Leonardo da Vinci and the Borgias

Jean-Pierre Isbouts
Leonardo da Vinci, Studies for various types of armament, ca. 1500–1502

We all know of the evil plotting of the Borgias, thanks to the Showtime series that aired between 2011 and 2013 (and is now available on Netflix). But few people know that Leonardo da Vinci was one of those who served in Cesare Borgia’s ranks as well. The son of Pope Alexander, Cesare was busy finishing what Pope Sixtus IV had begun in the 1470’s: namely, to expand the Papal territories into a vast central state, including Romagna, that would hold the balance of power between Milan, Venice and Naples. As part of this strategy, Borgia needed an engineer who could ford rivers with bridges, build siege engines to subdue recalcitrant towns, and fortify them once they’d been captured. Borgia must have met Leonardo in Milan, and probably saw some of the engineering drawings he’d created for Ludovico Sforza.

Leonardo leapt at the opportunity. For him, calculating the trajectory of a cannon ball (see drawing) was not much different than studying the movement of rivers, or tracing the fine veins on the leaf of an oak. And so, by the summer of 1502 Leonardo was hard at work, inspecting the fortifications of Piombino, drawing maps for Borgia’s captain Vitellozzo Vitelli, and assisting in the siege of Arezzo, which had revolted against the Borgias. It’s possible that during this siege, Leonardo studied the city’s famous Ponte Buriano across the Arno; some historians believe its slender design would return in the bridge in the background of the Mona Lisa.

From Arezzo, Leonardo moved with Borgia’s army to Urbino, which had recently submitted itself to the Borgias, and on to Pesaro, Rimini, and Romagna. We get the impression that Leonardo was enjoying himself as he traveled from town to town, all at his patron’s expense. Indeed, Cesare had provided him with an impressive passe-partout. It ordered all officers and commanders in Borgia-held territory to assist “our most excellent and dearly beloved architect and general engineer” in any such way as he saw fit to ask, at pain of “incurring our wrath” — as if anyone dealing with the Borgias needed to be reminded.

Leonardo da Vinci, Plan of the town of Imola, 1501

Among others, Leonardo produced a colored, bird’s eye view map of Imola as part of a crash effort to fortify the town. This is perhaps the first example in history of a city map, drawn from a high vantage point — a cartographic convention that is still true today.

Leonardo da Vinci’s work for the rapacious Cesare Borgia did not last long. Once the winter of 1502 set in, military campaigning petered out. Troops were sent into their winter quarters. But some of Borgia’s condottieri, including Vitelli and Orsini, were plotting an insurrection. After the brutal suppression of Romagna, they had enough of Borgia’s lust for blood. They prepared to take the field against him, but the cunning Borgia moved first. He lured them to his headquarters in Senigallia, just north of Ancona, with offers of gold and high rank — and killed as soon as they entered his chambers.

Apologists for Leonardo’s dealings with this unsavory character want to believe that the Senigallia Massacre was the final straw that persuaded Leonardo to resign his commission. It may be true; news of the murders rippled all through Europe, shocking many crowned heads. On the other hand, Borgia had by now achieved most of his objectives. He’d begun to contemplate the conquest of Tuscany — Leonardo’s native region. Perhaps he no longer had any need of the artist-engineer. Or perhaps he felt he could not trust Leonardo, not when the target was the city where his relatives lived.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Man (Cesare Borgia?), 1502

The only other thing that remains from this bizarre episode is Leonardo’s drawing of a bearded man, which may be the Borgia commander himself. And then, Leonardo decided to retrace his steps to his native city — to Florence. For more about the story, please visit visit www.YoungLeonardo.net and http://themonalisamyth.com/.

Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Written by

National Geographic author, historian, and filmmaker, writing about things that lift our spirits and move our hearts.

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