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It’s interesting to see, when you go even slightly beneath the surface and investigate any subject, how uncertain most of our knowledge is. Experts dispute, while the ignorant are certain. This is true of studies of Leonardo and his achievements. Seeking to know more of the man and his work, to try and come to terms with my enormous admiration, I found events I had no idea of, and influences completely foreign to my idea of Renaissance Italy. And the idea that there was much more to discover.
Yet all I had done was to look again at a film I had previously watched, and pull some books off the shelf on Leonardo I had previously read. Unfortunately my favourite work on Leonardo, Renato Castellani’s 1971 Life of Leonardo da Vinci, probably the best television film I’ve ever seen, is now only available in a vandalised edition released by Questar, which cuts all the footage of Giulio Bosetti’s brilliant commentary. Pity, as Castellani was one of the best directors of 1970s Italy, which was having a golden age of great productions, with film makers like Antonioni and Fellini producing masterpieces. Castellani won awards for both script and direction. For Questar I suppose it was just a documentary on Leonardo.
The BBC series I watched told me things I didn’t know about Leonardo’s inventions. The biography by Robert Payne told me about Leonardo’s parentage and the oriental art he would have seen in Florence. The biography by Antonia Vallentin was responsible for the admiration I felt. And the biography by Charles Nicholl made me dispute allegations of his homosexuality, and told me about his library. These books I’ve cited in my previous essay on Leonardo.
The birth of Leonardo
Leonardo’s father Piero is in some ways easy to understand. He was a go getter, a hard, domineering man who usually got his own way, and pursued his own advantage any way he could, without many scruples. He became very wealthy and very influential in the affairs of Florence. He did legal work for many religious establishments in the city.
But what did he think about Leonardo, the child he had fathered on a girl called Caterina outside wedlock? Most of what we know about Leonardo’s birth comes from Piero’s father Antonio, also a notary. Antonio records the birth itself:
“A grandson of mine was born, son of Ser Piero, my son, on April 15, Saturday, at three in the night [three hours after nightfall]. He was named Lionardo. He was baptised by the priest Piero di Bartolomeo”. Antonio then mentions those present at the baptism.
“Papino di Nanni Banti
Meo di Tenino
Piero di Malvolto
Nanni di Venzo
Arrigo di Giovanni the German
Monna Lisa di Domenico di Brettone
Monna Antonia di Giuliano
Monna Nicolosa del Barna
Monna Maria, daughter of Nanni di Venzo
Monna Pippa di Previcone.”
Antonio’s document was dated 1452, and sent to the state archives in Florence. Perhaps it was a kind of census document. Antonio would have been following an official ruling in registering the birth. Note that at this stage there was no mention of illegitimacy. The birth must have taken place at Caterina’s family’s house, and may have been a shock to them. At the local church baptism all those present are identified precisely, by reference to their parents and husbands. There was nothing underhand about the baptism. Except that there was no mention of the mother, who apparently wasn’t present at the baptism. At this stage Piero may have been expecting the dowry to come through and the marriage with Caterina to take place later that year. Perhaps the pre nuptial sex was meant to force Caterina’s family’s hand.
Antonio, and Piero, were celebrating the birth of a son into the family. Piero was eventually to marry four times and have 12 children, but not another child after Leonardo for 20 years. His last child was born when he was in his 70s. He needed an heir, a notary to augment the family’s prosperity. It wasn’t, apparently, to be Leonardo.
Instead, Piero married a young girl later in 1452, Albiera, and presumably expected to have children by her, including a son and heir. In the year of Leonardo’s birth, Piero had first acknowledged him through the baptism, and then attempted to set him aside as son and heir by marrying Albiera, and apprenticing Leonardo later to a painter. Albiera died childless in 1464, and Piero married a second time, to Francesca, in 1465. Francesca died childless in 1475. During this time Leonardo had left his grandfather’s house in Vinci, and had moved to the painter Verrocchio’s house in Florence, where he was to learn the arts of painting and all the associated skills that went with it, and then had set up his own studio, perhaps with help from Piero, perhaps not.
Something must have happened in 1452. Piero was accepting of his son Leonardo at first, and yet, later that same year, determinedly set himself apart. Leonardo was at first, ‘premature’, and only later that year became ‘illegitimate’. Piero, besides providing Leonardo with a profession, did little for him afterwards. He remained aloof from Leonardo for the rest of his life. Given his stern, domineering nature, this might have been all to the good for Leonardo.
It looks like a village feud to me. Piero would be the kind to get involved in a vendetta. He had probably made a deal with the family of Caterina, and they welched on it. He did not forgive this. It would have meant a monetary loss, perhaps a large dowry he expected and which they could not afford. Perhaps they pretended to be wealthier than they were, hoping to share some of his wealth. Piero would not forgive that.
So in some ways, although acknowledged, Leonardo was fatherless. But he seems to have been surrounded by step fathers. It was said that his grandfather Antonio loved him, and Antonio’s other son, Francesco, was his friend and companion while he lived in Vinci. Francesco was not a notary; Antonio says he “lived at home and did nothing”, perhaps an indication he was of studious habits. Leonardo’s step mother, Albiera, then childless and fated to die later in childbirth, was said to love the infant Leonardo passionately. His own mother Caterina was the wife of another, and could not have had much to do with the growing child.
Five years after the document Antonio submitted in 1452 another of Antonio’s yearly returns to the state has survived, for 1457. In it he lists the inhabitants of the house he lives in: he and his wife, Piero and his wife Albiera, his son Francisco, and his grandson Leonardo., “illegitimate, born of [his son Piero] and Caterina, now the wife of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci”. So we discover the name of Leonardo’s mother, and his status as, by now, illegitimate.
This Achattabriga was a well off craftsman and land owner of Vinci, not as prosperous as Piero’s family, and his marriage to Caterina tells us that she was of a respectable family, and that he was satisfied with the dowry they provided, unlike Piero. Piero had rejected her, her family and his son with her. Antonio may have had to insist he continued to care for Leonardo in his household. There might have been conflict between Antonio, who wanted an heir, and the vindictive Piero, who wanted nothing to do with Caterina or her family or son.
The only other thing we know about Caterina is that she was probably a beautiful woman. Leonardo was well known in his youth for his exceptional physical beauty, and he wouldn’t have inherited his looks from his father, portraits of whom survive showing a forceful, fleshy face with prominent nose and chin and harsh expression. The wife of Achattabriga, presumably still Caterina as there is no record of a second marriage for him, survived into middle age and had several children. In 1490 Achattabriga died. In 1495 Leonardo paid for a lavish funeral for a Caterina.
We tend to imagine the past in terms of ‘eras’ or ‘epochs’, when traffic was one way only. The Renaissance, for example, was a time, we believe, when Greek culture was disseminated over Western Europe, especially Italy, largely because of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and gave rise to a new birth of the arts which signalled the beginnings of modern European history and the eventual rise of the nation states we still see today. Things were more complicated.
We know, in another part of our brain, that the Mediterranean Sea was a powerful medium that connected all the cultures gathered on its shores. The ancient Greeks founded colonies in France, the Vikings raided and carved out a kingdom in Sicily, the Crusades sent hundreds of thousands on a guided tour of the Holy Land. One of the chief agents uniting this whole area after the Roman Empire had fallen in the West and begun its long struggle with the Turks in the East was Islam, which formed an immense empire on the east, south and western shores of the Mediterranean.
The Italians, especially the Venetians, Genoese and Florentines, grew rich on trade with Islam. And one of the most lucrative commodities was slaves.There were big slave markets on Chios, and in Kaffa, and they eventually sold more slaves to Florence than to any other Italian city. The trade began about 1366 and was still in full force in 1453, almost a hundred years later. Dealing with followers of Islam was not a problem as long as a profit could be made. The new upper classes thriving on trade also invented banking, and accounting and bookkeeping as well. “Almost all the slaves in Italy were domestic servants and most wealthy [households] in most cities had at least one” says Liana Cheney at Lowell. In 1452 the Pope authorised ‘Christians’ to practise slavery, to enslave people of all nations who were not Christians.
In 1440 the eastern Mongol Empire had fragmented, and many slaves sold in the European markets now included Mongols captured in wars with peoples they once ruled. These were not followers of Islam, but Buddhists. They travelled with their families and their household goods to be sold. These included images of the Buddha, and often a Chinese inspired landscape scroll. So it was that as Leonardo became a guest in the homes of noble and wealthy Florentines in the 1470s, he saw Tartar slaves, and, put on show as exotica by the slaves’ owners, their scrolls and images. Perhaps Leonardo’s vegetarianism, pacifism and sexual purity began at this time as he conversed with Buddhists? He saw for the first time the enigmatic smile of the Buddha, and the misty mountain vistas beloved of Chinese painters.
Shen Zhou, Poet on a Mountain c. 1500. Painting and poem by Shen Zhou:
“White clouds encircle the mountain waist like a sash,
Stone steps mount high into the void where the narrow path leads far.
Alone, leaning on my rustic staff I gaze idly into the distance.
My longing for the notes of a flute is answered in the murmurings of the gorge.”
So some of the remarkable things about Leonardo’s art become more understandable. Techniques such as sfumato, in which tones and colours shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms, are a characteristic of classical Chinese painting, such as the one by Shen Zhou seen here. The enigmatic smile, the half closed eyes and the curly hair are seen in countless images of the Buddha . And something like these characteristics are evident in the strikingly original art that Leonardo produced after his apprenticeship with Verrocchio had ended about 1470, when he moved among the wealthy merchants’ houses in Florence no doubt seeking a commission. Because he was so influential a painter it is all the easier to forget how Leonardo shocked and distressed his contemporaries by the revolutionary nature of his art, as astoundingly original as his soon to be amassed scientific ideas explored in the Notebooks. The peculiar eyes of the women he painted were just the result of a Florentine fashion. At the end of the 15th century aristocratic women just had to shave off their eyebrows and eyelashes, and pluck out the hair at the centre of their hairline. Don’t ask.
Leonardo and his library
Printed books were available in Italy from about the mid 1460s, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s epoch making invention, though for many years collectors still preferred hand painted and written manuscripts. It is remarkable that Leonardo was among the first Italians to collect a personal library. He was a self taught man, and always enquiring all his life after knowledge, so maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
Among the books and booklists mentioned in the Notebooks from 1480 onwards, reading or buying lists, there are over 100 titles. The books are referred to indirectly, by subject or part of title. Some may be manuscripts, some manuscripts of Leonardo’s himself, but the books listed here have been identified as ones that Leonardo almost certainly read. There were probably many more. Leonardo read in Italian, French, and attempted to follow Latin works.
•A popular Latin grammar by Aelius Donatus. Leonardo was teaching himself Latin.
•A 1476 Italian translation of Pliny’s Natural History
•A 1482 poem called Morgante maggiore by Luigi Pulci, a friend of Lorenzo de’ Medici
•De Re Militari by Roberto Valturio, 1483, both the Latin original and Italian translation, source of ideas for weapons
•Livy’s Histories in Italian translation
•Works of Ovid in Italian translation
•Les Fables de Ésope (in French) of 1484
•A book on Plato, Ficino’s 1481 Theologia platonica. In Latin, and central to the Medici Platonist school at Florence
•Mandeville’s Travels (in Italian)
•The ‘father of bookkeeping’ and Leonardo’s close friend, Luca Pacioli’s Summa arithmetica of 1494
•Alberti’s (another great ‘Renaissance Man’) De re aedificatoria of 1485 (in Latin), on architecture
•Rithmi by Gasparé Visconti of 1493, a poet perhaps friendly to Leonardo
•Bernardo Rucellare’s De urbe Roma of 1471. Rucellare was another friend of Leonardo
•Luca Pulci’s poem Giriffo calvaneo of 1479
•The Works of Roger Bacon
•On the Formation of the Human Body in the Womb by Egidius Romanus, published Paris 1515
•and editions of Petrarch, and of Dante, whom Leonardo quotes many times in the Notebooks.
There are many more titles in the Notebooks, for those interested in the reading habits of a genius, at a time when reading, and books, were not that common. Technical works on goldsmithing, on precious stones, mingle with classical authors, works on architecture and Roman history, popular poems Leonardo might possibly be expected to have read by the authors he knew personally, romances of chivalry, works on mathematics and bookkeeping, anatomy and grammar.
Leonardo’s choice of books was of course limited, and he veered from subject to subject when acquiring books partly as new titles were released in which he was interested. But Leonardo was self taught, and it shows. The so called autodidact exhibits lack of structure and organisation in their knowledge, has large gaps in what they know about any subject, and sometimes misses essential foundational training. Leonardo lacked an understanding of Greek and Latin. Latin especially was the language of learning. Petrarch for example published many titles in Latin. The lack of Latin was also a social mortification for Leonardo, a sign of lack of formal education that came from his illegitimate birth. Was he compensating for that by studying so much?
Leonardo can be seen in these aspects of his life as a man eager for new experience and new knowledge. He had a thirst for it. He unerringly picked up on innovations of the day. New books, but also the new handgun, incorporated straight away in his plans of military machines. Interesting techniques he wanted to use, like perspective, from northern European paintings, and sfumato from Oriental art he had seen. Leonardo’s skill in assimilating new techniques in turn made him the most influential painter of his day.
The ability to integrate new knowledge is one of the signs also of extremely high intelligence. We all built up a world of knowledge and experience, and the more we do so, the harder it gets to easily integrate new experience and knowledge into what we already have. It all has to be reorganised, which takes considerable intellectual flexibility. Most of us don’t have this flexibility and can’t do it. It’s one reason why as we age we get more conventional and rigid in our ways. Leonardo could integrate new knowledge to an unprecedented degree. He was still doing it at the time of his death, yet another way he was exceptional.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.