Biographies & Memoirs

Author’s Note

A note on currencies and measurements. The reader will find a confusing range of Renaissance currencies here. The imperial lira, divided into 20 soldi of 12 denari each (like the £.s.d. of pre-decimal Britain), was a benchmark of sorts, but throughout Italy regional coinage was minted: florins, ducats, scudi, giuli, etc. For much of the period covered in this book, the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat were worth around 4 lire. These are the three currencies chiefly used by Leonardo da Vinci.

To give some broad guidelines of value, in late-fifteenth-century Milan 1 lira would buy a month’s supply of bread for a family of four, or 12 pounds of veal, or 20 bottles of country-wine, or 2½ pounds of candle-wax, or just over a pound of that luxury item, sugar. In the 1490s Leonardo purchased a 600-page book on mathematics, in folio, for 6 lire, and a silver cloak with green velvet trim for 15 lire. A fine horse cost 40 ducats or 160 lire. In Florence a building worker earned 2 florins a month, and a senior civil servant in the Signoria 11 florins a month. The great mansions of the Medici and the Strozzi cost in the region of 30,000 florins to build. In a tax return, Cosimo de’ Medici declared assets of over 100,000 florins, and one may imagine that this was an understatement.

A measurement of length frequently used by Leonardo is the braccio. The word means ‘arm’, and is thus equivalent to the old English ell (no longer in use as a measure but still heard in ‘elbow’, which is where your ell bows). According to one interpretation, a Florentine braccio was 55.1 cm (21.6 inches) and a Milanese braccio 59.4 cm (23.4 inches), but some calculations in one of Leonardo’s notebooks work out at 61.2 cm (24.1 inches) per braccio. I have rounded these out to a general conversion rate of 1 braccio = 2 feet. In measurements of distance Leonardo uses the miglia (mile) of a thousand passi (paces).

A staio, or bushel, was a volumetric measure for crops, but is met here as a measurement of land-area. A staio of land was a plot capable of producing 1 staio of barley per annum. Judging from tenancy agreements of the period (rent being paid in the form of produce), this was reckoned as about half an acre.

Translations from Leonardo’s Italian are in general my own, though I have of course consulted the admirable translations of Jean Paul Richter, Edward MacCurdy, A. P. McMahon, Martin Kemp, Margaret Walker and Carlo Pedretti. Large parts of Leonardo’s text remain untranslated into English. George Bull’s translation of Vasari’s Lives has been extremely helpful, though I have diverged from it in small points of interpretation.

In giving brief quotations in Italian I tend to give Leonardo’s phrasing as he spelt it, which seems to be part of its timbre. I make the customary modifications for readability: i for archaic j; contractions expanded; elisions separated, etc. Sometimes, however, his spelling is too opaque to make much sense in a brief extract. Quotations from Italian poems of the period are given in the original spelling. In most other cases I have modernized.

I have also modernized dates. The Florentine calendar was still reckoned from 25 March (the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day), so an event dated 1 February 1480 in a Florentine document actually occurred two months after an event dated 1 December 1480; here this date would be given in modern reckoning, as 1 February 1481.

My research for this book has been greatly assisted by staff at the Biblioteca Leonardiana in Vinci, the British Institute and the Archivio di Stato in Florence, the Biblioteca Statale in Lucca, the British Library, the Royal Library at Windsor, and (by no means least) the London Library. My thanks also to Antonio Natali, Alfio del Serra, Gianni Masucci, the Hon. Jane Roberts, Lauro Martines, Gordon Wetherell, Christie Brown, Bernie Sahlins and Liz Donnelly. I am grateful to Mrs Drue Heinz for the provision of a Writer’s Fellowship at Hawthornden Castle, to the staff there, and to my fellow Fellows, who heard the first of these pages newly minted. I owe the genesis of this book to David Godwin, and its eventual fruition to my editor Stuart Proffitt, picture-editor Cecilia Mackay and copy-editor Bob Davenport, and also Liz Friend-Smith and Richard Duguid. Other debts are too numerous to record except in the broadest of ringraziamenti – to the people of the Compitese, who welcomed us; to my children, who boldly shared this Italian adventure; and to Sally, who makes it all possible.

Charles Nicholl

Corte Briganti

August 2004

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