VIII. IN FRANCE: 1516–19

Arrived in France, Leonardo, sixty-four and ill, was established with his faithful companion Francesco Melzi, twenty-four, in a pretty house at Cloux, between the town and château of Amboise on the Loire, then the frequent residence of the King. His contract with Francis I designated him as “painter, engineer, and architect of the King, and state mechanician,” at an annual salary of seven hundred crowns ($8750). Francis was generous, and appreciated genius even in its decline. He enjoyed conversation with Leonardo, and “affirmed,” reported Cellini, “that never had any man come into the world who knew so much as Leonardo, and that not only in sculpture, painting, and architecture, for in addition he was a great philosopher.”116 Leonardo’s anatomical drawings amazed the physicians at the French court.

For a time he labored manfully to earn his salary. He arranged masques and pageants for royal displays; worked on plans to bind the Loire and the Saône with canals and to drain the marshes of Sologne,117 and may have shared in designing parts of the Loire chateaux; some evidence links his name with the jewel loveliness of Chambord.118 Probably he did little painting after 1517, for in that year he suffered a paralytic stroke that immobilized his right side; he painted with his left hand, but needed both hands for careful work. He was now a wrinkled wreck of the youth whose repute for beauty of body and face came down to Vasari across half a century. His once proud self-confidence faded, his serenity of spirit yielded to the pains of decay, his love of life gave place to religious hope. He made a simple will, but he asked for all the services of the Church at his funeral. Once he had written: “As a day well spent makes it sweet to sleep, so a life well used makes it sweet to die.”119

Vasari tell a touching story of how Leonardo died, on May 2, 1519, in the arms of the King; but apparently Francis was elsewhere at the time.120 The body was buried in the cloister of the Collegiate Church of St. Florentin in Amboise. Melzi wrote to Leonardo’s brothers informing them of the event, and added: “It would be impossible for me to express the anguish that I have suffered from this death; and while my body holds together I shall live in perpetual unhappiness. And for good reason. The loss of such a man is mourned by all, for it is not in the power of Nature to create another. May Almighty God rest his soul forever!”121

How shall we rank him?—though which of us commands the variety of knowledge and skills required to judge so multiple a man? The fascination of his polymorphous mind lures us into exaggerating his actual achievement; for he was more fertile in conception than in execution. He was not the greatest scientist or engineer or painter or sculptor or thinker of his time; he was merely the man who was all of these together and in each field rivaled the best. There must have been men in the medical schools who knew more of anatomy than he; the most notable works of engineering in the territory of Milan had been accomplished before Leonardo came; both Raphael and Titian left a more impressive total of fine paintings than has survived from Leonardo’s brush; Michelangelo was a greater sculptor; Machiavelli and Guicciardini were profounder minds. And yet Leonardo’s studies of the horse were probably the best work done in the anatomy of that age; Lodovico and Caesar Borgia chose him, from all Italy, as their engineer; nothing in the paintings of Raphael or Titian or Michelangelo equals The Last Supper; no painter has matched Leonardo in subtlety of nuance, or in the delicate portrayal of feeling and thought and pensive tenderness; no statue of the time was so highly rated as Leonardo’s plasterSforza; no drawing has ever surpassed The Virgin, Child, and St. Anne; and nothing in Renaissance philosophy soared above Leonardo’s conception of natural law.

He was not “the man of the Renaissance,” for he was too gentle, introverted, and refined to typify an age so violent and powerful in action and speech. He was not quite “the universal man,” since the qualities of statesman or administrator found no place in his variety. But, with all his limitations and incompletions, he was the fullest man of the Renaissance, perhaps of all time. Contemplating his achievement we marvel at the distance that man has come from his origins, and renew our faith in the possibilities of mankind.

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