Leonardo da Vinci: Part 3 – His Pupils


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Leonardo da Vinci - Self portrait
Leonardo da Vinci – Self portrait

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In 1482, Leonardo  da Vinci sent the following letter to Ludovico Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Leonardo. He claimed that he could create all sorts of machines both for the protection of a city and for siege:

“Most Illustrious Lord: Having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors in the instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened… to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets. I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable with which to pursue and defeat an enemy… I can also make a kind of cannon, which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail… I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages — either straight or winding — passing if necessary under trenches or a river… I can make armored wagons carrying artillery, which can break through the most serried ranks of the enemy. In time of peace, I believe I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings, both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another. I can execute sculpture in bronze, marble or clay. Also, in painting, I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be. If any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impractical to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make a trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.”

Leonardo’s letter earned him a commission from Ludovico Sforza to design an equestrian statue as part of a monument to his father Francesco I Sforza who died in 1466. It was an immense undertaking, intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.

Leonardo travelled to Milan and stayed with the de Predis brothers – Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis and Evangelista de Predis. Ambrogio was also a painter. Evangelista was a gilder and assisted painters in preparing the colours.

Ludovico Sforza employed Leonardo from 1482 to 1499. As a court artist, he also organized elaborate festivals.

Leonardo da Vinci's study of horses (1490)
Leonardo da Vinci’s study of horses (1490)

In 1482, Leonardo started the seemingly impossible task of creating a rearing horse over three metres high. Such a task had never been undertaken before. He did extensive preparatory work. He made numerous small sketches of horses to help illustrate his notes about the complex procedures for moulding and casting the sculpture.

In 1483, Leonardo da Vinci and Ambrogio de Predis were commissioned to execute the famous Madonna of the Rocks. Two versions of the painting exist—one in the Louvre (1483 – c. 1486), another in the National Gallery, London (1483 – 1508).

On April 25, 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scorlione and the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception approached Leonardo. They wanted him and the Predis brothers to create the painted panels for the altarpiece in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan. The contract referred to Leonardo as “Master”.

On April 25, 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scorlione and the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception approached Leonardo. They wanted him and the Predis brothers to create the painted panels for the altarpiece in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan. The contract referred to Leonardo as “Master”.

Because of the scale of works commissioned, at the court of Ludovico Sforza was large Leonardo had assistants and pupils in his studio to assist him. Leonardo’s pupils at that time were Marco d’Oggiono, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Ambrogio de Predis, Bernardino de’ Conti, Francesco Napoletano, and Andrea Solario.

Leonardo’s fresco of the Last Supper was an incredible piece of painting. Even before its completion word spread about it by the visitors to the church. It was completed by 1498. Leonardo’s experimental technique used for this work was a disaster. It left the mural as a sad ruin with peeling paint by 1517. Subsequent deterioration and the repeated restorations obliterated details and individual figures. Even then, the Last Supper still retains some of the authority which made it the most celebrated painting of its time.

Severe plagues in 1484 and 1485 drew Leonardo’s attention to problems of town planning.

By 1493, after many stoppages, Leonardo made a full-sized clay model of a horse for preparing the moulds for casting. Tons of bronze were needed to complete the horse.

Ludovico Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan.
Ludovico Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan.

On October 22, 1494, when the throne of Milan fell, Ludovico assumed the ducal title and received the ducal crown from the Milanese nobles.

In 1494, the new king of Naples, Alfonso, allied himself with Pope Alexander VI, posing a threat to Milan. Ludovico decided to fend him off using France, then ruled by the powerful Charles VIII, as his ally. He permitted the French troops to pass through Milan so they might attack Naples. However, Charles’s ambition was not satisfied with Naples, and he subsequently laid claim to Milan itself. Regretting his decision, Ludovico allied with the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. Unfortunately, his decision backfired and the Italian Wars broke out.

Ludovico made weapons from 80 tons of bronze originally intended for Leonardo da Vinci’s equestrian statue of his father.

In 1495, Ludovico managed to defeat the French at the Battle of Fornovo.

King Louis XII of France had a hereditary claim to Milan. His paternal grandmother Valentina Visconti was the daughter of Giangaleazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan. Hence, in 1498, he descended upon Milan. King Louis was successful in driving out Ludovico from Milan. Ludovico managed to escape the French armies and, in 1499, sought help from Maximilian.

When the French took Milan in 1499, the French archers used Leonardo’s clay horse for target practice. After the fall of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo left Milan. He returned to Florence in 1500, after brief sojourns in Mantua and Venice.

In February 1500, Ludovico returned with an army of Swiss mercenaries and re-entered Milan. Two months later, Louis XII laid siege to the city of Novara, where Ludovico was based. The French army also had Swiss mercenaries. In April 1500, the Swiss mercenaries hired by Ludovico chose to leave Novara as they did not want to fight their compatriots. They handed Ludovico over to the French. Deprived of all the amenities of life, Ludovico spent his last years in the underground dungeon at Loches, where he died on May 17, 1508.

In 1508, Leonardo returned to Milan and stayed there for the second time. During this time he had relationships with other Milanese artists along with his original pupils. Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma), Giovanni Francesco Rustici, Giampietrino, Cesare da Sesto and young Francesco Melzi were his pupils. Such artists as Bernardino Lanino, Cesare Magni, Martino Piazza da Lodi and Bernardino Luini are also regarded as members of the circle of Leonardo.

Nativity by various followers of Leonardo da Vinci - Salai, Cesare da Sesto, Fernando Yanez de la Almedina and Anonymous. (Source: Gytismenomyletojas - Wikimedia)
Nativity by various followers of Leonardo da Vinci – Salai, Cesare da Sesto, Fernando Yanez de la Almedina and Anonymous. (Source: Gytismenomyletojas – Wikimedia)

Many writers have emphasized that Leonardo took only handsome boys and youths as his pupils. He was kind and considerate towards them. He cared for them and nursed them himself when they were ill.

As he selected his pupils on account of their beauty rather than their talent, none of them — Cesare da Sesto, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Andrea Salaino (Salaì), Francesco Melzi and the others — ever became a prominent artist. Most of them could not make themselves independent of their master. They disappeared after Leonardo’s death without leaving any significant painting to the world of art.

Other painters such as Bernardino Luini and Giovanni Bazzi (Il Sodoma), who by their creations earned the right to call themselves his pupils, were probably not known to Leonardo “personally”.

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Next → Leonardo da Vinci: Part 4 – His Two Favourite Pupils

← Previous – Leonardo da Vinci: Part 2 – His Sexuality 

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