Biographies & Memoirs

Penguin walking logo

Part Seven

Return to milan 1506–1513

The eye as soon as it opens sees all the stars of the hemisphere. The mind in an instant leaps from east to west.

Codex Atlanticus, fol. 204v-a

The Governor

In late May 1506 Leonardo received the grudging permission of the Signoria to leave Florence for Milan. In a document notarized on 30 May he undertook to return within three months, on pain of a fine of 150 florins. His guarantor was Leonardo Bonafé, superintendent of the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova where his savings were held: Leonardo’s bank manager.1 This is the tone of the times in the Soderini government. In the event Leonardo would not return for fifteen months, and then only because of a family dispute.

The French governor of Milan, Charles d’Amboise, was no doubt keen to attract him north again, but the ostensible reason for Leonardo’s departure was the continuing contractual disputes over the Virgin of the Rocks. This painting had been troublesome ever since its delivery to the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in about 1485, and according to the supplica lodged by Leonardo and Ambrogio de Predis in about 1492 it had still not been properly paid for. The original painting (the Louvre version) seems to have left Italy in 1493, having probably been bought by Ludovico Sforza and given by him to Emperor Maximilian, and at some point after this Leonardo and Ambrogio (but mostly Ambrogio) began work on a substitute copy for the Confraternity. This secondVirgin of the Rocks (the London version) was delivered to the Confraternity perhaps before Leonardo’s departure from Milan in 1499, or perhaps by Ambrogio sometime after that. The latest date for the delivery would be 1502, for in March 1503 Ambrogio lodged another supplica, addressed to Louis XII of France, now the de facto ruler of Milan, complaining once again that he and Leonardo were owed money. The king ordered a judge, one Bernardino de’ Busti, to look into it. The case wallowed in the bog of Italian litigation for three years, but in the arbitrato handed down in April 1506 the judgement went against the painters. The central panel of the altarpiece was adjudged to be ‘unfinished’ – that, at least, is the usual meaning of imperfetto, though it is possible that it means here ‘not good enough’, which in turn would probably mean ‘too much Ambrogio and not enough Leonardo’. At any rate Leonardo is considered the key to resolving the matter, and the court orders him, in absentia, to complete the painting within two years.2

It was this situation, presumably communicated to him by Ambrogio de Predis, which precipitated Leonardo’s request the following month to be given leave from his duties in the Palazzo Vecchio to travel up to Milan. Contractual language was something that the Florentine authorities could understand. But beneath this runs a deeper theme of restlessness, which is in part the old theme of Leonardo’s difficult relationship with Florence. Much had changed in his life since he first left for Milan nearly a quarter of a century previously, but one catches an echo of that earlier departure. In 1482 he left behind him an unfinished masterpiece – the Adoration – and a somewhat lurid homosexual reputation. In 1506 he leaves on a note of dispute and distrust over the Anghiarifresco, and perhaps with a first inkling of its technical problems; also, probably, the failure of the flight from Monte Ceceri. These echoes are recurrences: soured relations, abandoned projects, irresolution, escape.

Leonardo arrives once more in Lombardy with a sense of relief and release, but different this time in his status: his arrival is eagerly anticipated by the French masters of Milan. He seems to have had an affinity with the French. He had dealt with them amicably enough when they swept into Milan in 1499, and had apparently offered his services to Count Ligny. By 1501 he was painting the Madonna of the Yarnwinder for the French courtier Florimond Robertet. Perhaps the affinity was simply that the French appreciated him, far more – he might have felt – than did his Italian patrons, with whom he had a kind of hot–cold relationship which always seemed ready to founder into tensions and impatience. A particular instance of their appreciation was King Louis’s desire to remove theLast Supper so that he could take it to France; however, as Vasari drily comments, ‘its being done on the wall made the king give up his desire, and it remained among the Milanese.’

Leonardo was warmly received by the governor, Charles d’Amboise, Comte de Chaumont – the ‘high-spirited’ count, as Serge Bramly calls him, for the chroniclers tell us he was ‘as fond of Venus as of Bacchus’.3 D’Amboise was thirty-three years old. The portrait of him by Andrea Solario was painted around this time, and is very Leonardesque with its slight contrapposto. It shows an intelligent, concentrated face, with a large nose noticeable even in full face: un homme sérieux. He was a tremendous admirer of Leonardo, and a few months later wrote in exalted terms: ‘We loved him before meeting him in person, and now that we have been in his company, and can speak from experience of his varied talents, we see in truth that his name, though already famous for painting, has not received sufficient praise for the many other gifts he possesses, which are of an extraordinary power.’4


Andrea Solario, portrait of Charles d’Amboise, c. 1508.

Leonardo was his honoured guest at the castle, in the rooms of which were many memories of days and nights in the Sforza court. In a later letter he asks about lodgings in the city, ‘not wishing to trouble the Governor further’,5 which perhaps also means not wishing to be quite so closely billeted on him – Leonardo always needed space. But for now there is the energy of novelty, and talk of grand new projects – in particular of d’Amboise’s plans for a summer villa outside the Porta Venezia. It was planned for a site between two small rivers, the Nirone and the Fontelunga, there to blend pleasingly and pastorally into the natural forms of the landscape. Leonardo’s notes and sketches show everything carefully geared to the pleasure and delight of the master of the house – porticos and loggias, and big airy rooms opening on to the sumptuous pleasure-gardens. Even the stairs should not be too ‘melancholic’ – in other words too steep and dark. Leonardo envisages a wonderful, Arabian Nights garden of sweet-smelling orange- and lemon-trees, and a bower covered over with a fine copper net to keep it full of songbirds, and a babbling brook with its grassy banks ‘cut frequently so that the clearness of the water may be seen upon its shingly bed’ – one thinks of the river-bed in the VerrocchioBaptism of Christ – ‘and only those plants should be left which serve the fishes for food, like watercress and suchlike’. The fish should not be eels or tench which muddy the water, nor pike which will eat any other fish. A small canal would flow among the tables, with flasks of wine cooling in the water. The pièce de résistance was a little mill powered by water but with sails like a windmill:

With this mill I will generate a breeze at any time during the summer, and I will make water spring up fresh and bubbling… The mill will serve to create conduits of water through the house, and fountains in various places, and there will be a certain pathway where the water will leap up from below whenever someone walks there, and so this will be a good spot for anyone who wants to spray water over women… With the mill I will create continuous music from various instruments, which will sound for as long as the mill continues to turn.6

This last device recalls the musical fountain he saw and heard at Rimini in 1502: ‘Let us create a harmony from the waterfall of a fountain by means of a bagpipe which produces many consonances and voices’, he wrote then, citing a passage in Vitruvius ‘about the sound made by water’.7 He brings a certain learnedness, a certain gravity, to these pastoral diversions.

Probably connected with the d’Amboise villa are some ideas for a ‘temple of Venus’ – what in later country-house contexts would be called a ‘folly’:

You will make steps on four sides, leading up to a naturally formed meadow on the summit of a rock. The rock will be hollowed out and supported at the front with pillars, and beneath it a huge portico where water flows into various basins of granite and porphyry and serpentine, within semicircular recesses; and let the water in these be continually running over. And facing this portico, towards the north, let there be a lake, and in the middle of it a little island with a thick shady wood.8

Here is Leonardo visualizing a landscape: the words sketching it in (‘let there be a lake’), the mind’s eye moving across the water to find the point of focus, the ‘little island’. On the verso of the sheet he pens a rather elegant piece about the dangerous allures of the goddess Venus:

To the south of the southern seaboard of Cilicia may be seen the beautiful island of Cyprus, which was the realm of the goddess Venus; and there have been many who, impelled by her loveliness, have had their ships and rigging broken upon the rocks which lie amid the seething waves. Here the beauty of some pleasant hill invites the wandering mariners to take their ease, where all is green and full of flowers, and soft winds continually come and go, filling the island and the surrounding sea with delicious scents. But, alas, how many ships have foundered there!

This very literary piece echoes a passage in Poliziano’s Stanze of 1476, thus recalling the Venusian imagery of the Medici giostra.9

Leonardo’s envisaging of Charles d’Amboise’s villa and gardens survives only in sketches and notes, but is full of exquisite detail and elegance. A sense of sheer pleasure – the wine cooling in the brook, the splashing of girls in their summer dresses, the sound of water ‘continually running over’ in the Venusian grotto – is only faintly shadowed by the idea that these pleasures, like all others, will inevitably lead to pain. It is hardly an idea original to Leonardo, but it seems to have been often on his mind: it is expressed rather intensely in his ‘Oxford allegories’ of the mid-1480s, and here again sensual pleasure brings doom and shipwreck, men ‘broken upon the rocks’ of carnal temptation.

Leonardo had promised to return to Florence, and the unfinished Battle of Anghiari, within three months – that is, by the end of August 1506 – but he did not want to go, and his new patron did not want him to go either. On 18 August Charles d’Amboise wrote courteously to the Signoria, asking them to allow Leonardo to stay a bit longer ‘so he can supply certain works which he has at our request begun’. This presumably refers to the summer villa. There may be other ‘works’ – canal engineering, for instance: a constant preoccupation in Milan – or there may be none, the phrasing a mere formula to imply worthwhile industry. The letter was backed up by a more formal missive, signed by the vice-chancellor of the duchy, Geoffroi Carles, requesting a one-month extension of Leonardo’s leave of absence, and promising his return to Florence on the due date ‘without fail, to satisfy Your Excellencies in all things’. On 28 August the Signoria wrote back granting permission – probably not because they wanted to, but because the French were too powerful an ally to fall out with over such matters.10 Florence was already mending fences with Pope Julius II, further to disputes between him and Michelangelo. Thus the great Clash of the Titans envisaged three years previously was dribbling off into small acrimonies.

The end of September came and went, and Leonardo did not return. On 9 October Gonfalonier Soderini wrote personally to Charles d’Amboise: a grim letter. He was angry with d’Amboise for ‘making excuses’, and even angrier with the absconded artist:

Leonardo… has not behaved as he should have done towards the republic, because he has taken a large sum of money and only made a small beginning on the great work he was commissioned to carry out, and in his devotion to Your Lordship he has made himself a debtor to us. We do not wish any further requests to be made on this matter, for this great work is for the benefit of all our citizens, and for us to release him from his obligations would be a dereliction of our duty.

The tone of this letter, as much as its statements, shows the gulf of antipathy between Leonardo and Soderini. Leonardo knows that the complaint against him is justified, but everything about the letter is calculated to annoy him – its suggestion of dishonourableness, its description of him as a ‘debtor’, the invocations of ‘duty’, the republican cant about the fresco being ‘for the benefit of all our citizens’.

From Milan a lofty silence, and then on 16 December Charles d’Amboise wrote to Soderini, promising that he would not stand in the way of Leonardo’s return, but taking the opportunity to rebuke the Gonfalonier for his base accusations and his inability to accommodate Leonardo’s peculiar genius:

If it is fitting to recommend a man of such rich talent to his fellow citizens we heartily recommend him to you, assuring you that everything you can do to increase either his fortune and well-being, or the honours to which he is entitled, would give us, as well as him, the greatest pleasure, and we should be much obliged to you.

An ironic letter of ‘recommendation’: that a Frenchman in Milan should have to explain Leonardo’s greatness to his own ‘fellow citizens’ – with the further irony implied that the best way to improve Leonardo’s ‘fortune and well-being’ would be to let him stay away from Florence. In this letter d’Amboise writes that eulogy of Leonardo I quoted earlier (‘We loved him before meeting him…’ etc). None of Leonardo’s other patrons has left any comparable show of warmth and admiration.

Scarcely had Soderini digested this barbed lecture when there arrived news from his ambassador in France, Francesco Pandolfini, that King Louis was enchanted by a ‘little picture’ of Leonardo’s he had recently been shown – probably the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, painted for his secretary Florimond Robertet – and that he wanted Leonardo to remain in Milan and paint something for him. He might paint, said the King, ‘certain little pictures of Our Lady, and other things as they occur to my fantasy, and perhaps I will also get him to paint my own portrait’. This regal whim was formalized in a peremptory letter to the Florentine Signoria on 14 January 1507: ‘We have necessary need of Master Leonardo da Vinci, painter of your city of Florence… Please write to him that he should not leave the said city [Milan] before our arrival, as I told your ambassador.’

The King’s writ proved decisive in this strange tug-of-war, and on 22 January 1507 the Signoria acceded to his ‘gracious request’ that Leonardo should remain in Milan. It was a victory for Leonardo, though one that left a bitter taste. In the event he would be back in Florence before the summer was out, though it was not Soderini or civic duty that called him back there.

Over the next few months Leonardo was busy. In February he was probably with Charles d’Amboise at the taking of Baiedo, north of Milan, where a troublesome baron, Simone Arrigoni, was captured. Leonardo noted the trickery by which Arrigoni was ‘betrayed’.11 Also from this time are some designs for a new church, Santa Maria della Fontana, to be built in the suburbs outside Milan, on the site of a spring to which miraculous powers were attributed. The church still exists – unfinished. And on 20 April, just a few days after his fifty-fifth birthday, he got a present in the form of a letter from Charles d’Amboise to the ducal treasurers, formally restoring to him the ownership of his vineyard, which had been confiscated sometime after the French takeover of 1500.12

At the end of this month King Louis arrived in Milan, having snuffed out a rebellion at Genoa en route. The French chronicler Jean d’Auton describes the route from the Duomo to the castle, now Via Dante, festooned with ‘triumphal arches of greenery in which the arms of France and Brittany were displayed, and images of Christ and the saints, and a triumphal chariot bearing the cardinal virtues, and the god Mars holding in one hand an arrow in the other a palm’ – all of this, and the masques and dances which followed, bearing the imprimatur of the man the King was pleased to call ‘our dear and well-beloved Léonard da Vincy’.13

Leonardo the entertainer, the pageant-maker, the choreographer of spectacles: a role he had missed in the more strait-laced ethos of republican Florence. The stage-managing of victory parades in an occupied city is not the most laudable of Leonardo’s activities, but it is hard to resist his enjoyment, and indeed a certain thoughtlessness is probably what he enjoyed about it.

It was probably at this stage that King Louis granted Leonardo an income in the form of dues paid by users of the Naviglio di San Cristofano, a stretch of the city’s canal system. It took a while, and some prompting letters, for the gift to be ratified, but these rights – referred to as ‘the twelve ounces of water’ – were still owned by Leonardo at his death, and were bequeathed to one of his servants in his will.14

Meanwhile there was the Virgin of the Rocks to attend to, adjudged ‘unfinished’ in the arbitrato of April 1506. In the same judgement the Confraternity was ordered to pay the painters a conguaglio, or adjusted fee, of 200 lire – considerably less than they had asked for, but more than the 100 lire the Confraternity had originally offered. The painting needed work if there was to be any money, but what state it was in, and what was done to it, we don’t know. By the summer of 1507 there appears to be some tension between Leonardo and Ambrogio de Predis. In early August they went as far as to nominate an arbitrator – one Giovanni de Pagnanis, a Dominican friar – to resolve their differences. By this point the painting had probably been completed; the quarrel was about the apportioning of the payments. The matter seems to have been resolved, and on 26 August 1507 the Confraternity paid up the first half of the fee due. This was collected by Ambrogio, his ‘partner’ Leonardo being by this stage back in Florence.15

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!