There was nothing hesitant, no sense yet of the merciless brevity of time, only youth’s limitless ambitions fed by burgeoning powers, in the letter that Leonardo, now thirty, sent in 1482 to Lodovico, regent of Milan. He had had enough of Florence; the desire to see new places and faces mounted in his blood. He had heard that Lodovico wanted a military engineer, an architect, a sculptor, a painter; well, he would offer himself as all these in one. And so he wrote his famous letter:
Most Illustrious Lord, having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors of instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use of the said instruments does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened without prejudice to anyone else to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below.
1. I have plans for bridges, very light and strong and suitable for carrying very easily…
2. When a place is besieged I know how to cut off water from the trenches, and how to construct an infinite number of… scaling ladders and other instruments…
4. I have plans for making cannon, very convenient and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones in the manner almost of hail…
5. And if it should happen that the engagement is at sea, I have plans for constructing many engines most suitable for attack or defense, and ships which can resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon, and powder and smoke.
6. Also I have ways of arriving at a certain fixed spot by caverns and secret winding passages, made without any noise even though it may be necessary to pass underneath trenches or a river.
7. Also I can make covered cars, safe and unassailable, which will enter the serried ranks of the enemy with artillery, and there is no company of men at arms so great as not to be broken by it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.
8. Also, if need shall arise, I can make cannon, mortars, and light ord$$$ce, of very beautiful and useful shapes, quite different from those in common use.
9. Where it is not possible to employ cannon, I can supply catapults, mangonels, traps, and other engines of wonderful efficacy not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances shall necessitate, I can supply an infinite number of different engines of attack and defense.
10. In time of peace I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in architecture, in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another.
Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also painting, in which my work will stand comparison with that of anyone else whoever he may be.
Moreover, I would undertake the work of the bronze horse, which shall endue with immortal glory and eternal honor the auspicious memory of the Prince your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza.
And if any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.
We do not know how Lodovico replied, but we know that Leonardo reached Milan in 1482 or 1483, and soon made his way into the heart of “the Moor.” One story has it that Lorenzo, as a diplomatic bonbon, had sent him to Lodovico to deliver a handsome lute; another that he won a musical contest there, and was retained not for any of the powers that he had claimed “with all possible humility,” but for the music of his voice, the charm of his conversation, the soft sweet tone of the lyre that his own hands had fashioned in the form of a horse’s head.5 Lodovico seems to have accepted him not at his own valuation but as a brilliant youth who—even though he might be less of an architect than Bramante, and too inexperienced to be entrusted with military engineering—might plan court masques and city pageants, decorate dresses for wife or mistress or princess, paint murals and portraits, and perhaps construct canals to improve the irrigation of the Lombard plain. It offends us to learn that the myriad-minded man had to spend irrecoverable time making curious girdles for Lodovico’s pretty bride, Beatrice d’Este, conceiving costumes for jousts and festivals, organizing pageants, or decorating stables. But a Renaissance artist was expected to do all these things between Madonnas; Bramante too shared in this courtlery; and who knows but the woman in Leonardo delighted in designing dresses and jewelry, and the accomplished equestrian in him enjoyed painting swift horses on stable walls? He adorned the ballroom of the Castello for the marriage of Beatrice, built a special bathroom for her, raised in the garden a pretty pavilion for her summer joy, and painted other rooms—camerini— for palace celebrations. He made portraits of Lodovico, Beatrice, and their children, of Lodovico’s mistresses Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli; these paintings are lost, unless La Belle Ferronière of the Louvre is Lucrezia. Vasari speaks of the family portraits as “marvelous,” and the picture of Lucrezia inspired a poet to a fervid eulogy of the lady’s beauty and the artist’s skill.6
Perhaps Cecilia was Leonardo’s model for The Virgin of the Rocks. The painting was contracted for (1483) by the Confraternity of the Conception as the central part of an altarpiece for the church of San Francesco. The original was later bought by Francis I and is in the Louvre. Standing before it, we note the softly maternal face that Leonardo would use a dozen times in later works; an angel recalling one in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ; two infants exquisitely drawn; and a background of jutting, overhanging rocks that only Leonardo could have conceived as Mary’s habitat. The colors have been darkened by time, but possibly the artist intended a darkling effect, and suffused his pictures with a hazy atmosphere that Italy calls sfumato— “smoked.” This is one of Leonardo’s greatest pictures, surpassed only by The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, and The Virgin, Child, and St. Anne.
The Last Supper and Mona Lisa are the world’s most famous paintings. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, pilgrims enter the refectory that holds Leonardo’s most ambitious work. In that simple rectangular building the Dominican friars who were attached to Lodovico’s favorite church—Santa Maria delle Grazie—took their meals. Soon after the artist arrived in Milan Lodovico asked him to represent the Last Supper on the farthest wall of this refectory. For three years (1495–8), on and off, Leonardo labored or dallied at the task, while Duke and friars fretted over his incalculable delays. The prior (if we may believe Vasari) complained to Lodovico of Leonardo’s apparent sloth, and wondered why he would sometimes sit before the wall for hours without painting a stroke. Leonardo had no trouble explaining to the Duke—who had some trouble explaining to the prior—that an artist’s most important work lies in conception rather than in execution, and (as Vasari put it) “men of genius do most when they work least.” There were in this case, said Leonardo to Lodovico, two special difficulties—to conceive features worthy of the Son of God, and to picture a man as heartless as Judas; perhaps, he slyly suggested, he might use the too frequently seen face of the prior as a model for Iscariot.* Leonardo hunted throughout Milan for heads and faces that might serve him in representing the Apostles; from a hundred such quarries he chose the features that were melted in the mintage of his art into those astonishingly individualized heads that make the wonder of the dying masterpiece. Sometimes he would rush from the streets or his studio to the refectory, add a stroke or two to the picture, and depart.8
The subject was superb, but from a painter’s point of view it was pitted with hazards. It had to confine itself to male figures and a modest table in a simple room; there could be only the dimmest landscape or vista; no grace of women might serve as foil to the strength of the men; no vivid action could be brought in to set the figures into motion and convey the sense of life. Leonardo let in a glimpse of landscape through the three windows behind Christ. As a substitute for action he portrayed the gathering at the tense moment Christ has prophesied that one of the Apostles will betray Him, and each is asking, in fear or horror or amazement, “Is it I?” The institution of the Eucharist might have been chosen, but that would have frozen all thirteen faces into an immobile and stereotyped solemnity. Here, on the contrary, there is more than violent physical action; there is a searching and revelation of spirit; never again, so profoundly, has an artist revealed in one picture so many souls. For the Apostles Leonardo made numberless preliminary sketches; some of these—for James the Greater, Philip, Judas—are drawings of such finesse and power as only Rembrandt and Michelangelo have matched. When he tried to conceive the features of Christ, Leonardo found that the Apostles had exhausted his inspiration. According to Lomazzo (writing in 1557), Leonardo’s old friend Zenale advised him to leave the face of Christ unfinished, saying: “Of a truth it would be impossible to imagine faces lovelier or gentler than those of James the Greater or James the Less. Accept your misfortune, then, and leave your Christ incomplete; for otherwise, when compared with the Apostles, He would not be their Saviour or their Master.”9 Leonardo took the advice. He or a pupil made a famous sketch (now in the Brera Gallery) for the head of Christ, but it pictured an effeminate sadness and resignation rather than the heroic resolve that calmly entered Gethsemane. Perhaps Leonardo lacked the reverent piety that, had it been added to his sensitivity, his depth, and his skill, might have brought the picture nearer to perfection.
Because he was a thinker as well as an artist, Leonardo shunned fresco painting as an enemy to thought; such painting on wet and freshly laid plaster had to be done rapidly before the plaster dried. Leonardo preferred to paint on a dry wall with tempera—colors mixed in a gelatinous substance, for this method allowed him to ponder and experiment. But these colors did not adhere firmly to the surface; even in Leonardo’s lifetime—what with the usual dampness of the refectory and its occasional flooding in heavy rains—the paint began to flake and fall; when Vasari saw the picture (1536) it was already blurred; when Lomazzo saw it, sixty years after its completion, it was already ruined beyond repair. The friars later helped decay by cutting a door through the legs of the Apostles into the kitchen (1656). The engraving by which the painting has been reproduced throughout the world was taken not from the spoiled original but from an imperfect copy made by one of Leonardo’s pupils, Marco d’Oggiono. Today we can study only the composition and the general outlines, hardly the shades or subtleties. But whatever were the defects of the work when Leonardo left it, some realized at once that it was the greatest painting that Renaissance art had yet produced.
Meanwhile (1483) Leonardo had undertaken a work completely different and still more difficult. Lodovico had long wished to commemorate his father, Francesco Sforza, with an equestrian statue that would bear comparison with Donatello’s Gattamelata at Padua and Verrocchio’s Colleoni in Venice. Leonardo’s ambition was stirred. He set himself to studying the anatomy, action, and nature of the horse, and drew a hundred sketches of the animal, nearly all of snorting vivacity. Soon he was absorbed in making a plaster model. When some citizens of Piacenza asked him to recommend an artist to design and cast bronze doors for their cathedral he wrote characteristically in reply: “There is no one who is capable except Leonardo the Florentine, who is making the bronze horse of the Duke Francesco, and you need take no count of him, for he has work that will last his whole lifetime; and I fear that it is so great an undertaking that he will never finish it.”10 Lodovico at times thought so too, and asked Lorenzo for other artists to come and complete the task (1489). Lorenzo, like Leonardo, could not think of anybody better than Leonardo himself.
At last (1493) the plaster model was finished; all that remained was to cast it in bronze. In November the model was set up publicly under an arch to adorn the wedding procession of Lodovico’s niece Bianca Maria. Men marveled at its size and splendor; horse and rider rose to twenty-six feet; poets wrote sonnets in its praise; and no one doubted that when cast it would surpass in power and life the masterpieces of Donatello and Verrocchio. But it was never cast. Apparently Lodovico could not spare funds for the fifty tons of bronze required. The model was left in the open while Leonardo busied himself with art and boys, with science and experiments, with mechanisms and manuscripts. When the French captured Milan (1499) their bowmen made a target of the plastercavallo, and broke off many pieces of it. Louis XII, in 1501, expressed a desire to cart it off to France as a trophy. We do not hear of it again.
The great fiasco unnerved and exhausted Leonardo for a time, and may have disturbed his relations with the Duke. Normally Lodovico paid his “Apelles” well; a cardinal was surprised to learn that Leonardo received 2000 ducats ($25,000?) a year, in addition to many gifts and privileges.11 The artist lived like an aristocrat: he had several apprentices, servants, pages, horses; engaged musicians; dressed in silks and furs, embroidered gloves, and fancy leather boots. Though he produced works beyond price, he seemed at times to dally with his assignments, or to interrupt them for his private researches and compositions in science, philosophy, and art. In 1497, tired of such delays, Lodovico invited Perugino to come and decorate some rooms in the Castello. Perugino could not come, and Leonardo took over the assignment, but the incident left hurt feelings on both sides. About this time Lodovico, straitened in his finances by diplomatic and military expenses, fell behind in paying Leonardo’s salary. Leonardo paid his own costs for almost two years, and then sent the Duke a gentle reminder (1498). Lodovico excused himself graciously, and a year later gave Leonardo a vineyard as a source of revenue. By that time Lodovico’s political edifice was falling about him; the French captured Milan, Lodovico fled, and Leonardo found himself uncomfortably free.
He moved to Mantua (December, 1499), and there made a remarkable drawing of Isabella d’Este. She let her husband give it away as the first stage of its journey to the Louvre; and Leonardo, not relishing such generosity, passed on to Venice. He marveled at its proud beauty, but found its rich colors and Gothic-Byzantine ornaments too bright for his Florentine taste. He turned his steps back to the city of his youth.