In my previous post I proposed that the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio was the person who sent the anonymous letter to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo da Vinci and three other men of sodomy.
I mentioned five paintings in which this event is alluded to, three by Botticelli, one by Andrea Mantegana and another by Verrocchio with the help of Leonardo himself.
I can now point to another work that makes mention of the incident – a confession of a kind – by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It’s one in a series of frescos he and his workshop produced for the Tournabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella on the lives of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, patron saints of Florence.
The particular fresco is the Baptism of Christ, and it is not without coincidence that several of its features are adopted from a similar work painted by Andrea del Verrocchio, assisted by Leonardo.
Leonardo also shows up in the Tournabuoni version. He is placed at the extreme left of the fresco, wearing a green gown and amber hat. His right hand is pointing to the dominant figure standing in front of him waiting to be baptised and whose nakedness symbolises his sin. He is no longer in hiding, although an angel’s wing – a gold leaf – covers his modesty.
He is Domenico Ghirlandaio.
In Verrochio’s version Ghirlandaio is the model for John the Baptist. It is not without reason why the angel painted by Leonardo and representing himself has his eyes fixed on the Baptist figure, “staring hard at him” and not at Christ, with a questioning look that asks “Are you the one…?” One of his own, a painter, a ‘Hebrew’, echoing the fable of the eagle wounded by an arrow vaned with its own feathers, and a reference to Leonardo’s shoulder injury. The shoulder injury is depicted in Leonardo’s angel and Ghirlandaio’s fresco.
In the Verrocchio painting, Leonardo’s angel’s right arm, his wing, is feathered and dark. He carries the cloth that will cover Christ, shaped as a wing but also meant to represent a shroud that will eventually wrap around the body of Christ. The garment turns to gold and forms a sling around Leonardo’s shoulder to support and partially cover his injury wound – a red, wing-shaped arrow to suggest a damaged shoulder blade or “winged scapular”.
The damaged right shoulder shows up on Ghirlandaio. Note the dark bruising and the emphasis on the shoulder blade. Leonardo confirms the problem by pointing to Ghirlandaio’s other shoulder. More likely he is presenting a prognosis of the injury, or disorder, to the bearded man alongside. His pointed hat is modelled on the hat worn by Lorenzo de’ Medici in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Magi = Medici = medical doctors.
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448–1494) was an Italian Renaissance painter born in Florence. He was four years older than Leonardo da Vinci who in 1476 was arrested and brought to the Florentine court on a charge of sodomy after an anonymous denunciation was lodged at the Palazzo della Signoria, the city’s town hall, on April 9, 1476.
Leonardo was accused with four others but because the report had been made secretly and wasn’t signed, the charges against all the men were dropped. A similar accusation was lodged two months later but again dismissed.
Although the letter condeming Leonardo and the other men was left unsigned, it’s unlikely the author was unknown at the time. Gossip and speculation would surely have followed Leonardo’s arrest and potential suspects and motives considered.
One man who did know whose hand wrote the letter to the authorities was Sandro Botticelli. He identified the person in at least three of his works and may even have been party to the posting. The first was the portrayal of the two fighting Hebrews in the Sistine Chapel fresco depicting the Trials of Moses (1482). Next was the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi completed in 1482 after Botticelli had returned to Florence following his stint at the Vatican. The third reference shows up in The Calumny of Apelles (1494-95) after Ghirlaindaio had died of pestitential fever in January 1494 at the early age of 44.
Ghirlandaio is also included in the frame of suspects by Andrea Mantegna in his version of Parnassus (1497-98).
Finally, Leonardo himself points to his ‘outing’ in Andrea del Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ, in which he painted one of the ‘grounded’ angels. This would place the painting’s completion after the charge made against Leonardo was dropped in June 1476.
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.