Biographies & Memoirs

Autumn in Imola

As the summer drew to a close, Il Valentino established his makeshift court at Imola, a small fortress-town on the old Roman road between Bologna and Rimini. It would be his headquarters for the winter; if the fortress could be made impregnable it might be his permanent headquarters. There are ground-plans of the fortress in Leonardo’s papers, and some written measurements: the moat was 40 feet deep, the walls 15 feet thick – vital statistics in the Borgian world of shoot-outs and showdowns.45

Here, in the early afternoon of 7 October 1502, arrived Niccolò Machiavelli, sent once more to parley with the renegade Duke. A bony, cadaverous-looking man with a laconic smile, Machiavelli – Il Machia, as his friends called him, punning on macchia, a blot or stain – was not yet famous, hardly yet a writer, but the precision and perspicacity of his mind were already valued. He was thirty-three years old, well educated and well connected, but not rich. He had ridden out the stormy years of the Medici downfall and the Savonarolan theocracy, and from 1498 was Secretary of the Second Chancery, an influential if unglamorous post with a salary of 128 gold florins. Chancery officials were essentially civil servants, appointed by the Signoria to provide a continuum of political and diplomatic activity while the elected officials came and went. Machiavelli was the man behind the scenes, the speech-writer, the spin-doctor, and increasingly the political troubleshooter. He had acquitted himself well in negotiations with Louis XII in 1500, seeking continued French support in the draining Florentine war against Pisa; his reflections on that six-month diplomatic mission are found in The Prince.46

Machiavelli remained three months at the court of Il Valentino. His clipped dispatches from Imola are punctuated by pleas to be recalled to Florence. He had accepted the mission reluctantly, expecting it to be dangerous, uncomfortable and ultimately pointless. The Duke, as he always pointed out, was a pure man of action: it was one of his sayings that ‘talk is cheap’ – and talk was all Machiavelli had to offer him. He was Florence’s orator or ambassador, but he had been given no commission to sign any treaty. His requests to be recalled were ignored. The Signoria wanted him there, reporting back about ‘the hopes the Duke has’. His feisty young wife, Marietta, whom he had married the previous year, complained bitterly of his absence.

Even as he arrived in Imola, news was coming in of armed rebellion in Borgia’s dominions by an alliance of malcontent captains – among them Vitellozzo Vitelli, who had fomented the revolt in Arezzo – and ousted local potentates like the Duke of Urbino. Borgia laughed off their council of war at Magione: ‘a congress of losers’. He said, with that raw eloquence which Machiavelli catches so well, ‘The ground is burning under their feet, and it needs more water to put it out than they can throw.’47 On 11 October he struck, sacking the fortress of Fossombrone which the rebels had captured a few days earlier. Leonardo, as the Duke’s military engineer, was almost certainly present. In a note on fortresses in the Codex Atlanticus he writes, ‘See that the escape passage does not lead straight into the inner fortress, otherwise the commander will be overpowered, as happened at Fossombrone.’48

At Imola is played out one of those piquant little cameos of history: three great names of the Renaissance holed up in a fortress on the windy plains of the Romagna, each seemingly watching the others with a vigilance that is part fascination and part nervy suspicion. It seems, at any rate, that Machiavelli and Leonardo struck up a cordial relationship: we will find them linked in certain Florentine projects over the next year – projects that suggest that Machiavelli valued Leonardo’s skills as an engineer and an artist. Of their particular dealings in Imola we know nothing: Leonardo’s name occurs nowhere in Machiavelli’s dispatches. This silence may be diplomatic: Machiavelli knew his dispatches would be intercepted and read before they left Imola, and may have wished not to compromise Leonardo’s somewhat delicate position as a Florentine in Cesare’s service. But perhaps after all Leonardo is in there, incognito. Thus Machiavelli writes on 1 November that, having talked to a secretary of Borgia’s, one Agobito, he then verified what he had gleaned by talking ‘to another who is also acquainted with the Lord’s secrets’. And on 8 November he speaks of an anonymous ‘friend’ whose analysis of Cesare’s intentions is ‘worthy of attention’. It is plausible that in both cases his unidentified source is Leonardo.49

Of Leonardo’s presence in this heady atmosphere of power-politics we have the beautiful product of his map of Imola. Highly detailed and delicately coloured, it has been called ‘the most accurate and beautiful map of its era’. A page of rough sketches for the map survives, much folded, with measurements written down in situ as he paced out the streets of Imola with this paper in hand.50


The map of Imola, c. 1502.

Leonardo’s maps are the true fruits of these relentless travels of 1502. There is a beautiful bird’s-eye map of the Val di Chiana (plate 17).51 The central area, between Arezzo and Chiusi, can be correlated pretty closely with a modern map; away from this area the measurements are more hypothetical. (The long lake at the centre of the map, the Lago di Chiana, has since been drained.) The verso of the map has the remains of sealing-wax round the edges: this would have been used to fix the map to a wall or board. The names of the villages and rivers are written in conventional left-to-right script, again suggesting the map was for presentation. It may well have been made for Borgia, though there is an alternative possibility that it was worked up a couple of years later in connection with plans for canalizing the Arno. A rough sheet at Windsor shows a bird’s-eye view of the central area, listing the distances between various towns in the vicinity; these distances have been crossed through, suggesting that Leonardo referred to them when constructing the finished map. Another sheet shows the roads and streams around Castiglione and Montecchio in great detail, with some distances marked in braccia that were presumably paced out by Leonardo himself.52

A larger-scale map, oriented the same way as the Val di Chiana map (with north to the left), shows the whole river-system of central Italy. It includes the Mediterranean coast from Civitavecchia to La Spezia, a stretch of about 170 miles, and extends across to the Adriatic coast at Rimini. It has been shown that Leonardo’s model was a manuscript map of c. 1470 then in the library at Urbino, but he has transformed it by using contour shading, abandoning the ‘molehill’ convention of Quattrocento mapping and giving a sense of objectively recorded terrain.53 Leonardo would have been able to study the map in Urbino in late July 1502. This reinforces the idea that these maps were created in the context of his Borgia work, and some of them may have been actually done at Imola.

Machiavelli sickened. On 22 November he wrote from Imola, ‘My body is in a bad way after a heavy fever two days ago.’ On 6 December he asked once more to be recalled, ‘to relieve the government of this expense, and me of this inconvenience, since for the last twelve days I have been feeling very ill and if I go on like this I fear they’ll be bringing me back in a basket’.54

Borgia negotiated with the rebels: an illusory reconciliation. Then, on 26 December, Machiavelli reported grimly from Cesena, ‘This morning Messer Rimino was found lying in the piazza cut into two pieces; he still lies there, so that everyone has had an opportunity to see him.’ Beside him lay a bloodied knife and a wooden wedge, as used by butchers to split open the carcasses of animals. Rimino or Ramiro de Lorqua was not a rebel, but a loyal thug whose reign of terror in the Romagna had made him unpopular and hence expendable. ‘The reason for his death is not yet clear,’ Machiavelli added, ‘except that such was the pleasure of the Prince, who shows us that he can make and unmake men according to their deserts.’

On the morning of 31 December Borgia entered Senigallia. There, under pretence of reconciliation, he met with the ringleaders of the rebellion: Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, the Orsini brothers. But the meeting was a trap. The rebels were seized and bound; their foot-soldiers camped outside the town-walls were disarmed. That evening Machiavelli scribbled a dramatic dispatch: ‘The sack of the town continues although it is now the 23rd hour. I am much troubled in my mind. I do not know if I can send this letter having no one to carry it.’ As for the rebels, ‘It is my opinion they will not be alive tomorrow morning.’ He was partly right: Vitellozzo and Oliverotto were strangled that night; the Orsini brothers lived a couple of weeks longer and were strangled at Castel del Pieve.55 Was Leonardo also present at Cesena and Senigallia as his patron dispensed justice with the butcher’s knife and the garrotte? It is not unlikely.

In the first weeks of 1503 Il Valentino took Perugia and Siena. Brief comments in Leonardo’s notebook suggest he was with him in Siena. He admires an enormous church-bell, 10 braccia in diameter, and bids himself remember ‘the way it moved and how its clapper was fastened’.56 Again his notes are tangential, serene, escapist: he is looking the other way. On 20 January, during the siege of Siena, Machiavelli gratefully welcomed a new Florentine envoy, Jacopo Salviati, said his goodbyes to Valentino and Leonardo, and set off back to Florence, convinced that he had seen a new model of political leadership – decisive, lucid, ruthless, and quite divested of morality and religion. Ten years later, in The Prince, he wrote of Borgia:

If I summed up all the actions of the Duke I would not know how to reproach him. On the contrary it seems to me he should be put forward, as I have done, as a model for all those who have risen to empire by fortune and the arms of others. For with his great spirit and high intention he could not have conducted himself otherwise.57

Borgia proceeded to Rome in February 1503, to confer with his ailing father, Pope Alexander VI. Leonardo may have gone with him, but if so the visit was short, as he was back in Florence by the beginning of March.58 The decision to quit Borgia’s service – if it was his – was a wise one. Borgia’s fortunes had reached their zenith, for with the death of his father on 18 August 1503 his true power-base of papal influence was shattered. The new pope, Julius II, refused to recognize his title of Duke of Romagna and demanded the restitution of his dominions. There followed a saga of arrest and escape, an anti-papal venture in Naples, and in 1507 an early death in Spain, in action as a mercenary, at the age of about thirty.

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