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Leonardo da Vinci as told to children


Photo from the film "La Vita di Leonardo".

Born in a poor village of Tuscany in central Italy, near the River Arno, he never had a mother of his own like other children, or a loving father. Instead he had a step-mother and a strict grandfather. His only real friend and teacher was his uncle Francesco, who was seventeen years older than Leonardo. Discover Leonardo da Vinci's splendid destiny as told to children by Bruno Nardini.

By Bruno Nardini

Stretched out in the grass behind his grandfather's house a young lad, who was to grow up to be one of the greatest painters and sculptors the world has ever known, waswatching the circling flight of a bird – a kite – round the main tower of the castle in the town of Vinci. His uncle was lying in the grass next to him, trying to explain the mechanics of the way a kite flies, soaring round in circles so as to exploit the slightest breath of a breeze. But the young lad was tired: his eyes were already closed and he had fallen asleep. His name was Leonardo da Vinci.

It was an afternoon in May, the earth was sweet with the scent of hay and crickets sang out from their hiding-place in the grass. Leonardo had a strange dream about the kite: he dreamt that he was still in his cradle, but no longer at home. Lucia, his grandmother, had carried the cradle into the field and then gone away.

The kite made ever-narrowing circles until it plunged from the sky and dropped on top of him; however, the bird did not scratch Leonardo with its claws or peck him with its beak. It simply flapped its wings and tried to open the boy's mouth with its forked tail. When Leonardo's mouth was opened in this way, the kite struck his lips and his tongue with its tail. Suddenly Leonardo woke up with a cry and found himself sitting on the grass with his uncle, Francesco.

"What's the matter with you?" asked his uncle.

"That kite", stammered the lad, still not quite sure that he had woken up from his dream, "Uncle, I had a dream about that kite!"

Many years later, when Leonardo was grown up, he wrote in the city of Milan that this was his first childhood memory, a striking one which he had never forgotten. Now that he was studying the mathematical laws that had to do with birds' flight, that kite seemed to him to have been some kind of messenger telling him his future destiny.

And what a splendid destiny it would be! Born in a poor village of Tuscany in central Italy, near the River Arno, he never had a mother of his own like other children, or a loving father. Instead he had a step-mother and a strict grandfather. His only real friend and teacher was his uncle Francesco, who was seventeen years older than Leonardo.

Leonardo was born on the 15th of April, 1452. The Middle Ages, a long period of gloomy tower-keeps and independent communes, were coming to an end. The period of local lordships, government by the richest and strongest, was coming in their place. The gloomy old keeps were giving way to luxurious palaces.

Leonardo arrived at Florence with his father, Ser Piero, on their horseand-cart, for his father had decided to move to the big city for good, to work as a notary like his ancestors. Leonardo was also accompanied by Ser Piero's second wife, a young woman called Albiera who took the place of his mother.

We have no record of what happened during that first period of Leonardo's life at Florence. All we do know is that Ser Piero sent his son to do music arid grammar classes; music consisted of learning to play the flute and grammar meant learning how to write. Then, in 1465, stepmother Albiera died and Ser Piero married again. Leonardo's new "mother" was called Francesca. By now he was thirteen years old and he had already decided what he was going to be when he grew up: not a notary, like his father, or his grandfather Antonio, but a painter.

It was quite by accident that Ser Piero found out his son's secret ambition. One day he went into Leonardo's room and came across a pile of neatly rolled up papers and realized that they were drawings. "Not bad at all", Leonardo's father said to himself. "In fact, they are pretty good." Without wasting any further time Ser Piero put the rolls of paper under his arm and took himself off to show them to Andrea di Cione, whom we know as the painter Verrocchio. "Listen, Maestro," said Ser Piero, "I found these drawings done by my son. What do you think of them?"

Verrocchio looked at Leonardo's drawings one after the other, paying ever more careful attention, then he asked: "How old is this lad?"

"Just seventeen", was the answer.

"Then bring him round to me. He can live in my house. I'll turn him into a great painter."

The next day young Leonardo, accompanied by his father in a brusque, serious mood, entered Verrocchio's workshop as an apprentice. He did not feel out of place or nervous, and he didn't have to face his strict new teacher on his own. A crowd of young pupils welcomed him noisily among them: these were all young boys of his own age, and they too were to become famous in their own ways.

The oldest were Sandro Filipepi, also known as Botticelli, and Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino. Amongst the younger pupils of Verrocchio were such names as Lorenzo di Credi, Francesco Botticini and Francesco di Simone. Surrounded by friends like these, in those enormous studios full of blocks of chalk and marble, with tables loaded with brushes and paints, Leonardo felt happy in the constant atmosphere of hard work and creation.

He willingly carried out the most humdrum tasks, sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, grinding the colour substances, preparing the paints, cleaning the brushes and posing for his master who was working on a statue of David.

But what occupied him more than anything else was keeping his eyes on everything that was going on around him, soaking in every experience so that he would soon know the tricks of the trade. A little later he was entrusted with the task of preparing the" plaster for the frescoes; then he was allowed to transfer some of the "cartoons" (the word used to describe the plan the painter works from) on to the wall; finally he was given the brushes and told to touch up some of the work on the wall which Verrocchio had done himself.

One day Verrocchio had assigned Leonardo the job of painting an angel's head on a large canvas which represented "The Baptism of Christ". He noticed that the angel's head which he had already done on the painting wasn't so impressive as Leonardo's. The story goes that Verrocchio picked up his brushes and broke them, as if he was declaring that from then on he wouldn't have anything more to do with painting.

From this period in Leonardo's life come many sketches and studies of the horse; Verrocchio was working on a monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni, the military captain, seated on his steed. Leonardo often amazed his fellow-apprentices by drawing with his left hand, and he always wrote from right to left, back to front, like a wizard scribbling out his spells.

One day, when he was twenty-two years old, he decided to join the Guild of San Luca, an association of artists; so he left Verrocchio's workshop to set up in business on his own, as we would say nowadays. Lorenzo the Magnificent gave him a contract to draw a Madonna, another patron asked him for an "Annunciation", then he was asked for a Saint Jerome, and an "Adoration of the Magi".

His own father asked him to paint the wheel of a cart for a peasant from his home town of Vinci. He never refused anybody, he took all his jobs seriously, even the wheel, which he adapted into a kind of grotesque monster. With every task he under took, Leonardo aimed to arrive at an even greater perfection, until eventually he had to give up and leave his works unfinished. This was the hidden drama of Leonardo's whole life.

Leonardo, however, was not just a painter. He also did sculpture. Earlier on he had modelled a number of human heads and a Via Crucis. Later on he was to sculpt an enormous horse. He was also a musician. He could play the flute and the lyre, and people who knew him have recorded that he "sang exquisitely".

At Vinci he had learnt from his uncle Francesco to distinguish the different plants and the effects they had: this means that he was also a skilled botanist and knew about herbs. At Florence he had come to know a number of famous doctors, and even started to study anatomy. At night he would slip into the hospital's mortuary to dissect the dead bodies and then sketch the various organs of the human body.

He studied the way rivers flow, and made plans for canals that ships could sail down. He read history books and books about the art of warfare, then he promptly sat down to invent strange new war engines. He studied buildings closely, among them the Cathedral of Florence where Verrocchio had placed an enormous ball of copper on the lantern (the open structure on top of the dome) designed by the great architect Brunelleschi, and he thought up extraordinary machines that could lift and transport huge weights in the air. He watched the way that birds fly and dreamt of a machine that would allow men to fly through the sky.

He analyzed the sea-bed and could already picture a frogman's suit and mask in his mind's eye. He watched men at work, and anticipated modern cybernetics and "time and motion" studies by working out machines that could cut out some of their movements and save them trouble.

He read the works of Greek and Latin philosophers, until he could discuss their ideas in such a way as to impress his listeners. He was not rich, but the generosity of those who appreciated his genius meant that he could live in the style of a prince. He was handsome, tall and strong: with his hands he was capable of bending a horseshoe. Yet he was also' gentle and refined, full of help for others and never boastful.

He appreciated everything about life, and knew how to pick out the good side of things, the most noble and attractive side to life. He was a great lover of Nature: nowadays we would call him an "ecologist". He even planned an ideal city with lots of greenery and criss-crossed by canals, the streets carried overhead and the houses tucked underneath.

He also loved animals. Whenever he saw birds in a cage, he would buy them in order to let them go. He considered everything to be a "wonder of the universe", and whatever he set eyes on seemed to him to reveal the hand of its creator, God, whom he called "The Prime Mover".

Leonardo, then, was a man of the future, the first and most deeply convinced citizen of the world.

At the age of thirty Leonardo went to Milan, to the court of Lodovico il Moro, who had asked Lorenzo de Medici for a sculptor to carry out a monument in memory of his father Francesco Sforza.

There is an extraordinary letter which Leonardo sent to the Duke of Milan just after his arrival in the Lombard capital. In this letter he makes a list of all the things he knew how to do, like making giant slings and gun-shot for bombardment, selfpropelling cannons, tanks, multiple machine-guns and siege platforms. At the end of the letter he even states that he can out-class all others at architecture, painting and sculpture, and challenges the Duke to put these abilities to the test.

Leonardo was taking quite a risk. Lodovico il Moro could have simply locked him up as a starry-eyed lunatic. Instead, the Duke summoned Leonardo to his presence, listened to what he had to say and gave him the task of raising the monument to his father. He also gave him the official title of "Engineer to the Duke."

It was at Milan that Leonardo revealed another of his secret passions: the art of staging elaborate shows, making him the equivalent of what we understand by the word "director". He produced an allegorical representation called "Paradise" for the marriage of Gian Galeazzo Sforza to Isabella of Aragon, as well as the "Joust" for Lodovico's wedding to Beatrice d'Esté, and both performances have become legendary.

In the first show the seven planets were seen following their orbits round a star-studded sky, accompanied by music and singing, while the chariot of the sun, drawn along by steaming horses (an extraordinary example of self-propelling machinery), slowly crossed the stage. In the other show, the "Joust", a live horse covered with golden scales stole the scene, with a ram's head and a fitted tail that would have suited a serpent.

From this period which Leonardo spent at Milan there remain famous works like the painting The Virgin of the Rocks, of which a version by Leonardo's sole hand is in Paris, and a version by both Leonardo and the Milanese artist De Prédis in a gallery in London. He also did a "Madonna" for Matthew Corvino, the King of Hungary, and a portrait of a girl with a stoat in her arms, as well as a portrait of a woman in profile, who may well be Beatrice d'Esté.

Lastly there is the stupendous Cenacolo (painting of Jesus' Last Supper), which has its own tragic story. What happened is this: Lodovico il Moro gave Leonardo the task of painting Christ's Last Supper with his Disciples .on to a wall of the dining-room in the Dominican convent L of Our Lady of the Graces (Santa Maria delle Grazie). Leonardo went straight to work: he even stopped passers-by in the street so as to fix some detail of movement or facial appearance in his mind's eye.

Night and day he worked on sketches and plans for the various characters in his mural, until the cartoon was ready in every detail. Unlike other artists, who had always tended to depict the Last Supper as a gloomy meeting before the final Passion, Leonardo's plan was to paint the exact moment when Christ uttered the words "One of you will betray me!" Horror, indignation and amazement were to be expressed on the faces of the Apostles, while Jesus would be seated motionless in the centre, isolated and detached from the passionate reaction of his followers.

But the ever-scientific Leonardo wanted to test out a new kind of plaster, made up out of three separate layers of stucco. When he had finished the painting, and the people of Milan crowded into the refectory to admire the completed masterpiece, Leonardo sadly realized that the layers of stucco were not capable of resisting the outside temperature to the same degree. This meant that his great painting would not last for very long. Fifty years later it was already wrecked, though we can still gain an idea of the original when we look at it today.

As soon as the painting was finished Leonardo had to leave Milan for Venice. The French troops of King Louis XII, under the command of Trivulzio, had entered Milan after the retreat of Lodovico il Moro. A number of Gascon crossbowmen found an immense horse fashioned out of clay in a courtyard.

They had no way of knowing that it was Leonardo's model for the monument to Francesco Sforza, ready for its final casting into bronze. For that matter they would not even have known who Leonardo was. They played a game of knocking it to pieces, aiming at it with their crossbows to see who could hit it most often.

From Venice Leonardo moved back to Florence again, but this time he was returning to his city with a solid reputation built up over twenty years. He took lodgings with the Servants of Mary, in the Convent of SS. Annunziata, for he had promised them a painting of St. Anne and the Madonna for the main altar.

Everyone wanted something from him, every organization wanted his advice and recommendations. The Secretary of the Florentine Republic, Niccolo Machiavelli, even asked him if he could divert the waters of the river Arno, which flows into the sea at Pisa, in order to starve out the Pisans who were at war with Florence at that time.

Leonardo never felt like refusing; his favourite motto was "I am never tired of serving others". But the friars of SS. Annunziata were impatient, so Leonardo locked himself in a room of the convent to work on the St. Anne and Madonna painting, and in less than a month the cartoon was ready.

month the cartoon was ready. For three whole days the people of Florence filed past Leonardo's design in a solemn procession. Amongst them was Pier Soderini, the ageing Chief Magistrate for life of the Florentine Republic, and also a young sculptor who had recently returned from Rome where he had completed a stupendous Pietà. His name was Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Writers of the time tell us that the rivalry that developed between Leonardo and Michelangelo was intense. It began when Soderini assigned Michelangelo a block of marble which had been lying behind the Cathedral for more than sixty years and had already caught Leonardo's interest. While Michelangelo was chiselling away at that marble to create his famous David, Leonardo had gone to Romagna with the rank of "Architect and general engineer" to its duke, Cesare Borgia.

When he got back to Florence he found that he had been chosen as one of the committee who were to decide what to do with Michelangelo's David. Michelangelo was irritated by Leonardo's presence on the committee, and they spoke rudely to each other.

When Soderini offered Leonardo a wall of the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio to paint a battle scene, Michelangelo asked for the other wall to paint another battle scene on. This request was granted, and an elegant contest developed between the two great artists, which was watched and followed by the whole of Florence.

Both painters sought to excel themselves, rather than each other. Leonardo's cartoons, depicting the battle of Anghiari, and those of Michelangelo, dealing with an incident from the battle of Caseína, were shown to the general public at different times and places. The Italian artist and metalworker Benvenuto Cellini was later to call them "the school of the world."

In the meantine Leonardo was working on the portrait of a beautiful but rather melancholy woman, the celebrated "Gioconda", or "Mona Lisa."

After he had completed the cartoons for his battle scene, Leonardo began to paint his subject on to the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Yet once again the demon temptation of experiment led him astray. He had found in a work by the Latin writer Pliny a formula for a special plaster used by the ancient Romans called "encaustic". It was a kind of paste, based on a mixture of oily substances and Greek pitch, dried out against a flame to make the colours sharp and brilliant like enamel.

Leonardo made a series of successful tests, then decided to use the encaustic process for his Battle of Anghiari mural. But when his ambitious project was already nearing completion and only the upper half remained to be done, Leonardo discovered that the flame was too far away and the colours could not be hardened into place.

It was a desperately sad night for him: the colours were beginning to run, and Leonardo anxiously ordered more wood to be burned in the large brazier which was suspended by a pulley near the painting. But by now it was too late and the flame failed to harden the colours: by being brought too close to the wall it even spoiled the colours which had already dried. In the space of one hour Leonardo's planned masterpiece was ruined.

With an icy feeling in his heart Leonardo fled to a friend's house in the nearby village of Fiesole. But here he was destined to meet with another failure. After years of study he had finally rigged up a mysterious "flying machine". Everything was ready for an imposing test run, and this took place on Mount Ceceri (which means "swan"). But the human swan (an assistant of Leonardo's) could not get up into the air with the machine and stay there. He managed to cover a few metres and then plunged into the bushes underneath him. Thus another long-cherished dream was shattered.

By now he was happy to leave Florence, and went back up to Milan. The King of France, Louis XII, wanted him in his court, and the Governor of Milan, Charles of Amboise, heaped him with honours and favours. Leonardo recovered his nerves again, started enjoying his friends' company, and went back to his scientific research. He painted a series of Madonnas for the King, which are now unfortunately lost.

But political upheavals made it necessary for Leonardo to leave Milan. Lodovico's son was returning to recapture Milan, and the venture was backed by troops of Swiss cavalry. The French thought it best to retreat back over the Alps, and Leonardo took refuge in Vaprio d'Adda, at the home of his young pupil Francesco Melzi.

Meanwhile Pope Julius II had died at Rome, and Cardinal Giovanni de Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, had been elected Pope with the title Leo X. Gradually the artists began to flock to Rome from all over Italy, and Leonardo decided to go too. Giuliano de Medici, the youngest of Lorenzo's sons, put him up as a guest in his palace and gave him various commissions: a portrait of a woman, research into optical mirrors, and a project to reclaim the Pontine marshes.

France, however, was planning to recapture Lombardy, which now had an alliance with the Pope. Louis XII was dead, and his successor, the youthful Francis I, made a quick move across the Alps and defeated the defending Italian force at Marignano. Leonardo had left Rome with the court of Giuliano de' Medici, who was commander in chief of the Pope's army. But Giuliano fell sick and stopped at Florence, where he died.

Leonardo continued with the army as far as Piacenza. The Pope then came up to Bologna, in an attempt to counter-balance the military defeat Paris by a diplomatic conference with the French monarch. Because he knew that Francis I was a great art-lover, the Pope called for a number of artists, including Leonardo, to be present at the conference.

When Leonardo was presented to the French king he was as amazed as everybody else when the king came up and embraced him with the words "My father...!"

Two days later Leonardo accepted the king's invitation to go to Amboise in France, where His Majesty would make a whole castle, Clos-Lucé, personally available to him.

Now begins the long slow twilight of Leonardo's life. Helped by his faithful pupil Francesco Melzi, the ageing artist began to reorganize his writings and drawings in order to collect all his research into a "corpus", or grand encyclopaedia containing ancient, medieval and contemporary knowledge.

The French king never asked for specific paintings from Leonardo, he was content just to go and see him and hear what he had to say about things. Later on Cellini would say: "I heard the king declare that he did not believe there could be a single man in the world who knew as much as Leonardo... and that Leonardo was a supreme philosopher."

As a favour to the king, Leonardo drew up an astonishing project for a canal system in the Loire. He planned a castle for the king's residence and organized an enormous festival marked by the appearance on stage of a roaring lion which hears the king's name and then tears its breast with its talons, causing a cascade of French lilies to come out of it.

In the peaceful surroundings of Amboise Leonardo relived in solitude his long life of toil, and wrote in his diary: "A well spent life is a long one."

A kite flew above the castle of Amboise. It was spring, May 2nd in the year 1519. In his ill-lit room Leonardo was dying. He had a vision of the king hurrying to be with him, already arriving down below in the courtyard, and yet nobody came to his side. He wanted to call out aloud, but his voice would not obey him.

Finally a rough, indistinct sound emerged from his lips. His pupil Melzi heard him, and rushed in to lift Leonardo onto the pillows and arrange round the dying man's shoulders the fine cloak which he always wore when Francis I came to visit him. In his feverish delirium Leonardo then imagined that the king was coming into the room, approaching his bedside and embracing him in tears.

Leonardo was overcome by his emotion and closed his eyes.

This legend, for that is all we can call it, has been immortalized in a famous drawing by Ingres. But if Leonardo did not die in the arms of the King, it was only because Francis I was far away from Amboise at the time. Otherwise he would have rushed like a son to Leonardo's bedside, and the legend would have been made into reality.

Bruno Nardini

Publisher and founder of the International Book Centre in Florence, Bruno Nardini is the author of Vita di Leonardo (Life of Leonardo), written for children and illustrated with stills from an Italian television film on Leonardo directed by Renato Castellani (Nardini and Giunti-Bemporad Marzocco Publishers, Florence, 1974). He has adapted the fables and legends which Leonardo jotted down in his notebooks into two books for young people: Favole et Leggende, to be published in English as Fables of Leonardo da Vinci (Collins, U.K.; Hubbard Press, U.S.A.), and Animali Fantastici (Nardini and Giunti-Bemporad Marzocco, 1974). He has also published a book for youngsters on the life of Michelangelo.