Leonardo Da Vinci's Time in Milan

Leonardo Da Vinci's Time in Milan

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The objective of this essay is to provide an explanation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work as an artist in context with his time spent in Milan. Following an initial introduction to Leonardo’s formative years in Florence (and his apprenticeship to the sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio, 1435-88), I will attempt to explain the significance of his presence in Milan with detailed descriptions of his work there. Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) was also an artist and architect, but is perhaps better known for his book on the lives of well known painters, sculptors and architects (published 1550; from Cimbue to his autobiography which was included in a revised edition):

“Vasari's book offers his personal evaluation of the works of these artists, as well as discussions on the state of the arts. His easy, natural writing style helped to make his book one of the most enduring of art histories.”

His reflections on Leonardo’s life include insight specifically relating to his unusual character and the intellectual merit of his life’s work. Using this evidence I hope to provide valid observations on Leonardo’s significance as a father of the High Renaissance.

Leonardo (who was christened Lionardo, the name to which Vasari refers) was born near the small town of Vinci on 15th April 1452. The town was situated in the Florentine province of Italy, where his father, Ser Piero was a notary. According to Vasari, Leonardo was somewhat of a child prodigy in his studies, but he showed little commitment to one single area, constantly finding new interests in other subjects:

“Thus in arithmetic, during the few months that he studied it, he made such progress that he frequently confounded his master by continually raising doubts and difficulties. He devoted some time to music … Yet though he studied so many different things, he never neglected design and working in relief, those being the things which appealed to his fancy more than any other.”

Being very conscious of his son’s talents, Ser Piero moved to Florence with Leonardo and his wife (not Leonardo’s mother, as he was illegitimate and never took his father’s name) to utilise them professionally. Being a friend of the artist and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), Ser Piero convinced him to recruit Leonardo as an apprentice by the promise shown in his work. Verrocchio strongly encouraged da Vinci, and his admiration of his student's talents convinced Verrocchio to allow Leonardo to participate in the creation of his own paintings and sculptures.

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According to Vasari, Leonardo was highly skilled in many fields of design, he “prepared many architectural plans and elevations, and he was the first, though so young, to propose a navigable canal of the Arno River from Pisa to Florence.” Vasari talks at length on the subject of Leonardo’s early drawing skills, delving with some depth into the aptitude of his draughtsmanship, often indicating that his works were “executed like a master,” which he became officially in 1478. Drawing may have been a craft in which he gleaned experience directly from Verrocchio, who’s own biography by Vasari states:

“(His drawings were) made with great patience and knowledge, among which are heads of women, with graceful manner and hair arrangements that, because of their exceeding beauty, Lionardo da Vinci always imitated.”

Although in 1472 he entered the San Luca guild of painters in Florence, which would indicate that he had attained a degree of professional independence, he remained with Andrea del Verrocchio until 1480. Of his earliest works, one that he painted as an assistant is the angel holding clothes, kneeling on the left of Verrocchio's picture ‘The Baptism of Christ’ (c.1472-1475). Verrocchio, as indicated by Vasari, was so impressed by the implications of his pupil's genius that “would never afterwards touch colours, chagrined that a child should know more than he.”

Since Leonardo’s earliest large-scale work ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (begun 1481 – unfinished), he had gained a reputation for leaving works incomplete, perhaps fittingly in the nature of this, his first commission an altarpiece for the chapel of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall, was never executed. Conveniently, Vasari attempts to provide an explanation for this ‘force of habit’:

“His knowledge of art, indeed, prevented him from finishing many things which he had begun, for he felt that his hand would be unable to realise the perfect creations of his imagination, as his mind formed such difficult, subtle and marvellous conceptions that his hands, skilful as they were, could never have expressed them.”

As to the truth of this statement, this is difficult to prove, but clarification could be seen in the great number and range of Leonardo’s studies and designs that never progressed further than the initial planning stages, due to his constant need to illustrate his new and innovative concepts.

‘The Adoration of the Magi’ was an early illustration of Leonardo’s genius in technical innovation, even if it was unintentional. Despite the piece not being completed, the drawing and base painting serve to demonstrate the success of Leonardo’s technique of drawing straight onto the board without first having to demarcate outlines by using a collection of cartoons (preparatory sketches) as was the technique for painting in buon-fresco or in tempera. Noticeable also is the way Leonardo has used even the base coat of oil paint to establish modelling on the figures and a inferred sense of depth had also been worked into the perspective of the piece. If Leonardo had finished this painting, in terms of sheer technical merit and my own opinion, it would have been his finest.

Soon after he left Verrocchio’s workshop he left to forge a career in Milan. It should be understood that due to the political state of Italy at the time, the nation was subdivided into independently governed states. Milan was the capital city of the most northerly of these, also of note were Florence and Venice which were the richest and Rome which was the central state ruled by the Papacy of the Vatican City. In its isolation, Milan was on the border with France and on occasion found itself at war so that the ruling body of the state (at this time the Sforza family) would remain in power. This explains why Leonardo left the state, in quite a hurry one would imagine, when France overthrew Ludovico Sforza (called ‘il moro’- the moor because of his dark-colouring, 1452-1508) in 1499. The states would also battle amongst themselves sometimes for political supremacy or a wealth of other reasons.

Leonardo’s presence in Milan appeared to rely on the attribution of power in the state. Vasari fails to acknowledge the true complication of affairs that took place before Leonardo’s arrival. He merely states that Ludovico’s brother, Giovanni Galeazzo (1444-76) had died and Ludovico had risen to power. More to the point the “Leonardo da Vinci” National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan serves to clarify the situation that determined both Ludovico’s rise and fall (this serves as only one side of the story though):

“Galeazzo Maria … was assassinated in 1476 by a group of conspirators. The inheritance of the duchy passed on to his son Gian Galeazzo (1469-1494), who … was put under the guardianship of his mother, Bona of Savoy. But … Ludovico … managed to oust his sister-in-law and assumed power, becoming in actual fact the new duke of Milan (but only by position).”

It is also revealed that Gian Galeazzo plotted in the original French attempt at take-over by Charles VII, before his untimely death in 1494 (soon after Ludovico’s official coronation no less). Consequently when Leonardo had arrived in Milan (c.1482), Ludovico was not recognised as the official duke, which in my opinion must have at least marginally affected his position as the court artist. It is possible though that Ludovico’s admiration of Leonardo and his work would have contributed to his hope to work for the future Duke. Vasari actually states that Leonardo found his place in Ludovico’s court primarily through his musical abilities:

“Lionardo took his own instrument (a lyre), made by himself in silver, and shaped like a horse's head, a curious and novel idea to render the harmonies more loud and sonorous, so that he surpassed all the musicians who had assembled there. Besides this he was the best reciter of improvised rhymes of his time.”

A recent biography, which appears to be concerned with the great range of Leonardo’s talents, has a more accepted explanation of his application. He had “written the duke an astonishing letter in which he stated that he could build portable bridges; that he knew the techniques of constructing bombardments and of making cannons; that he could build ships as well as armoured vehicles, catapults, and other war machines; and that he could execute sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay.” Considering the situation of Milan as described before, it is not surprising to see why such a curriculum vitae would interest Ludovico. As indicated by the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “He was listed in the register of the royal household as pictor et ingeniarius ducalis (“painter and engineer of the duke”).”

Leonardo’s Milanese period is cited by the Britannica as being the unfolding of his genius, no less as an artist despite his many other interests and responsibilities. Leonardo’s use of oils is credit to the quality of his work, and although by no means the first of the Italian painters to use the medium, his work created new methods that defined its use in the years to follow. The most individual of these would be sfumato: “Leonardo … found a new expression for ‘nature experienced,’ in reproducing the forms he perceived as if through a veil of mist.” The utilisation of sfumato (from the Italian ‘to tone down’) made objects appear to fade, even dissolve into the background creating depth with the use of tonal effects. Another method that was also used partly by the other artists of the high renaissance (although not definitively until the mannerist movement) was chiaroscuro, which came from the Italian for ‘light’ and ‘shade’. This provided an even greater sense of relief and a sculptural quality to paintings by using an exaggerated depiction of light and dark tones emphasising the shape of a form.

I have chosen two works from this period, which by personal opinion, I consider to be the finest in his undertaking and most expressive of his paintings. The ‘Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine)’ was painted around 1490 midway through his employment to Ludovico; indeed it is sometimes believed that the Lady was his mistress. This painting uses chiaroscuro to a great effect with modelling used around the side of the head, neck and upper chest and around the arms, clearly illustrating the depth of the figure. Notice how obscured the background is, thus making the use of sfumato impossible on the figure, except for where the torso of the ermine is cast in shadow by the Lady’s hand and arm. Her clothing and jewellery appear very sophisticated and luxuriant incorporating crisp details in the fabric. The ermine itself, which was prized for its valuable fur, also acts as a designation of wealth.

Dominican monks of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery commissioned possibly the most notable painting by Leonardo in Milan, ‘The Last Supper’ painted using an experimentary use of media from 1495-8. A great work in its magnitude, the composition has become the epitome of Last Supper paintings, despite its well-known fragility it still remains following attempts at restoration since 1726. It is constantly falling apart since Leonardo attempted to work in oil and tempera on plaster. Vasari wrote of the work:

“Lionardo has seized the moment when the Apostles are anxious to discover who would betray their Master. All their faces are expressive of love, fear, wrath or grief at not being able to grasp the meaning of Christ, in contrast to the obstinacy, hatred and treason of Judas, while the whole work, down to the smallest details, displays incredible diligence, even the texture of the tablecloth being clearly visible so that actual cambric would not look more real.”

Vasari also professes to Leonardo’s diligence in working on this project, although according to an eyewitness report from one Matteo Bandello (narrated in Novella, 1497) the artist would at times paint in the refectory “‘from sunrise to darkness, never laying down the brush’ to eat or drink. Then, days would lapse in which Leonardo would not touch a brush but would either contemplate what he had painted or labour at the ‘Corte Vecchia’ on the monumental clay model for the Sforza equestrian monument, and then, ‘when the fancy took him … he would take a brush and give a few touches to one of the figures; and then suddenly he would leave and go elsewhere.’”

The painting itself has little evidence of its former glory left, although the use of both chiaroscuro and sfumato are still visible in the scenery and between the figures, and this grants the vision a certain elegance of form and composition. The arrangement of the apostle figures in groups of three is often commented upon due to the number acting as a recurring theme in the painting; often the number three was used to designate the importance of the Holy Trinity. The robes are very much in the tradition of scholarly togas; there is still even a suggestion of lurid colour still left in the cloth.
It was soon after he had completed this work that Leonardo withdrew from Milan as the Duke had done to escape the French who had overrun the state, French archers also destroyed the clay equestrian colossus that Leonardo had made by using it for target practice. Leonardo only returned to Milan in 1506 under the guardianship of the ruling French governor, Charles d’Amboise, and still only visited whilst undertaking commissions.

“…Leonardo’s lack of popularity (in his own time, as a named artist) is surprising. He was a victim of the cultural marginality of the Milanese court … as well as of his own commitment to technical and scientific projects rather than to literature, and the scarcity of works circulating under his name.”

To some extent this is largely true, but obviously becoming famous was not a great ambition of Leonardo’s. As is mentioned, there was a lack of works (paintings) that would have had a circulation around important circles: “By 1503, Leonardo had forged a reputation for jilting his patrons with unfinished projects.” This would surely have been the case, but what can’t truly be answered is, did this make Leonardo responsible for his own lack of popularity? It never seemed to be that way to Vasari anyhow, who wrote with a very sympathetic style about Leonardo, making eloquent excuses where Leonardo could be found blameworthy. It is probably true to say that Leonardo was highly respected as a founding father of the high period of the renaissance, and all in all lead a comfortable life worthy of his standing.
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