Amid war and the political and religious turmoil around him, and beset by his own insecurities and frustrations, Leonardo created the masterpiece that would forever define him. Ross King unveils dozens of stories that are embedded in the painting, and overturns many of the myths surrounding it. Bringing to life a fascinating period in European history, he presents an original portrait of one of history's greatest geniuses through the lens of his most famous work.
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Leonardo and The Last Supper
By ROSS KING
WALKER & COMPANYCopyright © 2012 Ross King
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Bronze Horse
The astrologers and fortune-tellers were agreed: signs of the coming disasters were plain to see. In Puglia, down in the heel of Italy, three fiery suns rose into the sky. Farther north, in Tuscany, ghost riders on giant horses galloped through the air to the sound of drums and trumpets. In Florence, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola received visions of swords emerging from clouds and a black cross rising above Rome. All over Italy, statues sweated blood and women gave birth to monsters.
These strange and troubling events in the summer of 1494 foretold great changes. That year, as a chronicler later recounted, the Italian people suffered "innumerable horrible calamities." Savonarola predicted the arrival of a fierce conqueror from across the Alps who would lay waste to Italy. His dire prophecy was fulfilled soon enough. That September, King Charles VIII of France entered an Alpine pass with an army of more than thirty thousand men, bent on marching through Italy and seizing the throne of Naples. The scourge of God made an unprepossessing sight: the twenty-four-year-old king was short, myopic, and so ill proportioned that in the words of the chronicler Francesco Guicciardini, "he seemed more like a monster than a man." His ungainly appearance and agreeable nickname, Charles the Affable, belied the fact that he was equipped with the most formidable array of weapons ever seen in Europe.
Charles VIII's first stop was the Lombard town of Asti, where, after pawning jewels to pay his troops, he was greeted by his powerful Italian ally, Lodovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan. Savonarola may have prophesied Charles's expedition, but it was Lodovico who had summoned him across the Alps. The forty-two-year-old Lodovico, known because of his dark complexion as Il Moro (the Moor), was as handsome, vigorous, and cunning as the French king was feeble and ugly. He had turned Milan—the duchy over which he had become the de facto ruler in 1481 after usurping his young nephew Giangaleazzo—into what the Holy Roman emperor, Maximilian, called "the most flourishing realm in Italy." But Lodovico's head lay uneasy. The father-in-law of the feckless Giangaleazzo was Alfonso II, the new king of Naples, whose daughter Isabella deplored the usurpation and did not scruple to tell her father of her sufferings. Alfonso had an unsavory reputation. "Never was any prince more bloody, wicked, inhuman, lascivious, or gluttonous than he," declared a French ambassador. Lodovico was told to beware assassins: Neapolitans of bad repute, an adviser warned, had been dispatched to Milan "on some evil errand."
Yet if Alfonso could be removed from Naples—if Charles VIII could be convinced to press his tenuous claim to its throne (his great-grandfather had been king of Naples a century earlier)—then Lodovico could rest easy in Milan. According to an observer at the French court, he had therefore begun "to tickle King Charles ... with the vanities and glories of Italy."
The Duchy of Milan ran seventy miles from north to south—from the foothills of the Alps to the Po—and sixty miles from west to east. At its heart, encircled by a deep moat, crisscrossed by canals, and protected by a circuit of stone walls, lay the city of Milan itself. Lodovico's wealth and determination had turned the city, with a population of one hundred thousand people, into Italy's greatest. A huge fortress with cylindrical towers loomed on its northeast edge, while at the center of the city rose the walls of a new cathedral, started in 1386 but still, after a century, barely half-finished. Palaces lined the paved streets, their facades decorated with frescoes. A poet exulted that in Milan the golden age had returned, and that Lodovico's city was full of talented artists who flocked to his court "like bees to honey."
The poet was not merely flattering to deceive. Lodovico had been an enthusiastic patron of the arts ever since, at the age of thirteen, he commissioned a portrait of his favorite horse. Under his rule, intellectual and artistic luminaries flocked to Milan: poets, painters, musicians, and architects, as well as scholars of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The universities in Milan and neighboring Pavia were revived. Law and medicine flourished. New buildings were commissioned; elegant cupolas bloomed on the skyline. With his own hands Lodovico laid the first stone of the beautiful church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli presso San Celso.
And yet the verdict of the chroniclers would be harsh. Italy had enjoyed forty years of relative peace. The odd skirmish still broke out, such as when Pope Sixtus IV went to war against Florence in 1478. Yet for the most part Italy's princes vied to surpass one another not on the field of battle but in the taste and splendor of their accomplishments. Now, however, the blood-dimmed tide was loosed. By enticing Charles VIII and his thunderous weapons across the Alps, Lodovico Sforza had unwittingly unleashed—as all the stars foretold—innumerable horrible calamities.
Among the brilliant courtiers in Lodovico Sforza's Milan was an artist celebrated above all others. "Rejoice, Milan," wrote a poet in 1493, "that inside your walls are men with excellent honours, such as Vinci, whose skills in both drawing and painting are unrivalled by masters both ancient and modern."
This virtuoso was Leonardo da Vinci who, at forty-two, was exactly the same age as Lodovico. A Tuscan who came north to Milan a dozen years earlier to seek his reputation, he must have cut a conspicuous and alluring figure at Il Moro's court. By the accounts of his earliest biographers, he was strikingly handsome and elegant. "Outstanding physical beauty," enthused one writer. "Beautiful in person and aspect," observed another. "Long hair, long eyelashes, a very long beard, and a true nobility," declared a third. He possessed brawn and vigor too. He was said to be able to straighten a horse shoe with his bare hands, and during his absences from court he climbed the barren peaks north of Lake Como, crawling on all fours past huge rocks and contending with "terrible bears."
This epitome of masculine pulchritude bore the grand title pictor et ingeniarius ducalis: the duke's painter and engineer. He had come to Milan, aged thirty, in hopes of inventing and constructing fearsome war machines such as chariots, cannons, and catapults that would, he promised Il Moro, give "great terror to the enemy." His hopes were no doubt boosted by the fact that Milan was at war with Venice, with Lodovico spending almost 75 percent of his vast annual revenues on warfare. Although visions of battle danced in his head, he actually found himself at work on more modest and peaceable tasks, such as designing costumes for weddings and pageants, fashioning elaborate stage sets for plays, and painting a portrait of Il Moro's mistress. He amused courtiers by performing tricks such as turning white wine into red, and by inventing an alarm clock that woke up the sleeper by jerking his feet into the air. Occasionally the tasks were mundane: "To heat the water for the stove of the Duchess," one of his notes recorded, "take four parts of cold water to three parts of hot water."
Despite his diverse assignments, over much of the previous decade Leonardo had devoted himself to one commission in particular, a work of art that should truly have sealed his reputation as an artist unrivaled by ancients and moderns alike. In about 1482, shortly before moving to Milan, he composed a letter of introduction to Lodovico, a kind of curriculum vitae that somewhat exaggerated his abilities. In the letter, he promised to apprise Il Moro of his secrets, casually assuring him that "the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza."
This bronze horse was the larger-than-life equestrian monument by which Lodovico hoped to celebrate the exploits of his late father, Francesco Sforza. A wily soldier of fortune (Niccolò Machiavelli praised his "great prowess" and "honourable wickedness"), Francesco became duke of Milan in 1450 after overthrowing a short-lived republican government. He was the son of a man named Muzio Attendolo who, as a youngster, had been chopping wood when a troop of soldiers rode by and, eyeing his brawny frame, invited him to join them. Muzio threw his axe at a tree trunk, vowing to himself: "If it sticks, I will go." The axe stuck, and Muzio became a mercenary hired at various times by all of the major Italian princes. His strapping physique and fierce nature brought him the nickname "Sforza" (sforzare means to force), which, like the axe, stuck.
Francesco Sforza had been an equally brilliant soldier. He rose from soldier to duke nine years after marrying the illegitimate daughter of one of his clients, the duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti. The Visconti family had ruled Milan since 1277, and as dukes since 1395. However, in 1447, after Filippo Maria died without a male heir, the citizens of Milan did away with the dukedom and proclaimed a republic. Two years later, staking his claim to rule the city, Francesco blockaded and besieged Milan, whose starving citizens eventually gave up on their republic and, in March 1450, welcomed their former mercenary as duke of Milan. Francesco did not suffer the succession problems of Filippo Maria, fathering as many as thirty children, eleven of them illegitimate. No fewer than eight sons were born on the right side of the blanket, with the eldest, Galeazzo Maria—Il Moro's older brother—becoming duke upon Francesco's death in 1466.
The Visconti family had a gaudy history of heresy, insanity, and murder. One of the more intriguing members, a nun named Maifreda, was burned at the stake in the year 1300 for claiming she was going to be the next pope. Giovanni Maria Visconti, Filippo Maria's older brother, trained his hounds to hunt people and eat their flesh. Filippo Maria, fat and insane, cut off his wife's head. Even in such company, the cruel and lecherous Galeazzo Maria stood out. Machiavelli later blanched at his monstrous behavior, noting how he was not content to dispatch his enemies "unless he killed them in some cruel mode," while chroniclers could not bring themselves to describe various of his deeds. He was suspected of murdering not only his fiancée but also his mother. In 1476 he was felled by knife-wielding assassins, leaving behind an eight-year-old son and heir, Giangaleazzo—the child duke elbowed out of the way, five years later, by Lodovico il Moro, who solved the problem of authority in Milan by decapitating the boy's regent.
Lodovico's claim to sovereignty was tenuous. Technically speaking, he was only the guardian and representative of his nephew, who had inherited the title of duke of Milan from his father. This dubious prerogative meant Lodovico was anxious to keep alive in everyone's mind the memory of his own father. He had therefore commissioned from a scholar named Giovanni Simonetta a history of Francesco's illustrious career. He was further planning to have heroic scenes from his father's life frescoed in the ballroom of Milan's castle. An equestrian monument of Francesco had been mooted as early as 1473, when Galeazzo Maria planned to have one installed before Milan's castle. The project ended with his assassination but was revived by Lodovico, who envisaged the bronze monument as the most conspicuous and spectacular of the tributes to his father.
Mercenary captains were often flattered after their deaths in paint, print, and bronze. The sculptor Donatello cast a bronze equestrian monument of the Venetian commander Erasmo da Narni, better known as Gattamelata (Honey Cat), to stand in the Piazza del Santo in Padua. In 1480 another Florentine sculptor, Andrea del Verrocchio—Leonardo's former teacher—began working for the Venetians on a statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni on horse back. Lodovico envisaged something even more grandiose for his father. As an ambassador reported, "His Excellency desires something of superlative size, the like of which has never been seen."
* * *
Leonardo da Vinci once wrote that his first memory was of a bird, and that studying and writing about birds therefore "seems to be my destiny." Yet horses were truly the rudder of Leonardo's fortune, and a horse was, in a manner of speaking, what had brought him to Milan in the first place. According to one source, in about 1482 Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, had dispatched him to Milan with a special diplomatic gift for Lodovico Sforza: a silver lyre that Leonardo had invented, and on which he could play, an early biographer claimed, "with rare execution." This unique musical instrument was in the shape of a horse's head. A hasty sketch in one of Leonardo's manuscripts shows what the instrument may have looked like, with the horse's teeth serving as pegs for the strings and ridges in the roof of the mouth doubling as frets.
Given Lorenzo de' Medici's habit of conducting diplomatic relations through his artists, the story of the lyre has a ring of truth. But lyre or no lyre, Leonardo almost certainly would have made his way north to Milan in order to build weapons or design the equestrian monument, opportunities he must have decided did not readily present themselves in Florence.
Leonardo received the commission for the bronze statue within a few years of his arrival in Milan. Lodovico revived the project in earnest in 1484, though Leonardo was not his first choice as sculptor. Despite Leonardo's presence in Milan, in the spring of 1484 Lodovico wrote to Lorenzo de' Medici asking if he knew of any sculptors capable of casting the monument. But Florence's two greatest sculptors, Verrocchio and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, were both busy on other projects. "Here I do not find any artist who satisfies me," Lorenzo regretfully replied. He did not endorse Leonardo, merely adding, "I am sure that His Excellency will not lack someone."
For want of another candidate, then, Leonardo was given the commission, possibly quite soon after Lorenzo's response. He attacked the project with relish, albeit evidently inspired much more by the figure of the horse than by that of its rider. He made a close study of equine anatomy, and even composed and illustrated a (now-lost) treatise on the subject. He spent hours in the ducal stables, scrutinizing and drawing Sicilian and Spanish stallions owned by Lodovico and his favorite courtiers. One of his memoranda reads, "The Florentine Morello of Mr. Mariolo, large horse, has a nice neck and a very beautiful head. The white stallion belonging to the falconer has fine hind quarters; it is behind the Porta Comasina."
Leonardo's statue would not simply be anatomically correct; it would also strike an energetically rampant pose. Donatello's statue of Gattamelata portrayed the mercenary leader sitting upright on a placidly pacing horse, while Verrocchio's—on which Leonardo probably worked for a year or two before leaving Florence—placed Colleoni astride a muscular beast whose left foreleg was held prancingly aloft. Leonardo planned something more astonishing, a horse rearing on its hind legs with its front hooves pawing the air above a prostrate foe. Furthermore, his statue would be enormous. Donatello's monument was twelve feet high, Verrocchio's thirteen—but Leonardo envisaged a statue whose horse alone would be more than twenty-three feet in height, three times larger than life. It would testify to the glory of Francesco Sforza but, even more, to the tremendous and unrivaled abilities of the artist himself. Designing and casting a bronze statue of such magnitude was unpre cedented. One of his contemporaries wrote that the feat was "universally judged impossible." Leonardo, however, was never one to be daunted by colossal tasks. He once reminded himself in a note: "We ought not to desire the impossible." Elsewhere he wrote, "I wish to work miracles."
The gigantic horse did appear to be, if not impossible, then at the very least complex and extremely challenging: something that would indeed take a miracle to perform. The project taxed even Leonardo's ingenuity. Records do not show how far he advanced in these early years, but work certainly proceeded neither swiftly nor auspiciously. By 1489, Lodovico Sforza had begun to doubt the wisdom of giving him the commission. As the Florentine ambassador to Milan wrote home to Lorenzo de' Medici, "It appears to me that, while he has given the commission to Leonardo, he is not confident of his success."
Excerpted from Leonardo and The Last Supper by ROSS KING Copyright © 2012 by Ross King. Excerpted by permission of WALKER & COMPANY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of Italy in 1494 viii
Sforza-Visconti Family Tree ix
The Last Supper with Apostles Identified xi
Chapter 1 The Bronze Horse 1
Chapter 2 Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man 17
Chapter 3 The Cenacolo 40
Chapter 4 Dinner in Jerusalem 52
Chapter 5 Leonardo's Court 68
Chapter 6 The Holy League 86
Chapter 7 Secret Recipes 100
Chapter 8 "Trouble from This Side and That" 115
Chapter 9 Every Painter Paints Himself 124
Chapter 10 A Sense of Perspective 141
Chapter 11 A Sense of Proportion 159
Chapter 12 The Beloved Disciple 180
Chapter 13 Food and Drink 200
Chapter 14 The Language of the Hands 220
Chapter 15 "No One Loves the Duke" 243
Epilogue: Tell Me If I Ever Did a Thing 265
Selected Bibliography 311
Illustration Credits 323