In his use of light and shade, Leonardo was the precursor of all subsequent European painting. Next to Giotto, it was he who put it on the road which led it away from the other painting styles of the world. After his time no one could go back to the clear tones of the old linear method-- the maniera secca e auda, as Vasari called it: no one, that is to say, until the youthful Ingres. This tendency in European art is usually called scientific; and we have seen that its inventor started from scientific premises. Yet, throughout, a strong contrast of light and shade has been employed, not as a branch of pictorial science but as a means of expressing an emotional attitude. Rembrandt is the least academic of our great painters. And Leonardo, in all his work, most of all perhaps in the Burlington House cartoon, uses chiaroscuro with a romantic intensity unrelated to the scientific diagrams of the Trattato.
Let us return to the year 1501 and to Fra Pietro da Novellara's correspondence. A few weeks later he writes that he had been introduced to Leonardo and had found him at work on a Madonna and Child for Florimond Robertet, secretary to the French King. He describes the picture with his usual accuracy, and from his description we can recognise it as a composition which has come down to us only in copies. The number of these copies which have survived--I have counted over twenty--show that it must have been one of his most popular pictures; and this is easy to understand.
For contemporary judgment was almost as fallible in the Renaissance as it is today, and Leonardo must have been what is called a difficult artist. Perugino was often spoken of as his equal, and sometimes preferred, and so we can imagine that Leonardo's patrons were relieved when he gave them something which rivalled Perugino in sweetness and which his earlier work had taught them to understand. As far as we can judge from the best copies, the Madonna of the Yarn Winder was close in style to the Paris Virgin of the Rocks. In spirit it is similar to the kneeling Madonna with the playing Children, and shows that Leonardo could still relax into the happy, tender mood of his first Florentine drawings. We must suppose that in execution it was similar to the Mona Lisa, subtler and solider than the early Madonnas, but of this our only evidence is a red chalk drawing at Windsor, a study from nature of the Virgin's shoulders, which combines firmness of structure with the delicate pearly quality of a Watteau.
This is the only other painting we hear of before 1502, for during these two years Leonardo was almost entirely given up to other pursuits. "He is working hard at Geometry and has no patience with his brush" writes Fra Pietro in one letter; and in the next "his mathematical experiments have so distracted him from painting that the sight of a brush puts him out of temper". Finally Leonardo took the same means of escape from painting as he had attempted twenty years earlier: he took service as a military engineer. This time his engagement was more serious. His new master was Cesare Borgia.
It is easy to understand how Leonardo was fascinated by this strange quintessential figure of the Renaissance, who embodied, with something of Leonardo's own intensity, the resolution which he himself lacked. His new allegiance absorbed all his energies. At the end of May he was in Piombino, making plans for draining the marsh; in June he was summoned by one of Cesare's captains, Vitellozzo Vitelli, to assist in the rebellion of Arezzo against his native Florence. To this end he made some of the beautiful maps now at Windsor. On 20 June he accompanied Cesare in his perfidious attack on Urbino; and there he remained for a month, on close terms, as it seems, with Vitellozzo and his mysterious leader. It was during this month that he first encountered another great personality of the Renaissance, with whom he was destined to become intimate, Niccolò Machiavelli, who visited Urbino as Florentine envoy in June.
In August Leonardo was in Cesena, where he probably designed the canal to Porto Cesenatico and left numerous plans for fortifying the city, some of which have survived; and at this time he received a patent from Cesare which refers to him as nostro prestantissimo et dilectissimo familiare architetto et ingegnere generale, and gives him absolute power to command and requisition what he needs for his work. In October he and his leader were shut up in Imola for several weeks, and it may have been in this rare period of enforced idleness that Leonardo was able to make the red chalk drawing now at Turin of Cesare's head from three different angles.
It shows his exquisitely curled, blond beard, which must have delighted Leonardo, and the curiously northern--we might say Düreresque--look which distinguished all the Borgias. Leonardo had always aspired to the life of action, and never before had it lain open to him with such liberality and such promise. But the life of action has its drawbacks. On 31 December 1502. Leonardo's friend, Vitellozzo Vitelli, was strangled, by Cesare's orders, and two months later Leonardo was back in Florence. The three years which follow were perhaps the most productive of his whole career as a painter.
Fra Pietro da Novellara, in one of his earlier letters, had described how "two of Leonardo's pupils were doing some portraits and he from time to time put a touch on them". This had evidently been his practice throughout the later part of his Milanese period and several portraits which puzzle connoisseurs, for example the man in the Brera inscribed Vita si scias uti longa est, must be the result of co-operation between pupil and master. In view of Fra Pietro's clear description of Leonardo's workshop method it is obviously difficult to say which pupil has been employed, especially since our evidence for their individual styles is extremely scanty.
As I have said Boltraffio is one of the few whose later work affords some clue as to what he may have painted when in Leonardo's studio. Marco d'Oggiono, whose name is linked with his as one of Leonardo's earliest recorded pupils, is known from two monstrous altar-pieces in the Brera, but we cannot trace his peculiarly revolting style in any product of Leonardo's workshop except in his Ascension of the Virgin in the Brera, which may derive in part from a design by his master. Although Vasari tells us that "there are certain works in Milan that are said to be by Salai, but which were retouched by Leonardo" nothing can be attributed to him on internal evidence, unless it be some childish scribbles on Leonardo's drawings.
In despair scholars have been forced to invent imaginary pupils--the master of the Archinto portrait, the pseudo-Boltraffio, the so-called Gianpetrino. Meanwhile, Leonardo's notebooks contain numerous records of pupils about whom we know absolutely nothing--Bartolommeo, Bonifazio, Lorenzo, Giulio, G aleazzo, Benedetto, Gherardo, Joatti, Arrigo, il Fanfoia. Leonardo's workshop in Milan must have contained craftsmen of all sorts to carry out his multifarious designs for the Sforzas, and many of the pupils mentioned in his notes were apparently machine-makers, locksmiths, glass-cutters, etc.
During his years in Florence a greater proportion of his pupils must have been painters, but with one or two exceptions like the Spaniard Fernando de Llanos, we cannot trace their subsequent work: and we must suppose that in Leonardo's studio, with the help and stimulus of the master, their work reached a level of attainment so high as to be unrecognisably different from their independent efforts.
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