Leonardo’s judge and jury

A section of the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testament and Death of Moses.

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.

Part of the Sassetti Chapel fresco, Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis, by Domenico 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.

Matching pairs of gold gowns: left, Domenico Ghirlandaio; right, Sandro Botticelli

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 and 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.

Matching pairs… left, Leonardo da Vinci; right Orpheus, aka Leonardo, and Isabella d’Este

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.

Seen in the Sistine Chapel… Leonardo da Vinci

Testament and Death of Moses, 1483?, Luca Signorelli, Bartolomeo della Gatta, Sistine Chapel

I recently pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci is depicted in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescos – The Trial of Moses by Sando Botticelli. He’s one of the two fighting Hebrews, Domenico Ghirlandaio is the other.

Well, on the same Southern wall of the Chapel is another fresco that features Leonardo. In fact, he shows up in four of the scenes that record the Testament and Death of Moses. The fresco is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. It was the last section of the six-fresco cycle illustrating the life of Moses and probably started sometime in 1483.

This is how Wikipedia descibes the scenes, but there is no mention of Leonardo.

The fresco portrays the last episode in Moses’ life, in two sectors: a foreground one including two scenes, and a background one, with three further scenes and, on the right, a landscape. Moses is always recognizable through his yellow garments and the green cloak, as in the rest of the cycle. The artist made an extensive use of gold painting.

On the background Moses, on the Mount Nebo, receives by an angel the command baton, which gives him the authority to lead the Israelites towards the Promised Land. Below, Moses descends from the mountain with the baton in his hand, similarly to Cosimo Rosselli’s Descent from Mount Sinai nearby. In the foreground, on the right, is a 120-year-old Moses speaking at the crowd while holding the baton and a Holy Book: rays of light stem from his head. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant, opened to show the Twelve Tables and the vase of the Manna. In the center, the procession includes a woman holding a child on her shoulders, wearing silk, an elegant youth portrayed from behind and a naked man sitting. The latter two characters are attributed to Luca Signorelli, as well as the man with a stick next the throne of Moses.

On the left is the appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor; the former kneels to receive the command baton, while the prophet has his cloak opened, showing a red-lined interior. Finally, on the left background, is the corpse of Moses on a shroud, surrounded by the dismayed Israelites.

Leonardo is represented as Joshua kneeling at the left side of the fresco. He is also the naked man seated on the tree stump in the centre of the group of figures at ground level; and naked again as one of the two cherubs standing beside the woman sitting on the ground holding her baby. Leonardo is also portrayed as the angel alongside Moses on Mount Nebo.

The scenes at ground level are all connected to the interrogation and testimony of Leonardo after an anonymous report was made to the Florentine authorities in April 1476 accusing the artist and others of sodomy.

More on this in a future post.

Dr Leonardo, I presume…

Left: Leonardo da Vinci. right: Domenico Ghirlandaio.

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.

Baptism of Christ, 1485-1489, Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop,
Tournabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, 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.

Baptism of Christ, 1476, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

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”.

Lorenzo de’ Medici, Adoration of the Magi, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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.

Is this the man who anonymously ‘outed’ Leonardo da Vinci?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

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.

More details on this in a future post.