The reinvention of Leonardo da Vinci

Why did the painter flee Florence for Milan?

Leonardo da Vinci's art provokes rapture. His paintings from his time in Milan, currently on show at the National Gallery, are sublime. The exhibition closes next week, so if you have not yet seen it, despite the crowds, queue for a ticket. If you don't, you will miss a truly exquisite and cathartic experience. The exhibition leaves you in no doubt of his absolute genius. How could a mere mortal produce works of such beauty?

But this is not the only dilemma we are left with. There are other more mundane questions. For someone of such extraordinary ability, why so few paintings? More troubling, what on earth was Leonardo doing working out of Milan, a powerful state but hardly a powerhouse of the artistic cutting edge? He was a Tuscan. His home was Florence, the undisputed centre of artistic innovation and cultural ideas in Europe. But despite this at the beginning of the 1480s, he left Florence for culturally conservative Milan. There, under the patronage of its ruler, he produced the stunning works which are the story of the National Gallery's exhibition, but the viewer cannot help but ask what more would have been produced had he remained in the hothouse of Florence.

It is known that Leonardo was gay. His emotional and sexual motivation was driven by a desire for male beauty. What we would call homosexuality was a criminal offence in Florence. Conviction could carry the death penalty. What is less well known is that Leonardo was arrested not once, but twice for sodomy. At the time his brilliance was just being recognised. As it happens the prosecutions failed, permitting Leonardo to re-emerge as Europe's greatest artist. Nevertheless, the consequences of his arrest on him and his body of work should not be underestimated.

The scandal unfolded as follows. In the early morning of 9 April 1476 an anonymous informer dropped into the tamburo, a letter box on the wall of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, a paper accusing five men of sodomy. Like some Renaissance vice ring, the writer fingered a 17-year-old apprentice called Jacopo Saltarelli, who "consents to please those persons who request such wickedness of him". Dozens of men are hinted at, but the paper names only four: a goldsmith, a tailor, a young man from one of Florence's most powerful families, Leonardo Tornabuoni, and one Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo would have been 24 years old, still living, according to this scrap of paper, in the workshop of his master Andrea del Verrocchio.

Newspapers, if they'd existed, would have had a field day that morning. Leonardo may have been the son of a respected city notary, but the young Tornabuoni was the real celebrity: a close relative of Florence's de facto rulers, the Medici, he would have been a prime target for political embarrassment. This scandal was too good, and the Medici's enemies might have been expected to make much of it. They might even have been behind the anonymous accusation. The fact that the young and brilliant da Vinci was implicated only gave credence to the story: Jacopo Saltarelli, an attractive youth and goldsmith's apprentice, no doubt acted as a model for artists, posing naked for a gifted painter's pen.

It isn't difficult to imagine what would have been going through these young men's minds. Taken from their beds and summoned under guard to interrogation, it would have been a shifty affair: no one really wanted to know; shame-faced downcast mumbled denials aside, the city's magistrates, Medici hand-picked men, hoped to hush it all up before morning. Finally the five were released on condition that no further charges appeared. But the accusation would have been known by the time Leonardo returned to his master's workshop that day. Many of his sketches show the ugly side of public shame, grotesque men and women whispering, sneering. All he could do now was hope it would blow over.

Then two months later, on 7 June, another anonymous paper repeated the accusation. This had been a condition of the Saltarelli Five's release, it could have led to a more intrusive investigation - thumb screws, dislocated shoulders, Leonardo's father watching from his office in the Chief Magistrate's palace - but as the accuser had not come forward to identify him or herself, the magistrates dismissed the case on this technicality. It was more a matter of not proven rather than acquittal.

Leonardo was deeply troubled by all of this. Thirty years later he would write in his notebook of his fellow Florentines,"when I made God a child you put me in prison, now I have made him grown up you will do worse," - cryptic jottings, but suggestive of some lingering resentment towards the people of his home town. After the Saltarelli affair he disappeared. We then hear of him in Florence again in 1478, now an independent painter of prestigious commissions. However much the charges were behind him officially, he couldn't or wouldn't finish these. Instead he left Florence abruptly and travelled to Milan.

We're told he came north not as a painter at all, but as a musician, and maybe he was looking for a new, more secure life away from the turmoilof Medici Florence. Did memories of the shame of that night in 1476 drive him away? Did he re-invent himself in Milan rather than remain that defendant in a celebrated case of sodomy?

In many ways Leonardo was one of the first high-profile victims of anti-gay laws. Thanks to the shenanigans of the Medici, his genius was saved, but we might have been left with very little from him at all. He could have been a footnote in art history, a young artist who had shown huge talent but was broken and shamed by arbitrary criminal laws, executed even. How close we were to losing him. Leonardo, the convicted sex offender, would not have painted the Mona Lisa.

Kevin Childs is a member of the British Museum/Courtauld Graphic Arts Group

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Pentagramma' recreated in ice. Photo: Getty Images
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle