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.”

Leonardo’s ‘claw’… there’s more…

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)

A section of the engraving of Orpheus made by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505 which is said to resemble Leonardo da Vinci. Cleveland Museum of Art.

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.

A section of the red-chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino.

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.

A section of Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo, 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.

A section from The Angel and Tobias by Andrea del Verrocchio, 1470-75, National Gallery.

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!

A section from the fresco depicting the Trials of Moses, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

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.

Adoration of the Magi, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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.

Leonardo’s right hand is shown as clawing into the back Giuliano de’ Medici’s left hand.

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.

A section of the fresco, Death of Francis, 1483-86, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel.

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.

Parnnasus, 1497, Andrea Mantegna, Louvre, Paris

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.

Orpheus, but also representing Giuliano Medici and possibly the young musician Atalante Migliorotti who accompanied Leonardo when he moved to Milan.

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.

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.