I watched a BBC documentary yesterday – Da Vinci: The Lost Treasure. It was presented by Fiona Bruce. A brief section of the programme focused on the painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci, an early portrait painted by Leonardo between 1474 and 1478.
Commenting on the painting kept in Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Bruce said: “I must say, I don’t warm to this young lady. She looks decidedly frosty. So why was she so admired?”
Luke Syson, a curator working at the time for London’s National Gallery, responded: “The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is curiously unlovable. She really stares at us with a quite chilly, menacing gaze. I think what Leonardo was trying to do was to make her very remotely beautiful, was to raise her beauty above a kind of ordinary human level to something that was poetic and almost other-worldly.”
Then Syson, who has since become a director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, added a very interesting observation: “I think she comes over as if she is carved from marble, rather than like a living, breathing human being…”
It has long been thought that Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci is the same woman portrayed in Andrea del Verrocchio’s marble bust, known as the Lady with a Bouquet, now housed in Florence’s Bargello Museum. What may not have been considered is that Leonardo’s painting is based on Verrocchio’s sculpture “carved from marble, rather than a living, breathing human being.”
There is also another version of of the marble bust, except that it is made of plaster with a stucco surface. Known as The Lady with the Primroses, it is attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop and displayed at the Met Museum in Washington. There is also a marble bust attributed to Leonardo in The Frick Collection museum located in Manhattan. This is also said to resemble the sitter in the Ginevra de’ Benci painting.
But is the portrait really that of Ginevra de’ Benci? Some historians have suggested that the woman is Fioretta Gorini, mistress of Giuliiano de’ Medici and mother of his son Giulio who later became Pope Clement VII.
My preference is for Fioretta (meaning ‘little flower’), and I’ll explain why in a future post.
Andrea del Verroccio is probably better known for his work as a sculptor than a painter. Even the two principal figures in his Baptism of Christ painting appear rigid as if placed on pedestals. Both Christ and John the Baptist are shown standing on the bedrock of the shallow river Jordan with their feet submerged in water. The weight of each man is placed on his right leg and balanced by the left. The feet are the ‘footings’ or ‘founds’ supporting the whole body which in this scenario can be understood as Christ’s body representing the Church he founded.
I mentioned in a previous post how the river is depicted as both water and blood and is connected to the Massacre of the Innocents carried out by King Herod, and also the later beheading of John the Baptist. But there are also two other events which link to the blood and water theme: (1) the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church, seen as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) when Jesus was pierced with a lance at his crucifixion and the wound was seen to pour out blood and water.
His pierced side was later witnessed by Thomas, one of the disciples who had doubted Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus later appeared to him he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet and telling him, “Give me you hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”
Before he painted the Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Merchant’s Guild in Florence to produce a bronze sculpture depicting Christ and St Thomas. This bronze and the niche it was placed in on an exterior wall of the Orsanmichel was the main source of inspiration for Verrocchio when he came to outlining his composition for the Baptism painting completed in 1475. Work on the bronze sculpture very ikely took a back seat at times as it was not unveiled and in situ until 1483.
The niche, or tabernacle, where Christ and St Thomas was displayed (it still is, but a copy), was previously occupied by Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture of St Louis of Toulouse, completed in 1425. However, in 1459 the niche was sold to the Merchant’s Guild and Verrochio was commissioned to fill the gap with his bronze. The niche itself is said to have been sculpted by Donatello. Verrochio paid tribute to his former master by referencing some its features for his Baptism of Christ, as well as linking his painting to a legend attributed to St Louis.
The stance of Christ and St Thomas in the bronze commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild echoes the two standing figures in the Baptism painting. Donatello’s predella supporting the tabenacle area features two winged-angels carrying a wreath crown. These are the two ‘angels’ portrayed by Verrocchio. One carrying Christ’s garments and kneeling on the rock shelf by the waterside.
The two heads looking out at the ends of the predella, facing right and left, are the two heads in the rock outcrop in the painting – one is King Herod, the other Goliath. It’s likely the heads featured on the predalla may refer to Greek or Roman philosophers.
Centred on Donatello’s triangular pediment are three heads encircled within a winged olive crown. They represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is also referenced in Verrochio’s painting and is an integral part of the Baptism of Christ account in John’s Gospel. The Father’s two hands are seen extending from Heaven, while the Spirit is coming down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus.
The frieze below the pediment is a twist bracelet of four winged-cherubs. The four heads represent four identities Verrocchio has linked to the face of the baptised Christ.
The spiralled columns inside the tabernacle and their Ionic capitals are the inspiration for the palm tree and its crown on the left of the painting, matched on the other side by the Baptist’s shaft crowned with a golden cross.
The scalloped ceiling inside the dome of the tabenacle is represented by the dish used by the Baptist to pour water over Christ’s head. The patterned scallop is echoed by the arrowed rays emanating from Heaven.
Either side of the dome are two angels with an arm reaching out along the arch, in a manner similar to the portrayal of John the Baptist reaching out over the head of Jesus. This is also reflected in the actual sculpture with Jesus’ right hand outstretched over Thomas and blessing the doubting disciple.
As far as matching Thomas touching the side wound of Jesus, this is shown in the kneeling figure of the angel said to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Here Leonardo is drawing attention to the shoulder wound he apparently carried throughout his life (represented by him carrying the robe worn by Jesus – or even a shroud – and so referring to the death and resurrection aspect of baptism). The cloth can also be related to as a wing, and therefore pointing again to Leonardo’s damaged shoulder and his fascination for birds and for flying. This is another feature referenced in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi where Lorenzo de Medici is seen carrying the wrap of his light blue gown over his right forearm. It was this that protected him from a more serious injury during the attack in the Duomo on himself and his brother Giuliano who was not so fortunate and died during the assassination attempt.
Then there is the mystery of the halos in the Baptism of Christ painting… but more on this in my next post.
The two young boys featured in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ are usually described as angels – but in this instance are shown without wings. They have halos, so are they angels or saints? The halos over the two other figures in the painting, Christ and John the Baptist, differ in colour, and the Saviour’s halo is marked with a cross.
Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1481) also features angels without wings. Two of his ‘angels’ are arranged to mirror those in the Verrocchio painting. He repeated the motif in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.
Is there a connection between the three groups? Probably, and likely to be Leonardo da Vinci. It is said to he painted the angel on the left in Verrocchio’s panel produced in 1475 for the Vallomvrosan monastery of St Salvi in Florence.
In the Magnificat, some historians have suggested that the two angels are meant to represent the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, while in the Adoration scene the two men placed left and right of the group are Giuliano de’ Medici and Leonardo.
The Baptism painting also connects to Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, where Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered in April 1478. Botticelli makes reference to both the assassination and Verrocchio’s painting in the Uffizi Adoration. The gold-brimmed hat (right) refers to the halo theme and its iconography in the Baptism of Christ.
More on this and the secret of the halos in a future post.
The Baptism of Christ is attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio and partly to a young Leonardo da Vinci who worked in Verrecchio’s studio at the time when the painting was produced around 1475. It depicts Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Two young angels kneel on the bank of the river, one holding Christ’s garments. It was said by Francesco Alberti in a guidebook published in 1510 that this figure was painted by Leonardo. Some art historians suggest that he had a hand in other parts of the painting, notably the background scene and perhaps even the figure of Christ
According to the art historian, painter and architect Georgio Vasari: “Leonardo painted an angel who was holding some garments; and despite his youth, he executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better than the figures painted by Verrocchio. This was the reason why Andrea would never touch colours again, he was so ashamed that a boy understood their use better than he did.”
Perhaps an exaggeration by Vasari who was born in 1511, forty years after the painting was completed and never spoke with Verrochio who died in 1488.
What Vasari failed to record and may not have noticed about the painting is that the Baptist figure is modelled on Leonardo, and whose angel rendition is another image of himself. Verrichio knew this but seemingly not Vasari.
Verrocchio also knew the painting was linked to another artist, the sculptor Donatello and the two statues he made of the biblical David, one in marble and the other bronze. Verrocchio also produced a bronze of David which links to this painting as well as his bronze of Christ and Thomas.
Bottecilli also refers to the Baptism of Christ painting in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. He also recognised the ‘hidden’ hand of Leonardo in Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ – and the shoulder injury he sustained probably in childhood – a ‘fallen angel’, so to speak, nursing a broken wing and uncertain if he would ever resurrect and ‘fly’ to rise above the earth again.
This naked figure traditionally identified as Vulcan, the Greek god of fire, features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. Its attribution date is 1497. In mythology Vulcan was the husband of Venus and this depiction shows him raging against her because of her presumed infidelity with Mars.
Although naked, Mantegna has applied other guises to the figure, notably Francesco II Gonzaga, husband of Isabella d’Este (in the guise of Venus), and the Domincan preacher Girolamo Savonarola. The figure also references three artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Antonio Pollaiuola.
It was Pollaiuolo who produced the engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men in which Leonardo is depicted fighting with himself in the centre. Mantegna has borrowed the naked man to portray Vulcan. The identity transition is a deliberate smoke-and-mirrors technique by Mantegna to reference Leonardo’s sfumato painting style and mirror writing. The Mantua court artist also makes and mirrors other pointers to Leonardo in a counterpoising manner.
For example: the naked man is a pointer to Leonardo’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Wilderness. Mategna has portrayed his figure with the left arm outstretched whereas the right arm is extended in Leonardo’s Jerome. It also grips a stone. Close inspection of Mantegna’s version reveals the left hand has some of its fingers bent to form the shape of a skull, and so another reference to Leonardo’s Jerome and his skull symbolising a ‘memento mori’. The ‘memento mori’ theme links to the identity of the fiery friar Girolamo Savonrola who set Florence alight with his end-time preaching and prophecies during a four-year period that ended in his own execution and burning in May 1498. His moral campaign encouraged the people to burn and destroy their secular art, books and other objects considered as “occasions of sin”. These public events became known as “bonfires of vanities” and Botticelli was an artist said to have taken heed and destroyed some of his work in this way.
The red cloak tied around the neck of the naked man also ties to other meanings. Not only does it represent a flame of fire stemming from a hot-head, it is also shaped to represent a dog. This is matched in three ways, first to the facial features as that of a werewolf and therefore connected to a hellhound. This then links to Botticelli and his Adoration painting that features the Twelve labours of Hercules, one being his descent into the underworld to combat the dog Cerberus that guards Hades. The third match is to the epithet applied to Savonrola’s Domican Order, Domini canes, meaning ‘dogs of the Lord’.
Mantegna also presents the red cloak as a wing, and the probable inspiration for this is a passage from one of Leonardo’s notebooks on the flight of birds: Leonardo writes: “The centrepiece of the shoulder of the bird is the part turned by pectoral and dorsal muscles. These muscles control whether the elbow is raised or lowered, according to the will and needs of the animal that is moving.” This note is accompanied by a wing illustration similar to the shape of the red cloak. A later note observes: “Always in the raising of the hand the elbow is lowered and presses the air down, whereas in the descent of the hand the elbow is raised and remains sideways on in order not to impede the movement in the air compressed within the wing.”
Leonardo’s observations about lowering and raising are adapted by Mantegna to refer back to Savonarola who was tortured before he was hanged and his body set alight. The method of torture used on the preacher was the strappado. The victim’s arms and legs are tied behind his back. He is suspended by a rope tied to his wrists and then dropped at intervals from a great height. The outcome usually results in a dislocated shoulder and permanent damage. Mantegna alludes to the drop process by showing water cascading from three levels of the high ground behind the naked man. Notice how the right arm hangs as if his shoulder is dislocated. Is Mantegna also alluding to the damaged right shoulder Leonardo is said have suffered with? And was this also caused by a fall, perhaps from a great height? How similar is the shape of the crouched, bird-like figure of Jerome in Leonardo’s painting, to the bound figure suspended in the Jacques Callot drawing of the strappado. It is said that Leonardo bought caged birds in the marketplace just to set them free.
The strands of wire gripped in Vulcan’s right hand refer to the fine net he made to throw over Mars and Venus (similar to how birds on the ground are captured). The wires also represent the strands of a spider’s web stemming from the lopped tree root. Alongside are bunches of grapes. The combination represents the fable of the spider and the grapes that Leonardo recorded in one of his notebooks.
Another feature that connects Leonardo to this section of Mantegna’s painting is Vulcan’s furnace. Its flames represent a “bonfire of vanities” and its red and blue flames are possibly the predominant colours favoured by Botticelli in the paintings he assigned to the fire. Vulcan’s left foot points to a recess in the furnace where ashes can be removed. A close inspection reveals a ‘charcoal’ representation of Leonardo. It connects to the head of one of the dancers. She is Isabella d’Este who Leonardo drew a portrait of – in charcoal – when he once visited Mantua.
The charcoal reference to Leonardo disguised in the stone furnace has two other links: First to his representation as the head of the sphinx in Botticelli’s Uffiz Adoration and its associated reference to preparing ink for writing; and the second to an early painting – The Baptism of Christ – attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in painting one of the angels.
Between the figures of Christ and the Baptist is a rock outcrop with a recess at water level. It depicts the helmeted head of herod, the king who later ordered the beading of John the Baptist. Herod also ordered the killing of all Jewish boys under the age of two, hoping that among them would be Jesus the new-born king.
This prompted the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and so provides a link to another painting by Leonardo, the Virgin of the Rocks. According to legend, the Holy Family was met on the road by an angel escorting John to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Herod’s bloodbath became known as the Massacre of the Innocents, indicated in the painting above by the blood-red water at ‘Herod’s Gate’. The slaughter of innocents, or even innocence, is represented in other parts of Mantegna’s Parnaussus painting.
There are two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, both attributed to Leonardo, and in both paintings the infant John is shown with the Virgin’s right hand placed on the child’s right shoulder. Another pointer, perhaps, to Leonardo’s shoulder injury?
It’s interesting to note in the Last Supper fresco which Leonardo began to paint in the mid 1490’s, both the right hand of Jesus and the left hand of Judas are shown as claw-shaped. John’s hands are joined as if symbolising the good and evil sat either side of him.
The feminised figure of John is possibly a portrayal of Leonardo’s right hand man, Salaì, who was described by Vasari as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted” even though his master also wrote that his servant for 25 years was “a liar and a thief”.
Also very noticeable is the large knot resting on the shoulder of Barholomew standing at the left end of the table. Even in the fresco’s poor state it can be seen to represent a lion’s head to echo the fiery head of Batholomew. The arm band is also significant and symbolic of restriction. Both these motifs are repeated in Mantegna’s Parnassus painting in which he refers to the works of Leonardo.
All the figures in Leonardo’s Last Supper can be interpreted as representing a claw hand or pointing to Leonardo’s shoulder injury.
Last week, the world’s media reported on the diagnosis made by two Italian doctors which suggested Leonardo da Vinci suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. The claim was first presented in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on May 3, 2019, by Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi.
That Leonardo was inflicted with a paralysis in his right hand is not unknown to historians. Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, wrote in his travel diary about a visit to Leonardo in 1517. “One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand.”
Drs Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi base their diagnosis on two portraits of Leonardo, a red-chalk drawing attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1540-1608), and the other to an engraving made in 1505 by Marcantonio Raimondo (ca 1480-1527)
The engraving purports to show Leonardo playing a lira da braccio, suggesting therefore he may still had use of his right hand to enable to bow the instrument. The red-chalk drawing depicts Leonardo with his right hand cradled in the folds of his gown as if supporting an injured arm.
Historians generally attribute Leonardo’s paralysis to have manifested late in his life, but there is evidence to suggest the polymath bore his affliction even earlier and to the period he was living in Florence before moving to Milan in1482. The evidence is provided by three of his contemporaries, Andrea del Verriccio, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Perugino. Even Leonardo himself produced work that hinted at his disability.
Dr Lazzeri suggests that an acute upper limb trauma, possibly from a fall, could have resulted in ulner palsy. He eplains, “The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to the little finger and manages almost all the hand muscles that allow fine motor movement.” Perhaps in the light of the this new analysis by Drs Lazzeri and Rossi, it can now be better understood just why Leonardo did not always complete his paintings or was at least slow to do so.
In 1479 a group of Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was considered a reconciliation initiative between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’ Medici following the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano by conspirators supported by Sixtus. The four principal artists were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. Surprisingly Leonardo da Vinci was not among the group. Could one of the reasons for his absence have been some kind of incapacity at the time, perhaps the result of an injury to his right arm?
In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It was never completed. Prior to that he started to paint St Jerome in the Wilderness. This work also remained unfinished and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.
Revisitng this work it is clear to see the emphasis placed on the suffering of St Jerome in the process of beating his breast with the rock held in his right hand. What is now particularly obvious in the light of last week’s report is the prominence and detail given to the right shoulder, the collar bone and afflicted expression on Jerome’s face. Outstretching his arm is seemingly a most painful process, enough to make him grimace and turn his head away. Could this be Leonardo recording the pain of his own injury in some way? Notice the claw-shaped grip around the stone held in the right hand.
Another painting that throws light on Leonardo’s claw-hand is Andrea de Verrocchio’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1470-65). For the angel Raphael read Verrocchio and for Tobias, Leonardo – the master instructing his apprentice. Close inspection of the linked arms clearly shows deformity in the young man’s right hand, particularly the little finger. Some art experts suggest Leonardo may have painted the fish that Tobias is carrying in his left hand.
Although Leonardo wasn’t part of the Florentine team sent to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, he does feature in one of its paintings – The Trials of Moses – attributed to Botticelli. Leonardo is presented as the Egyptian being put to the sword by Moses and later buried. Both hands of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, are formed as claws!
Returning to Florence in 1482 Botticelli went onto complete an earlier commission before he was called away to Rome, the Adoration of the Magi, the adaption now housed with Leonardo’s version in the Uffizi, Florence. The earlier mention of Leonardo being buried is alluded to again by Botticelli. The stone head to the left of the Holy Family group is Leonardo shown as the half buried Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. But this is not the only reference to Leonardo in the painting. In fact, there are are several, one of which points to the claw feature in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel but is also given another meaning by Botticelli as part of one of several themes in the painting.
Leonardo is the figure wearing the pink cape crouching in front of Botticelli who is positioned in the right corner of the frame. The fingers of Leonardo’ right hand claw into the back of the hand of Giuliano de’ Medici. As to the reason for this, that’s another story.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, positioned next to Botticelli and wearing a feathered hat, was one of the artists who shared the workload in frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He also returned to Florence afterwards to complete a commisison he was given earlier to fresco the Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita basilica. He produced five frescos on the life of St Francis. One of these, the last in the cycle, depicts the Death of St Francis seen surrounded by fellow friars and Florentine notables. The central figure hovering above the dead saint is meant to represent a knight named Jerome who doubted the authenticity and claims of the stigmata associated with Francis during his saintly life. When Francis died, Jerome examined the manifested wounds of Christ on the body of the holy man and was convinced they were genuine and so convereted his life.
Here Ghirlandaio has borrowed the Leonardo/Egyptian figure from Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco – note the similarity in hair colour and style, and the shade of the red and blue garments. Leonardo is known for dissecting dead bodies in his search for how the human body functions, and his notebooks are filled with drawing and sketches recording his findings. So here we have not only the connection back to Leonardo’s early painting of Jerome in the Wilderness, but also Ghirlandaio linking it to the knight known as Jerome who doubted the stigmata of Francis. Ghirlandaio also confirms Leonardo’s claw hand, not just by the shape of the right hand reaching into the body’s side wound, but also by the claw-shaped ‘praying hands’ of the two figures either side of Leonardo.
Leonardo held a skeptical view about some aspects Christianity, and was even considered a non-believer by some people. Ghirlandaio, it seems, was a believer in ‘miracles’ and in the use and power of relics to obtain physical healing. Perhaps this is why he presented Leonardo before the dead Francis in this final fresco, as an expression of his own personal faith and prayer made visible for others to witness. It is said that Leonardo renconciled with the Catholic Church when he was close to death and paid for Masses to be said for his soul’s salvation after he died.
The claim that Leonardo is represented in the engraving produced by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505, has some merit. When he left Florence for Milan he brought with him a a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head as a gift for the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza. In Raimondo’s engraving Leonardo is depicted playing a ‘lira da braccio’ – an arm lyre – for the animals gathered around him. He is presented as Orpheus, “a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth”, said to be able to charm all creatures with his music.
Leonardo portrayed as Orpheus may have been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting Parnassus, now displayed in the Louvre. This is another work with several references to Leonardo and also Botticelli. In fact, it’s a parody on Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which explains why Mantegna embedded the references to Leonardo. In the left corner of the painting is a young man seated on a tree trunk and playing a lyre for the dancing Maneads. The figure is Orpheus but also represents Giuliano de’ Medici. His left hand is claw-shaped to pluck the strings of the lyre. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration Giuliano is also placed in the left corner, alongside a silver-head horse representing Leonardo’s lyre.
From these examples it can be seen that Leonardo’s claw-hand was not a late development in life, and that his contemporaries portayed his ailment in their paintings. There are probably more to come to light as the works I have cited are only those I have studied in recent months.
St Jerome in the Wilderness is another unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Believed to have been started sometime in 1480 before Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan, it’s now housed in the Vatican Museums.
At sometime in its history the panel was reduced in size. However, before it was cut down it served as inspiration for the upper half of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi. It’s not hard to recognise that the kneeling Magi before the Infant Jesus is not only meant to resemble both Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV as mentioned in previous posts, but also the figure of St Jerome depicted in Leonardo’s early work.
Other elements in Leonardo’s painting are also echoed and in a future post I will refer to these and the reason why Botticelli has made the connection to Jerome and placed the Saint – one of the early “Doctors of the Church” – in such a central position in his painting.
Italy has issued a set of stamps depicting stolen artworks recovered by its “monuments men” taskforce as it tries to shake off its status as the country with the highest number of art thefts in the world.
The stamps, which show works by Van Gogh, Mantegna and Raphael, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The milestone is being acknowledged by special events around the world.
A little further back in time, 37 years to be precise and 1482, Sandro Botticelli recorded the death of Leonardo in a novel way – by portraying him in two roles, both as an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave in a fresco painting on a wall in the Sistine Chapel. The panel depicts the Trials of Moses and was one of several commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV using Botticelli and other Florentine artists.
The section shows Leonardo as the model for the Egyptian slain by Moses, as recorded in Exodus (2 : 11-14). Leonardo is also depicted as the bloodied Hebrew making an exit from captivity in Egypt but in danger of being enslaved by a woman seemingly set on protecting him. The woman is Florentina, the symbol of Florence.
Here Botticelli is referring to Leonardo’s brush with the law when he was one of a group of four men accused of sodomy. The charges were eventually dropped, some say because one of the other men was connected to the powerful Medici family. Had the law been applied in full then the four men could have faced execution. Guilty or innocent, the risk of execution was probably one of the reasons why Leonardo eventually left Florence and moved to Milan.
So here Botticelli expresses Leonardo’s fear of the severity of Florentine law, applied justly or unjustly, as portrayed by Moses who was chosen to present God’s law written in stone but which he had earlier applied unjustly on his own account by killing the Egyptian and hiding his body.
The passage from Exodus also relates what happened after Moses had killed the Egyptian. The following day he came across two Hebrews fighting each other. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” The man retorted, “And who appointed you to be prince over us and judge? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses became frightened when he realised his crime had been discovered and fled to the land of Midian. Was Botticelli using this analogy to compare the flight of Moses to the flight of Leonardo to Milan, referring to the fact his “crime” was also uncovered?
Another narrative is that Leonardo was perhaps at odds with himself, battling with his sexuality and experiencing his nature to be in conflict with the law that threatened not only his existence but also his way of life, hence the reason why Botticelli may have depicted Leonardo as both of the Hebrew men.
The self-conflict motif can also be read into the fighting group of Moses and the Egyptian. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration, Leonardo is painted in similar colours, green and yellow, to Moses in the Sistine Chapel frescos. But there are also other explanations for this match in the Adoration painting which I shall post on at another time.
The facial expression of the Hebrew on the ground is meant to relate to the screaming face of Leonardo that can be seen on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio. The cuirass is hollowed as a protective piece of armour, similar to a shell. This is why Botticelli has shaped Leonardo’s cloak as a shell. Leonardo collected and made study draiwngs of shells. However, Botticelli is also suggesting that the vunerable point of any creature carrying a shell on its back and hiding underneath it, is its underside and belly region. This point is also made with a similar motif in the Uffizi Adoration painting.
There is another feature that links the face of Leonardo on the breastplate to his face portrayed on the Egyptian, and which connects with Moses. When the prophet came down from Mount Sinai for the second time “the skin on his face was radiant”. Artists generally show this as “horns of light” or what became known as the “horns of Moses”, usually depicted as two horns projecting from his head. They are meant to represent enlightenment or knowledge, as in knowing God’s law. In the fresco, Moses has yet to receive God’s law written on stone tablets.
However, the face of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, has hair curled in the shape of horns. These are not only meant to represent the snakes associated with the image of the Gorgon Medusa and the pagan worship of the Egyptians of the time, but also suggest the brilliance of Leonardo, as gifted with knowledge and talents. The horns and the enlightened theme is also expressed on the breastpate, referring not only to Leonardo, but also the wearer Giuliano de’ Medici, considered a shining light and chivalrous knight of the Renaissance.
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