” THE richest gifts of heaven are sometimes showered upon the same person, and beauty, grace and genius are combined in so rare a manner in one man, that to whatever he may apply himself, his every action is so divine, that all others are left behind him.” With these words Vasari begins his life of Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most gifted mortals whom the world has ever seen. The personal beauty and heroic strength, the brilliant conversation and fascinating presence that charmed all hearts, were only the outward signs of a marvellously subtle and refined intellect, and of a mental energy that has been seldom equalled. Never before or since, in the annals of the human race, has the same passionate desire for knowledge been united with the same ardent love of beauty, never have artistic and scientific powers been combined in the same degree as in this wonderful man. There was hardly a branch of human learning which he did not seek to explore. Architecture, sculpture, mathematics, geology, hydraulics and physiology, all in turn absorbed his attention. He filled volumes of manuscript with his observations on artistic and scientific subjects, modelled statues and designed buildings, planned canals, and discovered the use of steam as a motive force. Humboldt pronounced him to be the greatest physicist of his age, and scholars of our own day have recognised in him a man who was not only an excellent artist and a veritable Archimedes, but a great philosopher a ” thinker who anticipated the discoveries of modern science, and a master of literary style who knew how to express lofty thoughts in noble and eloquent language.”
Painting, as we know, was only one of the varied forms in which his activity was displayed, and occupied a comparatively small part of his time and thoughts. But he exerted the most extra-ordinary influence upon contemporary artists, and was the true founder of the Italian school of oil-painting. And profoundly interested as, he was in other studies, he always considered painting to be the work of his life, and wrote his. celebrated Treatise with the express object of maintaining the supremacy of Painting over all other arts. Unfortunately, little of his art is left us. All contemporary writers agree in saying how few pictures he ever completed. Not only was he distracted by a multitude of other occupations, but he was never satisfied with his efforts, and spent infinite time and pains in trying to realise his idea. ” When he sat down to paint,” writes Lomazzo, ” he seemed overcome with fear. And he could finish nothing that he began because his soul was so filled with the sublime greatness of art, that he only saw faults in works which others hailed as marvellous creations.” As he says himself in a celebrated passage of his ” Treatise on Painting” :
“When a work satisfies a man’s judgment, it is a bad sign, and when a work surpasses his expectation, and he wonders that he has achieved so much, it is worse. But when an artist’s aim goes beyond his work, that is a good sign, and if the man is young, he will no, doubt become a great artist. He will compose but few works, but they will be such that men will gaze in wonder at their perfection.”
We may regret that Leonardo painted so few pictures, and we may deplore still more the singular fatality which has destroyed his greatest creations, the ruin which overtook the Sforza monument and the misfortunes which have left the Last Supper a mere wreck. But we must remember, on the other hand, the perfection of the works of art which he has left behind him, and which, few as they are in number, ‘ have for ever raised the standard of human attainment.
Leonardo the Florentine, as he commonly called himself, was born in 1452, at Vinci, a fortified borgo on the western slopes of Monte Albano, half-way between Pisa and Florence. He was the’ natural son of Ser Piero, a young notary of the place, and of a girl of good family named Caterina, who, after giving birth to this son, married a peasant of Vinci. Piero also married in the same year, and had four wives and a family of twelve children. He was a man of remarkable vigour and energy, who held important offices in Florence, and had a house on the Piazza San Firenze. Here Leonardo lived until he was twenty-four years of age, and had served his apprenticeship in Andrea Verrocchio’s workshop. There he grew up in close companionship with Perugino as Giovanni Santi sang in his poem ” Due giovin par d’étate e par d’amore,” and made himself beloved by all. ” The radiance of his countenance,” says Vasari, “rejoiced the saddest heart. Even dumb animals felt the fascination of the man. He could tame the most fiery horses, and would never allow any living creature to be ill-treated. Often, we are told, he bought the singing-birds that were sold in the streets, in order that he might open the doors of their cages and set them free with his own hands. Music and mathematics divided his time with painting and sculpture. He modelled terracotta heads of smiling women, and, in his eager search after beauty, followed the lovely faces he saw up and down the streets of Florence. Even at this early age, Vasari tells us, he began many works and then abandoned them. The earliest drawings we have from his hand are a mountainous landscape in the Apennines, bearing the date of 1473, and a lovely sketch of a youthful Virgin, which may be one of the Madonnas to which Leonardo alludes in a note of October 1478: ” I began two Virgin Maries.” This last was evidently a study for the charming little Annunciation, in the Louvre, with the terraced garden and cypresses, that recall Verrocchio’s rendering of the same subject in the Uffizi.
In 1472, Leonardo’s name was inscribed on the roll of the Painters’ Guild, and soon afterwards he was given a pension by Lorenzo de’ Medici and invited to study the Magnifico’s collection of antiques in the garden of San Marco. Through the same influential patron he obtained a commission, in 1478, to paint an altar-piece for a chapel in the Palazzo Pubblico, and, in 1481, signed a contract by which he promised to complete another, for the monks of San Donato, in the space of two and a half years. Neither of these works were ever completed, but the cartoon of the Adoration of the Magi, in the Uffizi, was probably a design for one of the two. This sketch is painted in bistre, or brown monochrome, and a number of preparatory studies, in the Uffizi and other collections, show the infinite amount of time and thought which the artist bestowed upon the subject. The conception is strikingly original. The Virgin is seated in the open air, with tall trees and a spreading palm behind her, and a ruined colonnade and broad flight of stairs rising in front of a rocky landscape. The kings, no longer clad in contemporary costume, but wearing flowing togas, press forward with eager devotion on their faces, and Mary presents her Child to them with a smile of deep inward bliss on her gentle face. The love of horses, which distinguished Leonardo, and which afterwards led him to write a whole treatise on the structure and anatomy of the horse, is already apparent. A number of these animals, in every variety of attitude, standing, lying down, rearing and galloping, are introduced, and a skirmish of cavalry is seen in the background. The whole scene is full of life and animation, and the character and variety of the heads bear witness to the aim ” of expressing the movements of the soul through the gestures of the body,” which from the first he set before him.
An unfinished study of a penitent St. Jerome, kneeling in prayer before the crucifix, with his lion at his side, and the view of Santa Maria Novella in the background, now in the Vatican, is the only other work of Leonardo’s Florentine period that is left us. The early works which Vasari describes, the Rotella and Medusa, in which he indulged his taste for fantastic horrors, and the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with each flower and leaf carefully studied, have all vanished.
In July, 1481, Leonardo was living in his own house in Florence and received certain sums of money in advance from the monks of San Donato, as well as a load of wood and one lira six soldi for painting their clock. After that his name disappears from contemporary records until 1487, when we find him living at the court of Milan, in the service of Lodovico Sforza, Regent, and afterwards Duke, of Milan. The silence of documents has given rise to all manner of strange theories regarding Leonardo’s career of six years, and Dr. Richter ventured on the bold conjecture that during these five or six years the painter travelled in Syria, became engineer to the Sultan of Cairo, and even embraced the Mahometan religion. The chief argument in support of this theory is a letter that may be found among Leonardo’s MSS., in which the writer describes an earthquake which took place at Aleppo in 1483, and illustrates his account with maps of Armenia. But these notes, it is plain, are borrowed from the record of some contemporary traveller, which Leonardo, who was fond of collecting topographical facts upon all parts of the world, in this as in many other cases, has copied for his own amusement. The absence of drawings of Oriental scenes in the artist’s note-books, and of any allusion to these travels in the writings of his contemporaries, may be taken as still more destructive of this theory.
The Anonimo who wrote Leonardo’s life early in the sixteenth century tells us, that when the painter was thirty years old, he was sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici, with the musician Atalante Migliorotti, to bear a silver lute to Lodovico Sforza at Milan. This would fix the date of Leonardo’s arrival in 1482, or early in 1483, and agrees with the statement of a contemporary, Sabbà da Castiglione, who says that Leonardo spent sixteen years of his life in modelling the great equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, which was destroyed after he left Milan in 1499. This equestrian statue was, in all probability, the cause of his journey to Milan. From the moment of his accession to power, in 1480, Lodovico Sforza had determined to raise a colossal statue in honour of his father, the great condottiere who became Duke of Milan, and, as was his habit, asked his friend Lorenzo de’ Medici for a sculptor who could execute the work. It was then, doubtless, that Leonardo wrote the famous letter offering Lodovico Sforza his services. After dwelling at length on. his capacities as military engineer, and his ability to construct cannons and scaling -ladders, mortars and engines of useful and beautiful shape, he concludes with the following proud words :
” In time of peace, I believe I can equal any one in architecture, in constructing public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another. I can execute sculpture, whether in marble, bronze, or terra-cotta, and in painting I can do as much as any other man, be he who he may. Further, I could engage to execute the bronze horse in eternal memory of your father and the illustrious house of Sforza. And if any of the above-mentioned things should appear to you impossible or impracticable, I am ready to make trial of them in your park, or in any other place that may please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself in profound humility.”
According to Vasari, it was Leonardo’s brilliant conversation and skill in playing the lute which first captivated Lodovico Sforza, but whether there be any truth in the statement or not, it is certain that the Moro quickly recognised the Florentine master’s genius, and determined to keep him in his service. From him Leonardo received a salary of 2000 ducats (4000), besides frequent gifts and rewards, and during the sixteen years that he spent at the Court of Milan, he found in Lodovico a genial patron and a generous and kindly friend. Many and varied were the demands on Leonardo’s skill and invention during this period. Whether in the capacity of architect or engineer, sculptor or painter, his services were in constant request. There was, first of all, the equestrian statue, for which he made at least two models and an endless number of different designs. Unfortunately he could not satisfy himself, and at last even Lodovico began to lose patience and to wonder if the work would ever be completed. On the 23rd of April 1490, Leonardo made the following entry in his note-book:
” Today I began this new book and a new model of the horse.” Three years and a half later, this model was sufficiently advanced to be placed under a triumphal arch on the Piazza in front of the Castello of Milan, on the occasion of Bianca Sforza’s wedding to the Emperor Maximilian. Poets and chroniclers hailed the monument as one of the wonders of the age, and compared Leonardo to Phidias and Pericles. But the wars in which the Duke of Milan became engaged, and his financial difficulties, put an end to his most cherished schemes, and the statue was never cast in bronze.
In 1487, Leonardo made a model for the cupola of the Duomo of Milan, and three years later received payment for another which he never finished. In 1490, he went to Pavia, to give his opinion on the new Cathedral of that city, but was hastily recalled to superintend the decorations of the Castello of Milan, in honour of Lodovico’s marriage. During many years he was employed in painting the camerini of this palace, which, under the Moro’s rule, became one of the finest in Italy, and plans for pavilions in the ducal gardens and ingenious contrivances for heating the Duchess’s baths are preserved among his manuscripts. His help, again, was often required in the masquerades and Carnival festivities that were held on so vast a scale at the Court of Milan. On one occasion he constructed the mechanism of an operetta called “Il Paradiso,” in which the planets and stars sang the praise of the newly-wedded Duchess ; on another he designed the costumes for a grand Tournament in which the Duke’s son-in-law appeared at the head of a horde of Scythians. On one page of his notebook we find the sketch of a flying bird to be introduced in some comedy ; on another we read a suggestion for bringing snow from the mountains in summer, and scattering it on the Piazza at festivals. In later years he was appointed ducal engineer, and careful notes on the canals of Lombardy and fortifications of the Castello are to be found among his works. Certain mysterious circular engravings, designed by his hand and bearing the inscription, Accademia Leonardi Vinci, have been taken as evidence that the great master founded an Academy of Arts and Sciences at Milan ; but the term was probably applied to those informal gatherings of scholars and artists which were held in the Castello, in the Duke’s presence, and which Leonardo’s friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, describes as ” laudable and scientific duels.” The great lasting influence which he exerted on the school of Milan is well-known, and it was at Lodovico Sforza’s especial request that the artist wrote his famous Treatise on Painting.
These varied occupations left Leonardo little time for painting. Yet, during these busy years at the most brilliant court of Italy, he executed some of his most important works. The pictures which he painted for the Emperor Maximilian and the King of Hungary, and the portraits of the Moro’s mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli, have perished, but one great altar – piece of this period is still in existence. This is the ” Vierge aux Rochers,” which the master painted about 1490, for the Church of S. Francesco of Milan, but which he asked the Duke’s leave to keep, since the friars refused to pay him more than twenty-five florins, while another patron had offered him a hundred for his work. Accordingly, the picture became the property of some private owner, from whose hands it passed into the collection of Francis I. at Fontainebleau, and is now among the greatest treasures of the Louvre. In spite of its blackened colour and repainted condition, the “Vierge aux Rochers ” is a masterpiece of profound originality and infinite charm. The old trammels of tradition have been cast away, and the Virgin appears no longer crowned and throned, attended by saints or kneeling in adoration before her Son, but simply as a human mother, watching her child with all a mother’s tender delight. The Child, sitting on the grass, blesses the little St. John, whom the Virgin caresses with her hand ; a red – robed angel, with uplifted finger, kneeling at his side, completes the lovely group. In the oval types and rippling hair of both the Virgin and angel, the innocent grace of the curly-headed children and the soft blue of Mary’s mantle, we see the exquisite refinement of Leonardo’s fancy. Still more remarkable is the execution of the picture. The case and freedom with which the figures are modelled, the subtle harmonies of line and delicately-blended tints, the wonderful play of light and shade in the deep hollows and splintered shafts of the rocky background, all reveal the presence of a new power in art.
The replica of this famous picture in the National Gallery is probably the work of the Milanese artist Ambrogio de Predis, who had already painted the angels on the wings of the altar-piece, and remained in the Franciscan church until 1796, when Gavin Hamilton bought it for thirty ducats. The smallness of the sum is the best prof that the picture was not held to be a genuine Leonardo, since the great master’s works were held in the highest estimation at Milan, and Charles I. had vainly offered 300 ducats for any one of his manuscripts in that city. A series of original studies for the children-heads and the angel with the outstretched finger, are still to be seen at Windsor and Paris, and bear witness to the genuineness of the Louvre painting, while the slight improvements in the composition of the National Gallery picture seem to indicate that it was a, later work, probably executed under Leonardo’s own eye.
But if England cannot claim to possess an oil-painting by the hand of this rare master, we have a priceless treasure in the cartoon of the Virgin and St. Anne, which is the property of the Royal Academy. In this drawing, which Leonardo probably designed towards the close of his Milanese period, we have the first idea of the picture which he afterwards painted for Francis I. It is drawn in black chalk on white paper, and both the hands and feet of St. Anne and the stones in the foreground are quite unfinished, but the modelling of the forms and the expression of the heads display the full perfection of the master’s art. The Child in his Mother’s arms springs joyously forward to reach St John, and St. Anne, on whose lap the Virgin rests, turns to her daughter with a glad smile and points upwards, as if to show that she is aware of her son’s divine birth. But the charm of the picture lies in the face of Mary, with the strange, wonderful smile that tells of a joy beyond mortal dream. Nowhere else has Leonardo succeeded in drawing a face so absolutely free from all suspicion of earthly guile, so pure and tender in its perfect loveliness. For once even the master himself must have been satisfied.
The history of this famous cartoon still remains doubtful. But we know that it was reproduced by Luini in an oil-painting, now in the Ambrosiana, and that, in 1585, it was still the property of his son Aurelio. In 1720, it was sold by the Arconati family and removed to Venice, where it was bought by the English Consul, John Udny, and taken to England about 1760. On the 22nd March, 1791, the following minute appears on the roll of the Council of the Royal Academy signed by the President, Sir Joshua Reynolds :
“The cartoon, by Leonardo da Vinci, in the Royal Academy, being in a perishable state, having been neglected many years : Resolved That it have all the possible repairs and be secured in a frame and glasses, which the Secretary is requested to take charge of.”
The head of the Virgin from this cartoon which now hangs in the Diploma Gallery at Burlington House, forms our frontispiece, and is here reproduced by the special permission of the President and Council of the Royal Academy.
But the most famous work which Leonardo executed for Lodovico Sforza was the Last Supper, in the refectory of the Dominican friars of S. Maria delle Grazie, a convent which the Duke had taken under his especial protection. When the painter received the order, he felt that the opportunity of his life had come, and threw himself with passionate ardour into this work, in which all the resources of his art and all the experience of ripened years are gathered up. Very few of his preliminary studies, however, remain. The red chalk drawing in the Accademia at Venice, with the names of the different apostles, is one of the earliest, and some single heads in the library at Windsor are of great beauty, while some curious descriptive notes indicating the attitude of each apostle, in Leonardo’s own handwriting, are preserved at South Kensington Museum.
” One, in the act of drinking, puts down his glass and turns his head to the speaker. Another, twisting his fingers together, turns to his companion, knitting his eyebrows. Another, opening his hands and turning the palm towards the spectator, shrugs his shoulders, his mouth expressing the liveliest surprise. Another whispers in the ear of a companion, who turns to listen, holding in one hand a knife, and in the other a loaf, which he has cut in two. Another, turning round with a knife in his hand, upsets a glass upon the table and looks ; another gasps in amazement; another leans forward to look at the speaker, shading his eyes with his hand ; another, drawing back behind the one who leans forward, looks into the space between the wall and the stooping disciple.”
This first realistic conception, which curiously recalls Andrea del Castagno’s fresco in Sant’ Apollonia of Florence, was gradually transformed by the fine action of Leonardo’s imagination into the noble and harmonious scene that is familiar to us all. There is consummate art in the grouping and gestures of the figures, in the simple tunics and mantles of the apostles, and the plain fittings of the upper chamber, with its timbered roof and three windows, looking out on the distant hills. Leonardo began the work early in 1495, but, after his wont, lingered over it till both the Prior and the Duke’s patience were well nigh exhausted. Matteo Bandello, the novelist, who was a novice in the convent at the time, has described how he often saw the master mount the scaffolding and remain there, brush in hand, from sunrise to sunset, forgetting to eat and drink. Sometimes he would stand before the fresco for an hour or two, lost in contemplation, and would not take up his brush for three or four days. At other times he would leave the Castello, where he was modelling his equestrian statue, and hurry through the streets, in the blazing noontide sun, to the convent outside the city gates, add a touch or two to the fresco, and then return as quickly as he came. But he was always courteous to visitors, and liked to hear them express their opinions freely on his work. When Cardinal de Gurck paid a visit to Milan, early in 1497, and was lodged in the convent, he came to see the painter, and praised his fresco highly ; but six months later it was still unfinished, and Lodovico sent the Marchesino Stanga to urge him to complete the work without delay.
The Prior, Vasari tells us, could not understand why the paint should stand before his picture for half the day without making any visible progress, and appealed to the Duke, who sent for Leonardo and discussed the subject with him. The master explained that he was really producing most when he seemed to be idle, and added that he had still two heads to paint, that of Christ, which he could hardly hope to realise on earth, and that of Judas, for which he was still seeking a model, but would, if it pleased the Duke, make use of the Prior’s own head, a joke over which both prince and painter laughed heartily. By the end of the year, however, the work was finished, and Luca Pacioli, in dedicating his book to the Duke, alludes to his friend Leonardo as the “sculptor of the admirable and stupendous equestrian statue, and the painter of the noble and beautiful symbol of the ardent Desire of our Salvation in the temple of le Gratie.” Unfortunately, instead of working in fresco a process which did not admit of the continual retouchings prompted by his fastidious taste Leonardo painted in oils on a dry stucco ground, which soon crumbled away, and in Vasari’s time the great picture was already a wreck. We need not dwell on the melancholy tale of subsequent mutilations and restorations which it has undergone. Enough that Leonardo’s soul still dwells in this ruined masterpiece, and that even now it has a power and a charm that no copies can ever give. There is a vigour and sincerity in the heads, a sense of common action and thrill of sympathy running through the group, above all, a depth of tenderness and intensity of feeling in the expression of the faces, which no reproductions give, and which belong to the original alone.
After finishing the Last Supper, Leonardo painted Lodovico’s own portrait and that of his young wife, the lamented Duchess Beatrice who had died early in the year, and was buried in the church close by kneeling with their little sons at the foot of the Milanese artist Mortorfano’s fresco of the Crucifixion, on the opposite wall. Since, however, he insisted on painting them in oils, these noble figures which contemporaries describe as living images of both Duke and Duchess have almost disappeared. But already Lodovico’s enemies were closing about him, and he found himself in sore need of men and money.
In April, 1499, Leonardo, who up till this time had found him so generous a patron, wrote to remind him that his salary was two years in arrear, and in reply received a grant of a vineyard outside the Porta Vercellina, with a letter acknowledging his services in the warmest terms, and calling him the most famous of living painters. When, a few months later, the French entered Milan, and Lodovico fled to Innsbruck, Leonardo sent 600 florins which he had saved to the bank of S. Maria Nuova in Florence, and went to Venice. On his journey he stopped at Mantua, and paid a visit to the accomplished Marchesa Isabella, sister to Duchess Beatrice, whom he had often met at the court of Milan, and whose portrait he drew in charcoal. By the end of March he was back in Florence. There he heard the news of Lodovico’s final defeat and betrayal to the French, and of the terrible ruin which had overwhelmed his State and friends, The fair palace which he had helped to decorate was pillaged by French soldiery, and the model of his equestrian statue became a target for Gascon archers. A few broken sentences in one of Leonardo’s note-books record the grief which he felt that day. Bramante’s buildings were left unfinished, the architect Jacopo da Ferrara, a friend dear to him as a brother, had been hung by the French as a traitor, all his old companions were in prison or exile, and his noble patron Lodovico was a captive in a foreign land. ” The Duke,” he wrote, “has lost his realm, his fortune and his liberty. Not one of his great undertakings has been completed.”
The next sixteen years of Leonardo’s life were spent in constant journeyings up and down Italy. During fifteen months he remained in Florence, first in the house of his friend, the sculptor Rustici, and afterwards with the Servi brothers, who commissioned him to paint an altar-piece for their church. After many delays, he at length produced a cartoon of the Madonna and St. Anne, which not only filled all artists with admiration, but brought crowds of men and women, old and young, to the hall in the convent where it was exhibited during two days. ” The whole city was stirred,” writes Vasari, “and you might have thought it was a procession on some solemn feast day.” The Carmelite preacher, Fra Pietro da Nuvolaria, writing to Isabella d’Este, in April, 1501, describes this cartoon, which made all Florence wonder, in the following words :
“The composition is an Infant Christ, hardly a year old, escaping from his Mother’s arms to catch hold of a lamb and embrace it. The Virgin, rising almost out of the lap of St. Anne, tries to part the babe from the lamb, and St. Anne seems about to make some movement to hold her back. The figures are life-size, and yet the composition is a small one, because all of them are either seated or bending down.”
This sketch, in which we recognise the design for the oil-painting afterwards executed for Francis L, was the only cartoon which Leonardo had drawn since he had been in Florence.
“The fact is,” adds the Carmelite, “he has grown tired of painting, and spends all his time on geometry. Two of his pupils are painting portraits, which he touches up from time to time. But he seems to be living without thought of the morrow.”
In vain the Marchesa reminded Leonardo that he had promised to paint her portrait in oils, and begged for some little sacred subject for her studio. “You might at least,” she wrote to Fra Pietro, “persuade him to paint us a little Madonna, as sweet and holy as his nature would lead him to conceive.” But her entreaties met with no response. The friars never obtained their altar-piece, and Isabella’s Madonna was never painted.
In the summer of 1502, Leonardo entered the service of Caesar Borgia as military engineer, and travelled through Romagna “the realm of all stupidity,” as he called this province visiting Urbino, Rimini, Cesena, and :Forli, inspecting fortresses, drawing plans, and noting down any curiosities which he saw on his journey. Early in the following year he returned to Florence, and became once more absorbed in the study of mathematics. In July, he paid a visit to the camp before Pisa, and prepared elaborate plans for the construction of a canal between that city and Florence. And in January, 1504, he was present at the meeting of the artists who chose a site for Michelangelo’s David. In the April following, both he and Michelangelo received a commission to prepare plans for the decoration of the Council Hall in the Palazzo Pubblico. The subject assigned to Leonardo was the battle between the Florentines and Milanese at Anghiari, in 1440, and the Signory agreed to pay him fifteen florins a month, on condition that his cartoon was finished by the following February. During the next ten months Leonardo worked with unceasing ardour at his new task. The subject appealed to him in an especial manner, and the sense of rivalry with the young and famous artist Michelangelo impelled him to put forth all his powers. His account-books at this time bear witness to the simplicity of his habits and frugality of his daily life After the splendour and luxury of the Milanese court, we find him living in rooms near the Pope’s hall at Santa Maria Novella, doing his own housekeeping, and sending out his favourite pupil Salai with a florin to buy provisions for the day. After paying the shoemaker and barber, and laying in a store of bread wine, grapes, and mushrooms, Salai brought back three soldi. This was on a Friday ; on other days the bill of fare included meat, eggs, salad, butter and melons. The hire of horses and purchase of cooking utensils and dishes are included in these modest expenses, which only amount to a few florins a week. But with his usual generosity we find Leonardo giving Salai three florins for a pair of rose-coloured stockings, and green velvet and silver cloth to make a new mantle, and advancing a considerable sum for his sister’s dowry. Of wealth and pleasure, of honours and rewards, the master was singularly independent. “O poverty of man l” he exclaims in one passage, “of how many things do you become the slave for the sake of money ! ” All he asked was freedom from care, and a quiet home in which he could work and study at leisure. ” I am never weary when I am useful,” is one of his favourite mottoes. ” In serving others I cannot do enough.”
By February, 1505, Leonardo’s cartoon was completed, and he began to paint the central group of horsemen fighting round the standard on the wall of the Council Hall. Unfortunately, he determined to try a stucco ground, such as Pliny describes to have been employed by Roman artists, and, after wasting endless time and labour on the experiment, found that the substance was too soft and would not hold the colour. This disastrous result filled him with vexation, and before long he abandoned the work in despair. His failure was the more lamentable because of the unanimous testimony which contemporaries bear to the heroic beauty of the warriors and horses in the unfinished painting, which for some years adorned the Council Hall. Leonardo’s cartoon remained in the Pope’s hall, while that of Michelangelo was hung in the Medici Palace, where Benvenuto Cellini saw them, in 1559, and describes them as the school of the whole world. But these vanished in the course of the next century, and to-day nothing remains to us of Leonardo’s masterpiece excepting a few scattered studies and Raphael’s copy of the central group, in the University Galleries at Oxford. It is only when we turn to the painter’s vivid and dramatic picture of a battle, in the “Trattato,” and read the eloquent words in which he paints the confused melée of dead and dying, of stamping and rearing horses, and the different expressions on the faces of victors and vanquished, that we realise all that we have lost in Leonardo’s Battle of the Standard.
A better fate has attended the portrait of Mona Lisa, the fair Neapolitan wife of the Florentine Prior, Francesco del Giocondo, which he painted about this time. After working at the picture for more than four years, Leonardo took it with him to France, where it was bought by Francis I. for 4000 gold crowns. A document of the last century, which M. Durand Gréville has lately brought to light, confirms the truth of Vasari’s well known description, and proves that before varnish and repainting destroyed the surface of the picture, the sky was of a delicate blue, the lady’s complexion of dazzling fairness, and her eyes of liquid and brilliant lustre.
” The smallest details are rendered with exceeding care, the eyes have all the liquid sparkle of nature, the lashes fringing the lids are painted with rare delicacy, the curve of the eyebrows, the vermilion of the lips, are all exactly reproduced. This is not painting, it is real flesh. You can see the pulse beating in the throat, the enchanting smile is more divine than life itself.”
The crimson of the lips has faded and the lustre of the eyes is dim, but that wonderful face with the haunting smile, and the everlasting rocks behind, has not yet lost its charm. For us, in her mystic beauty, Mona Lisa remains the symbol of the divine Idea which Leonardo was ever seeking, the secret which lies hidden at the heart of Nature.
Early in 1506, the painter went to Milan, at the invitation of the French king, Louis XI L, who had frequently tried to secure his services, and was once more employed on engineering works in Lombardy. The disgust which he felt at the failure of his last great enterprise was increased by a vexatious law-suit with his half-brothers, over his late father’s inheritance, and he was glad to escape from these cares and anxieties and find a new sphere of action. But the Gonfaloniere of Florence, Piero Soderini, refused to prolong his leave of absence, and complained that Leonardo had not treated the Republic well, and had never finished the work committed to him. ” He has, in fact, acted like a traitor.” The painter, to do him justice, offered to return the money which had been paid him for his cartoon in the Palazzo Pubblico, but Soderini refused his offer, and eventually granted the French king’s earnest entreaty and allowed Leonardo to remain at Milan. Before long, a fresh revolution in that city sent him back to Florence, and, in 1513, he accompanied Giuliano de’ Medici to Rome, to attend the coronation of his brother, Pope Leo X. The new pontiff welcomed Leonardo warmly, and gave him rooms in the Vatican, where Michelangelo and Raphael were both employed, and where his old friend Bramante was architect of the new basilica of St. Peter. But instead of painting pictures for the Pope, the wayward master spent his time in vain attempts to realise his old dream of a flying machine, and in composing a dissertation on the papal coinage. “Alas ! ” exclaimed Pope Leo, when he found Leonardo distilling herbs to make a new varnish, “this man will effect nothing, for he thinks about finishing his picture before he begins it.” One small Madonna with a Child of enchanting grace, Vasari tells us, which he painted for the papal official Baldassarre Turini, has disappeared, while the fresco in the church S. Onofrio, formerly ascribed to him, is now recognised to be the work of his pupil Beltraffio. The departure of Giuliano de’ Medici decided him to leave Rome, and when, in the summer of 1515, Francis I. entered Italy, Leonardo hastened to meet him at Pavia. The new king received him with the greatest honour, and gave him a pension of 700 crowns. ” King Francis,” writes Cellini, ” was passionately enamoured of the great master’s talents, and told me himself that there had never been any man who knew as much as Leonardo.” The painter not only accompanied his royal patron to Milan, but followed him to France, and settled in the Hôtel de Cloux, a manor-house near the king’s favourite château of Amboise. Salai refused to leave Milan, but another of his favourite pupils, Francesco Melzi, accompanied Leonardo to France, and watched tenderly over his declining years. His health was beginning to fail, but his brain was as active as ever. He pre-pared plans for a new palace at Amboise, and for a canal which should connect Touraine with the Lyonnais. A painting of Leda, which was long preserved at Fontainebleau, and another of Pomona, which was also finished in France, have both perished ; but one picture of this period remains, the blue-robed Madonna and Child in the lap of St. Anne, with the lamb, now in the Louvre. This charming group, which owes its existence to Leonardo’s invention, and is at least partly executed by his hand, is mentioned by Antonio de Beatis, secretary to the Cardinal of Aragon, in the following account of a visit to Cloux :
” On the 10th of October, 1516, we went from Tours to Amboise. In one town we accompanied the Cardinal on a visit to Messer Leonardo Vinci, the Florentine, an old man over seventy years of age, and the most excellent painter of our age. He shewed His Excellency three pictures; one was a portrait of a Florentine lady, taken from life at the request of the late Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici; the other was a young St. John the Baptist, and the third a Madonna and Child sitting in the lap of St. Anne, all most perfectly painted, although no more good work can be expected from him now, as his right hand is paralysed. But he has a Milanese pupil who works very well, and although the said Messer Leonardo can no longer paint with his old suavity and charm, he can still make drawings and teach others. This gentleman has written a treatise on anatomy, with especial regard to painting, and has described the limbs, muscles, nerves, veins, and all that belongs to the bodies of men and women, better than any one else before him has done. We have seen the work with our own eyes, and he told us that he had dissected more than thirty bodies of men and women of all ages. He has also written on the nature of water, and has filled an infinite number of volumes with treatises on machines and other subjects, all written in the vulgar tongue, which, when published, will be of the greatest profit and delight.”
This is our last glimpse of the great master. He could no longer paint, and soon gave up writing.
On the 24th of June, 1518, he began to write in his note-book, but got no further than the date” IL dI di San Giovanni, Amboise, nel palazzo di Clou.” It was the Feast of St. John, a day dear to every citizen of Florence. He lingered through the next winter until, on Easter Eve, April 23, feeling his end near, he sent for a notary and dictated his last will. He left his books and drawings to Francesco Melzi, and divided his vineyard in Milan between his old pupil Salai and his faithful servant Battista. His French maid-servant, Mathurine, was to be given a gown and mantle of good black cloth, trimmed with fur, and two ducats, in gratitude for her services. Even his quarrelsome brothers were remembered, and the sum of 400 crowns, which he had left in the bank at S. Maria Nuova, was to be divided between them. Ten days afterwards, on the 2nd of May, 1519, Leonardo passed away, and the peace of his last moments recalls his own words : ” As a well-spent day gives joy in sleep, so a well-spent life brings joy in dying” (dá lieto morire). Melzi announced his beloved master’s death to his brothers in Florence in these touching words :
“I think you have already been informed of the death of Maestro Leonardo, your brother, and to me the best of fathers. I can never tell you how much sorrow this has caused me. It is a loss that, as long as I live, I can never cease to feel; and this is only natural, for he daily showed me the warmest and most devoted affection. All men must lament the death of such a man. May God Almighty give him eternal peace ! He left this life on the 2nd of May, well prepared with all the Sacraments of our holy Mother the Church.”
Leonardo’s remains were buried in the royal chapel of St. Florentin, at Amboise, and, in obedience to his last wishes, thirty masses were said for the repose of his soul, and sixty poor persons followed him to the grave with lighted candles. The date of his final burial is recorded in the following document, discovered by M. Hardouin in 1863 in the registers of St. Florentin of Amboise, and published by M. Müntz.*
Fût inhumé dans le cloistre de cette église, Messire Leonardi de Vincy, nosble millanais, premier peinctre et ingénieur et architecte du Roy ; mechasnischien d’estat, et anchien directeur de peincture du Duc de Millan. Ce fut faict le douze jour d’aoust, 1519.”
Leonardo’s writings give us the best insight into his mind, and explain many problems that meet us in his works. From these scattered sayings, written down at odd moments, on loose sheets and scraps of paper, on the backs of drawings and in the corners of plans, we can reconstruct a whole philosophy of life. We see him as he was, with his clear and noble intellect, singularly free from the prejudices and superstitions of his age, ever seeking after more light and wider knowledge, but not without a deep reverence for the great First Cause whose nature lies beyond the range of human thought. And if together with his written words we study the magnificent collections of his drawings in the Uffizi, the Louvre, and the royal Library at Windsor, we shall begin to understand the marvellous genius of the man. Every-where we see the same passionate longing to penetrate the mysteries and learn the secrets of Nature. All forms of life attracted him. Nothing was too small or insignificant to escape his attention. Studies of plants and brambles, of flowers and roots of trees, are mingled with designs of monuments and hydraulic machines, with anatomical sketches of veins and muscles, drawings of rocks and waves, or grotesques and caricatures. And in the midst of this varied and amazing display of mental activity we find lovely women-faces with Mona Lisa’s smile, or fair boys with curled and waving hair, in which the artist has tried to seize and hold fast the fleeting beauty of which he wrote : Cosa bella mortal passa, e non d’arte” Mortal beauty passes away, but not art.” As we turn over these wonderful pages, we begin to realise all the greatness of the gifts with which he was endowed, the rare creative faculty and exquisite refinement of feeling which have made Leonardo unique among the Italian painters of the Renaissance, and foremost among the supreme masters of the world.
Florence.Uffizi: 1252. Adoration of the Magi (sketch).
Milan.S. Maria delle Grazie, Refectory: Last Supper; Portraits of Lodovico Sforza and Beatrice d’Este.
Rome.Vatican: St. Jerome (sketch).
London.Burlington House, Diploma Gallery: The Madonna and Child, St. John the Baptist and St. Anne (cartoon.)
Paris.Louvre: 1265. Annunciation. 1598. Madonna and Child with St. Anne. 1599. ” La Vierge aux Rochers. 1601. Portrait of Mona LisaIn Gioconda.