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Bereft of his patron's strong guidance, the artist tossed to and fro like a rudderless bark, ready to dash itself to pieces on the nearest reef.
When Louis XII. made his triumphal entry into Milan, on October 6, 1499, accompanied by Cæsar Borgia, and a bevy of great lords, the wonders wrought by Leonardo's brush and chisel were among the first objects to fix his attention. So ecstatic was his admiration of the Last Supper, that for a moment he dreamt of carrying it off to France, together with the wall on which it was painted. He was no less fascinated by the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza. This we know by the answer sent in his name to the Duke of Ferrara, by the Cardinal d'Amboise. Did not the Cardinal commission the Ferrarese ambassador, on September 24, 1501, to inform his master that as the King had seen the work in question, he (the Cardinal) could not dispose of it without his sovereign's consent ? (See vol. i., p. 154.)
Yet, for some cause or other, Louis XII., who, indeed, left Milan, and returned to France on November 7, 1499, allowed several years to elapse before he finally attached the author of these masterpieces to his own service.1
Leonardo, on his side, went to Mantua, to the Marchesa Isabella d'Este.
His departure from Milan took place somewhere during the latter months of the year 1499, very shortly after the occurrence of the disasters which overwhelmed Il Moro. If we are to believe Leonardo's friend Pacioli, he betook himself straight to Florence. But, as a matter of fact, he did not reach his native place till after he had made a stay, albeit a short one, at Mantua and at Venice.
Leonardo's suggestions (“preso parere con Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti ancora che giovanetto, Giuliano da San Gallo, Baccio d'Agnolo "). He vouches for the same fact in his Life of Leonardo. (Milanesi's ed., vol. iv., p. 448 ; vol. v., pp. 41, 351.)
1 A letter from Pietro da Nuvolaria to Isabella of Mantua (April 4, 1501) does indeed assert that Leonardo, even at that date, was in the service of the King of France, and that he was working on a small picture intended for Florimond Robertet, the King's favourite. But this bond was certainly a very slight one. Even two years later Leonardo was boasting that he could seek his fortune elsewhere, without falling into disgrace with his patron. (Letter from Nuvolaria, April 14, 1503.) And during this interval he had actually accepted the commission to paint his Saint Anne, and had attached himself to the fortunes of Cæsar Borgia. Finally, between the years 1503 and 1506, he undertook commissions for the Florentine Government, which kept him for several successive years in the city of his birth.
The name of the Marchesa Isabella d'Este, wife of Giovanni Francesco di Gonzaga, and sister-in-law of Lodovico Sforza, calls up the figure of the most accomplished woman of the Italian Renaissance. In her person, a boundless eagerness for intellectual pleasures, and an exquisite taste, were combined with the highest moral virtues. Irreproachable as a wife, at once wise and tender as a mother, a patriot during that critical period, when patriotism suffered so utter an eclipse(she it was, who, when she heard of the gallant resistance of the city of Faënza, besieged by Cæsar Borgia, exclaimed, “ They have saved the honour of Italy !")—she counted all the men who shed most glory on the Renaissance among her clients, her friends and her admirers.
Notwithstanding her own frequent journeys to Milan," Isabella does not appear to have entered into personal relations with the painter before this visit of Leonardo's in 1499. At the most she seems to have written to Cecilia Gallerani, in 1498, to beg she would send her Da Vinci's portrait of herself. (See vol. i., p. 206.)
It was certainly during this visit to Mantua that Leonardo painted the portrait with reference to which one of the Marchesa's correspondents gives us the interesting details following: “Most illustrious lady, I send you, by the bearer, a large lute in the Spanish fashion, made of walnut wood, in its natural colour, which truly seems to me the best that will ever be heard. I have been ill. I have not been able to finish the black and white lute. I will make it like this one, in the Spanish fashion. Leonardo da Vinci is at Venice; he has shown me a picture of your Highness, which is very natural, and appears to me as perfect as it can be. This is all I have to write you by this messenger. Assuring you once more of my respect, I write myself your Highness's faithful servant, Lorenzo da Pavia, Venice, March 13, 1500.”2
In a letter to Leonardo, dated May 14, 1504, the Marchesa adds a precious item of information concerning this picture. “When you came to this country and drew our portrait in charcoal, you promised you would some day paint our picture in colours. (“Quando fusti in questa terra, e che ne retrasti di carbone.”)
We now know, thanks to the research of Charles Yriarte, that one
i Luzio and Renier, Delle Relazioni di Isabella d'Este Gonzaga con Lodovico e Beatrice Sforza. Milan, 1890.
2 Baschet, Aldo Manuzio. Yriarte, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1888, vol. i., p. 122,