Leonardo’s relationship with his father was always complicated. It is clear from fragments of his writings that he desired a closer relationship, but there was a distance beyond the miles that separated the two. An example is this translated fragment:
‘Dearest father, on the last day of last month I received the letter you wrote to me, which caused me in a brief space of time both pleasure and sadness: pleasure in that I learned from it you are well, for which I thank God and displeasure to hear of your troubles…’
The letter is respectful, if somewhat stiff and was never sent. On the back of the page is a drawing of the wing of a flying-machine. It is as though Leonardo forced himself to make the effort to contact his father and then a new inspiration occurred to him. Perhaps Leonardo composed and sent the letter at some other point. History shows no record of the correspondence, but the fragment tells its own story.
When Ser Piero da Vinci died on July 9, 1504, at the age of 78, he left ten sons and two daughters. Leonardo was the oldest and was illegitimate. As a result, he was the only one of the 12 who was left out of the will. It was his father’s final act of rejection. This resulted in an extended legal battle with his half-siblings over the estate.
In 1506, Leonardo was summoned back to Milan by Charles II d’Amboise, the acting governor for Louis XII of France. He commissioned Leonardo to design the gardens for his suburban villa. This was neither a great imposition nor a difficult commission. Many of Leonardo’s most prominent pupils and followers had worked with him in Milan, including Bernardino Luini, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono. The following year, Leonardo made another return to Florence to settle his uncle Francesco’s estate, which resulted in another legal battle with his siblings. During that stay, he accepted Count Francesco Melzi as an apprentice. Melzi would remain with Leonardo until his master’s death twelve years later.
While designing the gardens, Leonardo began to develop the concept of an equestrian figure for his patron. The beeswax sculpture called Horse and Rider, depicted d’Amboise mounted atop a horse and was intended to be used as a model for a life-sized funeral monument. The project was not completed, nor cast in bronze. The ten inch high wax maquette is now in a private collection. The significance of the wax sculpture is based on the lack of existent sculptures by Leonardo. It is known that he sculpted throughout his life, but rather than bringing life to marble, as was the case with Michelangelo, Leonardo preferred to cast in bronze, a very different and complex process in the 16th century. Often the maquette simply vanished, as little significance was paid to the preliminary model.
During this period, Leonardo did not paint. Instead he turned more and more to scientific observation. Many of Leonardo’s scientific studies were extensions of his interests as a painter. It was during this period that his research of anatomy was the most fully developed. Early Renaissance painters had attempted to render the human anatomy with accuracy, but Leonardo went far beyond any others, producing anatomical drawings that are still followed today.
Leonardo filled notebooks with data and drawings that reveal his other scientific interests: firearms, the action of water, the flight of birds, growth of plants and geology. Alternatively, he had little interest in theology, history or literature. All of his interests were concerned with the processes of action, movement, pressure and growth.
In 1512, the Sforza family regained control of Milan. Ludovico Sforza was long dead and his son Maximilian became the ruler. Leonardo decided not to press for the patronage of the younger Sforza and instead went to Rome, where the Medici family had established control in a significant way. Leonardo’s first patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent, had two sons in Rome, Giuliano de Medici, commander of the Papal troops and his brother, Pope Leo X. The relationship that Leonardo had with the Medici family was also a complicated one. Leonardo later wrote in the margin of a journal, “The Medici made me and the Medici destroyed me.”
Leonardo and his pupils Salai and Melzi resided in apartments in the Belvedere, a villa inside the walls of the Vatican. Leo X did not provide Leonardo with any commissions; it was Raphael who was the favored painter for the Pope. Instead, during his three years in Rome, Leonardo pursued architecture, hydraulics and the dynamics of mirrors. At this time, the Medici dynasty’s fortune depended largely on the dye industry and Leonardo attempted to fashion a parabolic solar reflector that would speed the boiling process essential to the making of dyes.
Although he was also worked on various architectural projects, Leonardo was bored and amused himself with pranks. During his evaluation of hydraulics, he studied water pressure using pig bladders and intestines. From there it was only a small step to creating what was perhaps the world’s first water balloon.
While in Rome, Leonardo completed his last major painting, Saint John the Baptist. It is one of his least famous paintings. Paradoxically, even as he was making perfect anatomical sketches in his notebooks, Leonardo made a significant anatomical error in the painting. St. John’s extended index finger has an extra joint, making the finger extraordinarily long.
In October 1515, King Francis I of France recaptured Milan. Two months later, Leonardo was present at the meeting of Francis I and Pope Leo X, which took place in Bologna. Within months, Leonardo’s patron, Giuliano de’ Medici died. With no other prospects, Leonardo accepted an offer by Francis I to become the Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King. It came with a generous stipend, as well as the use of the manor house, Clos Lucé, near the King’s residence at the royal Château d’Amboise. Leonardo left Italy, spending the last three years of his life in France, accompanied by his friend and apprentice, Count Francesco Melzi.
Within a year, Leonardo’s right hand became paralytic. He was still able to draw and teach, but his health declined and eventually, Leonardo became bedridden. The great master died at Clos Lucé on May 2, 1519 at the age of 67, likely as the result of a stroke. On August 12, Leonardo’s remains were interred in the Collegiate Church of Saint Florentin at the Château d’Amboise. Count Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving Leonardo’s paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salaì and his servant, Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo’s vineyards.
In Part VI of this series, we will look at the inventions of Leonardo.