Leonardo: Lost Works and a Return to Florence (Part III)

Leonardo – Lost Works and a Return to Florence (Part III)

During the period that Leonardo was painting the Last Supper, Fra Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar and mathematics professor at the University of Padua, accepted an invitation from Duke Ludovico Sforza to work in Milan. Pacioli is known as the father of accounting and bookkeeping and was the first person to publish a work on the double-entry system of book-keeping on the European continent. In 1497, he met Leonardo and the two recognized one another as kindred spirts. During their time together, the friar taught him higher mathematics; in return, Leonardo drew the illustrations for Pacioli’s book, ‘Divina Proportione.’

At the end of 1499, Pacioli and Leonardo were forced to flee Milan when King Louis XII of France seized the city and drove out the Sforzas. As the new century dawned, Leonardo, along with his assistant Salaì and Fra Pacioli, had headed east to Mantua and the court of the young marchioness, Isabella d’Este. Leonardo had known her for several years; her sister was married to Ludovico Sforza. Isabella was strong-willed, extremely cultured and very rich. The Italian branch of the family ruled Modena, Ancona and Reggio, while the German branch of the family produced one Russian Czar, one Holy Roman Emperor and the House of Hanover (the British royal family). He was to be her guest in Mantua and Leonardo’s portrait drawing of Isabella was done almost immediately upon his arrival. It is a finished drawing done in black chalk, red chalk and yellow pastel. Leonardo never delivered the portrait to her and for centuries it remained one of his lost works. In 2013, a portrait was found in a vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Authorities were notified of its existence when a buyer offered 95 million euros for the painting. It was soon back in Italy, undergoing analysis. After more than three and a half years of scrutiny, the results strongly suggest that the painting is the long-lost portrait of Isabella d’Este. Analysis and speculation continue. The portrait is painted on canvas, rather than poplar, the wood favored by Leonardo for his paintings, leading some authorities to doubt that it is by the hand of the master.

Leonardo did not stay long in Mantua. He continued on to Venice in late February 1500. During his brief sojourn there, he met with the Senate and offered plans to strengthen the defenses along the Isonzo River (northeast of Venice). Although he received a commission, his stay in Venice lasted only a month. Soon, he was on the move again, with Pacioli and Salaì in tow.

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By April they were back in Florence. Leonardo and his household were guests of the Servite monks at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata. There, the master was provided with a workshop where he executed a drawing in charcoal and black and white chalk. It was drawn on eight sheets of paper glued together. Because of its large size and format, the drawing is presumed to be the foundation for a painting. The drawing depicts the Virgin Mary seated on the knees of her mother, St. Anne, while holding the Child Jesus, as Jesus’ young cousin, St. John the Baptist, stands to the right. The work was so admired people flocked to see it.

In Cesena in 1502, Leonardo entered the service of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. His role was that of military architect and engineer. With his patron, Leonardo traveled throughout Italy. What won over Borgia was Leonardo’s creation of a town plan of Imola. In a day when maps were rare, upon seeing the drawing of the Borgia stronghold, Leonardo was hired on the spot as chief military engineer and architect. Later in the year, Leonardo produced a map of the Chiana Valley in Tuscany, to give Borgia an overlay of the land to be used in conjunction with a dam project. It seemed as though there were no projects that did not fascinate the genius.

Leonardo returned to Florence, where he rejoined the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. He spent two years designing and painting a mural of The Battle of Anghiari. The painting depicted a complex tangle of warriors and horses. It was, however, to face the same destiny of many of Leonardo’s works, to remain unfinished.

The Battle of Anghiari is sometimes referred to as The Lost Leonardo, which some experts believe to be hidden beneath later frescoes in the Hall of Five Hundred (Salone dei Cinquecento) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Its central scene depicted three men riding raging war-horses engaged in a battle for possession of a standard.

During the painting process, an ingenious scaffolding was used to raise Leonardo to the needed height for finishing the upper portion of the center section of this work. But though the scaffolding was a brilliant design, the painting methods chosen were absolutely disastrous. Leonardo painted a beautiful fresco, but it was very delicate, due to the experimental technique used. After a few months, the artist stopped the work, frustrated by his failure. Despite severe damage, The Battle of Anghiari was displayed for several years in the Palazzo Vecchio, allowing many artists to see and reproduce it. Of no less consolation is the fact that Michelangelo designed its companion piece, The Battle of Cascina, which also went unfinished.

A painting called The Tavola Doria depicts the central scene of the fresco. Critics are divided about whether it was painted by the master or if it is a copy by a 16th century Florentine painter. The painting disappeared following its sale in 1939 at an auction by the Doria family, who had owned it since 1621. The work was bound for Naples, but disappeared. It turned up in 2008 in a vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Given the discovery in 2013 of the portrait of Isabella d’Este in a vault in the same city, one can only wonder what other priceless works of art are tucked away in vaults.

In Part IV, Leonardo begins a commission that he will continue to work on for the rest of his life.

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