Between the completion of the Last Supper and Leonardo's departure from Milan, there remained rather less than two years, and we know that these were largely filled with official employments. In the summer of 1498 Leonardo was given a property outside the Porta Vercellina of Milan, and at the same time he was appointed ingegnere camerale. The Duke anticipated the coming French invasion, and much of Leonardo's time was occupied in planning defences for Lombardy. Of his work as an artist, two undertakings date from these years.
The first is his co-operation with Luca Pacioli in his celebrated work Divina Proportione. Pacioli, one of the greatest mathematicians of his time, was a native of Borgo San Sepolcro, and had been the close friend of Piero della Francesca, who had included his portrait in an altar-piece now in the Brera. He may well have assisted Piero with his book on perspective. Pacioli is therefore a link between the two greatest painter-theoreticians. He arrived in Milan in 1496, and we know from Leonardo's notebooks that the two men were soon on intimate terms. By 1497 they were collaborating on the Divina Proportione. We can trace Leonardo's influence in some parts of the text, and there is no doubt that he drew the figures which illustrate the 1509 edition: Pacioli says so more than once.
These figures consist of capital letters, constructed on a system of proportion, and a number of more elaborate figures of solid geometry. That Leonardo should have devoted so much time to these abstract designs is an instance of how much his creative gifts were dominated by his intellect. I said, when referring to his architecture, that for a Tuscan he was unusually devoid of the sense of abstract harmonies. Yet Pacioli, who had known Piero della Francesca, is never tired of praising Leonardo's skill. With Piero proportion was a function of the spirit, with Leonardo of the intellect. Piero could not have drawn two lines without giving them some harmonious relationship, just as Leonardo was almost incapable of drawing a line which had not the quality of organic life. Yet by sheer intellectual power, Leonardo was able to conquer this branch of art which was naturally foreign to him.
During these years the only commission of which we can be certain is the decoration of the Castle. This must have been done in the summer of 1498, for on 23 April the scaffolding was removed from the Sala delle Asse. There is evidence that Leonardo was engaged in decorating another room, the Saletta Negra, but the Sala delle Asse is the only one which has survived. I say survived--but that is not the right word, because when the vault was freed from plaster in 1901. the remains of Leonardo's fresco was entirely and thickly repainted by an artist named Bassani, who was so proud of his feat that he recorded on a tablet in the middle of the ceiling that he had done it to honour his wife. He may have followed the original lines of the design, but he has completely lost the feeling of light and substance which is characteristic of Leonardo's drawings of plants, and is still perceptible in the damaged paintings of garlands in the decorative lunettes above the Last Supper.
In covering his ceiling with branches of foliage, Leonardo was following an ancient motive. The invention goes back to classical times and is known in many mosaics, but it must have appealed equally to the Gothic mind, being in effect no more than an extension to the ceiling of the Verdure tapestry. Leonardo has given this conventional design his own character: indeed, it would be impossible to think of a decorative scheme more in keeping with his love of density--his horror vacui--and its accompanying hatred of abstraction. He has made the branches of his trees perform an elaborate system of interlacings similar to the well-known engravings of knots inscribed Academia Leonardo Vinci. But in spite of their artificial twistings we may be sure that Leonardo's deep knowledge of plant life gave to the original decoration a real character of growth and movement, and that feeling for the texture of fruit and leaves which we find in Correggio's decorations in the Camera di San Paolo.
During these years Ludovico was becoming a less satisfactory patron and we have several fragmentary letters of complaint from Leonardo. "I am aware that your Excellency is far too occupied for me to venture to remind you of my small matters, and that the arts have been put to silence." Ludovico was indeed occupied. In spite of his frenzied diplomacy the French entered Milan on 5 October 1499, and Ludovico, after regaining the city for a few months, was defeated and sent to France as a prisoner. In December 1499 Leonardo left Milan with Luca Pacioli to seek employment elsewhere.
Like a true humanist he recognised no loyalties and knew no native country but his own genius. He had been intimately connected with the Sforzas for eighteen years, but when Ludovico achieved his short-lived return to Milan, Leonardo made no effort to rejoin him. In this he showed his political sense: Leonardo's most intimate friend, Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara, the architect who had loyally returned to support Ludovico, was hung, drawn and quartered by Trivulzio. Meanwhile Leonardo, who had contrived to make friends with the French, was intriguing with Trivulzio's lieutenant, Ligny, for the return of his property in Milan, and in the following year would have been certain of employment by the French, had he not already been employed by Cesare Borgia.
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