The fate of Leonardo da Vinci’s treasures.
Abandoned, destroyed & forgotten
Painting was only one of the many facets of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius. His ability to draw earned him, as a teenager, a place in a master’s workshop, then the only way to learn artistic skills. The assistants worked for their master, and Leonardo quickly surpassed his, who “would never touch colours again, angered that a young boy understood them better than he did”.
At that time a new painting technique started to be used, oil paint. Mixing pigment with egg yolk, as was done until then, meant the paint was opaque, while mixing pigment with oil allowed the paint to be transparent. Leonardo would elevate this effect to unprecedented levels, with a technique called sfumato, like a ‘transparent smokiness’, or in his own words, “light and shade blend without strokes and borders looking like smoke”.
Leonardo painted by repeatedly adding layers of translucent light greys until their accumulation made the greys darker, shading swirling-like smoke on flesh and clothing, thereby creating volume with an extraordinary smooth transition between light and shadow. Using modern technology to uncover the secrets of the sfumato only emphasised the formidable skill needed : the layers are so thin that even added dozens of times, the resulting sfumato is thinner than a hair.
Moving to Milan, Leonardo, in search of employment, sent a letter to the Duke, enticing him with a promise of “unfolding to you my secrets”. In ten points he listed the impressive things he could do: “remove water from moats; methods for destroying every fortress; cannon with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; mortar; catapults…” Lastly, for “time of peace”, number ten, “I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another”. Then sculpture, and finally, “in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be”.
Busy with hydraulic engineering projects and decorative sets for weddings, Leonardo also received commissions for paintings, an image of the Virgin for a church, and the wall of a dining hall for a monastery. The Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper proved that, indeed, he could paint “as well as any other”.
Leonardo’s inquisitive mind wandered into the fields of arithmetic, music, sculpture, architecture, machinery, astronomy, poetry, human anatomy, and painting… so much so that “his brain never stopped imagining such things”. The drawback to such a fertile imagination was a reputation for rarely completing his works since “he set about learning many things and, once begun, he would then abandon them”.
And in using sfumato he chose a time-consuming process, while the speed of his brain compared to the speed of his hands meant that “he began many projects but never finished any of them, feeling that his hand could not reach artistic perfection in the works he conceived, since he envisioned such subtle, marvellous, and difficult problems that his hands, while extremely skilful, were incapable of ever realising them”. Many reasons why there are so few Leonardo paintings in existence today, over fifteen.
What of the rest? There are in his biography descriptions of paintings, as well as clay and bronze statues that are missing, but nothing is known of their fate. And Leonardo spent more time sketching and writing on paper than painting. His boundless curiosity meant that he sketched a vast number of studies on notebooks and loose papers. Leonardo listed fifty notebooks in his possession “25 small books, 2 major books, 16 larger books, 6 books on parchment, 1 book with green suede cover”. Only half survive today. In a note he wrote of having composed “hundred and twenty books” of anatomy while admitting being hindered “by want of time”. In his last years, a visitor described Leonardo had “written a treatise on anatomy… written of divers machines, and of other matters” amounting to “an endless number of volumes”.
In his will, Leonardo gave the numerous books to his assistant Melzi, who brought them back to Italy, where visitors described a “courteous old man who treasures these papers and conserves them along with a portrait of Leonardo to honour his happy memory”.
Melzi faithfully preserved the papers, aiming to organise Leonardo’s thoughts, scattered on thousands of pages, to publish what would have been entire treatises on painting, anatomy and mechanics. Such a task though that even with two assistants, it was left unfinished. All the papers were in turn bequeathed to Melzi’s son. But a witness described “his heirs, having very different taste and occupations, neglected these treasures” so much so it was easy for someone to “take anything he wanted” that is “thirteen volumes”. Having convinced the thief to return the books, the witness tried to bring them to Melzi “who was very surprised of the predicament I brought unto myself, gave them to me while saying that he had of the same painter many other drawings that remained abandoned in trunks in the villa’s attic”.
When people realised how easy it was to acquire Leonardo’s works they “took drawings, anatomical models, and many precious relics of Leonardo’s workshop”.
The unwanted books and drawings taken represent the majority of Leonardo’s surviving treasures, only to be left to humidity, insects or fire. The estimate of the loss of Leonardo’s papers is as high as 80%… Maybe what his biographer said about the man “at his death, the loss was incalculable” also applies to his work.
How much of an impact did Leonardo’s work really have? Even while having produced so few paintings, and having a Last Supper that started to decay the moment he left Milan, his treaty on painting published one century after his death, his influence on art was immense. In his lifetime they were some who realised the value of his scientific pursuits, stating “if they be published, (it) will be profitable and delightful”. But with the majority of his papers left to rot, the little that endured scattered, and many pages taken apart to cut drawings from text, his achievements remained in obscurity. They had no effect on the progress of medicine or science. Only since the end of the 19th century, when the surviving papers started to be organised and published, was the scale of Leonardo’s achievements finally understood.
One has to wonder how profitable his works could have been, as “had Leonardo contributed nothing more to engineering than his plans and studies for the Arno Canal, they alone would place him in the first rank of engineers of all time”?
Beyond Leonardo’s lost books is one of the most ambitious works of the Renaissance, an immense equestrian statue. Leonardo said “I firmly and without doubt believe that neither Greece or Rome ever saw its like in size”. All his studies of horses, the completion of a colossal clay model was for nothing : the bronze meant for the statue was instead used as cannons to stop the French invasion, and the invaders used the horse as target practice. His painting of Leda is also lost, possibly destroyed because of its nudity.
Leonardo spent his last years in comfortable retirement at the court of the King of France Francis I. Young Francis was so impressed that he “could never believe there was another man born in this world who knew as much as Leonardo, and not only of sculpture, painting and architecture, and that he was truly a great philosopher”. Legend has it that Leonardo expired in the King’s arms.
Five hundred years later, we certainly should not only ponder at the rarity of his works, but wonder if indeed there has ever been a man in this world like Leonardo.
This is an extract of the forthcoming book ‘Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of human genius by intolerance and greed’, an engaging journey through 5,000 years of creation and destruction.
The words into quotes are from Leornado’s notebooks, his letter to the Duke of Milan, and extracts from Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’. Also words from Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona as to how beneficial the books would have been. For the theft the words are from Ambrogio Mazenta. Lastly, the words of French King Francis are from Benvenuto Cellini, and the quote about Leonardo’s engineering importance from ‘William Barclay Parsons, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance’.