Contemplating such a picture, and reckoning how many hours of thought must have guided so many minutes of the brush, we revise our judgment of Leonardo’s seeming sloth, and perceive again that his work embodied the meditations of numberless inactive days; as when an author on an evening’s stroll, or lying sleepless in the night, molds the next day’s chapter, page, or verse, or rolls on the mind’s tongue some savory adjective or bewitching phrase. And in those same five years at Florence that saw The Virgin, Child, and St. Anne in all its forms, and Mona Lisa, and the ferocious cartoon and melting Battle, Leonardo found time to paint other pictures, like the lovely portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci now in Vienna, and the lost Youthful Christ that at last he yielded to the importunate Marchioness of Mantua (1504). But her agent sent her a revealing note: “Leonardo grows very impatient of painting, and spends most of his time on geometry.”23 Perhaps in those outwardly idle hours Leonardo was burying the artist in the scientist, the Apelles in the Faust.
However, science brought no fees; and though he was living simply now, he must have mourned the passing of those days when he had been the artist prince of Milan. When Charles d’Amboise, viceroy of Milan for Louis XII, invited him to return, Leonardo asked Soderini might he be excused for a few months from his commitments to Florence. Soderini complained that Leonardo had not yet earned the money paid him for The Battle of Anghiari; Leonardo raised the unearned sum and brought it to Soderini, who refused it. Finally (1506) Soderini, anxious to keep the good will of the French King, let Leonardo go on condition that he return to Florence after three months, or pay a penalty of 150 ducats ($1875?). He went; and though he revisited Florence in 1507, 1509, and 1511, he remained in the employ of Amboise and Louis in Milan till 1513. Soderini protested, but Louis overruled him with the gracious courtesy of confident strength. To make matters quite clear, Louis in 1507 appointed Leonardo peintre et ingénieur ordinaire—painter and engineer in ordinary—to the King of France.
It was no sinecure; Leonardo earned his keep. We hear of him again decorating palaces, designing or building canals, preparing pageants, painting pictures, planning an equestrian monument of Marshal Trivulzio, and collaborating in anatomical studies with Marcantonio della Torre. Probably during this second stay at Milan he painted two pictures that came from the lower levels of his genius. The St. John of the Louvre has the rounded contours of a woman, and such flowing curls and delicate features as might have graced a Magdalen. Leda and the Swan (in a private collection in Rome) has a face and fleshly softness recalling the St. John and the Bacchus formerly ascribed to Leonardo; but it is most likely a copy from a lost painting or cartoon by the master. His fame would have gained had these pictures died at birth.
In 1512 the French were chased out of Milan, and Lodovico’s son Maximilian began a brief reign. Leonardo stayed a while, writing illegibile notes on science and art while Milan burned with fires set by the Swiss. But in 1513, hearing that Leo X had been chosen pope, he thought there might be, in Medicean Rome, a place even for an artist of sixty-one years; and he set out with four of his pupils. At Florence Leo’s brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, attached Leonardo to his retinue, and assigned him a monthly stipend of thirty-three ducats ($412?). Arrived in Rome, Leonardo was welcomed by the art-loving Pope, who gave him rooms in the Belvedere Palace. Presumably Leonardo met—certainly he influenced—Raphael and Sodoma. Leo may have given him a commission for a picture, for Vasari tells how surprised the Pope was to find Leonardo mixing varnish before doing any painting; “this man,” Leo is reported to have said, “will never do anything, for he begins to think of the last stage before the first.”24 In truth Leonardo had now ceased to be a painter; science more and more absorbed him; he studied anatomy at the hospital, worked on problems of light, and wrote many pages on geometry. He amused his leisure by constructing a mechanical lizard with beard, horns, and wings, which he made to flutter by an injection of quicksilver. Leo lost interest in him.
But meanwhile Francis I, a royal lover of art, had succeeded Louis XII. In October 1515 he recaptured Milan. Apparently he invited Leonardo to join him there. Early in 1516 Leonardo bade farewell to Italy, and accompanied Francis to France.