Milan, 19 January 2019
I was accompanying my wife a few weeks ago to do the weekly shopping at the local supermarket, when I once again noticed this painting on the hoardings surrounding a building site.
It’s a painting of Leonardo – not this Leonardo, with his intrepid band members Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo
but the other Leonardo, the original Leonardo, Leonardo da Vinci.
I suspect that the artist was basing himself on this portrait of Leonardo or one similar; this particular portrait was found in the back of a cupboard in 2008 somewhere in the south of Italy.
The anonymous street artist is really quite good. I suspect that it is the same artist who used a blank wall at the nearby church of San Lorenzo as his/her canvas.
As I’ve said in an earlier post, it’s so nice to see these paintings on public walls rather than the usual meaningless scribbles with which so many are daubed.
But I digress.
I have walked past this particular painting of Leonardo many times, but this time I paused (and took a photo). The reason was simple: he was mentioned in a book I have recently finished about 50 Italians who made their mark on the world. The book included Leonardo, of course, and what the author wrote about him can best be summarized by saying that Leonardo had been beset by a tendency to never finish things. Or to put it more bluntly, he faffed around. Did this judgement hold for Leonardo’s stay in Milan, I wondered?
For those of my readers who are not necessarily up to speed on Leonardo’s cv, I should explain that although he was Tuscan by birth and started his artistic career in Florence, Leonardo went on to live and work in Milan for nearly 20 years. He arrived in 1481, when he was just shy of 30, “on loan” from Lorenzo de Medici, “The Magnificent”, to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The loan seems to have become permanent – for some reason, Leonardo doesn’t seem to have been interested in going back to Florence, and maybe the Florentines were quite glad to see the back of him. He only quit Milan in 1499, when Ludovico was forced out by the French king Louis XII during the Second Italian War and Leonardo had to go find himself a new patron.
So what did Leonardo leave us from his time in Milan? Not much, really. The judgement that he had a tendency to faff around seems to hold quite well for his time here. If we look at his artistic output, for instance, we have two huge failures. The first is the equestrian statue in bronze with which Ludovico wanted to commemorate his father. Ludovico gave the commission to Leonardo some time in the late 1480s. As usual, Leonardo faffed around, making this drawing and that model, and finally came up with the design for a colossal statue which would have stood more than 7 metres high and weighed nearly 70 tonnes. Ludovico was incensed by the sheer impracticality of the design and wrote to Lorenzo the Magnificent, asking if he didn’t have someone else under hand who could actually do the work. Luckily for Leonardo, the answer was no. But he got the hint and hastily redimensioned the design to a normal size. He still continued to faff around, though. It was only by the early 1490s that he managed to put together a terracotta version of the work, to use in casting the final bronze version. But then war broke out and Ludovico gave away all the bronze which had been accumulated for the statue to his father-in-law Ercole d’Este for him to make cannons with. And that was the end of that. The final indignity occurred when the French captured Milan in 1499. They used the terracotta version of the statue for target practice, shattering it to pieces. The pieces disappeared somewhere, never to be seen again.
There is an interesting coda to this story. In 1977, an American by the name of Charles Dent became obsessed with this failed project and decided to recreate at least the huge horse that Leonardo initially had had in mind, using some of Leonardo’s drawings. After two decades (and Dent’s death), the project finally came to fruition and a 7-metre high Leonardesque horse now stands in the San Siro Hippodrome here in Milan. Here’s a picture of it, with a real horse and rider in front of it, to give readers a sense of its enormity.
My wife and I haven’t seen it yet. It’s on my bucket list.
Leonardo’s other big artistic failure from his days in Milan is his fresco, The Last Supper, also commissioned of him by Ludovico Sforza. It took pride of place on a wall of the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the monks could contemplate it as they ate (and no doubt feel guilty that they were enjoying their food).
It’s got to be one the best known paintings on the planet. God knows why; what you see today is a mere ghost of a painting. In fact, it decayed so rapidly that it was already a ghost of a painting when Giorgio Vasari saw it less than 60 years after it was finished. He wrote that the fresco was so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. Over the centuries, it’s been restored several times, sometimes cackhandedly, the last time being over a 21-year period finishing in 1999. This last restoration was extremely professional and probably did as much as is humanly possible to preserve and enhance the painting. But the fact is, only some 20% of the original has remained intact. One-fifth … not much.
In this case, it wasn’t Leonardo’s congenital faffing around that was the problem, although it did take him three years to finish the work and he only did so after having been pestered by the monastery’s prior to get on with it. It was his ever-present desire to experiment. In fresco painting, you paint onto fresh, still-wet plaster, which dries quickly. This technique does not allow the artist to have ripensamenti, or second thoughts: change a colour here, a line there. It dries too quickly for that. You have one chance and that’s it. That approach to painting was totally inimical to Leonardo, who liked to rework and rework paintings – one of the reasons for his high levels of faffery. So he adopted another technique, where he first added to a layer of dried plaster a coating of white lead and then painted in oil and tempera on top of that. The result looked great initially, so great that it blew away the minds of the little world of artists and art cognoscenti. Here is an early copy of the painting that one of his assistants, Giampetrino, made some 25 years after the original.
But the fresco degraded very quickly. The paint failed to bind with the underlying plaster and started to flake off after just a few years on the wall. The traditional enemies of frescoes – humidity, creation of new doors and windows, and pillaging troops, in this case French Napoleonic troops – did the rest. It didn’t help that the refectory took a direct hit from a bomb during World War II.
I saw the Last Supper in 1975. I was totally unimpressed. I haven’t been back since. I suppose, though, that I should also add a second visit to my bucket list, to check out the restored version.
Leonardo did leave us another fresco in Milan, in the Sala delle Asse, one of the rooms of the Castello Sforzesco, which the Sforzas used as their ducal residence.
The subject is trees, painted in such a way that people in the room are meant to feel they are in a grove of trees.
The fresco was painted on the walls and ceiling of a room where the Duke would greet dignitaries who came to pay their respects. No doubt the purpose of the fresco was to astonish them; this was one of the first uses of trompe l’oeil in decoration. Leonardo doesn’t seem to have faffed around (much) on this commission, but unfortunately he painted the fresco at the very end of his time in Milan. He’d just finished it when the French threw Ludovico Sforza out and took over Milan. They, and then the other foreign occupiers who came after them – Spaniards and Austrians – used the castle as a barracks. This particular room was turned into a stable and the fresco whitewashed. Presumably, the soldiers decided that horses had no need for trompe l’oeil. I rather suspect the fresco was also falling to pieces since Leonardo seems to have used the same technique – oil and tempera on dried plaster – that he used with the Last Supper. There it stayed until it was rediscovered at the end of the 1800s. It thereupon suffered the indignity of a bad restoration, followed by a better one in the 1950s. It is now in the middle of another restoration, which started in 2006. I shall put it on my bucket list: “to visit once the restoration is finished” – if I don’t die before (keeping in mind that the Last Supper took 21 years to restore).
What of Leonardo’s paintings? Was he able to produce during his Milan days? He certainly painted a number while he was here, although just how many is not always clear: dating his paintings is a pretty approximate affair, first because the records are sketchy, but also because of Leonardo’s constant dilly-dallying; he found it hard to let go of his paintings, he felt they could always be improved. Nevertheless, he seems to have worked on at least the following six paintings during his stay in Milan:
The Virgin of the Rocks, of which he painted two versions, one alone
and one in collaboration with Ambrogio de Predis and possibly others
The Madonna Litta (although in truth there is considerable argument about whether this really is a Leonardo)
Portrait of a Musician (although it is generally thought that Leonardo only painted the face)
Lady with an Ermine
La Belle Ferronière
Since paintings are highly mobile chattel – indeed, Leonardo himself seems to have carried a good number of his paintings around with him as he moved from place to place – and since a Leonardo painting pretty quickly became a highly desirable chattel, all but one of his paintings from his Milan days are now scattered throughout various collections around the world. The one exception is the Portrait of a Musician, which has ended up in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (is it possible that I’ve lived so many years in Milan and I’ve still not visited this museum? On the bucket list!)
The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana also holds the Codex Atlanticus, one of six bound sets of Leonardo’s writings and drawings (maybe doodles would be a better description) – there’s another, the Codex Trivulzianus, held in the Castello Sforzesco somewhere. These seem to be typical pages from these codices.
During my lifetime at least, the codices have become a popular topic of discussion whenever the subject of Leonardo is brought up. They have been used to show what a universal genius he was, a man who was interested not only in art, but also engineering, mathematics, botany, metaphysics … in a word, a truly Renaissance Man! My take on them is that these codices instead just show how the man was unable to focus on any one thing, fluttering from one subject to another.
The codices have also been used to show that Leonardo prefigured pretty much every invention we humans have come up with in the last 200 years. In Milan’s “Leonardo da Vinci” National Museum of Science and Technology, there is a section which contains models of many of the weird and wonderful “machines” Leonardo dreamed up and committed to paper.
My take on this is that Leonardo was really a predecessor to William Heath Robinson and his mad machines.
Tinkerers, though, take a delight in Leonardo’s creations. My father-in-law, for instance, who was a very keen tinkerer (the apartment used to be full of his tinkerings), would drag my poor wife to the Leonardo da Vinci museum when she was young and show her the machines – “you see, dear, this clever machine here will bla, bla, bla ….”. She still goes pale when I bring up the possibility of visiting this museum. I guess it will never be on my bucket list.
It’s all very well to say that Leonardo prefigured all our modern machines. To me, the real test is whether or not he actually turned any of his mechanical musings into real machines during his lifetime, in Milan or elsewhere. And the answer to that is, he only did it once: a rather low level of success in turning daydreams into practicality, I would say. Nevertheless, every Milanese, including my wife, will at some point proudly inform you of that one success story, namely that Leonardo invented canal locks during his stay in Milan. This is not quite true. The Chinese were the first to invent locks, for use on their Grand Canal. The Europeans independently re-invented them some 200 years later. All these locks were opened and closed by sluice gates, which had to be pulled up and pushed down – the pulling up especially was very hard work. Since Roman times, the rulers of Milan had been tinkering with the local hydrography, slowly but surely extending the network of canals relaying the city to ever more distant rivers. Ludovico Sforza was no exception. He wanted a bigger navigable canal, which meant bigger locks, bigger – and heavier – sluice gates … a limit to what was physically possible was being reached. Leonardo came up with an ingenious solution: the mitred lock gate. This is the lock gate familiar to us all, which closes at a 45° angle. Closing at an angle means that the pressure of the water pushes the gates together, minimizing leakage, and having them move horizontally rather than vertically makes them much easier to open and close. Here is a picture of the gate from Leonardo’s papers.
And here is such a lock gate on one of the few canals remaining in Milan.
There was one area where Leonardo excelled with his daydreaming and tinkering, and which I suspect was the main reason Ludovico Sforza kept him around: the organization of spectacular festivals for the Duke’s eminent visitors, festivals where Leonardo could use all his mechanical aptitudes to create shows that would amaze and delight the Duke’s visitors. Many of them left detailed accounts of these wonderful, quasi magical, shows. By the end of his time in Milan, the organization of these festivals were Leonardo’s main source of income: he had turned into a magician, albeit a very good one.
Looking back over what I’ve written, I sense that I might have projected a somewhat jaundiced view of the Great Leonardo. His tendency to restlessly flit from one thing to another like a butterfly, without finishing anything on time, or sometimes without finishing them at all, irritated his contemporaries, especially his clients to whom he had promised deliveries by certain dates and who had paid up-front. If I had met Leonardo, I suspect he would have ended up irritating me too. In my 40 years in the workplace, I came across a number of such characters, golden-tongued men (they were all men for some reason) who made many promises but failed to deliver on them, leaving the rest of us having to scramble around to fill the gap. Right royal pains in the ass they were, the lot of them! “But he was brilliant!”, I can hear readers exclaim. Perhaps so, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for unreliability. And with that little sermon, I leave readers with that famous drawing of Leonardo in his old age – I hope his melancholic look shows that he is bitterly regretting a lifetime of faffing around.
Ninja turtle Leonardo: https://turtlepedia.fandom.com/wiki/Leonardo_(Paramount)
Leonardo self-portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leonardo_da_Vinci_LUCAN_self-portrait_PORTRAIT.jpg
Leonardo Horse, Milan: http://pixdaus.com/size-comparison-leonardo-s-horse-the-symbol-of-milan-italy-a/items/view/524205/
The Last Supper: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Supper_(Leonardo)
The Last Supper copy by Giampetrino: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520.jpg
Castello Sforzesco: https://www.ilcastelletto.com/castello-sforzesco/
Sala delle Asse: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Comunicati/visualizza_asset.html_1655657329.html
Virgin of the Rocks-Louvre: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks-National Gallery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Madonna Litta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Portrait of a Musician: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Lady with an Ermine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
La Belle Ferronière: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci
Codex Atlanticus-1: http://baulitoadelrte.blogspot.com/2017/12/
Codex Atlanticus-2: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Leonardo-da-Vinci-Codex-Atlanticus-1478-1519_fig4_321113179
Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Milan: http://www.leonardo3.net/en/the-museum/
Heath Robinson cartoon: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/heath-robinson-deserves-a-museum
Leonardo drawing of a lock gate: http://www.italiannotebook.com/places/leonardo-canal-gate/
Lock gate on a Milan canal: my photo
Self-portrait of Leonardo as an old man: https://www.fineartone.com/shop/old-masters/self-portrait-6/