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Leonardo da Vinci and Ludovico Sforza
Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan
By Alfredo Bosisio
Pub. in Encyclopaedia Britannica (online April 2016)
Italian Renaissance regent (1480–94) and duke of Milan (1494–98),
a ruthless prince and diplomatist and a patron of Leonardo da Vinci and other artists.
Ludovico Sforza was the second son of Francesco Sforza, who had made himself duke of Milan. While still a child, he received the epithet il Moro (“the Moor”) because of his dark complexion and black hair.
Ludovico married Beatrice d’Este, the beautiful and cultured daughter of the duke of Ferrara. The marriage proved to be unusually harmonious, in spite of Ludovico’s mistresses, and Beatrice bore him two sons, Massimiliano and Francesco, both of whom later became dukes of Milan.
With lavish but enlightened patronage of artists and scholars, Ludovico made the court of Milan the most splendid not only in Italy but in Europe. Leonardo da Vinci and the architect Donato Bramante were among the many artists, poets, and musicians who gathered in Milan.
Ludovico sponsored extensive work in civil and military engineering, such as canals and fortifications. The court and the common people alike rejoiced in Ludovico’s magnificent celebrations.
[French King] Charles VIII died in 1498 and was succeeded by Louis XII, a descendant of the first duke of Milan. Louis claimed the duchy and, with the support of Venice and a Milanese population oppressed by Ludovico’s taxation, quickly conquered it. When the Milanese had in turn tired of Louis’s rule, Ludovico, who sought refuge with Maximilian, tried to retake Milan with German and Swiss mercenaries. His Swiss troops, however, refused to fight for him in a crucial battle, and in April 1500 Ludovico was captured by the French while attempting to escape, disguised as a Swiss. His fall was celebrated all over Italy. He was imprisoned in the castle of Loches in Touraine, from which he tried in vain to escape. He died there, still unresigned, in May 1508.
The memory of Ludovico was clouded for centuries by Niccoló Machiavelli’s accusation that he “invited” Charles VIII to invade Italy, paving the way for subsequent foreign domination. The charge was perpetuated by later historians who espoused the ideal of national independence. More recent historians, however, placing the figure of Ludovico in its Renaissance setting, have reevaluated his merits as a ruler and given a more equitable assessment of his achievement.
In the early 1480s, many years before he painted the world-famous pieces for which he is now best known—the Mona Lisa being just one—Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci sought a job at the court of Ludovico Sforza, the then de facto ruler of Milan. A decade later, it was Sforza who commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.
Letters of Note: The Skills of Leonardo da Vinci
(online April 2016)
Fully aware that Sforza was looking to employ military engineers, Leonardo drafted an application letter that put his seemingly endless engineering talents front and centre, by way of a 10-point list of his abilities; interestingly, his artistic genius is merely hinted at towards the very end. It is believed that the final document ... translated below, was penned not in Leonardo’s hand, but by a professional writer. The effort paid off, and he was eventually employed.
1. I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy.
2. I know how, in the course of the siege of a terrain, to remove water from the moats and how to make an infinite number of bridges, mantlets and scaling ladders and other instruments necessary to such an enterprise.
3. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.
4. I have also types of cannon, most convenient and easily portable, with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; and the smoke from the cannon will instil a great fear in the enemy on account of the grave damage and confusion.
5. Also, I have means of arriving at a designated spot through mines and secret winding passages constructed completely without noise, even if it should be necessary to pass underneath moats or any river.
6. Also, I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery, and there is no host of armed men so great that they would not break through it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow, quite uninjured and unimpeded.
7. Also, should the need arise, I will make cannon, mortar and light ordnance of very beautiful and functional design that are quite out of the ordinary.
8. Where the use of cannon is impracticable, I will assemble catapults, mangonels, trebuckets and other instruments of wonderful efficiency not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances dictate, I will make an infinite number of items for attack and defence.
9. And should a sea battle be occasioned, I have examples of many instruments which are highly suitable either in attack or defence, and craft which will resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon and powder and smoke.
10. In time of peace I believe I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another.
Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.
Moreover, work could be undertaken on the bronze horse which will be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the auspicious memory of His Lordship your father, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.
And if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park or in whatsoever place shall please Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.
Museum of Science (Boston): Renaissance Man
(online April 2016)
The illegitimate son of a 25-year-old notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl, Caterina, Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy, just outside Florence. His father took custody of the little fellow shortly after his birth, while his mother married someone else and moved to a neighboring town. They kept on having kids, although not with each other, and they eventually supplied him with a total of 17 half sisters and brothers.
Growing up in his father's Vinci home, Leonardo had access to scholarly texts owned by family and friends. He was also exposed to Vinci's longstanding painting tradition, and when he was about 15 his father apprenticed him to the renowned workshop of Andrea del Verrochio in Florence.
Leonardo stayed in the Verrocchio workshop until 1477 when he set up a shingle for himself.
In search of new challenges and the big bucks, he entered the service of the Duke of Milan in 1482, abandoning his first commission in Florence, "The Adoration of the Magi". He spent 17 years in Milan, leaving only after Duke Ludovico Sforza's fall from power in 1499. It was during these years that Leonardo hit his stride, reaching new heights of scientific and artistic achievement.
The Duke kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing elaborate court festivals, but he also put Leonardo to work designing weapons, buildings and machinery. From 1485 to 1490, Leonardo produced a studies on loads of subjects, including nature, flying machines, geometry, mechanics, municipal construction, canals and architecture (designing everything from churches to fortresses). His studies from this period contain designs for advanced weapons, including a tank and other war vehicles, various combat devices, and submarines. Also during this period, Leonardo produced his first anatomical studies. His Milan workshop was a veritable hive of activity, buzzing with apprentices and students.
After the invasion by the French and Ludovico Sforza's fall from power in 1499, Leonardo was left to search for a new patron. Over the next 16 years, Leonardo worked and traveled throughout Italy for a number of employers, including the dastardly Cesare Borgia. He traveled for a year with Borgia's army as a military engineer.
From 1513 to 1516, he worked in Rome, maintaining a workshop and undertaking a variety of projects for the Pope. He continued his studies of human anatomy and physiology, but the Pope forbade him from dissecting cadavers, which truly cramped his style.
Following the death of his patron Giuliano de' Medici in March of 1516, he was offered the title of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King by Francis I in France. His last and perhaps most generous patron, Francis I provided Leonardo with a cushy job, including a stipend and manor house near the royal chateau at Amboise.
Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 in Cloux, France. Legend has it that King Francis was at his side when he died, cradling Leonardo's head in his arms.
In an era when left-handedness was considered the devil's work and lefties were often forced to use their right hand, Leonardo was an unrepentant southpaw. It has been suggested that this "difference" was an element of his genius, since his detachment allowed him to see beyond the ordinary. He even wrote backwards, and his writings are easily deciphered only with a mirror.
Twenty-three feet high and weighing nearly 80 tons, a giant bronze sculpture of the late Duke of Milan on horseback proved too challenging even for Leonardo. At first Leonardo was commissioned to make only a life-sized statue, already a difficult task, but his employer, Ludovico Sforza, then decided that the tribute to his father should be four times larger.
For years Leonardo studied the movement of horses, making countless sketches, and he devised new casting techniques. Alas, by the time the French invaded Milan and deposed the Duke, Leonardo had succeeded only in making a 22-foot clay model, which the French soldiers used for target practice.