He was forty-eight when he tried to take up again the cords of life that he had snapped some seventeen years before. He had changed; Florence had, too, but divergently. She had become in his absence a half-democratic, half-puritan republic; he was accustomed to ducal rule and to soft aristocratic luxuries and ways. The Florentines, always critical, looked askance at his silks and velvets, his gracious manners, and his retinue of curly-headed youths. Michelangelo, twenty-two years his junior, resented the good looks that so contrasted with his own broken nose, and wondered, in his poverty, where Leonardo found the funds to maintain so rich a life. Leonardo had salvaged some six hundred ducats from his Milan days; now he refused many commissions, even from the imperious Marchesa of Mantua; and when he worked it was with his wonted leisureliness.
The Servite friars had engaged Filippino Lippi to paint an altarpiece for their church of the Annunziata; Leonardo casually expressed his desire to do a similar work; Filippino courteously surrendered the assignment to the man then generally considered to be the greatest painter in Europe. The Servites brought Leonardo and his “household” to live at the monastery, and paid their expenses for what seemed a very long time. Then one day in 1501 he unveiled the cartoon for his proposed picture of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John. It “not only filled every artist with wonder,” says Vasari, “but when it was set up… men and women, young and old, flocked for two days to see it, as if in festival time, and they marveled exceedingly.” We do not know if this was the full-size drawing that is now a treasured possession of the Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House, London; probably it was, though French authorities12 like to believe that it was the first form of the quite different picture in the Louvre. The smile of tender pride that softens and brightens the face of the Virgin in the cartoon is one of Leonardo’s miracles; beside it the smile of Mona Lisa is earthly and cynical. Nevertheless, though this is among the greatest of Renaissance drawings, it is unsuccessful; there is something ungainly, and in poor taste, in seating the Virgin unstably across the widespread legs of her mother. Leonardo apparently neglected to transform this sketch into a picture for the Servites; they had to turn back to Lippi, and then to Perugino, for their altarpiece. But soon afterward, perhaps from a variant of the Burlington cartoon, Leonardo painted The Virgin, St. Anne, and the Infant Jesus of the Louvre. This is a technical triumph, from Anne’s diademed head to Mary’s feet—scandalously naked but divinely fair. The triangular composition that had failed in the cartoon here came to full success: the four heads of Anne, Mary, the Child, and the lamb make one rich line; the Child and His grandmother are intent on Mary, and the incomparable draperies of the women fill out the divergent space. The characteristic sfumato of Leonardo’s brush has softened all outlines, as shadows soften them in life. The Leonardesque smile, on Mary in the cartoon but on Anne in the painting, set a fashion that would continue in Leonardo’s followers for half a century.
From the mystic ecstasy of these tender evocations Leonardo passed, by an almost incredible transition, to serve Caesar Borgia as military engineer (June, 1502). Borgia was beginning his third campaign in the Romagna; he wanted a man who could make topographical maps, build and equip fortresses, bridge or divert streams, and invent weapons of offense and defense. Perhaps he had heard of the ideas that Leonardo had expressed or drawn for new engines of war. There was, for example, his sketch for an armored car or tank, whose wheels were to be moved by soldiers within its walls. “These cars,” Leonardo had written, “take the place of elephants – one may tilt with them; one may hold bellows in them to terrify the horses of the enemy; one may put carabineers in them to break up every company.”13 Or, said Leonardo, you can put terrible scythes on the flanks of a chariot, and a still more lethal revolving scythe on a forward projecting shaft; these would mow down men like a field of grain.14 Or you can make the wheels of the chariot turn a mechanism that will swing deadly flails at four ends.15 You can attack a fort by placing your soldiers under some protective covering;16 and you can repel besiegers by throwing down upon them bottles of poison gas.17Leonardo had planned a “book of how to drive back armies by the fury of floods caused by releasing waters,” and a “book of how to inundate armies by closing the outlets” of waters flowing through valleys.18 He had designed devices for mechanically discharging a succession of arrows from a revolving platform, for raising cannon upon a carriage, for toppling over the crowded ladders of a besieging force attempting to scale the walls.19 Borgia put most of these contraptions aside as impracticable; he tried one or two in the siege of Ceri in 1503. Nevertheless he issued the following patent of authority (August, 1502):
To all our lieutenants, castellans, captains, condottieri, officials, soldiers, and subjects. We constrain and command that the bearer, our most excellent and well-beloved servant, architect, and engineer-in-chief, Leonardo Vinci—whom we have appointed to inspect strongholds and fortresses in our dominions to the end that according to their need and his counsel we may be enabled to provide for their necessities—to accord a passage absolutely free from any toll or tax, a friendly welcome both for himself and his company; freedom to see, examine and take measurements precisely as he may wish; and for this purpose assistance in men as many as he may desire; and all possible aid and favor. It is our will that in the execution of any works in our dominions every engineer will be bound to confer with him and follow his advice.20
Leonardo wrote much, but rarely about himself. We should have relished his opinion of Borgia, and might have put it illuminatingly beside that of the envoy whom Florence was sending to Caesar at this time—Niccolò Machiavelli. But all that we know is that Leonardo visited Imola, Faenza, Forlì, Ravenna, Rimini, Pesaro, Urbino, Perugia, Siena, and other cities; that he was in Senigallia when Caesar snared and strangled there four treasonable captains; and that he presented Caesar with six extensive maps of central Italy, showing the direction of the streams, the nature and contours of the terrain, the distances between rivers, mountains, fortresses, and towns. Then suddenly he learned that Caesar was almost dead in Rome, the Caesarian empire was collapsing, and an enemy of the Borgias was mounting the papal throne. Once more Leonardo, his new world of action fading before him, turned back to Florence (April, 1503).
In October of that year Pietro Soderini, head of the Florentine government, proposed to Leonardo and Michelangelo that each should paint a mural in the new Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio. Both men accepted, strict contracts were drawn up, and the artists retired to separate studios to design their guiding cartoons. Each was to picture some triumph of Florentine arms: Angelo an action in the war with Pisa, Leonardo the victory of Florence over Milan at Anghiari. The alert citizens followed the progress of the work as a contest of gladiators; argument rose excitedly on the rival merits and styles; and some observers thought that any definite superiority of one picture over the other would decide whether later painters would follow Leonardo’s bent toward delicate and subtle representation of feeling, or Michelangelo’s penchant for mighty muscles and demonic force.
Perhaps it was at this time (for the incident has no date) that the younger artist let his dislike of Leonardo come to flagrant insult. One day some Florentines in the Piazza Santa Trinità were discussing a passage in The Divine Comedy. Seeing Leonardo pass, they stopped him and asked for his interpretation. At that moment Michelangelo appeared, who was known to have studied Dante zealously. “Here is Michelangelo,” said Leonardo; “he will explain the verses.” Thinking that Leonardo was making fun of him, the unhappy Titan broke out in violent scorn: “Explain them yourself! You who made the model of a horse to be cast in bronze and could not cast it, and left it unfinished, to your shame! And those Milanese capons thought you could do it!” Leonardo, we are told, flushed deeply, but made no reply; Michelangelo marched off fuming.21
Leonardo prepared his cartoon carefully. He visited the scene of the engagement at Anghiari, read reports of it, made innumerable sketches of horses and men in the passion of battle or the agony of death. Now, as seldom in Milan, he found an opportunity to put movement into his art. He took full advantage of it, and depicted such a fury of mortal conflict that Florence almost shuddered at the sight; no one had supposed that this most refined of Florentine artists could conceive or picture such a vision of patriotic homicide. Perhaps Leonardo used here his experience in Caesar Borgia’s campaign; the horrors that he may then have witnessed could be expressed in his drawing and exorcised from his mind. By February of 1505 he had finished his cartoon, and began to paint its central picture—The Battle of the Standard— in the Sala dei Cinquecento.
But now again he who had studied physics and chemistry, and had not yet learned the fate of his Last Supper, made a tragic mistake. Experimenting with encaustic techniques, he thought to fix the colors into the stucco wall by heat from a brazier on the floor. The room was damp, the winter was cold, the heat did not reach high enough, the stucco failed to absorb the paint, the upper colors began to run, and no frenzied effort availed to halt the ruin. Meanwhile financial difficulties arose. The Signory was paying Leonardo fifteen florins ($188?) per month, hardly to be compared with the 160 or so that Lodovico had assigned him in Milan. When a tactless official offered the month’s payment in coppers, Leonardo rejected them. He abandoned the enterprise in shame and despair, only moderately consoled by the fact that Michelangelo, after completing his cartoon, made no painting from it at all, but accepted a call from Pope Julius II to come and work in Rome. The great competition was a sorry mess that left Florence ill disposed toward the two greatest artists in her history.
On and off, during the years 1503-6, Leonardo painted the portrait of Mona Lisa—i.e., Madonna Elisabetta, third wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who in 1512 was to be a member of the Signory. Presumably a child of Francesco, buried in 1499, was one of Elisabetta’s children, and this loss may have helped to mold the serious features behind La Gioconda’s smile. That Leonardo should call her back to his studio so many times during those three years; that he should spend upon her portrait all the secrets and nuances of his art—modeling her softly with light and shade, framing her in a fanciful vista of trees and waters, mountains and skyclothing her in raiment of velvet and satin woven into folds whose every wrinkle is a masterpiece—studying with passionate care the subtle muscles that form and move the mouth—bringing musicians to play for her and to evoke upon her features the disillusioned tenderness of a mother remembering a departed child: these are inklings of the spirit in which he came to this engaging merger of painting and philosophy. A thousand interruptions, a hundred distracting interests, the simultaneous struggle with the Anghiari design, left unbroken the unity of his conception, the unwonted pertinacity of his zeal.
This, then, is the face that launched a thousand reams upon a sea of ink. Not an unusually lovely face; a shorter nose would have launched more reams; and many a lass in oil or marble—as in any Correggio—would by comparison make Lisa only moderately fair. It is her smile that has made her fortune through the centuries—a nascent twinkle in her eyes, an amused and checked upcurving of her lips. What is she smiling at? The efforts of the musicians to entertain her? The leisurely diligence of an artist who paints her through a thousand days and never makes an end? Or is it not just Mona Lisa smiling, but woman, all women, saying to all men: “Poor impassioned lovers! A Nature blindly commanding continuance burns your nerves with an absurd hunger for our flesh, softens your brains with a quite unreasonable idealization of our charms, lifts you to lyrics that subside with consummation—and all that you may be precipitated into parentage! Could anything be more ridiculous? But we too are snared; we women pay a heavier price than you for your infatuation. And yet, sweet fools, it is pleasant to be desired, and life is redeemed when we are loved.” Or was it only the smile of Leonardo himself that Lisa wore—of the inverted spirit that could hardly recall the tender touch of a woman’s hand, and could believe in no other destiny for love or genius than obscene decomposition, and a little fame flickering out in man’s forgetfulness?
When at last the sittings ended, Leonardo kept the picture, claiming that this most finished of all portraits was still incomplete. Perhaps the husband did not like the prospect of having his wife curl up her lips at him and his guests, hour after hour from his walls. Many years later Francis I bought it for 4000 crowns ($50,000),22 and framed it in his palace at Fontainebleau. Today, after time and restorations have blurred its subtleties, it hangs in the majestic Salon Carré of the Louvre, daily amused by a thousand worshipers, and waiting for time to efface and confirm Mona Lisa’s smile.