Leonardo da Vinci: Part 5 – His Final Years


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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The red-chalk drawing in Turin, claimed to be a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-1515). In April 2009, the American art historian, Louis A. Waldman, specializing in the Italian Renaissance made pathetic headlines when he publicly presented documentary evidence revealing that some time before July 1505 Leonardo da Vinci painted a portrait of his beloved uncle, Francesco da Vinci. Waldman argued that this red-chalk drawing — one of the most famous drawings in the history of art due to its frequent misidentification as a self-portrait — is likely to be a preparatory study for the lost painting of Leonardo's uncle.
The red-chalk drawing in Turin, claimed to be a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-1515). In April 2009, the American art historian, Louis A. Waldman, specializing in the Italian Renaissance made pathetic headlines when he publicly presented documentary evidence revealing that some time before July 1505 Leonardo da Vinci painted a portrait of his beloved uncle, Francesco da Vinci. Waldman argued that this red-chalk drawing — one of the most famous drawings in the history of art due to its frequent misidentification as a self-portrait — is likely to be a preparatory study for the lost painting of Leonardo’s uncle.

Due to the political instability in Milan, Leonardo left for Rome accompanied by Melzi and Salai on September 24, 1513.

Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, was an Italian nobleman, the third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. One of his elder brothers Giovanni de‘ Medici was now Pope Leo X. Appointed Gonfaloniere of the Holy Church, Giuliano had heard much of Leonardo. Meeting Leonardo for the first time, Giuliano welcomed him with open arms like two friends meeting after years of separation. He gave Leonardo lodgings in Fort Belvedere, with a studio and several rooms for his companions.

An anonymous copy of the lost portrait of Giuliano de' Medici by Raphael.
An anonymous copy of the lost portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici by Raphael.

Giuliano and Leonardo became close friends. They discovered in each other the same interests – love of mathematics, mechanics, and nature, and they shared similar thoughts and feelings. Guiliano’s protection gave security to Leonardo and new impetus to carry on with his interests.

Like his father, Giuliano too was a friend and protector of many artists in Florence and Rome. He immediately commissioned two paintings, a Leda and a portrait of a Florentine woman.

In the Vatican Leonardo enjoyed a period of tranquility with a decent salary and no major obligations. He drew maps, studied ancient Roman monuments, started a project for a large residence for the Medici in Florence. He conducted experiments in human flight. From big models Leonardo went on to create tiny ones. He experimented with gliding flights and the curvature of the wings by modelling miniature birds in thin wax.

In Rome, Leonardo found an old acquaintance, Donato Bramante, the Italian architect, who introduced Renaissance architecture to Milan and the High Renaissance style to Rome. He also found the Pope’s favourite, Raphael, the Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance holding court like a prince.

There was no formal scientific research in the Middle Ages. Unable to suppress the writings of the ancient Greeks, the Roman Catholic Church allowed the teaching of ancient Greek science as long as it did not conflict with the Holy Bible and its own teachings. The scholars had to accept the observations of nature passed down from Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. The Church would not permit free inquiry. It imprisoned, tortured, and executed truth-seekers. Leonardo was a truth-seeker, and this fact would not endear him to the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, Pope Leo X prohibited Leonardo from performing dissections and autopsies. Thus, ended Leonardo’s study of the human body.

Giuliano de‘ Medici died prematurely on March 17, 1516 (aged 37), and Leonardo felt that he had no friends in Rome to protect him, not even the Pope.

King Francis I of France by Jean Clouet.
King Francis I of France by Jean Clouet.

King Francis I of France, a patron of the arts, had earlier invited Leonardo to Amboise. So, Leonardo left Italy to spend the last three years of his life in France accompanied by Melzi and Salai. King Francis provided him the Château du Clos Lucé, then called Château de Cloux, as a place to stay and work.

The king treated Leonardo as a member of the nobility and not as an employee of the royal house. He arranged an annuity of 700 gold scudi to be paid to the elderly artist, to relieve him of any shadow of worry about money. In exchange the young King asked only friendship. The King often went to Cloux to visit Leonardo or sent a carriage to bring the aged artist to his castle.

In the autumn of 1516, Leonardo was not yet 65, but looked much older like an ancient prophet. From 1517, onwards Leonardo’s health started deteriorating. Even when his right arm was paralyzed,  he still worked with his left hand. He made ​​sketches for urban projects, drainage of rivers and even decorated for the holiday palace. He even conceived the idea of prefabricated houses.

The French greeted Melzi as an “Italian gentleman living with master Leonardo,” but accepted the 36-years-old Salaì, only as a “servant”. A dejected Salaì parted from Leonardo and left France in 1518. In reality, he understood that the young Melzi had taken his place in the heart of the Maestro.

The Death of Leonardo da Vinci by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1818.
The Death of Leonardo da Vinci by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1818.

Melzi remained in France with his master until Leonardo’s death at the Château du Clos Lucé on May 2, 1519.  According to a legend, King Francis I was at his side when he died, cradling Leonardo’s head in his arms

Upon Leonardo’s death, Melzi inherited the artistic and scientific works, manuscripts, and collections of Leonardo. Melzi then wrote a letter to inform Leonardo’s brothers. In this letter he described Leonardo’s love for him. He described his master’s feeling towards him as “sviscerato e ardentissimo amore” meaning “passionate and ardent love”.

Returning to Italy, Melzi played the role of a guardian of Leonardo’s notebooks. He prepared Leonardo’s writings for publication in the manner directed by his erstwhile master.

Melzi married, and fathered a son, Orazio. When Orazio died on his estate in Vaprio d’Adda, his heirs sold the collection of Leonardo’s works.

It is commonly believed that Leonardo bequeathed to Salaì several paintings including the Mona Lisa. Salaì owned Mona Lisa until his death in 1525. In his will the Mona Lisa was assessed at 505 lire, an exceptionally high valuation for a small panel portrait at that time. Through his estate, many works, including the Mona Lisa, passed into the possession of Francis I of France.

Salaì returned to Milan to work on Leonardo’s vineyard, where his father worked before, and which his erstwhile master had passed on to him through his will.

On June 14, 1523, at the age of 43, Salaì married Bianca Coldiroli d’Annono.

Salaì died in 1524 as a result of a wound received from a crossbow in a duel. He was buried in Milan on March 10, 1524.

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Next → Leonardo da Vinci: Part 6 – Did He Believe in God?

← Previous – Leonardo da Vinci: Part 4 – His Two Favourite Pupils 

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