Even Leonardo da Vinci Sometimes Had to Sing for his Supper
April 22, 2016
To all those creative artists out there: whenever I feel weary about how much “pounding the pavement” is required to spread the word about a novel and to generate sales after working so hard to write it in the first place, I remember that truly great artists like Leonardo had to do the same thing.
In Leonardo’s day, visual artists and poets were particularly revered, but they still worked on commissions from patrons they needed to court and then please. Run by merchants and guilds, Florence was ameritocracy that also happened to be the cradle of the Renaissance. In a city with the culturally sophisticated and ambitious Medici family as defector rulers, the best way to rise in prominence socially and politically was to commission art.
As a result, in 1472, Florence boasted 54 marble workshops and 30 master painters. Donatello, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Perugino, Piero di Cosimo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci all walked these streets during Ginevra’s lifetime. So there was much opportunity for an artist, but also a great deal of competition. An artist had better deliver projects or there were other very gifted and perhaps hungrier craftsmen waiting to take his place. Gifted in so many arenas, Leonardo was not good about keeping his focus or sticking to schedule.
Scholars are uncertain why Leonardo left Florence, but sometime between Sept. 1481 and April 1483 he moved to Milan to work for Ludovico Sforza, “Il Moro.” He may have annoyed enough patrons that he was dogged by a reputation of not finishing contracts. He may have fallen out of favor with Lorenzo the Magnificent, the philosopher-statesman who nurtured and funded so many of Florence’s writers and artists. Lorenzo did not commission Leonardo the way he had his master-teacher Verrocchio. Lorenzo also did not include Leonardo in the group of artists he “lent” to Rome as part of his signature cultural diplomacy with competing city-states. Leonardo had also been arrested on sodomy charges a few years earlier, and while he avoided a prison term, Leonardo seemed to retreat a bit afterward. Little is known of his whereabouts in those years.
Interestingly, he may have been sent by Lorenzo to Milan as a musical emissary. Leonardo arrived in Sforza’s court with a lyre sporting a carved horsehead that Leonardo had carved himself. He literally sang his way into the court’s life. And then he promoted himself to Sforza as also being a military engineer, architect, water engineer, and sculptor (an irony considering his ultimate dislike of that art form).
By the 1490s, Leonardo was a favored presence in Milan’s castle, entertaining the duke and his entourage with music, witticisms, stories, and in philosophic debates. He also designed extravagant set pieces for dramas and musical performances and festivals presented to Il Moro’s court to commemorate special occasions. He designed a myriad of weaponry.
For 17 years, Leonardo enjoyed financial security in Milan. This court appointment took away the pressures of depending on commissioned works. So he also had more artistic freedom—allowing him time to invent and investigate, beginning to keep his extensive notebooks. It was one of his most productive times artistically as well. During this period he designed his colossus horse and painted the Last Supper.
But in 1499, the French king invaded Milan. Leonardo resurfaced in in Venice a few months later as a military adviser. The city was threatened with attack from the Turks and Leonardo devised a way of using the River Isonzo as a watery defense barricade. A year later he was back in Florence, and by 1502 he was working as a military architect, engineer, and mapmaker for the infamous Cesare Borgia, the general taking the Pope’s armies on a mission to expand the papal states.
Leonardo returned to Florence the next year, at first to oversee an attempt to divert the Arno in such a way as to choke off the city of Pisa. During this stay Leonardo may have tested a flying machine at nearby Mount Ceceri, above Fiesole. It was also a time he focused on human anatomy, dissecting cadavers in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. He traveled back and forth between Florence and Milan until 1513 when he went to Rome.
Finally, in 1516, at 64-years-of-age, Leonardo once again received a steady and generous court position. This time from the French king Francis I, who was probably greatly impressed by the mechanical lion Leonardo had been commissioned to create as a gift to him from the Medici family the previous year. Francis gave Leonardo a home at the chateau of Cloux and 2,000 ecus soleil for two years, as he worked on a new palace for the king. Leonardo passed away three years later amid an adoring French court and was buried in Amboise.
While we all might worry about whether Leonardo enjoyed the security he deserved, what most concerned him was learning, growing, finding an understanding of the world and its workings, and creating. These Leonardo quotes may summarize best his attitude regarding salaries and such:
“Learning acquired in youth arrests the evils of old age; and if you understand that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so conduct yourself in youth that your old age will not lack for nourishment.”
“He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year.”