have painted of Ginevra de’ Benci used to be traditionally identified with the fine portrait of a matron at the Pitti absurdly known as La Monaca: more lately it has been recognized in a rather dull, expressionless Verrocchiesque portrait of a young woman with a fanciful background of pine-sprays in the Liechtenstein gallery at Vienna. Neither attribution can be counted convincing. Several works of sculpture, including a bas-relief at Pistoia and a small terra-cotta model of a St John at the Victoria and Albert Museum, have also been claimed, but without general consent, as the young master’s handiwork. Of many brilliant early drawings by him, the first that can be dated is a study of landscape done in 1473. A magnificent silver-point head of a Roman warrior at the British Museum was clearly done, from or for a bas-relief, under the immediate influence of Verrocchio. A number of studies of heads in pen or silver point, with some sketches for Madonnas, including a charming series in the British Museum for a “Madonna with the Cat,” may belong to the same years or the first years of his independence. A sheet with two studies of heads bears a MS. note of 1478, saying that in one of the last months of that year he began painting the “Two Maries.” One of the two may have been a picture of the Virgin appearing to St Bernard, which we know he was commissioned to paint in that year for a chapel in the Palace of the Signory, but never finished: the commission was afterwards transferred to Filippino Lippi, whose performance is now in the Badia. One of the two heads on this dated sheet may probably have been a study for the same St Bernard; it was used afterwards by some follower for a St Leonard in a stiff and vapid “Ascension of Christ,” wrongly attributed to the master himself in the Berlin Museum. A pen-drawing representing a ringleader of the Pazzi conspiracy, Bernardo Baroncelli, hung out of a window of the Bargello after his surrender by the sultan at Constantinople to the emissaries of Florence, can be dated from its subject as done in December 1479. A number of his best drawings of the next following years are preparatory pen-studies for an altar-piece of the “Adoration of the Magi,” undertaken early in 1481 on the commission of the monks of S. Donato at Scopeto. The preparation in monochrome for this picture, a work of extraordinary power both of design and physiognomical expression, is preserved at the Uffizi, but the painting itself was never carried out, and after Leonardo’s failure to fulfil his contract Filippino Lippi had once more to be employed in his place. Of equal or even more intense power, though of narrower scope, is an unfinished monochrome preparation for a St Jerome, found accidentally at Rome by Cardinal Fesch and now in the Vatican gallery; this also seems to belong to the first Florentine period, but is not mentioned in documents.
The tale of completed work for these twelve or fourteen years (1470–1483 or thereabouts) is thus very scanty. But it must be remembered that Leonardo was already full of projects in mechanics, hydraulics, architecture, and military and civil engineering, ardently feeling his way in the work of experimental study and observation in every branch of theoretical or applied science in which any beginning had been made in his age, as well as in some in which he was himself the first pioneer. He was full of new ideas concerning both the laws and the applications of mechanical forces. His architectural and engineering projects were of a daring which amazed even the fellow-citizens of Alberti and Brunelleschi. History presents few figures more attractive to the mind’s eye than that of Leonardo during this period of his all-capable and dazzling youth. He did not indeed escape calumny, and was even denounced on a charge of immoral practices, but fully and honourably acquitted. There was nothing about him, as there was afterwards about Michelangelo, dark-tempered, secret or morose; he was open and genial with all men. He has indeed praised “the self-sufficing power of solitude” in almost the same phrase as Wordsworth, and from time to time would even in youth seclude himself for a season in complete intellectual absorption, as when he toiled among hisbats and wasps and lizards, forgetful of rest and food, and insensible to the noisomeness of their corruption. But we have to picture him as anon coming out and gathering about him a tatterdemalion company, and jesting with them until they were in fits of laughter, for the sake of observing their burlesque physiognomies; anon as eagerly frequenting the society of men of science and learning of an older generation like the mathematician Benedetto Aritmetico, the physician, geographer and astronomer Paolo Toscanelli, the famous Greek Aristotelian Giovanni Argiropoulo; or as out-rivalling all the youth of the city now by charm of recitation, now by skill in music and now by feats of strength and horsemanship; or as stopping to buy caged birds in the market that he might set them free and watch them rejoicing in their flight; or again as standing radiant in his rose-coloured cloak and his rich gold hair among the throng of young and old on the piazza, and holding them spellbound while he expatiated on the great projects in art and mechanics that were teeming in his mind. Unluckily it is to written records and to imagination that we have to trust exclusively for our picture. No portrait of Leonardo as he appeared during this period of his life has come down to us.
But his far-reaching schemes and studies brought him no immediate gain, and diverted him from the tasks by which he should have supported himself. For all his shining power and promise he remained poor. Probably also his exclusive belief in experimental methods, and slight regard for mere authority whether in science or art made the intellectual atmosphere of the Medicean circle, with its passionate mixed cult of the classic past and of a Christianity mystically blended and reconciled with Platonism, uncongenial to him. At any rate he was ready to leave Florence when the chance was offered him of fixed service at the court of Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) at Milan. Soon after that prince had firmly established his power as nominal guardian and protector of his nephew Gian Galeazzo but really as usurping ruler of the state, he revived a project previously mooted for the erection of an equestrian monument in honour of the founder of his house’s greatness, Francesco Sforza, and consulted Lorenzo dei Medici on the choice of an artist. Lorenzo recommended the young Leonardo, who went to Milan accordingly (at some uncertain date in or about 1483), taking as a gift from Lorenzo and a token of his own skill a silver lute of wondrous sweetness fashioned in the likeness of a horse’s head. Hostilities were at the moment imminent between Milan and Venice; it was doubtless on that account that in the letter commending himself to the duke, and setting forth his own capacities, Leonardo rests his title to patronage chiefly on his attainments and inventions in military engineering. After asserting these in detail under nine different heads, he speaks under a tenth of his proficiency as a civil engineer and architect, and adds lastly a brief paragraph with reference to what he can do in painting and sculpture, undertaking in particular to carry out in a fitting manner the monument to Francesco Sforza.
The first definite documentary evidence of Leonardo’s employments at Milan dates from 1487. Some biographers have supposed that the interval, or part of it, between 1483 and that date was occupied by travels in the East. The grounds of the supposition are some drafts occurring among his MSS. of a letter addressed to the diodario or diwâdar of Syria, lieutenant of the sultan of Babylon (Babylon meaning according to a usage of that time Cairo). In these drafts Leonardo describes in the first person, with sketches, a traveller’s strange experiences in Egypt, Cyprus, Constantinople, the Cilician coasts about Mount Taurus and Armenia. He relates the rise and persecution of a prophet and preacher, the catastrophe of a falling mountain and submergence of a great city, followed by a general inundation, and the claim of the prophet to have foretold these disasters; adding physical descriptions of the Euphrates river and the marvellous effects of sunset light on the Taurus range. No contemporary gives the least hint of Leonardo’s having travelled in the East; to the places he mentions he gives their classical and not their current Oriental names; the catastrophes he describes are unattested from any other source; he confuses the Taurus and the Caucasus; some of the phenomena he mentions are repeated from Aristotle and Ptolemy; and there seems little reason to doubt that these passages in his MSS. are merely his drafts of a projected geographical treatise or perhaps romance. He had a passion for geography and travellers’ tales, for descriptions of natural wonders and ruined cities, and was himself a practised fictitious narrator and fabulist, as other passages in his MSS. prove. Neither is the gap in the account of his doings after he first went to the court of Milan really so complete as has been represented. Ludovico was vehemently denounced and attacked during the earlier years of his usurpation, especially by the partisans of his sister-in-law Bona of Savoy, the mother of the rightful duke, young Gian Galeazzo. To repel these attacks he employed the talents of a number of court poets and artists, who in public recitation and pageant, in emblematic picture and banner and device, proclaimed the wisdom and kindness of his guardianship and the wickedness of his assailants. That Leonardo was among the artists thus employed is proved both by notes and projects among his MSS. and by allegoric sketches still extant. Several such sketches are at Christ Church, Oxford: one shows a horned hag or she-fiend urging her hounds to an attack on the state of Milan, and baffled by the Prudence and Justice of Il Moro (all this made clear by easily recognizable emblems). The allusion must almost certainly be to the attempted assassination of Ludovico by agents of the duchess Bona in 1484. Again, it must have been the pestilence decimating Milan in 1484–1485 which gave occasion to the projects submitted by Leonardo to Ludovico for breaking up the city and reconstructing it on improved sanitary principles. To 1485–1486 also appears to belong the inception of his elaborate though unfulfilled architectural plans for beautifying and strengthening the Castello, the great stronghold of the ruling power in the state. Very soon afterwards he must have begun work upon his plans and models, undertaken during an acute phase of the competition which the task had called forth between German and Italian architects, for another momentous enterprise, the completion of Milan cathedral. Extant records of payments made to him in connexion with these architectural plans extend from August 1487 to May 1490: in the upshot none of them was carried out. From the beginning of his residence with Ludovico his combination of unprecedented mechanical ingenuity with apt allegoric invention and courtly charm and eloquence had made him the directing spirit in all court ceremonies and festivities. On the occasion of the marriage of the young duke Gian Galeazzo with Isabella of Aragon in 1487, we find Leonardo devising all the mechanical and spectacular part of a masque of Paradise; and presently afterwards designing a bathing pavilion of unheard-of beauty and ingenuity for the young duchess. Meanwhile he was filling his note-books as busily as ever with the results of his studies in statics and dynamics, in human anatomy, geometry and the phenomena of light and shade. It is probable that from the first he had not forgotten his great task of the Sforza monument, with its attendant researches in equine movement and anatomy, and in the science and art of bronze casting on a great scale. The many existing sketches for the work (of which the chief collection is at Windsor) cannot be distinctly dated. In 1490, the seventh year of his residence at Milan, after some expressions of impatience on the part of his patron, he had all but got his model ready for display on the occasion of the marriage of Ludovico with Beatrice d’Este, but at the last moment was dissatisfied with what he had done and determined to begin all over again.
In the same year, 1490, Leonardo enjoyed some months of uninterrupted mathematical and physical research in the libraries and among the learned men of Pavia, whither he had been called to advise on some architectural difficulties concerning the cathedral. Here also the study of an ancient equestrian monument (the so-called Regisole, destroyed in 1796) gave him fresh ideas for his Francesco Sforza. In January 1491 a double Sforza-Este marriage (Ludovico Sforza himself with Beatrice d’Este, Alfonso d’Este with Anna Sforza the sister of GianGaleazzo) again called forth his powers as a masque and pageant-master. For the next following years the ever-increasing gaiety and splendour of the Milanese court gave him continual employment in similar kinds, including the composition and recitation of jests, tales, fables and “prophecies” (i.e. moral and social satires and allegories cast in the future tense); among his MSS. occur the drafts of many such, some of them both profound and pungent. Meanwhile he was again at work upon the monument to Francesco Sforza, and this time to practical purpose. When ambassadors from Austria came to Milan towards the close of 1493 to escort the betrothed bride of their emperor Maximilian, Bianca Maria Sforza, away on her nuptial journey, the finished colossal model, 26 ft. high, was at last in its place for all to see in the courtyard of the Castello. Contemporary accounts attest the magnificence of the work and the enthusiasm it excited, but are not precise enough to enable us to judge to which of the two main groups of extant sketches its design corresponded. One of these groups shows the horse and rider in relatively tranquil march, in the manner of the Gattemalata monument put up fifty years before by Donatello at Padua and the Colleoni monument on which Verocchio was now engaged at Venice. Another group of sketches shows the horse galloping or rearing in violent action, in some instances in the act of trampling a fallen enemy. Neither is it possible to discriminate with certainty the sketches intended for the Sforza monument from others which Leonardo may have done in view of another and later commission for an equestrian statue, namely, that in honour of Ludovico’s great enemy, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio.
The year 1494 is a momentous one in the history of Italian politics. In that year the long ousted and secluded prince, Gian Galeazzo, died under circumstances more than suspicious. In that year Ludovico, now duke of Milan in his own right, for the strengthening of his power against Naples, first entered into those intrigues with Charles VIII. of France which later brought upon Italy successive floods of invasion, revolution and calamity. The same year was one of special importance in the prodigiously versatile activities of Leonardo da Vinci. Documents show him, among other things, planning during an absence of several months from the city vast new engineering works for improving the irrigation and water-ways of the Lomellina and adjacent regions of the Lombard plain; ardently studying phenomena of storm and lightning, of river action and of mountain structure; co-operating with his friend, Donato Bramante, the great architect, in fresh designs for the improvement and embellishment of the Castello at Milan; and petitioning the duke to secure him proper payment for a Madonna lately executed with the help of his pupil, Ambrogio de Predis, for the brotherhood of the Conception of St Francis at Milan. (This is almost certainly the fine, slightly altered second version of the “Virgin of the Rocks,” now in the National Gallery, London. The original and earlier version is one of the glories of the Louvre, and shows far more of a Florentine and less of a Milanese character than the London picture.) In the same year, 1494, or early in the next, Leonardo, if Vasari is to be trusted, paid a visit to Florence to take part in deliberations concerning the projected new council-hall to be constructed in the palace of the Signory. Lastly, recent research has proved that it was in 1494 that Leonardo got to work in earnest on what was to prove not only by far his greatest but by far his most expeditiously and steadily executed work in painting. This was the “Last Supper” undertaken for the refectory of the convent church of Sta Maria delle Grazie at Milan on the joint commission (as it would appear) of Ludovico and of the monks themselves.
This picture, the world-famous “Cenacolo” of Leonardo, has been the subject of much erroneous legend and much misdirected experiment. Having through centuries undergone cruel injury, from technical imperfections at the outset, from disastrous atmospheric conditions, from vandalism and neglect, and most of all from unskilled repair, its remains have at last (1904–1908) been treated with a mastery of scientific resource and a tenderness of conscientious skill that have revived for ourselves and for posterity a great part of its power. At the same time its true history has been investigated and re-established. The intensity of intellectual and manual application which Leonardo threw into the work is proved by the fact that he finished it within four years, in spite of all his other avocations and of those prolonged pauses of concentrated imaginative effort and intense self-critical brooding to which we have direct contemporary witness. He painted the picture on the wall in tempera, not, according to the legend which sprung up within twenty years of its completion, in oil. The tempera vehicle, perhaps including new experimental ingredients, did not long hold firmly to its plaster ground, nor that to the wall. Flaking and scaling set in; hard crusts of mildew formed, dissolved and re-formed with changes of weather over both the loosened parts and those that remained firm. Decade after decade these processes went on, a rain of minute scales and grains falling, according to one witness, continually from the surface, till the picture seemed to be perishing altogether. In the 18th century attempts were first made at restoration. They all proceeded on the false assumption, dating from the early years of the 16th century, that the work had been executed in oil. With oil it was accordingly at one time saturated in hopes of reviving the colours. Other experimenters tried various “secrets,” which for the most part meant deleterious glues and varnishes. Fortunately not very much of actual repainting was accomplished except on some parts of the garments. The chief operations were carried on by Bellotti in 1726, by Mazza in 1770, and by Barezzi in 1819 and the following years. None of them arrested, some actually accelerated, the natural agencies of damp and disintegration, decay and mildew. Yet this mere ghost of a picture, this evocation, half vanished as it was, by a great world-genius of a mighty spiritual world-event, remained a thing indescribably impressive. The ghost has now been brought back to much of true life again by the skill of the most scrupulous of all restorers, Cavaliere Cavenaghi, who, acting under the authority of a competent commission, and after long and patient experiment, found it possible to secure to the wall the innumerable blistered, mildewed and half-detached flakes and scales of the original work that yet remained, to clear the surface thus obtained of much of the obliterating accretions due to decay and mishandling, and to bring the whole to unity by touching tenderly in with tempera the spots and spaces actually left bare. A further gain obtained through these operations has been the uncovering, immediately above the main subject, of a beautiful scheme of painted lunettes and vaultings, the lunettes filled by Leonardo’s hand with inscribed scutcheons and interlaced plait or knot ornaments (intrecciamenti), the vaultings with stars on a blue ground. The total result, if adequate steps can be taken to counteract the effects of atmospheric change in future, will remain a splendid gain for posterity and a happy refutation of D’Annunzio’s despairing poem, the Death of a Masterpiece.
Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” for all its injuries, became from the first, and has ever since remained, for all Christendom the typical representation of the scene. Goethe in his famous criticism has said all that needs to be said of it. The painter has departed from precedent in grouping the disciples, with their Master in the midst, along the far side and the two ends of a long, narrow table, and in leaving the near or service side of the table towards the spectator free. The chamber is seen in a perfectly symmetrical perspective, its rear wall pierced by three plain openings which admit the sense of quiet distance and mystery from the open landscape beyond; by the central of these openings, which is the widest of the three, the head and shoulders of the Saviour are framed in. On His right and left are ranged the disciples in equal numbers. The furniture and accessories of the chamber, very simply conceived, have been rendered with scrupulous exactness and distinctness; yet they leave to the human and dramatic elements the absolute mastery of the scene. The serenity of the holy company has within a moment been broken by the words of their Master, “One of you shall betray Me.” In the agitation of their consciences and affections, the disciples have started into groupsor clusters along the table, some standing, some still remaining seated. There are four of these groups, of three disciples each, and each group is harmoniously interlinked by some natural connecting action with the next. Leonardo, though no special student of the Greeks, has perfectly carried out the Greek principle of expressive variety in particulars subordinated to general symmetry. He has used all his acquired science of linear and aerial perspective to create an almost complete illusion to the eye, but an illusion that has in it nothing trivial, and in heightening our sense of the material reality of the scene only heightens its profound spiritual impressiveness and gravity. The results of his intensest meditations on the psychology and the human and divine significance of the event (on which he has left some pregnant hints in written words of his own) are perfectly fused with those of his subtlest technical calculations on the rhythmical balancing of groups and arrangement of figures in space.
Of authentic preparatory studies for this work there remain but few. There is a sheet at the Louvre of much earlier date than the first idea or commission for this particular picture, containing some nude sketches for the arrangement of the subject; another later and farther advanced, but still probably anterior to the practical commission, at Venice, and a MS. sheet of great interest at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on which the painter has noted in writing the dramatic motives appropriate to the several disciples. At Windsor and Milan are a few finished studies in red chalk for the heads. A highly-reputed series of life-sized chalk drawings of the same heads, of which the greater portion is at Weimar, consists of early copies, and is interesting though having no just claim to originality. Scarcely less doubtful is the celebrated unfinished and injured study of the head of Christ at the Brera, Milan.
Leonardo’s triumph with his “Last Supper” encouraged him in the hope of proceeding now to the casting of the Sforza monument or “Great Horse,” the model of which had stood for the last three years the admiration of all beholders, in the Corte Vecchio of the Castello. He had formed a new and close friendship with Luca Pacioli of Borgo San Sepolcro, the great mathematician, whose Summa de aritmetica, geometrica, &c., he had eagerly bought at Pavia on its first appearance, and who arrived at the Court of Milan about the moment of the completion of the “Cenacolo.” Pacioli was equally amazed and delighted at Leonardo’s two great achievements in sculpture and painting, and still more at the genius for mathematical, physical and anatomical research shown in the collections of MS. notes which the master laid before him. The two began working together on the materials for Pacioli’s next book, De divina proportione. Leonardo obtained Pacioli’s help in calculations and measurements for the great task of casting the bronze horse and man. But he was soon called away by Ludovico to a different undertaking, the completion of the interior decorations, already begun by another hand and interrupted, of certain chambers of the Castello called the Saletta Negra and the Sala Grande dell’ Asse, or Sala della Torre. When, in the last decade of the 19th century, works of thorough architectural investigation and repair were undertaken in that building under the superintendence of Professor Luca Beltrami, a devoted foreign student, Dr Paul Müller-Walde, obtained leave to scrape for traces of Leonardo’s handiwork beneath the replastered and whitewashed walls and ceilings of chambers that might be identified with these. In one small chamber there was cleared a frieze of cupids intermingled with foliage; but in this, after the first moments of illusion, it was only possible to acknowledge the hand of some unknown late and lax decorator of the school, influenced as much by Raphael as by Leonardo. In another room (Sala del Tesoro) was recovered a gigantic headless figure, in all probability of Mercury, also wrongly claimed at first for Leonardo, and afterwards, to all appearance rightly, for Bramante. But in the great Sala dell’ Asse (or della Torre) abundant traces of Leonardo’s own hand were found, in the shape of a decoration of intricate geometrical knot or plait work combined with natural leafage; the abstract puzzle-pattern, of a kind in which Leonardo took peculiar pleasure, intermingling in cunning play and contrast with a pattern of living boughs and leaves exquisitely drawn in free and vital growth. Sufficient portions of this design were found in good preservation to enable the whole to be accurately restored—a process as legitimate in such a case as censurable in the case of a figure-painting. For these and other artistic labours Leonardo was rewarded in 1498 (ready money being with difficulty forthcoming and his salary being long in arrears) by the gift of a suburban garden outside the Porta Vercelli.
But again he could not get leave to complete the task in hand. He was called away on duty as chief military engineer (ingegnere camerale) with the special charge of inspecting and maintaining all the canals and waterways of the duchy. Dangers were accumulating upon Ludovico and the state of Milan. France had become Ludovico’s enemy; and Louis XII., the pope and Venice had formed a league to divide his principality among them. He counted on baffling them by forming a counter league of the principalities of northern Italy, and by raising the Turks against Venice, and the Germans and Swiss against France. Germans and Swiss, however, inopportunely fell to war against each other. Ludovico travelled to Innsbruck, the better to push his interests (September 1499). In his absence Louis XII. invaded the Milanese, and the officers left in charge of the city surrendered it without striking a blow. The invading sovereign, going to Sta Maria delle Grazie with his retinue to admire the renowned painting of the “Last Supper,” asked if it could not be detached from the wall and transported to France. The French lieutenant in Milan, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, the embittered enemy of Ludovico, began exercising a vindictive tyranny over the city which had so long accepted the sway of the usurper. Great artists were usually exempt from the consequences of political revolutions, and Trivulzio, now or later, commissioned Leonardo to design an equestrian monument to himself. Leonardo, having remained unmolested at Milan for two months under the new régime, but knowing that Ludovico was preparing a great stroke for the re-establishment of his power, and that fresh convulsions must ensue, thought it best to provide for his own security. In December he left Milan with his friend Luca Pacioli, having first sent some of his modest savings to Florence for investment. His intention was to watch events. They took a turn which made him a stranger to Milan for the next seven years. Ludovico, at the head of an army of Swiss mercenaries, returned victoriously in February 1500, and was welcomed by a population disgusted with the oppression of the invaders. But in April he was once more overthrown by the French in a battle fought at Novara, his Swiss clamouring at the last moment for their overdue pay, and treacherously refusing to fight against a force of their own countrymen led by La Trémouille. Ludovico was taken prisoner and carried to France; the city, which had been strictly spared on the first entry of Louis XII., was entered and sacked; and the model of Leonardo’s great statue made a butt (as eye witnesses tell) for Gascon archers. Two years later we find the duke Ercole of Ferrara begging the French king’s lieutenant in Milan to let him have the model, injured as it was, for the adornment of his own city; but nothing came of the petition, and within a short time it seems to have been totally broken up.
Thus, of Leonardo’s sixteen years’ work at Milan (1483–1499) the results actually remaining are as follows: The Louvre “Virgin of the Rocks” possibly, i.e. as to its execution; the conception and style are essentially Florentine, carried out by Leonardo to a point of intense and almost glittering finish, of quintessential, almost overstrained, refinement in design and expression, and invested with a new element of romance by the landscape in which the scene is set—a strange watered country of basaltic caves and arches, with the lights and shadows striking sharply and yet mysteriously among rocks, some upright, some jutting, some pendent, all tufted here and there with exquisite growths of shrub and flower. The National Gallery “Virgin of the Rocks” certainly, with help from Ambrogio de Predis; in this the Florentine character of the original is modified by an admixture of Milanese elements, the tendency to harshness andover-elaboration of detail softened, the strained action of the angel’s pointing hand altogether dropped, while in many places pupils’ work seems recognizable beside that of the master. The “Last Supper” of Sta Maria delle Grazie, his masterpiece; as to its history and present condition enough has been said. The decorations of the ceiling of the Sala della Torre in the Castello. Other paintings done by him at Milan are mentioned, and attempts have been made to identify them with works still existing. He is known to have painted portraits of two of the king’s mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli. Cecilia Gallerani used to be identified as a lady with ringlets and a lute, depicted in a portrait at Milan, now rightly assigned to Bartolommeo Veneto. More lately she has by some been conjecturally recognized in a doubtful, though Leonardesque, portrait of a lady with a weasel in the Czartoryski collection at Prague. Lucrezia Crivelli has, with no better reason, been identified with the famous “Belle Ferronnière” (a mere misnomer, caught from the true name of another portrait which used to hang near it) at the Louvre; this last is either a genuine Milanese portrait by Leonardo himself or an extraordinarily fine work of his pupil Boltraffio. Strong claims have also been made on behalf of a fine profile portrait resembling Beatrice d’Este in the Ambrosiana; but this the best judges are agreed in regarding as a work, done in a lucky hour, of Ambrogio de Predis. A portrait of a musician in the same gallery is in like manner contested between the master and the pupil. Mention is made of a “Nativity” painted for and sent to the emperor Maximilian, and also apparently of some picture painted for Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary; both are lost or at least unidentified. The painters especially recorded as Leonardo’s immediate pupils during this part of his life at Milan are the two before mentioned, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Ambrogio Preda or de Predis, with Marco d’Oggionno and Andrea Salai, the last apparently less a fully-trained painter than a studio assistant and personal attendant, devotedly attached and faithful in both capacities. Leonardo’s own native Florentine manner had at first been not a little modified by that of the Milanese school as he found it represented in the works of such men as Bramantino, Borgognone and Zenale; but his genius had in its turn reacted far more strongly upon the younger members of the school, and exercised, now or later, a transforming and dominating influence not only upon his immediate pupils, but upon men like Luini, Giampetrino, Bazzi, Cesare da Sesto and indeed the whole Lombard school in the early 15th century. Of sculpture done by him during this period we have no remains, only the tragically tantalizing history of the Sforza monument. Of drawings there are very many, including few only for the “Last Supper,” many for the Sforza monument, as well as the multitude of sketches, scientific and other, which we find intermingled among the vast body of his miscellaneous MSS., notes and records. In mechanical, scientific and theoretical studies of all kinds it was a period, as these MSS. attest, of extraordinary activity and self-development. At Pavia in 1494 we find him taking up literary and grammatical studies, both in Latin and the vernacular; the former, no doubt, in order the more easily to read those among the ancients who had laboured in the fields that were his own, as Euclid, Galen, Celsus, Ptolemy, Pliny, Vitruvius and, above all, Archimedes; the latter with a growing hope of some day getting into proper form and order the mass of materials he was daily accumulating for treatises on all his manifold subjects of enquiry. He had been much helped by his opportunities of intercourse with the great architects, engineers and mathematicians who frequented the court of Milan—Bramante, Alberghetti, Andrea di Ferrara, Pietro Monti, Fazio Cardano and, above all, Luca Pacioli. The knowledge of Leonardo’s position among and familiarity with such men early helped to spread the idea that he had been at the head of a regularly constituted academy of arts and sciences at Milan. The occurrence of the words “Achademia Leonardi Vinci” on certain engravings, done after his drawings, of geometric “knots” or puzzle-patterns (things for which we have already learned his partiality), helped to give currency to this impression not only in Italy but in the North, where the same engravings were copied by Albrecht Dürer. The whole notion has been proved mistaken. There existed no such academy at Milan, with Leonardo as president. The academies of the day represented the prevailing intellectual tendency of Renaissance humanism, namely, an absorbing enthusiasm for classic letters and for the transcendental speculations of Platonic and neo-Platonic mysticism, not unmixed with the traditions and practice of medieval alchemy, astrology and necromantics. For these last pursuits Leonardo had nothing but contempt. His many-sided and far-reaching studies in experimental science were mainly his own, conceived and carried out long in advance of his time, and in communion with only such more or less isolated spirits as were advancing along one or another of the same paths of knowledge. He learnt indeed on these lines eagerly wherever he could, and in learning imparted knowledge to others. But he had no school in any proper sense except his studio, and his only scholars were those who painted there. Of these one or two, as we have evidence, tried their hands at engraving; among their engravings were these “knots,” which, being things of use for decorative craftsmen to copy, were inscribed for identification, and perhaps for protection, as coming from the Achademia Leonardi Vinci; a trifling matter altogether, and quite unfit to sustain the elaborate structure of conjecture which has been built on it.
To return to the master: when he and Luca Pacioli left Milan in December 1499, their destination was Venice. They made a brief stay at Mantua, where Leonardo was graciously received by the duchess Isabella Gonzaga, the most cultured of the many cultured great ladies of her time, whose portrait he promised to paint on a future day; meantime he made the fine chalk drawing of her now at the Louvre. Arrived at Venice, he seems to have occupied himself chiefly with studies in mathematics and cosmography. In April the friends heard of the second and final overthrow of Ludovico il Moro, and at that news, giving up all idea of a return to Milan, moved on to Florence, which they found depressed both by internal troubles and by the protraction of the indecisive and inglorious war with Pisa. Here Leonardo undertook to paint an altar-piece for the Church of the Annunziata, Filippino Lippi, who had already received the commission, courteously retiring from it in his favour. A year passed by, and no progress had been made with the painting. Questions of physical geography and engineering engrossed him as much as ever. He writes to correspondents making enquiries about the tides in the Euxine and Caspian Seas. He reports for the information of the Arte de’ Mercanti on the precautions to be taken against a threatening landslip on the hill of S. Salvatore dell’ Osservanza. He submits drawings and models for the canalization and control of the waters of the Arno, and propounds, with compulsive eloquence and conviction, a scheme for transporting the Baptistery of St John, the “bel San Giovanni” of Dante, to another part of the city, and elevating it on a stately basement of marble. Meantime the Servite brothers of the Annunziata were growing impatient for the completion of their altar-piece. In April 1501 Leonardo had only finished the cartoon, and this all Florence flocked to see and admire. Isabella Gonzaga, who cherished the hope that he might be induced permanently to attach himself to the court of Mantua, wrote about this time to ask news of him, and to beg for a painting from him for her study, already adorned with masterpieces by the first hands of Italy, or at least for a “small Madonna, devout and sweet as is natural to him.” In reply her correspondent says that the master is wholly taken up with geometry and very impatient of the brush, but at the same time tells her all about his just completed cartoon for the Annunziata. The subject was the Virgin seated in the lap of St Anne, bending forward to hold her child who had half escaped from her embrace to play with a lamb upon the ground. The description answers exactly to the composition of the celebrated picture of the Virgin and St Anne at the Louvre. A cartoon of this composition in the Esterhazy collection at Vienna is held to be only a copy, and the original cartoon must be regarded as lost. But another of kindred though not identical motive has come down to us and is preserved in the Diploma Gallery at the Royal Academy. In this incomparable work St Anne, pointing upward with her left hand, smiles with an intense look of wondering, questioning, inward sweetness into the face of the Virgin, who in her turn smiles down upon her child as He leans from her lap to give the blessing to the little St John standing beside her. Evidently two different though nearly related designs had been maturing in Leonardo’s mind. A rough first sketch for the motive of the Academy cartoon is in the British Museum; one for the motive of the lost cartoon and of the Louvre picture is at Venice. No painting by Leonardo from the Academy cartoon exists, but in the Ambrosiana at Milan there is one by Luini, with the figure of St Joseph added. It remains a matter of debate whether the Academy cartoon or that shown by Leonardo at the Annunziata in 1501 was the earlier. The probabilities seem in favour of the Academy cartoon. This, whether done at Milan or at Florence, is in any case a typically perfect and harmonious example of the master’s Milanese manner; while in the other composition with the lamb the action and attitude of the Virgin are somewhat strained, and the original relation between her head and her mother’s, lovely both in design and expression, is lost.
In spite of the universal praise of his cartoon, Leonardo did not persevere with the picture, and the monks of the Annunziata had to give back the commission to Filippino Lippi, at whose death the task was completed by Perugino. It remains uncertain whether a small Madonna with distaff and spindle, which the correspondent of Isabella Gonzaga reports Leonardo as having begun for one Robertet, a favourite of the king of France, was ever finished. He painted one portrait, it is said, at this time, that of Ginevra Benci, a kinswoman, perhaps sister, of a youth Giovanni di Amerigo Benci, who shared his passion for cosmographical studies; and probably began another, the famous “La Gioconda,” which was only finished four years afterwards. The gonfalionere Soderini offered him in vain, to do with it what he would, the huge half-spoiled block of marble out of which Michelangelo three years later wrought his “David.” Isabella Gonzaga again begged, in an autograph letter, that she might have a painting by his hand, but her request was put off; he did her, however, one small service by examining and reporting on some jewelled vases, formerly the property of Lorenzo de’ Medici, which had been offered her. The importunate expectations of a masterpiece or masterpieces in painting or sculpture, which beset him on all hands in Florence, inclined him to take service again with some princely patron, if possible of a genius commensurate with his own, who would give him scope to carry out engineering schemes on a vast scale. Accordingly he suddenly took service, in the spring of 1502, with Cesare Borgia, duke of Valentinois, then almost within sight of the realization of his huge ambitions, and meanwhile occupied in consolidating his recent conquests in the Romagna. Between May 1502 and March 1503 Leonardo travelled as chief engineer to Duke Caesar over a great part of central Italy. Starting with a visit to Piombino, on the coast opposite Elba, he went by way of Siena to Urbino, where he made drawings and began works; was thence hastily summoned by way of Pesaro and Rimini to Cesena; spent two months between there and Cesenatico, projecting and directing canal and harbour works, and planning the restoration of the palace of Frederic II.; thence hurriedly joined his master, momentarily besieged by enemies at Imola; followed him probably to Sinigaglia and Perugia, through the whirl of storms and surprises, vengeances and treasons, which marked his course that winter, and finally, by way of Chiusi and Acquapendente, as far as Orvieto and probably to Rome, where Caesar arrived on the 14th of February 1503. The pope’s death and Caesar’s own downfall were not destined to be long delayed. But Leonardo apparently had already had enough of that service, and was back at Florence in March. He has left dated notes and drawings made at most of the stations we have named, besides a set of six large-scale maps drawn minutely with his own hand, and including nearly the whole territory of the Maremma, Tuscany and Umbria between the Apennines and the Tyrrhene Sea.
At Florence he was at last persuaded, on the initiative of Piero Soderini, to undertake for his native city a work of painting as great as that with which he had adorned Milan. This was a battle-piece to decorate one of the walls of the new council-hall in the palace of the signory. He chose an episode in the victory won by the generals of the republic in 1440 over Niccolo Piccinino near a bridge at Anghiari, in the upper valley of the Tiber. To the young Michelangelo was presently entrusted a rival battle-piece to be painted on another wall of the same apartment; he chose, as is well known, a surprise of the Florentine forces in the act of bathing near Pisa. About the same time Leonardo took part in the debate on the proper site for Michelangelo’s newly finished colossal “David,” and voted in favour of the Loggia dei Lanzi, against a majority which included Michelangelo himself. Neither Leonardo’s genius nor his noble manners could soften the rude and taunting temper of the younger man, whose style as an artist, nevertheless, in subjects both of tenderness and terror, underwent at this time a profound modification from Leonardo’s example.
In one of the sections of his projected Treatise on Painting, Leonardo has detailed at length, and obviously from his own observation, the pictorial aspects of a battle. His choice of subject in this instance was certainly not made from any love of warfare or indifference to its horrors. In his MSS. there occur almost as many trenchant sayings on life and human affairs as on art and natural law; and of war he has disposed in two words as a “bestial frenzy” (pazzia bestialissima). In his design for the Hall of Council he set himself to depict this frenzy at its fiercest. He chose the moment of a terrific struggle for the colours between the opposing sides; hence the work became commonly known as the “Battle of the Standard.” Judging by the accounts of those who saw it, and the fragmentary evidences which remain, the tumultuous medley of men and horses, and the expressions of martial fury and despair, must have been conceived and rendered with a mastery not less commanding than had been the looks and gestures of bodeful sorrow and soul’s perplexity among the quiet company on the convent wall at Milan. The place assigned to Leonardo for the preparation of his cartoon was the Sala del Papa at Santa Maria Novella. He for once worked steadily and unremittingly at his task. His accounts with the signory enable us to follow its progress step by step. He had finished the cartoon in less than two years (1504–1505), and when it was exhibited along with that of Michelangelo, the two rival works seemed to all men a new revelation of the powers of art, and served as a model and example of the students of that generation, as the frescoes of Masaccio in the Carmine had served to those of two generations earlier. The young Raphael, whose incomparable instinct for rhythmical design had been trained hitherto on subjects of holy quietude and rapt contemplation according to the traditions of Umbrian art, learnt from Leonardo’s example to apply the same instinct to themes of violent action and strife. From the same example Fra Bartolommeo and a crowd of other Florentine painters of the rising or risen generation took in like manner a new impulse. The master lost no time in proceeding to the execution of his design upon the mural surface; this time he had devised a technical method of which, after a preliminary trial in the Sala del Papa, he regarded the success as certain; the colours, whether tempera or other remains in doubt, were to be laid on a specially prepared ground, and then both colours and ground made secure upon the wall by the application of heat. When the central group was done the heat was applied, but it was found to take effect unequally; the colours in the upper part ran or scaled from the wall, and the result was a failure more or less complete. The unfinished and decayed painting remained for some fifty years on the wall, but after 1560 was covered over with new frescoes by Vasari. The cartoon did not last so long. After doing its work as the most inspiring of all examples for students it seems to have been cut up. When Leonardo left Italy for good in 1516 he is recorded to have left “the greater part of it” in deposit at the hospital of S. Maria Nuova, where he was accustomed also to deposit hismoneys, and whence it seems before long to have disappeared. Our only existing memorials of the great work are a number of small pen-studies of fighting men and horses, three splendid studies in red chalk at Budapest for heads in the principal group, one head at Oxford copied by a contemporary of the size of the original cartoon (above life); a tiny sketch, also at Oxford, by Raphael after the principal group; an engraving done by Zacchia of Lucca in 1558 not after the original but after a copy; a 16th-century Flemish drawing of the principal group, and another, splendidly spirited, by Rubens, both copies of copies; with Edelinck’s fine engraving after the Rubens drawing.
During these years, 1503–1506, Leonardo also resumed (if it is true that he had already begun it before his travels with Cesare Borgia) the portrait of Madonna Lisa, the Neapolitan wife of Zanobi del Giocondo, and finished it to the last pitch of his powers. In this lady he had found a sitter whose face and smile possessed in a singular degree the haunting, enigmatic charm in which he delighted. He worked, it is said, at her portrait during some portion of four successive years, causing music to be played during the sittings that the rapt expression might not fade from off her countenance. The picture was bought afterwards by Francis I. for four thousand gold florins, and is now one of the glories of the Louvre. The richness of colouring on which Vasari expatiates has indeed flown, partly from injury, partly because in striving for effects of light and shade the painter was accustomed to model his figures on a dark ground, and in this as in his other oil-pictures the ground has to a large extent come through. Nevertheless, in its dimmed and blackened state, the portrait casts an irresistible spell alike by subtlety of expression, by refinement and precision of drawing, and by the romantic invention of its background. It has been the theme of endless critical rhapsodies, among which that of Pater is perhaps the most imaginative as it is the best known.
In the spring of 1506 Leonardo, moved perhaps by chagrin at the failure of his work in the Hall of Council, accepted a pressing invitation to Milan, from Charles d’Amboise, Maréchal de Chaumont, the lieutenant of the French king in Lombardy. The leave of absence granted to him by the signory on the request of the French viceroy was for three months only. The period was several times extended, at first grudgingly, Soderini complaining that Leonardo had treated the republic ill in the matter of the battle picture; whereupon the painter honourably offered to refund the money paid, an offer which the signory as honourably refused. Louis XII. sent messages urgently desiring that Leonardo should await his own arrival in Milan, having seen a small Madonna by him in France (probably that painted for Robertet) and hoping to obtain from him works of the same class and perhaps a portrait. The king arrived in May 1507, and soon afterwards Leonardo’s services were formally and amicably transferred from the signory of Florence to Louis, who gave him the title of painter and engineer in ordinary. In September of the same year troublesome private affairs called him to Florence. His father had died in 1504, apparently intestate. After his death Leonardo experienced unkindness from his seven half-brothers, Ser Piero’s legitimate sons. They were all much younger than himself. One of them, who followed his father’s profession, made himself the champion of the others in disputing Leonardo’s claim to his share, first in the paternal inheritance, and then in that which had been left to be divided between the brothers and sisters by an uncle. The litigation that ensued dragged on for several years, and forced upon Leonardo frequent visits to Florence and interruptions of his work at Milan, in spite of pressing letters to the authorities of the republic from Charles d’Amboise, from the French king himself, and from others of his powerful friends and patrons, begging that the proceedings might be accelerated. There are traces of work done during these intervals of compulsory residence at Florence. A sheet of sketches drawn there in 1508 shows the beginning of a Madonna now lost except in the form of copies, one of which (known as the “Madonna Litta”) is at St Petersburg, another in the Poldi-Pezzoli Museum at Milan. A letter from Leonardo to Charles d’Amboise in 1511, announcing the end of his law troubles, speaks of two Madonnas of different sizes that he means to bring with him to Milan. One was no doubt that just mentioned; can the other have been the Louvre “Virgin with St Anne and St John,” now at last completed from the cartoon exhibited in 1501? Meantime the master’s main home and business were at Milan. Few works of painting and none of sculpture (unless the unfulfilled commission for the Trivulzio monument belongs to this time) are recorded as occupying him during the seven years of his second residence in that city (1506–1513). He had attached to himself a new and devoted young friend and pupil of noble birth, Francesco Melzi. At the villa of the Melzi family at Vaprio, where Leonardo was a frequent visitor, a colossal Madonna on one of the walls is traditionally ascribed to him, but is rather the work of Sodoma or of Melzi himself working under the master’s eye. Another painter in the service of the French king, Jehan Perréal or Jehan de Paris, visited Milan, and consultations on technical points were held between him and Leonardo. But Leonardo’s chief practical employments were evidently on the continuation of his great hydraulic and irrigation works in Lombardy. His old trivial office of pageant-master and inventor of scientific toys was revived on the occasion of Louis XII.’s triumphal entry after the victory of Agnadello in 1509, and gave intense delight to the French retinue of the king. He was consulted on the construction of new choir-stalls for the cathedral. He laboured in the natural sciences as ardently as ever, especially at anatomy in company with the famous professor of Pavia, Marcantonio della Torre. To about this time, when he was approaching his sixtieth year, may belong the noble portrait-drawing of himself in red chalk at Turin. He looks too old for his years, but quite unbroken; the character of a veteran sage has fully imprinted itself on his countenance; the features are grand, clear and deeply lined, the mouth firmly set and almost stern, the eyes strong and intent beneath their bushy eyebrows, the hair flows untrimmed over his shoulders and commingles with a majestic beard.
Returning to Milan with his law-suits ended in 1511, Leonardo might have looked forward to an old age of contented labour, the chief task of which, had he had his will, would undoubtedly have been to put in order the vast mass of observations and speculations accumulated in his note-books, and to prepare some of them for publication. But as his star seemed rising that of his royal protector declined. The hold of the French on Lombardy was rudely shaken by hostile political powers, then confirmed again for a while by the victories of Gaston de Foix, and finally destroyed by the battle in which that hero fell under the walls of Ravenna. In June 1512 a coalition between Spain, Venice and the pope re-established the Sforza dynasty in power at Milan in the person of Ludovico’s son Massimiliano. This prince must have been familiar with Leonardo as a child, but perhaps resented the ready transfer of his allegiance to the French, and at any rate gave him no employment. Within a few months the ageing master uprooted himself from Milan, and moved with his chattels and retinue of pupils to Rome, into the service of the house that first befriended him, the Medici. The vast enterprises of Pope Julius II. had already made Rome the chief seat and centre of Italian art. The accession of Giulio de’ Medici in 1513 under the title of Leo X. raised on all hands hopes of still ampler and more sympathetic patronage. Leonardo’s special friend at the papal court was the pope’s youngest brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, a youth who combined dissipated habits with thoughtful culture and a genuine interest in arts and sciences. By his influence Leonardo and his train were accommodated with apartments in the Belvedere of the Vatican. But the conditions of the time and place proved adverse. The young generation held the field. Michelangelo and Raphael, who had both, as we have seen, risen to greatness partly on Leonardo’s shoulders, were fresh from the glory of their great achievements in the Sistine Chapel and the Stanze. Their rival factions hated each other, but both, especially the faction of Michelangelo, turned bitterly against the veterannewcomer. The pope, indeed, is said to have been delighted with Leonardo’s minor experiments and ingenuities in science, and especially by a kind of zoological toys which he had invented by way of pastime, as well as mechanical tricks played upon living animals. But for the master’s graver researches and projects he cared little, and was far more interested in the dreams of astrologers and alchemists. When Leonardo, having received a commission for a picture, was found distilling for himself a new medium of oils and herbs before he had begun the design, the pope was convinced, not quite unreasonably, that nothing serious would come of it. The only paintings positively recorded as done by him at Rome are two small panels for an official of the papal court, one of a child, the other of a Madonna, both now lost or unrecognized. To this time may also belong a lost Leda, standing upright with the god in swan’s guise at her side and the four children near their feet. This picture was at Fontainebleau in the 16th century and is known from several copies, the finest of them at the Borghese gallery, as well as from one or two preliminary sketches by the master himself and a small sketch copy by Raphael. A portrait of a Florentine lady, said to have been painted for Giuliano de’ Medici and seen afterwards in France, may also have been done at Rome; or may what we learn of this be only a confused account of the Monna Lisa? Tradition ascribes to Leonardo an attractive fresco of a Madonna with a donor in the convent of St Onofrio, but this seems to be clearly the work of Boltraffio. The only engineering works we hear of at this time are some on the harbour and defences of Cività Vecchia. On the whole the master in these Roman days found himself slighted for the first and only time in his life. He was, moreover, plagued by insubordination and malignity on the part of two German assistant craftsmen lodged in his apartments. Charges of impiety and body-snatching laid by these men in connexion with his anatomical studies caused the favour of the pope to be for a time withdrawn. After a stay of less than two years, Leonardo left Rome under the following circumstances. Louis XII. of France had died in the last days of 1514. His young and brilliant successor, Francis I., surprised Europe by making a sudden dash at the head of an army across the Alps to vindicate his rights in Italy. After much hesitation Leo X. in the summer of 1515 ordered Giuliano de’ Medici, as gonfalonier of the Church, to lead a papal force into the Emilia and watch the movements of the invader. Leonardo accompanied his protector on the march, and remained with the headquarters of the papal army at Piacenza when Giuliano fell ill and retired to Florence. After the battle of Marignano it was arranged that Francis and the pope should meet in December at Bologna. The pope, travelling by way of Florence and discussing there the great new scheme of the Laurentian library, entertained the idea of giving the commission to Leonardo; but Michelangelo came in hot haste from Rome and succeeded in securing it for himself. As the time for the meeting of the potentates at Bologna drew near, Leonardo proceeded thither from Piacenza, and in due course was presented to the king. Between the brilliant young sovereign and the grand old sage an immediate and strong sympathy sprang up; Leonardo accompanied Francis on his homeward march as far as Milan, and there determined to accept the royal invitation to France, where a new home was offered him with every assurance of honour and regard.
The remaining two and a half years of Leonardo’s life were spent at the Castle of Cloux near Amboise, which was assigned, with a handsome pension, to his use. The court came often to Amboise, and the king delighted in his company, declaring his knowledge both of the fine arts and of philosophy to be beyond those of all mortal men. In the spring of 1518 Leonardo had occasion to exercise his old talents as a festival-master when the dauphin was christened and a Medici-Bourbon marriage celebrated. He drew the designs for a new palace at Amboise, and was much engaged with the project of a great canal to connect the Loire and Saône. An ingenious attempt has been made to prove, in the absence of records, that the famous spiral staircase at Blois was also of his designing.
Among his visitors was a fellow-countryman, Cardinal Louis of Aragon, whose secretary has left an account of the day. Leonardo, it seems, was suffering from some form of slight paralysis which impaired his power of hand. But he showed the cardinal three pictures, the portrait of a Florentine lady done for Giuliano de’ Medici (the Gioconda?), the Virgin in the lap of St Anne (the Louvre picture; finished at Florence or Milan 1507–1513?), and a youthful John the Baptist. The last, which may have been done since he settled in France, is the darkened and partly repainted, but still powerful and haunting half-length figure in the Louvre, with the smile of inward ravishment and the prophetic finger beckoning skyward like that of St Anne in the Academy cartoon. Of the “Pomona” mentioned by Lomazzo as a work of the Amboise time his visitor says nothing, nor yet of the Louvre “Bacchus,” which tradition ascribes to Leonardo but which is clearly pupil’s work. Besides pictures, the master seems also to have shown and explained to his visitors some of his vast store of notes and observations on anatomy and physics. He kept hoping to get some order among his papers, the accumulation of more than forty years, and perhaps to give the world some portion of the studies they contained. But his strength was nearly exhausted. On Easter Eve 1519, feeling that the end was near, he made his will. It made provision, as became a great servant of the most Christian king, for masses to be said and candles to be offered in three different churches of Amboise, first among them that of St Florentin, where he desired to be buried, as well as for sixty poor men to serve as torch-bearers at his funeral. Vasari babbles of a death-bed conversion and repentance. But Leonardo had never been either a friend or an enemy of the Church. Sometimes, indeed, he denounces fiercely enough the arts and pretensions of priests; but no one has embodied with such profound spiritual insight some of the most vital moments of the Christian story. His insatiable researches into natural fact brought upon him among the vulgar some suspicion of practising those magic arts which of all things he scouted and despised. The bent of his mind was all towards the teachings of experience and against those of authority, and laws of nature certainly occupied far more of his thoughts than dogmas of religion; but when he mentions these it is with respect as throwing light on the truth of things from a side which was not his own. His conformity at the end had in it nothing contradictory of his past. He received the sacraments of the Church and died on the 2nd of May 1519. King Francis, then at his court of St Germain-en-Laye, is said to have wept for the loss of such a servant; that he was present beside the death-bed and held the dying painter in his arms is a familiar but an untrue tale. After a temporary sepulture elsewhere his remains were transported on the 12th of August to the cloister of St Florentin according to his wish. He left all his MSS. and apparently all the contents of his studio, with other gifts, to the devoted Melzi, whom he named executor; to Salai and to his servant Battista Villanis a half each of his vineyard outside Milan; gifts of money and clothes to his maid Maturina; one of money to the poor of the hospital in Amboise; and to his unbrotherly half-brothers a sum of four hundred ducats lying to his credit at Florence.
History tells of no man gifted in the same degree as Leonardo was at once for art and science. In art he was an inheritor and perfecter, born in a day of great and many-sided endeavours on which he put the crown, surpassing both predecessors and contemporaries. In science, on the other hand, he was a pioneer, working wholly for the future, and in great part alone. That the two stupendous gifts should in some degree neutralize each other was inevitable. No imaginable strength of any single man would have sufficed to carry out a hundredth part of what Leonardo essayed. The mere attempt to conquer the kingdom of light and shade for the art of painting was destined to tax the skill of generations, and is perhaps not wholly and finally accomplished yet. Leonardo sought to achieve that conquest and at the same time to carry the old Florentine excellences of linear drawing and psychological expression to a perfection of which other men had not dreamed. The result, though marvellous in quality, is in quantity lamentably meagre. Knowing and doing allured him equally, and in art, which consists in doing, his efforts were often paralysed by his strained desire to know. The thirst for knowledge had first been aroused in him by the desire of perfecting the images of beauty and power which it was his business to create.
Thence there grew upon him the passion of knowledge for its own sake. In the splendid balance of his nature the Virgilian longing, rerum cognoscere causas, could never indeed wholly silence the call to exercise his active powers. But the powers he cared most to exercise ceased by degree to be those of imaginative creation, and came to be those of turning to practical human use the mastery which his studies had taught him over the forces of nature. In science he was the first among modern men to set himself most of those problems which unnumbered searchers of later generations have laboured severally or in concert to solve. Florence had had other sons of comprehensive genius, artistic and mechanical, Leon Battista Alberti perhaps the chief. But the more the range and character of Leonardo’s studies becomes ascertained the more his greatness dwarfs them all. A hundred years before Bacon, say those who can judge best, he showed a firmer grasp of the principles of experimental science than Bacon showed, fortified by a far wider range of actual experiment and observation. Not in his actual conclusions, though many of these point with surprising accuracy in the direction of truths established by later generations, but in the soundness, the wisdom, the tenacity of his methods lies his great title to glory. Had the Catholic reaction not fatally discouraged the pursuit of the natural sciences in Italy, had Leonardo even left behind him any one with zeal and knowledge enough to extract from the mass of his MSS. some portion of his labours in those sciences and give them to the world, an incalculable impulse would have been given to all those enquiries by which mankind has since been striving to understand the laws of its being and control the conditions of its environment,—to mathematics and astronomy, to mechanics, hydraulics, and physics generally, to geology, geography, and cosmology, to anatomy and the sciences of life. As it was, these studies of Leonardo—“studies intense of strong and stern delight”—seemed to his trivial followers and biographers merely his whims and fancies, ghiribizzi, things to be spoken of slightingly and with apology. The MSS., with the single exception of some of those relating to painting, lay unheeded and undivulged until the present generation; and it is only now that the true range of Leonardo’s powers is beginning to be fully discerned.
So much for the intellectual side of Leonardo’s character and career. As a moral being we are less able to discern what he was like. The man who carried in his brain so many images of subtle beauty, as well as so much of the hidden science of the future, must have lived spiritually, in the main, alone. Of things communicable he was at the same time, as we have said, communicative—a genial companion, a generous and loyal friend, ready and eloquent of discourse, impressing all with whom he was brought in contact by the power and the charm of genius, and inspiring fervent devotion and attachment in friends and pupils. We see him living on terms of constant affection with his father, and in disputes with his brothers not the aggressor but the sufferer from aggression. We see him full of tenderness to animals, a virtue not common in Italy in spite of the example of St Francis; open-handed in giving, not eager in getting—“poor,” he says, “is the man of many wants”; not prone to resentment—“the best shield against injustice is to double the cloak of long-suffering”; zealous in labour above all men—“as a day well spent gives joyful sleep, so does a life well spent give joyful death.” With these instincts and maxims, and with his strength, granting it almost more than human, spent ever tunnelling in abstruse mines of knowledge, his moral experience is not likely to have been deeply troubled. In religion, he regarded the faith of his age and country at least with imaginative sympathy and intellectual acquiescence, if no more. On the political storms which shook his country and drove him from one employment to another, he seems to have looked not with the passionate participation of a Dante or a Michelangelo but rather with the serene detachment of a Goethe. In matters of the heart, if any consoling or any disturbing passion played a great part in his life, we do not know it; we know only (apart from a few passing shadows cast by calumny and envy) of affectionate and dignified relations with friends, patrons and pupils, of public and private regard mixed in the days of his youth with dazzled admiration, and in those of his age with something of reverential awe.
The Drawings of Leonardo.—These are among the greatest treasures ever given to the world by the human spirit expressing itself in pen and pencil. Apart from the many hundreds of illustrative pen-sketches scattered through his autobiographic and scientific MSS., the principal collection is at Windsor Castle (partly derived from the Arundel collection); others of importance are in the British Museum; at Christ Church, Oxford; in the Louvre, at Chantilly, in the Uffizi, the Venice Academy, the Royal Library at Turin, the Museum of Budapest, and in the collections of M. Bonnat, Mrs Mond, and Captain Holford. Leonardo’s chief implements were pen, silver-point, and red and black chalk (red chalk especially). In silver-point there are many beautiful drawings of his earlier time, and some of his later; but of the charming heads of women and young men in this material attributed to him in various collections, comparatively few are his own work, the majority being drawings in his spirit by his pupils Ambrogio Preda or Boltraffio. Leonardo appears to have been left-handed. There is some doubt on the point; but a contemporary and intimate friend, Luca Pacioli, speaks of his “ineffable left hand”; all the best of his drawings are shaded downward from left to right, which would be the readiest way for a left-handed man; and his habitual eccentric practice of writing from right to left is much more likely to have been due to natural left-handedness than to any desire of mystery or concealment. A full critical discussion and catalogue of the extant drawings of Leonardo are to be found in Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters.
The Writings of Leonardo.—The only printed book bearing Leonardo’s name until the recent issues of transcripts from his MSS. was the celebrated Treatise on Painting (Trattato della pittura, Traité de la peinture). This consists of brief didactic chapters, or more properly paragraphs, of practical direction or critical remark on all the branches and conditions of a painter’s practice. The original MS. draft of Leonardo has been lost, though a great number of notes for it are scattered through the various extant volumes of his MSS. The work has been printed in two different forms; one of these is an abridged version consisting of 365 sections; the first edition of it was published in Paris in 1551, by Raphael Dufresne, from a MS. which he found in the Barberini library; the last, translated into English by J. F. Rigaud, in London, 1877. The other is a more extended version, in 912 sections, divided into eight books; this was printed in 1817 by Guglielmo Manzi at Rome, from two MSS. which he had discovered in the Vatican library; a German translation from the same MS. has been edited by G. H. Ludwig in Eitelberger’s series of Quellenschriften für Kunstgeschichte (Vienna, 1882; Stuttgart, 1885). On the history of the book in general see Max Jordan, Das Malerbuch des Leonardo da Vinci (Leipzig, 1873). The unknown compilers of the Vatican MSS. must have had before them much more of Leonardo’s original text than is now extant. Only about a quarter of the total number of paragraphs are identical with passages to be found in the master’s existing autograph note-books. It is indeed doubtful whether Leonardo himself ever completed the MS. treatise (or treatises) on painting and kindred subjects mentioned by Fra Luca Pacioli and by Vasari, and probable that the form and order, and perhaps some of the substance, of the Trattato as we have it was due to compilers and not to the master himself.
In recent years a whole body of scholars and editors have been engaged in giving to the world the texts of Leonardo’s existing MSS. The history of these is too complicated to be told here in any detail. Francesco Melzi (d. 1570) kept the greater part of his master’s bequest together as a sacred trust as long as he lived, though even in his time some MSS. on the art of painting seem to have passed into other hands. But his descendants suffered the treasure to be recklessly dispersed. The chief agents in their dispersal were the Doctor Orazio Melzi who possessed them in the last quarter of the 16th century; the members of a Milanese family called Mazzenta, into whose hands they passed in Orazio Melzi’s lifetime; and the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who at one time entertained the design of procuring their presentation to Philip II. of Spain, and who cut up a number of the note-books to form the great miscellaneous single volume called the Codice Atlantico, now at Milan. This volume, with a large proportion of the total number of other Leonardo MSS. then existing, passed into the hands of a Count Arconati, who presented them to the Ambrosian library at Milan in 1636. In the meantime the earl of Arundel had made a vain attempt to purchase one of these volumes (the Codice Atlantico?) at a great price for the king of England. Some stray parts of the collection, including the MSS. now at Windsor, did evidently come into Lord Arundel’s possession, and the history of some other parts can befollowed; while much, it is evident, was lost for good. In 1796 Napoleon swept away to Paris, along with the other art treasures of Italy, the whole of the Leonardo MSS. at the Ambrosiana: only the Codice Atlantico was afterwards restored, the other volumes remaining the property of the Institut de France. These also have had their adventures, two of them having been stolen by Count Libri and passed temporarily into the collection of Lord Ashburnham, whence they were in recent years made over again to the Institute. The first important step towards a better knowledge of the MSS. was made by the beginning, in 1880, of the great series of publications from the MSS. of the Institut de France undertaken by C. Ravaisson-Mollien; the next by the publication in 1883 of Dr J. P. Richter’s Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (see Bibliography): this work included, besides a history and analytical index of the MSS., facsimiles of a number of selected pages containing matter of autobiographical, artistic, or literary interest, with transcripts and translations of their MS. contexts. Since then much progress has been made in the publication of the complete MSS., scientific and other, whether with adequate critical apparatus or in the form of mere facsimile without transliteration or comment.
A brief statement follows of the present distribution of the several MSS. and of the form in which they are severally published:—
England.—Windsor: Nine MSS., chiefly on anatomy, published entire in simple facsimile by Rouveyre (Paris, 1901); partially, with transliterations and introduction by Piumati and Sabachnikoff (Paris, 1898, foll.); British Museum: one MS., miscellaneous, unpublished; Victoria and Albert Museum: ten note-books bound in 3 vols.; facsimile by Rouveyre, Holkham (collection of Lord Leicester), 1 vol., on hydraulics and the action of water; published in facsimile with transliteration and notes by Gerolamo Calvi. France.—Institut de France: seventeen MSS., all published with transliteration and notes by C. Ravaisson-Mollien (6 vols., Paris, 1880–1891). Italy.—Milan, Ambrosiana: the Codice Atlantico, the huge miscellany, of vital importance for the study of the master, put together by Pompeo Leoni; published in facsimile, with transliteration, by the Accademia dei Lincei (1894, foll.); Milan: collection of Count Trivulzio; 1 vol., miscellaneous; published and edited by L. Beltrami (1892); Rome: collection of Count Marszolini; Treatise on the Flight of Birds, published and edited by Piumati and Sabachnikoff (Paris, 1492).
Bibliography.—The principal authorities are:—“Il libro di Antonio Billi,” edited from MS. by G. de Fabriazy in Archivio Storico Ital. ser. v. vol. 7; “Breve vita di Leonardo da Vinci, scritto da un adnonimo del 1500” (known as the Anonimo Gaddiano), printed by G. Milanesi in Archivio Storico Ital. t. xvi. (1872), translated with notes by H. P. Horne in series published by the Unicorn Library (1903); Paolo Giovio, “Leonardi Vincii vita,” in his Elogia, printed in Tiraboschi, Storia della Lett. Ital. t. vii. pt. 4, and in Classici Italiani, vol. 314; Vasari, in his celebrated Lives of the Painters (1st ed., Florence, 1550; 2nd ed. ibid. 1568; ed. Milanesi, with notes and supplements, 1878–1885); Sabba da Castiglione, Ricordi (Venice, 1565); G. P. Lomazzo, Trattato dell’ arte della pittura, &c. (Milan, 1584–1585); Id., Idea del tempio della pittura (Milan, 1591); Le Père Dan, Le Trésor . . . de Fontainebleau (1642); J. B. Venturi, Essai sur les ouvrages physico-mathématiques de L. da V. (Paris, 1797); C. Amoretti, Memorie storiche sulla vita, &c. di L. da V. (Milan, 1804), a work which laid the foundation of all future researches; Giuseppe Bossi, Del Cenacolo di L. da V. (Milan, 1810); C. Fumagalli, Scuola di Leonardo da Vinci (1811); Gaye, Carteggio d’artisti (1839–1841); G. Uzielli, Ricerche intorno a L. da V., series 1, 2 (Florence, 1872; Rome, 1884; series 1 revised, Turin, 1896), documentary researches of the first importance for the study; C. L. Calvi, Notizie dei principali professori di belle arti (Milan, 1869); Arsène Houssaye, Histoire de L. de V. (Paris, 1869 and 1876, an agreeable literary biography of the pre-critical kind); Mrs Heaton, Life of L. da V. (London, 1872), a work also made obsolete by recent research; Hermann Grothe, L. da V. als Ingenieur und Philosoph (Berlin, 1874); A. Marks, the S. Anne of L. da V. (London, 1882); J. P. Richter, The Literary Works of L. da V. (2 vols., London, 1883), this is the very important and valuable history of and selection from the texts mentioned above under MSS.; Ch. Ravaisson-Mollien, Les Écrits de L. da V. (Paris, 1881); Paul Müller Walde, L. da V., Lebensskizze und Forschungen (Munich, 1889–1890); Id., “Beiträge zur Kenntniss des L. da V.,” in Jahrbuch der k. Preussischen Kunstsammlungen (1897–1899), the first immature and incomplete, the second of high value: the whole life of this writer has been devoted to the study of L. da V., but it is uncertain whether the vast mass of material collected by him will ever take shape or see the light; G. Gronau, L. da V. (London, 1902); Bernhard Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (London, 1903); Edmondo Solmi, Studi sulla filosofia naturale di L. da V. (Modena, 1898); Id., Leonardo (Florence, 1st ed. 1900, 2nd ed. 1907; this last edition of Solmi’s work is by far the most complete and satisfactory critical biography of the master which yet exists); A. Rosenberg, L. da V., in Knackfuss’s series of art biographies (Leipzig, 1898); Gabriel Séailles, L. da V. l’artiste et le savant (1st ed. 1892, 2nd ed. 1906), a lucid and careful general estimate of great value, especially in reference to Leonardo’s relations to modern science; Edward McCurdy, L. da V., in Bell’s “Great Masters” series (1904 and 1907), a very sound and trustworthy summary of the master’s career as an artist; Id., L. da V.’s Note-Books (1908), a selection from the passages of chief general interest in the master’s MSS., very well chosen, arranged, and translated, with a useful history of the MSS. prefixed, Le Vicende del Cenacolo di L. da V. nel secolo XIX. (Milan, 1906), an official account of the later history and vicissitudes of the “Last Supper” previous to its final repair; Luca Beltrami, Il Castello di Milano (1894); Id., L. da V. et la Sala dell’ Asse (1902); Id., “Il Cenacolo di Leonardo,” in Raccolta Vinciana (Milan, 1908), the official account of the successful work of repair carried out by Signor Cavenaghi in the preceding years; Woldemar von Seidlitz, Leonardo da Vinci, der Wendepunkt der Renaissance (2 vols., 1909), a comprehensive and careful work by an accomplished and veteran critic, inclined to give perhaps an excessive share in the reputed works of Leonardo to a single pupil, Ambrogio Preda. It seems needless to give references to the voluminous discussion in newspapers and periodicals concerning the authenticity of a wax bust of Flora acquired in 1909 for the Berlin Museum and unfortunately ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci, its real author having been proved by external and internal evidence to be the Englishman Richard Cockle Lucas, and its date 1846. (S. C.)