The strange story book/The Boyhood of a Painter

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illustrator: H. J. Ford


If we are to believe the proverb, a 'Jack of all Trades is master of none,' and it is mostly true. But here and there even in our own day, we meet with some gifted person who seems to be able to do anything he desires, and during the periods of history when men—and boys—were left more to themselves and allowed to follow their own bent, these geniuses were much less rare than at present.

Now during the last half of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth there lived in Italy a group of men who were in the highest possible degree Jacks of all Trades, or could have been so if they had chosen. They are known to us principally as painters, but the people amongst whom they lived very soon became aware that more than one of them could arrange you a water supply which would turn your mill wheel if there was no stream handy, or build you a palace if you were a rich citizen and wanted one, or help you to fortify your walls if you were the Lord of Milan or Florence or Ferrara; or fashion you a gold brooch as a present for your wife, if that was what you were seeking. As for making you a statue of yourself on horseback, to adorn the great square of the city over which you ruled—why, it was as easy to do that as to paint your portrait!

Chief among these 'Universal Geniuses,' as we should call them, was one Leonardo, son of the Florentine notary or lawyer, Piero da Vinci. He was born in the year 1452 not far from Florence and near the river Arno, and was declared by everyone to be one of the most beautiful children that ever was seen. As soon as he could crawl, he would scramble away (if his mother was busy and not thinking about him) to a place in the garden where there was always a heap of mud after a shower of rain, and sit happily on the ground pinching the mud into some sort of shape, which as he grew older, took more and more the form of something he knew. When his mother missed him and came in search of him, he would utter screams of disgust. Then the only way to quiet him was to play to him on the lute; for throughout his life Leonardo loved music, and at one time even had serious thoughts of being a professional musician.

Ser Piero was very proud of his astonishing little son, and the boy was still very young when his father decided that he must be taught by the best masters that could be found for him. Leonardo was quite willing. Lessons were no trouble to him and he speedily took away the breath of all his teachers by the amazing quickness with which he grasped everything. It did not matter if the subject was arithmetic, or the principles of music, or the study of geometry; it was enough for the boy to hear a thing once for him to understand and remember, and he constantly asked his master such difficult questions and expressed doubts so hard to explain, that the poor man was thankful indeed when school hours were ended.

But whatever lessons he might be doing, Leonardo spent most of his spare time in drawing and in modelling figures in clay, as he had done from his babyhood. His father watched him for a time in silence, wondering within himself which of the boy's many talents ought to be made the occupation of his life, and at length he decided to take Leonardo to his friend Andrea del Verrocchio, and consult him on the matter. Verrocchio, like his pupil, was a painter, a geometrician, a sculptor, a goldsmith and a musician, but had at last settled down as a sculptor, and only now and then amused himself with other arts. When father and son entered his studio or workshop, Piero gave Leonardo some clay, and bade him model anything he fancied. The boy sat down on the floor, and soon finished a tiny statuette which might have been the work of Verrocchio himself, so true to life was the figure. The sculptor was delighted, and declared that Leonardo must come to him, and that he was very sure the pupil would shortly know as much as the master.

But though he had the gift of genius, Leonardo took as much trouble with his work as if he had just been an ordinary child, with his whole future life depending on his industry. And as some of you are perhaps fond of drawing, you may like to hear how one of the greatest artists in the world set about his pictures. First he took a handful of clay and poked it and pinched it until he had got his figure exactly as he wanted it to be. Then he dipped pieces of soft material in plaster, and arranged them in folds over the naked figure. Often the stuff was too stiff and would not go in the proper lines, but long ago Leonardo had learned that no man could be an artist of any kind unless he was possessed of endless patience, and he would sit for hours over his figure, taking the drapery off and trying it afresh, till at length it assumed exactly the right shape. As soon as he had a model precisely to his mind, he would stretch a bit of very fine cambric or linen, that was old and soft, upon a board, and on this—or sometimes on paper—he would copy his figure in pencil. As he grew older, Verrocchio would teach him how you could raise heavy weights by the help of levers or cranes, how to draw up water from immense depths, or how to tunnel through mountains—for the Italians have always been famous for their skill as engineers. But it was the boy Leonardo, and not the man Verrocchio, who invented the plan of so altering the course of the river Arno that a canal might be cut between the cities of Florence and Pisa. Leonardo did not live to see this done, but two hundred years after his death a pupil of the astronomer Galileo executed it after his scheme, for the Medici ruler of Florence. He was very anxious also to raise the Church of San Giovanni and to rest it on stone 'steps,' as he called them, and showed the Signory or governing citizens of Florence how it could be done. And, says his chronicler, so persuasive was his tongue and so good seemed his reasons that while he was speaking he moved them to belief in his words, although out of his presence they all well knew it was impossible.

Was it? one wonders now.

Many stories, of course, were told of him during these years—for the Florentines were not slow to find out the genius who dwelt among them—and here is one that is very characteristic of the boy. Verrocchio was working on a picture of the baptism of our Lord by St. John, and he entrusted the painting of the Angel standing by to his pupil. When it was finished the master came and looked at it, and remained silently gazing at the figure. He was too true an artist not to feel at once that he and Leonardo had changed places, and that the boy's Angel was worth more than all the rest of the picture. The chronicler tells us that he was so wounded at this discovery that he never touched paint any more, but though it is always rather hard to find ourselves thrown into the shade, probably Verrocchio's renunciation of painting lay deeper than mere envy. Why should he do badly what another could do perfectly? The boy's genius was greater than his: let his master be the first to admit it.

Leonardo's father, Ser Piero, had gone to his country house to escape the heats of a Florentine summer. He was resting one evening in his garden when a servant appeared, saying that one of his farmers desired to speak with him. Ser Piero gave orders that the man should be brought to him, as he knew him well, and they had often fished together.

'Well, what now, Francisco?' he asked, as the farmer came up bowing, and bearing in his hands a wooden shield. The man explained that he had cut down a fig tree near his house, because it was old and bore no fruit, and had himself cut the shield he was carrying out of the wood, and had brought it to his lord, humbly hoping that Ser Piero might have the goodness to get it painted with some design, for he wished to hang it up in his kitchen, as a remembrance of the old tree.

'Very willingly will I do so,' answered Ser Piero, and when next he went to Florence he sought out his son and handed him the shield, merely telling him to paint something in it. Leonardo happened to be busy at the moment, but as soon as he had time to examine the piece of wood he found it was rough and ill made, and would need much attention before it would be possible to paint it. The first thing he did was to hold the shield before the fire till the fibres were softened and the crookedness could be straightened out. The surface was then planed and made smooth, and covered with gypsum.

So far he had not thought what the picture should be, but now he began to consider this important matter, and as he pondered a look of mischief danced in his eyes.

'I know! That will do!' he said to himself. 'The person who owns it, whoever he is, shall be as frightened as if he saw the head of Medusa; only, instead of being turned to stone, he will most likely run away!' And still smiling, Leonardo left the workshop and went to his room, taking the shield in a cloth. Then he went out into the fields and hunted about till he had collected a quantity of strange creatures, hedgehogs, lizards, tadpoles, locusts, snakes and many others, for he knew as much about what is called 'Natural History' as he did about everything else, and could tell exactly where these animals could be found.

As soon as he had collected enough he carried them back and locked them safely up in a kind of lumber room, where nobody was allowed to enter but himself. He then sat down and began to place them so as to cause them to form one horrible monster, with eyes and legs everywhere. It was a long time before he could make anything horrid enough to please him; again and again he undid his work, and tried to combine his creatures differently, but at last something so terrible stared him in the face that he almost felt frightened.

'That is all right, I think,' he said with a laugh. 'The monster is ready, but I must find a background fitting for him.'

Taking the shield, he painted on it a black and narrow cavern. At its mouth stood the creature without form; all eyes, all legs, all mouths. Flames poured from it on every side, and a cloud of vapour rose upwards from its many nostrils. After days of hard labour, during which the animals died and filled the room with a smell from which even a boy might well be expected to shrink, Leonardo visited his father

The strange story book color plate facing page 290.jpg

Leonardo frightens his Father with the Monster painted on his Shield.

and told him he had finished the shield which he hoped would please him, and that he might have it whenever he liked. Ser Piero was at the time engaged in superintending his harvest, but when he was free he set off to see his son. Leonardo himself answered his knock, and, showing his father into another room, begged him to wait for a few minutes while he put away his work. Then he rushed back to the studio, darkened the window a little, and carefully chose a position for the easel on which the shield was standing.

'Will you come in now, father?' he said holding open the door, but no sooner was Ser Piero within the room than ho turned to fly, so terrible was the object that met his gaze.

'It will do, I see,' remarked Leonardo, catching him by the arm. 'I wanted to make something so dreadful that men would shiver with fear at the sight of it. Take it away, I pray you, and do with it as you will. But stay, I had better wrap it first in a cloth, lest it should frighten people out of their wits as you go along.'

Ser Piero took it, and departed without a word to his son; he really felt quite shaken from the shock he had had, and he determined that so wonderful a painting should never fall into the hands of a peasant. So he went to a shop where he found a shield the same size as the other, bearing the device of a heart pierced by an arrow, and when next he went into the country he bade the farmer come up to the house to receive it.

'Oh Excellency! how beautiful! how can I ever thank you for your goodness?' cried the man in delight when, after his long waiting, the shield was at last delivered to him.

'I thought you would be pleased,' answered Ser Piero, smiling to himself as he pictured what would have been the face of the man before him, had he been given Leonardo's monster. But this he kept for some time and then sold to a merchant for a hundred ducats, who in his turn parted with it to the Duke of Milan for three times the price.

In this way Leonardo da Vinci grew to manhood, gaining friends as he went by his beauty and his talents, and keeping them by his sweetness of temper and his generosity. He loved all animals, especially horses, and could never see a caged bird without trying to buy it, in order to set it free.

The kings and popes of those days were always eager to attract artists to their courts, and vied with each other in trying to outbid rivals, and when he was very young Leonardo received a commission from the King of Portugal to draw a design for some hangings to be copied hi silk hi Flanders. He painted an immense number of portraits, some to please himself and others ordered by his friends, and decorated, either with painting or sculpture, a great many churches and other buildings. Two of his pictures, at any rate, you may perhaps know from engravings of them—the portrait of Francesco del Giocondo's wife, bought by Francis the First and lately stolen from the Louvre, and the Last Supper, painted for the Dominican monks in Milan, and now almost ruined by the damp.

Leonardo was forty-one when he was invited to go to Milan by the celebrated Lodovico Sforza, uncle to the reigning duke. Knowing that Lodovico—il Moro, as he was called—had a passion for music, the painter constructed with his own hands a silver instrument, shaped like a horse's head, to which he sang tunes invented by himself, to words made up as he went along. This delighted Lodovico and also his wife, the young daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, who had been brought up amongst musicians and poets. Those were gay days at Milan, when all did their best to produce some form of beauty and everybody's 'best' was so very good. But dark days were soon to follow, and in a great measure they were the work of Lodovico himself.

The French, on one excuse or another, were trying hard to get a footing in Italy; Louis XII. even laid claim to the Duchy of Milan. Then came his cousin and successor Francis I., whom (in the hope of gaining his favour) Lodovico particularly wished to honour.

'What can you invent, Messer Leonardo?' Lodovico asked the painter. 'I want something no one has ever seen before; the king must be tired of grand shows, and he can get them at home. Of course we shall be obliged to give him a splendid reception for the sake of our own credit, but I should like something besides, which he can remember.'

So Messer Leonardo thought and thought, and the end of his thinking was that when the King of France entered Milan, a lion, life size, advanced to meet him, and touched the king's breast with his own. By means of a spring the lion's breast opened and from it fell sheaves of white lilies, the emblem of France.

Then too the other Italian princes wished to employ him and to make use of his varied talents. One of the Borgias sent him round the various cities over which he ruled, to inspect their fortifications, and to see what new engineering works were needed to withstand the constant sieges and the wars of state with state. Naturally the cardinals would not remain behindhand, especially those of the Medici family, Leonardo's own countrymen, and hearing that his kinsman Giuliano had induced the artist to travel to Rome in his train, Leo X. sent for him and after a long talk on many subjects expressed a desire to know if the painter was able to make figures that would fly. The idea delighted Leonardo, and he instantly set about some experiments. After many failures he at length succeeded in producing a kind of paste out of wax, and while it was still half melted he modelled some little horses and dogs and lions, scooping out the wax till only a very thin outer covering was left, all the rest being hollow. Into the figures he managed to blow some air, and as long as the air was in them they flew about to the joy and surprise of everyone, but when it was all exhausted the horses and dogs and lions came tumbling on the floor, one on top of another. Another day, when the talk had turned on feats of strength, somebody inquired whether what he had been told was true, that Leonardo was stronger than any man in Florence.

'Here I am; try me,' answered the painter.

'We will,' they all cried, and sent a servant for a horse-shoe, and for an iron ring such as was used for door-knockers.

'Now see if you can bend these,' they said, and Leonardo took them and bent them as easily as Samson broke the ropes of the Philistines.

The last few years of his life Leonardo passed in France, where Francis I. was now king. Many of his pictures were already there, and there were others which Francis desired him to paint. But the artist was tired and ill, and made all sorts of excuses to avoid beginning his work. At last he told the king, who frequently came to visit him, that it was time he left the things of this world and turned his thoughts to the other which he would soon enter. His words were repeated sorrowfully among his friends, and though they fain would have denied their truth, yet they could not. So in May 1519 he died, leaving behind him a memory that will live while painting endures. But he was mourned, not only on account of his many talents and splendid works of all sorts, but for the beauty of his face, which lasted till his death, his merry words that lightened the burden of those who were sad, and his kindness and generosity to all who stood in need of help and comfort.