Much more than an adjective*

There’s a new book by art historian Simon Hewitt due out in October – Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom. The publisher’s blurb on Amazon describes the work as “an in-depth investigation into the art, politics and muderous cynicism of Renaissance Milan and an academic detective story sketched out with erudition and journalistic panache.”

A more sensational approach was adopted by the publisher when informing various media channels. Hence the similar headlines that appeared with the story this week:

“Italians laughed at Leonardo da Vinci, the ginger genius”
“Master’s Misery: Leonardo da Vinci was bullied for being ginger and gay… ”
“Artists Leonardo da Vinci was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan”
“Fellow artists mocked Leonardo da Vinci for his red hair and sexual leanings”

Here’s part of the report behind the headline published by The Guardian:

Far from being admired as an extraordinary genius, Leonardo da Vinci was repeatedly lampooned and teased about his unusual red hair and his unconventional sexuality by other leading artists of his day. Although the work of the great Italian was popular in his time, an extensive new study of the artist to be published this week has outlined evidence that he was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan.

Author Simon Hewitt has unearthed a little-studied image held in Germany, a “comic strip” design made in 1495 to illustrate a poem, that showed how Leonardo was once ridiculed. In one of its colourful images, An Allegory of Justice, a ginger-haired clerk, or court lawyer, is shown seated at a desk, mesmerised by other young men, and represents Leonardo da Vinci. “The identity of Leonardo as the red-headed scribe is totally new,” Hewitt told the Observer ahead of the publication of Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom.

The key passage in Hewitt’s book identifies the painter through a series of clues in the precious illustration. He is shown as a “left-handed clerk … with a wooden lyre at his feet: evidently a caricature of Leonardo da Vinci”. The lyre was Leonardo’s instrument and his father, Ser Piero, who is depicted resting his right arm on his shoulder, “is brandishing a sheet of paper that surely represents the anonymous document denouncing Leonardo for sodomy, deposited in a Florence tamburo in April 1476”.

Close study of the illuminated manuscript copy of Gaspare Visconti’s epic poem Paolo e Daria, revealed to Hewitt that Leonardo da Vinci is also likely to be the object of ridicule because of the absent-minded way he is shown to be drawing on the tablecloth, rather than on his sketch notebooks, and by his apparent fascination with a half-naked young man who is clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”.

“Further evidence of Leonardo’s identity, and homosexual leanings, is provided by the group of eight strapping figures alongside,” argues Hewitt, who has conducted five years of research into Leonardo and his circle in search of the truth about a controversial portrait, La Bella Principessa…”

This is the illustration Simon Hewitt refers to that appears in Gaspare Visconti’s Romanazo e Diana.

I don’t have a problem with Leonardo being identified as the seated figure with his father Piero standing behind him. It’s a good spot by Hewitt. So also the left hand, but is the claim that Leonardo had ginger hair really valid? Compare the colour of his hair with the colour of the hair on the figures on the right. Haven’t they all got ‘ginger’ hair? If so, why has Hewitt placed the emphasis on Leonardo? There are depictions of Leonardo by other artists of his time which would dispute Hewitt’s claim.

But let’s assent to Hewitt’s opinion on the ginger hair and instead consider if there was a sound reason why the illustrator not only portrayed Leonardo with ginger hair – it may even be classed as ‘red’ or even ‘golden’ – but also the group of figures on the right of the frame.

For sure this is a painting mostly about Leonardo da Vinci. Hewitt states that it points to Leonardo’s sexuality and the time he was charged with sodomy before he left Florence to work for Ludovicp Sforza, duke of Milan, seen sitting in judgement and conversing with Piero, Leonardo’s father, who was a notary by profession. Hewitt also points out the note in Piero’s right hand, suggesting it is the unsigned report posted to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo and others of sodomy. Yes, it is, and it isn’t. Leonardo was brought to court in Florence, not Milan, but the artist Birago is resurrecting this incident to confirm Leonardo’s identity in the picture.

Hewitt also points out another identifier to Leonardo, the broken lyre on the floor in front of the desk. Leonardo was a notable musician. He even presented a silver lyre in the shape of a horse-head as a gift to the duke when he arrived in Milan. So could the broken lyre be a metaphor for Leonardo’s brokenness – not referring to his sexuality – but to a damaged shoulder, the one on which his father’s right hand rests, as an outward sign of confirmation that not only is Leonardo his son in whom he is well pleased with, but also that the injury would be a cross to bear in life. It may also explain Leonardo’s tendency to write with his left hand. Whether this injury occured early in his life, it cannot be certain, but there are specific references to Leonardo’s shoulder in paintings by his contemporaries.

It is said that Leonardo once built a flying machine and launched himself into flight from the side of a hill. Again, paintings that depict Leonardo suggest the injury occured before he moved to Milan. Could it have been the result of his attempt at flying, a dislocated shoulder or a broken collar-bone,perhaps, as a result of a bumpy and uncontrolled landing?

Simon Hewitt also makes a point in his published comments that Leonardo is apparently fascinated with a half-naked young man who is apparently clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”. In reality the ‘contraption’ is the broken neck and strings of the lyre. It also serves to represent the flying machine Leonardo is said to have taken into the air, now broken in two after crash-landing. Notice the bird shape wings and its long neck – a reference to one of Leonardo’s paintings, Leda and the Swan. Notice also the shape of the split between the two pieces –another pointer to the Leda painting and the broken eggs. But can egg shells ever be repaired and put back together in one piece? Seemingly not by human hands. Just look at the fit between the two halves of the instrument. They don’t match. Divine intervention is required.

The ‘Shroud’ image of Jesus.

And so the illustrator takes us a step towards identifying the “half-naked” young man who Leonardo can’t take his eyes off. He does this by placing a ghostly “Manylion” feature or face of Christ as depicted on what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. It appears just under the neck of the lyre on the thigh of the man in the blue “shroud”.

The Baptism of Christ, attributed to Andrea del Verocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery.

The figure represents Jesus Christ, – a leader not a Leda – and points to the painting by Andrea Verocchio and which Leonardo had a hand in – The Baptism of Christ. In this work Leonardo is depicted in a blue gown, kneeling and looking up at Jesus being baptised by John. And this explains why the illustrator has depicted Leonardo seated at his desk looking up at the ‘half-naked’ man. In the Baptism painting, Jesus is shown ‘half-naked”. The model for Jesus (the head, certainly) is Andrea del Verocchio, Leonardo’s tutor and master during his apprenticeship in Florence – an adopted father, after his family sent him to train as an artist in Verocchio’s studio where he remained until he moved to MIlan. See the similarity in the two portraits representing Jesus; the plumpness in the face and the heavy eyes and there is even a suggestion of a light beard in both. See also the highlighted right collar bone and another pointer to Leonardo’s injury.

The similar features of Andrea del Verocchio portrayed as Jesus.

So now we have three ‘father figures’ in the miniature that Leonardo could relate to: his natural father, Piero, standing in support behind him; Ludovico Sforza, who took Leonardo under his wing in MIlan; and Andrea del Verocchio during his training period in Florence.

As to repairing the broken instrument, Leonardo would have been famliar with Scripture and the words of Jesus – “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And who is the red-haired woman standing next to Jesus? Could it be the woman caught in adultery by the scribes and the Pharisees. They wanted to stone her as the law of Moses provided for, but Jesus responded by writing on the ground with his finger and saying, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8: 7). Observe also the ‘hook’ feature that represents the swan’s head, yet another scripture reference to include both Leonardo and the adulterous woman. It refers to the period shortly after the baptism of Jesus and when he dealt with temptation in the wilderness. On his return to Galilee Jesus saw the brothers Simon and Andrew casting their net in the lake and called out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4: 19).

So this brings the analysis back to Leonardo sitting at the table – scribing, so to speak. Hewitt points out that Leonardo is so distracted by the “half-naked” man that he is absent-mindely drawing on the tablecloth. But this is the illustrator’s method of pointing to Jesus seemingly not paying attention to the scribes and Pharisees by writing on the ground with his finger. It’s also a reference to the Mosaic Law and Moses writing on tablets or tables. Leonardo was considered a ‘Moses’ figure by some, recording the laws of nature in his notebooks and perhaps even for covering up his “crime” as the prophet did when he killed an Egyptian guard and buried him in the sand.

There is other iconography which points to Leonardo, perhaps even issuing a warning to others and recalling the wooden horse of Troy and its associated adage: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Leonardo had writen and informed Ludovico Sforza that he wanted to produce a horse sculpture as a monument to the duke’s father Francesco Sforza. For reasons I won’t go into here it was started but never completed. The table at which Leonardo sits represents the wooden horse and a likely reference to the scaffolding used to construct the initial clay model. It’s head is formed by the upper part of the wooden lyre. The blue cloth serves as a cover for the work in progress. Beneath the table there is an anomaly. Leonardo is depicted with only one leg, a direct reference by the illustrator to Leonardo’s masculinity hidden under the table or inside the horse.

A less obvious narrative in this miniature again points to Leonardo and one of his paintings. Two notebooks are placed on the table both with pronounced markings, spots, in fact. They refer to the phrase that “a LEOpard never changes its spots”, meaning that Leonardo’s sexuality is as it is, but more importantly they connect to the lyre and represent musical notation by the notary’s son Leonardo and the painting attributed to him: Portrait of a Musician. In the painting the musician is seen holding in his right hand a piece of paper with musical notation written on it; the piece of paper that Piero is passing into Leonardo’s right hand, or perhaps taking from it – not just a piece of paper, but also a piece of music. See how the illustrator has matched the ‘ginger’ and curled-fringe look of Leonardo’s hair with that of the Musician. Could it be that the Musician is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? Why else would the illustrator draw attention to the painting in this way? Perhaps also the golden-haired figures grouped at the side of Jesus represent a heavenly choir of angels conducted by Leonardo with a small baton doubling up as a writing tool in his left hand. Leonardo liked his angels.

In harmony, Portraits of Musicians, both possibly representing Leonardo da Vinci.

At this stage it is worth pointing out that the illustration was likely inspired by another source that depicts Leonardo in similar circumstances, where he is accompanied by his father and judgement is passed. It’s one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, and part of a series that illustrates the lives of Moses and Jesus. The particular fresco is titled the Testimony and Death of Moses, part of which shows the prophet passing on the baton to Joshua. The kneeling Joshua is in fact Leonardo sa Vinci. His father Piero, the notary defined by his scrolled hat, stands behind his son, his right hand pointing to Leonardo’s ‘winged’ shoulder. More about this here.

A section of the Sistine Chapel fresco. Testimony and Death of Moses.

Seated on the judgement seat is Lady Justice with scales and sword. She wears no blindfold, so her impartiality is questionable. The scales of justice are broken as one of the pans is missing. Justice, it seems, will not be applied evenly. Does she favour Leonardo, or not? In his book, Hewitt identifies the woman as Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza. Ludovico, sceptre in hand is the man in the middle, the fulcrum. In his hands is the balance of power – justice according to the duke’s measure. As to the armoured lady, I can’t be certain. She sits alongside Ludovico and therefore possibly his wife Beatrice d’Este who died in childbirth at the age of 21. On the other hand it could be speculated that she represents Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza, heavily disguised in dark armour. Like Beatrice she also died young – just three months earlier when she was only 14 – but in mysterious circumstances. Her peacock-head helmet could be considered symbolic of her resurrection. If it is Beatrice, then she’s there for a reason that connects to Leonardo, possibly because he knew the cause of her death. He hinted at it in the portrait he made of Beatrice which came to light in recent years and was titled La Bella Princepessa by the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp.

As for who Lady Justice might be, try Lucrezia Tornbuoni, mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence at the time of Leonardo’s arrest along with three other men on a charge of sodomy. One of them was named Leonardo Tornabuoni.

* “Giving more importance to the adjective rather than the noun, this is not good.”

Together in eclectic dreams

The Great Sphinx of Giza, partly under the sand, ca. 1870s

The top section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shows the Virgin Mary presenting the Infant Jesus on her lap to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder. Behind her stands Joseph, while above the group the Star of Bethlehem shines through the rafters of the temporary dwelling portrayed in a state of ruin and collapse.

What remains of the walled structure is divided into three distinct sections, the bricked corner walls to the right of the group; the dark and craggy rock that forms the back wall; and the pale outcrop which Joseph rests on. Then there is the raftered roof supported by two tree trunks.

A time to cast away stones, a time for gathering them together… (Ecclesiastes 3 : 4)

The left half of the bricked walls section is shaped to represent the sejant erect heraldic lion, the symbol of Florence known as the Marzocco. Placed alongside the infant Jesus representing the sacrificial Lamb of God, it becomes the Lion and Lamb peace symbol.

Sculpted from the rock shelf which Joseph is leaning on is a head representing Leonardo da Vinci. When this is merged with the lion feature it produces a sphinx-like form of half-man and half-lion. Botticelli is specifically drawing attention to the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and Leonardo’s claim in one of his notebooks that he travelled to Egypt and further East. However, historians put this down to fantasy on Leonardo’s part.

The Taurus bull and Lion of Babylon

The shape of the dark rock that forms the back wall is a bellowing bull, its horns are represented as part of the roof’s rafters. The bellowing represents thunder, the horns, lightning (next to the light from the Star of Bethlehem breaking through the darkness). The bull is Taurus and another pointer to Leonardo’s travelogue and the mysterious draft letter letter to “the Decatdar of Syria, Lieutentant of the Sacred Sultan of Babylon” found in one of his notebooks, detailing his time spent in Armenia and describing the Taurus Mountains.

The dark rock also represents the sculpted Lion of Babylon that depicts a man pinned underneath (Leonardo). Its inclusion is another reference to Egypt but particularly to a part of Cairo at the time known as Babylon. The motif may also refer to the biblical “Babylon Captivity” of the Jews and so a symbol of oppression. Leonardo as the pinned man under the lion points to the polymath’s of oppression by the Florentine authorities and the likely false and malicious charge of sodomy made against him, hence his desire to leave the city when an opportunity arose and move to Milan. The mayhem and random slaughter of citizens following the assassination of Giluiano de’ Medici was another likely factor in Leonardo’s desire to leave Florence.

The Lion of Babylon, with a man pinned underneath

That Joseph is depicted leaning on the flat cap of Leonardo’s sculpted head, seemingly asleep, reinforces the dream and journey theme. After the departure of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intention to slay the new-born child, and that he should escape into Egypt. (Matthew 2 : 13-15)

Adding support to the premise that Leonardo is portrayed in his familar peaked flat cap as the Great Sphinx are the two tree trunks supporting the timbered roof of the building. They form the Roman numeral IV –four – and refer to a period in the Sphinx’s history and that of the short reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV.

It was Thutmose who, as a prince, was out hunting one day and decided to rest in the shade of the Sphinx which was buried up to its neck in sand. Wikipedia explains: “He soon fell asleep and had a dream in which the sphinx told him that if he cleared away the sand and restored it he would become the next Pharaoh. After completing the restoration he placed a stone tablet, now known as the Dream Stele, between the two paws of the Sphinx. The restoration of the Sphinx, and the text of the Dream Stele would then be a piece of propaganda on Thutmose’s part, meant to bestow legitimacy upon his unexpected kingship.” (Peter Clayton, Chronicles of the Pharaohs)

This propoganda theme likely mirrors the motive and steps taken by Lorenzo de’ Medici to enhance his reputation following the Pazzi consiracy. The de facto ruler of Florence soared in popularity among the people of the Republic after the brutal murder of his brother Giuliano.

Like the Sphinx, Leonardo’s head is buried from the neck down. The shadowed area falls behind the head of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He is also in a dream-like state and focused on the face of the Child Jesus. This particular feature is a defining link to Deiric Bouts’ painting of the Last Supper from which Botticelli has adapted features to include in his Uffizi Adoration. Bouts also included Thutmose IV and the Dream Stele and linked the pharaoh to the apostle Jude Thaddeus and the Image of Edessa, the so-called Mandylion. Botticelli makes the connection to the Last Supper painting and the raising of the Host (the time during the Mass when Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the Duomo) by identifying Lorenzo with Jude Thaddeus who is said to have brought the Mandylion (the cloth miraculously imprinted with the face of Jesus) to king Abdar of Edessa.

Comparing Lorenzo de’ Medici to the Apostle Jude Thaddeus in Diriec Bouts’ Last Supper

In icons of St Jude, one of his attributes is a flame around his head to indicate his presence at Pentecost. This is shown as a ‘tongues of fire’ symbol on the top of Lorenzo’s hat. Lorenzo is also draped in a cloak meant to represent the Shroud of Jesus on which the covered face of Christ is depicted. Notice also the features of the face and beard of the turbaned man to the left of Lorenzo’s hat, intended to match the profile of Jude in the Bouts painting. The fold on Jude’s left arm represents the head of the Sphinx while there is also a suggestion of the shrouded face of Christ on his back, similar to that shown on Lorenzo.

Leonardo da Vinci portrayed as the Great Sphinx

The stone carving of Leonardo is shaped as a double head. It may represent two aspects of Leonardo as well as the double-headed eagle, facing East and West, and perhaps a pointer to Leonardo’s flight frrom Florence to Milan as well as the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It’s just possible to make out the shape of an angel (above Cosimo’s head). This winged angel is also likely a reference to the ‘winged’ shape of a nemes crown, the striped extended head cloth worn by pharaohs. The left side head of the rock is formed from the other wing of the nemes.

Another link to Leonardo being portrayed as a sphinx was his fondness for composing riddles. The mythical Greek sphinx that guarded the city of Thebes would devour any traveller unable to answer its riddle. It was classed as female with the wings of an eagle and considered malevolent, while the Egyptian sphinx was portrayed with a man’s head and seen as benevolent.

The main profile of the sculpture shows Leonardo facing two figures connected with the East, the drooped head of Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli who escaped to Constantinople after assassinating Giuliano de’ Medici, only to be brought back to Florence and hanged while still dressed as a Turk. The other figure is the turbaned man alongside Leonardo, representing both King Agbar of Edessa and Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, who sanctioned the extradition of Baroncelli back to Florence. He also represents Epicurus, the Greek philosopher. More about him and his connection to the painting in a future post.

My next post will deal with how Leonardo and this particular section of Botticelli’s painting links to the Parnassus painting produced about 12 years later by Andrea Mantegna, and how it shows evidence which points to Bianca Giovanna Sforza as La Bella Principessa in the painting said to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

Mantegna’s masterpiece

La Bella Principessa part 03

“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.

(Top) Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna, Louvre, Paris
(Above) Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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)

Bianca Giovanna Sforza

La Bella Principessa part 02

La Bella Principessa. photo by Gianluca Colla

Bianca Giovanna Sforza was the illegitmate daughter of Ludovico Sforza and Bernardina de Corradis. Born in 1482 she was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes while suffering with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned.

Some six months later Ludovico’s wife Beatrice d’Este died after giving birth to the couple’s third child, a stillborn boy. Beatrice was 21.

Bianca and Beatrice had been close companions at the Milanese court. Following the death of Bianca in November 1496, Beatrice wrote to her sister Isabella d’Este:

“Although you will have already heard from my husband the duke of the premature death of Madonna Bianca, his daughter and the wife of Messer Galeaz, none the less I must write these few lines with my own hand, to tell you how great is the trouble and distress which her death has caused me. The loss indeed is greater than I can express, because of our close relationship and of the place which she held in my heart. May God have her soul in His keeping.”

Bianca was also known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband Galeazzo Sanseverino was a patron and friend of the polymath.

La Bella Principessa and the Botticelli connection

La Bella Principessa part 01

La Bella Principessa, private collection, attribution uncertain

This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, the illegitmate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508). Some experts attribute the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci. Others oppose the claim. Arguments for and against are presented at this Wikipedia link.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph published 12 April 2010, Richard Dorment wrote: “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.”

But what if there is such a document, one produced around the same time the portrait of Bianca Sforza was made, one that points to Leonardo as the artist, and to this day has remained unnoticed by both camps, even though it is in the public domain?

I propose that there is such a document. It is linked to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and I shall present details in future posts.