Biographies & Memoirs

‘Companions in Pistoia’

It was perhaps convenient, in the wake of the Saltarelli affair, that Verrocchio should have important works afoot in the city of Pistoia. On 15 May 1476 – precisely during that edgy period between accusation and acquittal – he won the commission to produce an enormous marble cenotaph in Pistoia cathedral in memory of Cardinal Niccolò Fortaguerri. There were disputes – the Consiglio of Pistoia had voted 300 florins for the work; Verrocchio wanted 350. In early 1477 Piero del Pollaiuolo submitted a model which the Consiglio was disposed to accept, but the dispute was arbitrated by Lorenzo de’ Medici, who decided in favour of Verrocchio.119

Around the same time, Verrocchio was commissioned to produce an altarpiece in memory of a former Bishop of Pistoia, Donato de’ Medici, a distant relative of Lorenzo’s. This altarpiece, with a Verrocchiesque Madonna and Child flanked by St Donatus and St John the Baptist, was painted by Lorenzo di Credi – it is his first securely dated work. It was substantially under way by 1478, but once again there were financial disagreements and it was not finished until about 1485. There are strong signs that Leonardo was involved in the original conception of this altarpiece. A small preparatory study in tempera for the figure of St Donatus (the namesake of the Medici bishop whom the altarpiece commemorates) has recently been proposed as his. There is a silverpoint drawing of St John the Baptist at Windsor which has strong similarities with the St John in Credi’s altarpiece.120 And there is that small Annunciation in the Louvre, which was originally one of the predellas (the narrow painted panels at the bottom) of the Pistoia altarpiece, and which is demonstrably based on the composition of Leonardo’s Annunciation. It is sometimes said that the predella version is also by Leonardo, but it is more likely to be by Credi working under Leonardo’s supervision.

These pictorial links suggest Leonardo’s involvement in the early stages of the Pistoia altarpiece. He was by now the most accomplished painter in Verrocchio’s studio, and it is natural to find his junior colleague Credi working under his supervision. Leonardo would also have been involved in the early stages of the Fortaguerri cenotaph, and there is a terracotta model for the monument in the Victoria & Albert Museum which some believe to be partly his work. These Pistoia projects of c. 1476–7 would have offered Leonardo a welcome change of scene in the aftermath of the Saltarelli affair. Pistoia was a town he knew: in fact he had family there – his aunt Violante had married a Pistoiese. It was just the kind of pleasant provincial backwater to which a young man might retreat – to which he might be dispatched by his employer – while the storm of scandal blew over back in Florence.

Some confirmation of this is found on the same sheet of notes and drawings which contains that amorous reference to Fioravanti di Domenico. At the bottom of the page is a fragmentary sentence. The beginning of it is torn away; what remains is the phrase ‘e chompa in pisstoja’ – ‘and companions in Pistoia’. (Chompa is a contraction of compare, an affectionate word meaning a comrade or buddy.) Another fragment on the page bears the date 1478. Sometime before this, we infer, Leonardo had made some friends in Pistoia. It is possible that Fioravanti was himself one of them; another may have been the Pistoiese poet Antonio Cammelli, who can be discerned in Leonardo’s company a couple of years after this. This hard-to-read scribble is further evidence that Leonardo took the opportunity to put some space between him and Florence in the period after the Saltarelli scandal.

A few miles west of Pistoia stands the little hilltop village of San Gennaro, with its Romanesque pieve, or parish church, founded by Neapolitan refugees fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius in the early sixth century. Leonardo certainly knew the village, for he marks it on one of his maps of central Tuscany, connected with a project to canalize the Arno river via Pistoia and Serravalle.121

Inside this church, on a low pedestal by the west door, is a small terracotta statue of an angel. Ignored for centuries, it was recognized about fifty years ago as being ‘of the school of’ Verrocchio, and is now accepted as being entirely by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci (Plate 8). It is a beautiful piece, alert and full of movement. Some parts are modelled with precision, others with a note of carelessness and speed which is more typical of a bozzo, a rough model, than of a finished sculpture. The angel’s right arm is an unmistakable echo of the Annunciation angel, and the long curling hair is a Leonardo trademark. I am struck by the wonderful realism of the right foot, extending slightly over the pediment – the bossed knuckles, the well-worn sandal, the downward curl of the little toe. The pose of the angel is echoed in some figures on a page of Francesco Ferrucci’s sketchbook – the same sketchbook which has that drawing of the model for Verrocchio’s David; the figures are not by Leonardo, but there is a line of writing on the page which seems to be his.

Nothing is known of the provenance of this piece. It was certainly at San Gennaro by the eighteenth century: its first appearance in the records is on 31 July 1773, when a workman’s ladder fell on it and broke the upper part into several pieces. It was painstakingly restored by a local man named Barsotti. A thin crack like an accident-scar is still discernible on the angel’s forehead. The traces of paint – yellow, green and red – which can be seen on the sculpture are probably the restorer’s, but may indicate an original colouring from which he was working: in other words it was originally a polychrome sculpture, as was conventional in church statuary when the material was terracotta or wood.122 It remains a mystery how a sculpture by Leonardo da Vinci comes to be standing in an unregarded corner of a small country church near Pistoia. One answer might be that it has been here from the beginning – that is, from the time it was created, in about 1477, by a young Florentine artist temporarily holed up in the area and glad for a small local commission, glad for the respite of the green Tuscan hills.

On an April day in 1477 Leonardo turns twenty-five. I imagine him staring at his face in the mirror – an action whose complex optometrics he will later puzzle over under a rubric beginning, ‘Let a–b be a face which sends its simulacrum to the mirror c–d.’123He wonders how much he likes what he sees. He is no longer, by the standards of life expectancy in Quattrocento Florence, quite a young man. He has in some measure become what he will always be.

To others that face in the mirror was one of great beauty and translucent intelligence. The early biographers are unanimous on this. Paolo Giovio, who had known him personally, said, ‘He was by nature very courteous, cultivated and generous, and his face was extraordinarily beautiful.’ A French writer at the court of Louis XII, Jean Lemaire, speaks of Leonardo’s ‘supernatural grace’ – this is in a poem published in 1509, and is probably also a first-hand impression.124 The Anonimo Gaddiano says, ‘He was very attractive, well-proportioned, graceful and good-looking,’ with beautiful hair, arranged in ringlets, ‘down to the middle of his chest’. None of these sources refers to the long beard which is such a feature of the mythos, and which is probably a late addition to the Leonardo look.

Vasari is insistent to the point of hyperbole. Leonardo was a man of ‘outstanding beauty’ and ‘infinite grace’ – ‘He was striking and handsome, and his great presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul… He owned nothing, one might say, and he worked very little, yet he always kept servants and horses.’ If Vasari were writing today he might have summed up that ‘great presence’ which could lift people’s spirits, that effortless grace with which ‘he commanded everyone’s affection’, as ‘charisma’. Vasari also presents Leonardo as a man of great physical strength and dexterity: he was ‘so strong he could withstand any violence; with his right hand he could bend the iron ring of a doorbell, or a horseshoe, as if they were lead’. One has to put some of this down to Vasari’s heroizing tendency; there are echoes here of Leon Battista Alberti’s alleged athletic prowess, which should also be taken with a pinch of salt. It is a trope, a rhetorical expression of Leonardo as all-round superhero. It perhaps suggests Vasari’s desire to rectify an overtone of effeminacy in the earlier biographers’ descriptions of Leonardo’s beauty.

Whether or not he could bend horseshoes with his bare hands, the consensus is that Leonardo was a handsome, tall and imposing figure, a fine horseman, a tireless walker. He was also, we know, a snappy dresser – something of a dandy. His hair is carefully coiffed. He wears rose-pink tunics, fur-lined coats, jasper rings, boots of Cordova leather. There is about him a touch of fastidiousness: ‘Take fresh rosewater and moisten your hands with it, then take flower of lavender and rub it between your hands, and it will be good.’125 In one of his comparisons between the painter and the sculptor he pictures the latter sweating and dirty with labour, ‘his face smeared with marble dust so he looks like a baker’. The painter, by contrast, works ‘at ease’; he is ‘well dressed’; he ‘moves a light brush dipped in delicate colours’ and ‘adorns himself with the clothes he fancies’.126

But we cannot understand this rather showy young man without seeing also the strains of uncertainty and loneliness and dissatisfaction in the face that looks out from the mirror, the sense of himself as an outsider: illegitimate, unlettered, sexually illicit. These moods will be concealed more and more hermetically in an aura of aloofness. They are glimpsed in scattered fragmentary phrases of his manuscripts – little chinks of darkness: ‘If freedom is dear to you, do not reveal that my face is the prison of love…’127

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