Biographies & Memoirs

La Cremona

There is a small and easily overlooked list of six names in the bottom right corner of a large sheet of geometrical designs and anatomical studies at Windsor.86 Written in Leonardo’s smallest and most spidery style, it reads as follows:







An item below this reads ‘9 tessci’ – ‘nine skulls’ – but it is separated by a space and does not appear to be part of the list. On the basis of its geometrical contents and references the sheet is datable to around 1509.

Four of the six names can be easily interpreted. Salai we know. Cecho or Cecco (a common diminutive of Francesco) is Melzi. One of the two Lorens is the Lorenzo who joined Leonardo’s studio in Florence in 1505 and wrote home to his mother in 1507. And the last name on the list is not really a name at all, but simply a porter (facchino), suggesting that a journey is imminent, and that this party of six will accompany Leonardo, and look after him, on it. A plausible context would be Leonardo’s trip to Pavia in late 1509 or early 1510, to attend the anatomy lectures of Marcantonio della Torre: an extended visit, accompanied by his travelling entourage.

The other two names are mysterious. I have no idea who the second Loren or Lorenzo was, but the one who interests me is ‘Chermonese’. There is no doubt that this is Leonardo’s spelling of Cremonese, i.e. a native of the northern Italian town of Cremona, already famed as a centre of musical-instrument-making. We find the same spelling in a note of 1499, written in Milan, in which he reminds himself to ‘take the works of Leonardo Chermonese’, referring to the Cremonese mathematician Leonardo di Antonio Mainardi.87

On the evidence of this scribbled list there is a person from Cremona in Leonardo’s retinue in 1509. This person belongs in a list of six names, but may well differ from the other five in one respect – she was a woman. We have here, I believe, a sighting of a mysterious woman called Cremona, with whom Leonardo was involved in some undefined way.

La Cremona has appeared quite recently in Leonardo’s story. Nothing was known of her until 1982, when there appeared a handsome new edition of the writings of the early-nineteenth-century Lombard artist and critic Giuseppe Bossi, edited by Roberto Paolo Ciardi. Bossi was a prodigious admirer of Leonardo who did a full-size copy of the Last Supper, as well as some detailed drawings which have served as evidence for later restorers. He had his detractors – among them Stendhal, who nailed him as ‘a fat celebrity of the kind that passes here for a great man’ – but he is still highly respected among Leonardo scholars for his monograph on the Last Supper (1810) and for his early edition of the Codex Leicester, based not on the original, which was by then ensconced in Norfolk, but on a complete copy of it which he tracked down in Naples. His own transcription is now in the Grand-Ducal Library at Weimar; it was purchased on the advice of Goethe, after Bossi’s early death in 1815.88 Ciardi’s new edition of Bossi’s writings included previously unknown manuscripts among which was the draft of an essay which had never reached print, about the representation of the passions in art. In this Bossi refers often to Leonardo, citing his masterful depiction of passions in the Last Supper, and then, developing an idea that in order to represent passions adequately you have to experience them yourself, he writes:

That Leonardo… loved the pleasures of life is proved by a note of his concerning a courtesan called Cremona, a note which was communicated to me by an authoritative source. Nor would it have been possible for him to have understood human nature so deeply, in order to represent it, without becoming, through long practice in it, somewhat tinged with human weaknesses.89

This is it, tout court. Unfortunately Bossi did not name the ‘authoritative source’ who communicated this ‘note’ to him. We cannot be sure that his information is accurate, though there is no doubt he was very knowledgeable about Leonardo, and that he had access to manuscripts since lost. It is possible his source was Carlo Amoretti, the Ambrosian librarian, who made copies of many fugitive Leonardo papers. Or perhaps Bossi was shown something in Naples, where he found that copy of the Codex Leicester, and where he also copied from a version of the ‘Ambrosian apograph’, a seventeenth-century collection of extracts from material in the Ambrosiana.

‘Courtesan’ was a designation with many shades of meaning, but Bossi essentially means a prostitute. In the Roman census of 1511–18, cortesane are classified in descending order of respectability as cortesane honeste, cortesane putane, cortesane da candella e da lume, and cortesane da minor sorte. The top-of-the-range ‘honest’ courtesans were beautiful and accomplished women who were the mistresses of the rich and powerful; the ‘whore’ (putane) courtesans were the city’s street-walkers and brothel-dwellers; courtesans ‘of the candle’ and ‘of the light’ traditionally lodged in the houses of candle-makers and lantern-sellers, adjuncts to shops that were busy after dark; and beneath them all were the ragged working-girls of ‘the lesser sort’. In this census are found two courtesans named Maria Cremonese; as Leonardo was himself in Rome during some of the period of the census, it is not impossible that one of them is La Cremona herself.90 (Leonardo himself would doubtless have figured in the census records too, but they are incomplete: about half the document is missing.)

It is axiomatic that artists sometimes use prostitutes for models. The Roman courtesan Fillide Melandrone appears frequently in Caravaggio’s paintings. Was La Cremona a model? One looks again at those wonderful later studies for the head of Leda at Windsor. They are very different from the first Leda drawings of c. 1504 – different in style, but also different because they have a particular face, which now becomes fixed as the face of Leda and is echoed closely in all the surviving paintings. The woman’s elaborately braided hair, also found in the paintings, was a style associated with courtesans – see for instance the erotic engravings accompanying Aretino’s I xvi modi (The Sixteen Positions).91 The conventional date of these later Leda drawings is around 1508–9, which is just about the time that the mysterious Chermonese appears in Leonardo’s entourage. The voluptuous full-frontal nudity of the Leda may be precisely in Bossi’s mind when he speaks of Leonardo enjoying the ‘pleasures’ of a woman in order to learn about the passions he was depicting.


Reflections of Cremona? Study for the head of Leda (left), and the ‘Nude Gioconda’ at the Hermitage.

And it may even be that we have the address where Leonardo found her, for tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of a large anatomical sheet at Windsor is the following cryptic memorandum: ‘femine di messer iacomo alfeo elleda ne fabri.’ The only reasonable interpretation of the non-existent elleda is that it is two words run together – è Leda – and so, expanding the terseness of the note into a proper sentence, we get, ‘Among the women of Messer Giacomo Alfeo at the Fabbri is Leda.’ Alfeo is perhaps the same as the ‘Messer Iacopo Alfei’ who traded invective sonnets with Leonardo’s friend Bellincioni – the honorific is that of a knight or a doctor of law: a prosperous society figure. The Fabbri was an area of Milan around the small city gate known as the Pustarla dei Fabbri (the Blacksmiths’ Gate).92 Pedretti suggests that the femine referred to were Alfeo’s daughters, but the word is equally if not more likely to refer to serving-women or mistresses. This sheet is also dated to c. 1508–9. It contains a large anatomical study of a standing female; the outline is pricked for transfer, and is indeed found transferred on another Windsor sheet – the very one that includes the name Chermonese.

These hints seem to offer a tantalizing fragment of biography for Bossi’s ‘courtesan called Cremona’. She was a kept woman in the house of Giacomo or Jacopo Alfei in Milan; she was used by Leonardo as the model for Leda; she became part of his entourage, and was listed as such as he prepared to leave for Pavia in 1509. A lesser-known sketch at Windsor, probably by a pupil, shows a young, partially nude woman with one hand cupping her right breast and the other touching or covering her genitals. (At least that is one reading of it: the drawing merges into a separate study of her left leg, so it is hard to be sure what the intention is.) The sheet also has anatomical studies of c. 1508–9 and this may possibly be another glimpse of Cremona.93 We slide here towards that mysterious group of paintings which goes under the generic title of the ‘Nude Gioconda’, showing a bare-breasted woman in a pose more or less reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. None of the surviving examples is by Leonardo, though the best of them, known as the Mona Vanna(Hermitage), is plausibly attributed to Salai. It explicitly quotes the Mona Lisa – the chair, the loggia, the vistas of mountains beyond – but the woman’s face and braided hair are closer to the Leda. A version now in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo was catalogued in Milan in 1664 as a portrait by Leonardo of ‘a woman believed to be a prostitute’ (‘mulier creditur meretrix’).94

Bossi’s allusion to La Cremona suggests that Leonardo had a sexual relationship with her – suggests, in fact, that Leonardo said as much in that note which ‘proved’ that he ‘loved the pleasures of life’. It is around this time that Leonardo writes an odd and somewhat opaque sentence about sex: ‘The man wants to know if the woman is pliable to the demands of his lust, and perceiving that she is and that she has a desire for him, he makes his request and puts his desire into action; and he cannot find out if he does not confess, and confessing he fucks.’95

‘Confessando fotte’ – there is really no other way to translate this phrase. It is the only time in all his manuscripts that he uses fottere. It should not be taken as an obscenity, but nor can it quite be explained away as simple vernacular frankness. He chooses the harshly emphatic and physical verb over various blander alternatives that he uses elsewhere (usare con, fare il coito, etc.); its sudden physicality is expressive of the overall point of the sentence, which seems to be that sexual desire begins with a vague interrogative curiosity – would she or wouldn’t she? – and that merely posing the question, verbally ‘confessing’ the desire, tends to lead precipitously to the act itself. Is this little meditation in part autobiographical?

On an anatomical sheet of c. 1510 is another interesting comment: ‘The act of coition and the parts of the body involved in it are of such ugliness that if it were not for the beauty of the faces and the adornments of the lovers, and the reined-in desire, nature would lose the human species.’96 Again the language is revealing: between them beauty and desire – especially a desire that has been repressed and reined in (frenata) – override the inherent ‘bruttura’ of heterosexual love. These comments add some credibility to that fugitive note referred to by Bossi.

It is a biographer’s job to be sceptical more often than romantic, but I find no inherent difficulty in the idea that Leonardo, at the age of about fifty-seven, had some kind of relationship or entanglement with a beautiful young prostitute whose serene features and curvaceous body served as the model for the Leda and perhaps for the lost original of the ‘Nude Gioconda’. This could be an entirely new chapter in his sex-life, or it could be that his homosexuality should not be regarded as a dogma. Leonardo had many relationships with women. The majority of his paintings are of women, and they retain a frisson of physical proximity, an atmosphere of the shared moments that went into their making. His relationships with Ginevra de’ Benci, or Cecilia Gallerani, or Lisa del Giocondo – and with all the other nameless girls and women who modelled for his Madonnas – are in them. Whatever his customs and preferences, it seems unlikely that this ‘disciple of experience’ who made all knowledge his province would have denied himself, at least once in his life, the sexual knowledge of a woman. This is indeed the logic of Bossi’s mention of La Cremona, which is as near as we get to Leonardo’s mention of her: that she taught him those heterosexual ‘pleasures’ without which his understanding of life would be incomplete; that he was beneficially ‘tinged with human weaknesses’ by this unexpected autumnal coup de foudre.

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