This panel painting known as Venus and Mars was produced by Sandro Botticelli about 1485. It’s housed at the National Gallery in London. A contemporary of Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, was very familiar with the underlying narrative in the painting and used it as a basis for the satirical composition in the Parnassus picture he produced for Isabella d’Este, now housed in the Louvre, Paris.
The satirical slant is obvious in Botticelli’s version of Venus and Mars, the antics of the four satyrs are are all pointers to the painting being meant to poke fun, for whatever reason, at the two lovers.
Sandro Botticelli portrays himself as the satyr tucked inside the barrel-shaped cuirass in the bottom right corner of the painting. the name Botticelli meaning “little barrel”. The three other satyrs represent Botticelli’s brothers. Sandro was the youngest of the four boys. Mantegna picks up on the cuirass connection by portraying Botticelli on the breastplate of Mars in the Parnassus painting.
Mantegna’s Mars is based on Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Piero led Florence after his father’s death in 1492 until his own exile in just two years later in 1494. Venus is repesented by Isabella d’Este. However, the pairing also references Leonardo da Vinci’s lost painting, Leda and the Swan. More on this in a future post.
Here’s another painting of Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio portrayed in the role of the Madonna and the Infant Christ, one of many similar paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. Not surprisingly it embeds features which point to Leonardo da Vinci, and not just because he painted the same woman in two of his paintings – the Benois Madonna, and later the portrait mistakingly titled Ginevra de’ Benci.
In his monograph, Botticelli Life and Works, Ronald Lightbown describes the adoration scene:
The composition of the small tondo of the Virgin Adoring the Child, painted around 1490, was repeated, as it deserved to be, in many workshop versions. The broken gray masonry of the stable in the foreground, converts the circle into a square within which the Virgin, wearing a pink robe beneath the deep blue of her cloak, kneels in the dark sward, adoring the Child who lies on the cloak’s end propped up by a bale of straw, stretching up his hands to her. The straw is painted with great attention: each outer straw is executed with a straight stroke, highlighted with touches of yellow. From the triangle of sky to the left of the thatched golden-brown roof, a gold star sends down its ray above the Child’s head. Behind, a duck swims on a pool; beyond are low dark-green undulations with a wooden gateway opening onto a path over bright green hills on the left. On the right is a brown fence and a river landscape. Such browns – pale tawny brown, golden brown, chestnut – are characteristic of Botticelli’s later pictures; so too is the conjunction of tawny and light green to give a delightful effect of pastoral gladness.
Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli: Life and Work, pp 217-218
The painting is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the gallery’s date attribution is between 1480 and 1490. However, there are indications in the work that suggest it was produced after 1490, possibly as late as 1495. The painting may appear to be a simple portrayal of the Virgin and Child, but with Botticelli nothing is as straightforward as it appears at surface level. There is an underlying narrative that relates to the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonrola, a revolutionary figure in Florence between his arrival in the city in1490 and the time of his execution in May 1498.
My assessment for the date of the painting is not before the second half of 1498, and after the execution of Girolama Savonarola.
The Virgin Adoring the Child also inspired Mantegna’s Parnassus, said to have been painted in 1497, although some of its iconography does suggest a later date. Mantegna produced a second painting for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo, the Triumph of Virtues. This is dated between 1500 and 1502.
So whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth to her child Giulio, said to have been the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici? For the first seven years of his life Giulio was raised by Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) and then brought up in the Medici household. His uncle Lorenzo de Medici became Giulio’s guardian.
It wasn’t until 1513 that Fioretta’s name surfaced again when the newly elected Pope Leo X wanted to make his cousin Giulio a cardinal. Problem for the Church was that Giulio’s illegitimacy stood in the way. This was rectified when apparently Fioretta’s brother, supported by some monks, testified that his sister and Giuliano de’ Medici had married secretly. Giulio’s birth was legitimised and he was made Cardinal on September 23, 1513 when he was 35 years old. Ten years later he became Pope Clement Vll. His birth is given as May 26, 1478, exactly a month after Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination on April 26. If Giulio was aware that Giuliano and Fioretta had married, then why did it take a man in his influential position, or the Medici family, so long to pursue his legitimacy? Or was this claim of marriage simply one of convenience to clear the path for Giulio to join the ranks of the cardinalate?
That it was Fioretta’s brother who was said to have confirmed the marriage, and not his sister, would suggest she was no longer alive at the time. Neither has any record come to light as to when Fioretta died, but presumably it was prior to 1513.
If Fioretta had been married to Giuliano then why would she not declare her marriage and her son to the Medici family? Why was it left to Antonio da Sangallo, the child’s godfaather, to inform Lorenezo de’ Medici of the birth and then to take the boy into his own house for the first seven years of his life? And was there a reason why Fioretta’s own family did not not take charge or support her child?
Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli provide clues in their paintings about Fioretta’s circumstances following Giuliano’s murder and the birth of her son. They both suggest that Fioretta entered cloistered life, which may explain why she was not on hand to raise her child. Leonardo points to the Carmelite Order while Botticelli implies she may even have an become an anchorite, walled into her cell. Was her exile from the world self-imposed, perhaps the result of a religious conversion of epiphany experience, or was pressure applied on Fioretta to ‘disappear’ in this way?
There are two other paintings that point to Fioretta’s circumstances before and after Giuliano’s death. Of its time, around 1481, is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. The other painting is titled Parnassus and was produced by Andrea Mantegna twenty years after the assassination of Giulio de Medici. It is now housed in the Louvre, Paris. Mantegna’s painting combines the references to Fioretta in Leonardo’s portrait known as Ginevra de’ Benci (NGA, Washington) and also those in Botticelli’s Madonna with Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (Barber Institute, Birmingham). The reference to Fioretta in the Sistine Chapel fresco points to her ‘new life’ or ‘transfiguration’.
Leonardo’s Carmelite reference is the bearded head of the prophet Elijah placed among the juniper and above Fioretta’s right shoulder. Carmelites follow an ideal of life as witnessed and experienced by Elijah. Already mentioned in a previous post is the juniper was the tree that Elijah sat under in the wilderness, when he wished he was dead and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).
The water feature at Fioretta’s left shoulder represents ‘Elisha’s Spring’. Elisha was the ‘adopted’ son of Elijah. At the time the prophet was taken up into heaven, Elisha requested and received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Soon afterward Elisha performed his first miracle by purifying Jericho’s water supply which was considered the cause of many miscarriages. The ‘adopted son of Elijah’ can be understood as Fioretta’s son Giulio being first ‘adopted’ by his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), a notable Florentine woodworker (and later an architect), and so another identity Leonardo has applied to the ‘head’ in the trees – placed at the shoulder in support of Fioretta, as he would have been when the child was baptised. It was near to Jericho that John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. Notice also the young, golden tree that rises from the waterside and merges with the juniper – symbolic of a tree of life and the safe delivery of Fioretta’s son Giulio.
Further confirmation that the shape above the Fioretta’s right shoulder is a pointer to Antonio da Sangallo is the the name Sangallo, Italian for Saint Gaul. One of the saint’s artistic attributes is a bear bringing him piece of wood, as seen below in the right hand image. The image on the left represents an ‘upright’ bear carrying a forked branch. Leonardo points to this using a triangular ‘pyramid’ – symbolic of Giuliano’s recent death. The branch is shaped as the letter Y or the Greek upsilon. Its symbolism did not go unnoticed by Pythagorus and the Roman writer Persius commented: “…the letter which spreads out into Pythagorean branches has pointed out to you the steep path which rises on the right.” Isidore of Seville later wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.” Leonardo has depicted Fioretta as taking the narrow, arduous path.
The scapular, though black and not brown, is symbolic of the one presented by the Virgin Mary in the 13th century to Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelite Order, with the promise of salvation for those who wear it. The scapular formed part of the brown habit worn by Carmelites and also became a symbol of consecration to Our Lady of Carmel. That Fioretta’s scapular is black and not brown is because she is in mourning for Giuliano de’ Medici.
There is one more reference in Leonardo’s painting that links to Elijah and the ‘new life’ of Fioretta after Giuliano de’ Medici was slaughtered and stabbed 19 times by assassins during Mass in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria Fiore. It relates to the time Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a fire for their animal sacrifice (1 Kings 18:20-40). Despite their prayers, their chants and dancing around the altar, the wood on which the bull was laid did not catch fire. Even when the priests gashed themselves with swords and knives, as was their custom, and the blood flowed down them, their god remained silent and the fire unlit. The bloodletting and slaughter is the reference Leonardo has used to link his painting to the slaughter and stabbings in the Duomo.
Then Elijah prepared another altar and “took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yaweh had come.” The reference to stone and the word of the Lord is Leonardo’s pointer to the stone appearance of Fioretta and Verrocchio’s marble sculpture which he may have used to base his portrait on, while “to whom the word of Yaweh had come” is applied to Fioretta’s religious conversion and decision to join the Carmelite Order.
Elijah doused his sacrifice in water (mixed with the blood of the bull) and then called on God to win back the hearts of the people. “Then the fire of Yaweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When the people saw this they fell on their faces. ‘Yaweh is God’ they cried ‘Yaweh is God’.” (1 Kings 18:38-39). It was at this moment during the Mass in the Duomo, following the Eucharistic prayer offered by the priest, and when the consecrated Host was raised and heads bowed, that was the signal for the attack on the Medici brothers.
• My next post deals with the reference to Fioretta as she appears in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes… More on Fioretta Gorini
Returning to the Sistine Chapel and the fresco of the Testament and Death of Moses attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo Gatta…
I mentioned in a previous post that four of the multitude of figures depict Leonardo da Vinci. In this post I will present an explanation for one of them, the naked man seated on a tree stump and positioned centrally in the line of figures in the bottom half of the fresco.
Standing next to Leonardo is a figure wearing a bright blue jacket with most of his face hidden and his back to the viewer. Leonardo and the faceless man are presented in front of a group of men, some perhaps members of the Signoria, the government of Florence while others are members of the Medici family. With the exception of two, the group faces east toward another scene that shows Moses teaching the Law to the men, women and children gathered before him.
The group is taking the Law into account before passing judgement and possibly any sentence on Leonardo who had been anonymously reported for sodomy. His ‘anonymous’ accuser was another artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio, standing immediately behind Leonardo. Notice the snake-head shape of the fold above his right hand in the gold garment he is wearing. The snake reference not only points to Ghirlandaio as the sender of the anonymous letter to the Signoria, but also to the injury and the bruising on Leonardo’s right shoulder sustained from his attempt at human flight, hence the wing feature made of light silk attached around his neck. Was a tree or its stump the painful landing point?
Identifying Ghirlandaio is linked to the fresh-faced youth looking at the artist next to him. He is Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici. The motif is borrowed from the fresco in the Sassetti Chapel in Florence depicting the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis where both Giovanni and Piero are seen looking out directly at the artist who happens to be Ghirlandaio.
In the Moses fresco Piero (the Unfortunate) is the tall figure alongside Giovanni. Their father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is to the right of the man in the blue jacket whose hand is raised as if appealing for help from Lorenzo. Could the man in blue be Leonardo Tornabuoini, one of the three other men charged with sodomy, and connected to the Medici family through Lorenzo’s mother Lucrezia Tornabuoni? This would explain why the face is hidden and possibly confirm the speculation that the charges against the men were dropped because of the Tornabuoni connection to the powerful Medici family.
The other figure not facing East but looking down on Leonardo is Antonio Pucci, Gonfaloniere of Justice and a close ally of the Medici family. His wealth and influence stemmed from the silk industry, hence the reference to the silk scarf or wing worn by Leonardo. The silk reference also connects to Ghirlandaio whose nickname means ‘garland maker’ and whose family produced silk scarves threaded with gold, a fashionable item with Florentine women of the time.
Pucci’s hands are explaining a point to Leonardo and his companion. He is squeezing his right thumb with the thumb and forfinger of his left hand. Could he be demonstrating a form of torture used by the authorities to punish or extract information, perhaps the application of thumbscrews or even amputation?
It’s a certainty that this fresco and, in particular, its central scene, was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and its many reference to Leonardo including the episode relating to the charge of sodomy.
Luca Signorelli and/or Bartolomeo Gatta have replicated the right-hand corner of the Magi painting that shows Botticelli wrapped in a gold cloak standing behind the two figures representing Leonardo and one of his companions. But in the Moses fresco he is substituted by Ghirlandaio who, in the Magi painting is the ‘figure-head’ placed above Botticelli.
Ghirlandaio’s blue-domed hat is not only a reference to his name Domenico but also to the prep work he did by painting the Sistine Chapel’s dome in blue with gold stars to represent the heavenly dome covering the world. Notice also the feather in his cap, a refrence to the quill Ghirlandaio used to write his ‘anonymous’ note to the Florentine authorities. The denunciation was posted in what was known as the ‘tamburo’ a drum-shaped box or barrel provided for reports on law-breaking.
From this we can understand why Botticelli has placed Ghirlandaio’s head above himself. Botticelli means ‘little barrel’ and so a reference to the ‘tamburo’ and further confirmation that it was Domenico who wrote the anonymous letter charging Leonardo and others with sodomy. His reason for denouncing Leonardo in this way? Botticelli provides some of the answers in another of his great works, The Calumny off Apelles.
Another connection to Leonardo presented as the naked man in the Testament and Death of Moses fresco is Andrea Mantegna’s painting, Parnassus, completed about 1497 for Isabella d’Este and her studiolo. Mantegna’s Parnassus is heavly focused on Leonardo and his works. The figure of Orpheus playing his lyre is based on the figure of Leonardo in the Moses fresco and also linked to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi.
Finally, the bearded man, standing next to Lorenzo is the link between this scene and the one on the right featuring Moses teaching the law to the Hebrews.
The other bearded man seen tucked behind Ghirlandaio on the left side of the group has a legal status, and is a lawyer or notary. In a religious sense the scrolled brim on the front of his hat represents a phylactery or tefillin used to contain small scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. In a secular sense and as a notary licensed to witness signatures on documents the scrolled brim represents the box or ‘tamburo’ in which Ghirlandaio placed his written accusation against Leonardo. Here Signorelli confirms that the anonymous note was unsigned as witnessed by the notary standing next to Leonardo’s accuser.
A similar scroll motif is seen on one of the men in the next group to the left. He is Piero da Vinci, Leonardo’s father, and also a legal notary.
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.
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?
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.
“But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”
So wrote the British art historian in the Daily Telegraph on April 12, 2010.
Well, such a document does exist and derives from an earlier 15th century painting by Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. The actual document was produced by another contemporary of Leonardo, the Mantua court painter Andrea Mantegna. He took his lead from Botticelli, and particularly the Florentine’s painting of the Adoration of the Magi which is now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.
What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. Both paintings parody aspects of Leonardo’s life and his works. Mantegna acknowledges his source of inspiration by including references to other notable works of Botticelli apart from the Uffizi Adoration.
Whereas Botticelli’s painting accounts for the time before Leonardo left Florenece and moved to Milan around 1481-82, Mantegna has added updates to the Leonardo references, including some which point to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza, or La Bella Principessa as titled by the Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp.
It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497 (a year after the deaths of Bianca and her stepmother Beatrice) although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.
That there are references to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza in the Parnassus painting alongside other works of Leonardo would suggest La Bella Principessa
belongs to the same period and was produced by the artist that many
experts claim to be Leonardo da Vinci. While the fact that the portrait
is on vellum may be considered as a negative by some critics, there is a
clear reference to this material in Mantegna’s presentation, utilising
the written source from one of Leonardo’s notebooks.
“…And if you want to prepare a thing, you should not have
plain glass, take some skin of a goat, soft and well prepared, and then
dry it; and when it is ready, use it for drawing, and then you can use a
sponge to cancel what you first drew and make a second attempt.” (source)
2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and celebratory events to honour the Italian polymath are planned worldwide. At some time during the year I intend to publish here an analysis of the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. It reveals some suprising and unknown references to Leonardo. Other contempories of Mantegna are also included in the work.
The Louvre, where the painting is housed, describes the work as the triumph of spiritual over earthly love and the celebration of the Arts at the Court of Mantua. But that’s just at surface level. It is much more than that. The painting was commissioned by Isabella d’Este, marquise of Mantua, and dated at 1497.