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collection of books the future painter of the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa possessed Ficino's treatise on the Immortalità d Anima, of which a Latin edition had appeared in 1482. But the hour of occultism had not yet sounded at Florence. The reasoning powers of the Florentines were too well developed, and their imaginations too dormant to give much purchase to the supernatural. All the naïveté, faith, and mysticism they possessed was absorbed by the dogmas of their irreproachable religious orthodoxy.
Without attempting at present to push the discussion too far, or to anticipate our conclusions, we may allow that in these early years Leonardo dabbled in mysticism, if not in occultism. He was only one-and-twenty when he adopted the system of writing to which he remained faithful for the rest of his life, that is, the practice of writing from right to left, Oriental fashion. No doubt he wished by this semi-cryptography to put difficulties in the way of any one who should attempt to rob him of the secrets he had so patiently
Is it possible that the insatiable spirit of Leonardo, in whom artist and savant competed with such vigour for the mastery, may have carried him, through pure curiosity, to the fountain-head of mysticism, that is, to the East, for the solution of the doubts by which he was haunted ? We all know that Dr. Richter contends, supporting his contention with much ingenious argument, that the young Florentine undertook a voyage to Egypt, where he took service under the Sultan of Cairo and even went so far as to become a Mohammedan (see vol. i, p. 82). If we followed the development of this romance--for it is nothing more—we should be led on to admitting that Leonardo was initiated by the last heirs of the high priests of Memphis and of Thebes. But in all this we have but a seductive fiction, and by no means a historical reality. Let us pass on to knock at another door.
In establishing himself at Milan, Leonardo became part of a credulous and superstitious society, if ever there was one. Lodovico
1 Mediocre Latinist as he was, Leonardo probably contented himself with some manuscript translation into Italian.
2 Cardan also gives cryptographic receipts (De Subtilitate, ed. of 1550, p. 320-321).
Sforza supported an army of astrologers, whom he consulted upon every resolution of any importance. We may easily believe that the new comer became friendly enough with a whole crowd of queer, superstitious, nebulous spirits. The reader has already been introduced to the mysterious Jacopo Andrea, and to the quasi fellow-countryman of Leonardo, Fra Luca Pacioli, professor of mathematics, and a fervent disciple of Pythagoras.
In view of Leonardo's horror of all kinds of publicity, it is easy to believe that he preferred to teach "viva voce,” like the esoteric philosophers of antiquity. This, moreover, will explain how, although he never published a line of his manuscripts, a certain number of his discoveries came to the knowledge of Cardan and other savants of the time.
In this connection we should always remember that everything said and done in the long process of scientific evolution has not been consigned to writing. The ancients had little enough of our appetite for paper; they knew nothing of that mania for precision which leads us to bring the notary with his “procès verbal” into everything we do. What countless traditions, not to speak of religions—Druidism, for instance—have come down to us without leaving a trace in written language! M. Berthelot, in his luminous study on the Alchemists, has demonstrated that more than one studio receipt was handed down from mouth to mouth through many generations.
Among Leonardo's drawings we find a series of fantastic, incoherent, extravagant sketches, which seem to refer to the practice of magic. Here we find a witch astride on a skeleton ; there, a young man, standing, from whose side issues a woman, as Eve issued from Adam ; or a being with two heads, one that of an old man, the other that of a young woman, and four arms. Still better—or worse—is a drawing at Christ Church which shows us two women seated on a sort of millstone, one holding a sword and a mirror in which an old man's head is reflected, the other brandishing a bundle of thongs. Near them a cock, over which one of the women holds a protecting hand, a chicken, and hissing serpents. In the background, an old horned witch looses dogs against the two young women and excites an eagle to attack the cock (p. 56).
Here is food for all kinds of theories! Unfortunately the master has supplied a commentary under his own hand for some of these compositions, apparently so fantastic. By the first two he meant to symbolise Envy, by the third Voluptuousness and Grief! No doubt he aimed at similar far-fetched allegories in the rest.
On his return to Florence, Leonardo surrounded himself with pupils of whom two, at least, devoted themselves to all sorts of
mystic speculations. One of these was the eminent sculptor, Rustici, who endowed the Baptistery of his native city with a superb group and finished his days in France, at the court of Henry II. This master wasted his life and fortune on experiments in the freezing of mercury. He had for assistant and accomplice one Raffaello Baglioni. He was also addicted to necromancy, of which he made use to frighten his friends and pupils. With him it was not a simple matter of tricks and legerdemain ; through Rustici's passion for alchemy we see an adept in the occult sciences.
Rustici, who had the honour to entertain Leonardo da Vinci for six months in his house in the Via dei Martelli, may have had eccentric hobbies,
but there is no stain on the respectability and even nobility of his character. It was not so with another of Leonardo's pupils, Zoroastro da Peretola. The very name is a revelation !
This individual was but fifteen years old when Leonardo, then occupied with the Battle of Anghiari, engaged him as a colourgrinder; he only gave way to his taste for occult practices and mystification in general at a later period of his life. Devoted to alchemy, astrology, chiromancy, physiognomy, and a hundred similar pursuits, he had collected a whole arsenal of seals, philacteries,
1 Epigraphy is a sublime art, but nothing lies like an epitaph! Zoroastro's nephew thus celebrates the rare aptitude of his uncle for penetrating into the secrets of nature : In eo genere philosophia quod ad natura obscuritatem spectat, natura ipsius beneficio admirabilis.
(Library of the Institut de
amulets, bells, crucibles for the distillation of herbs, earths, metals, stones, woods ; he possessed skins of animals born before their time
carta non nata”), eyes of lynxes, the saliva of mad dogs, spines of the “pesce colombo,” dead men's bones, ropes with which men had been hanged, swords and daggers with which murders had been done, the collar-bone and the knife of Solomon, herbs and seeds collected under different phases of the moon, and under various constellations, and a mass of other “favole e chiacchiere ” destined to terrify the intellectually weak.
One of Zoroastro's compatriots, Lasca, has made him the hero of two of his tales. He brings him on to the stage as a man between thirtysix and forty years old, with strongly-marked features, a significant eye, and a long black beard falling in disorder over his chest. with three lively companions, the goldsmith Scheggia, the sculptor Pilucca and one Monaco, he takes pleasure in mystifying and even in 'swindling the more credulous citizens. His exploits—minutely described by Lasca—would in our days bring him under the hand of the law. Blackmailing and fraud generally accounted for half his activity. If Leonardo took pleasure in practical joking, caricaturing, and so on, he always kept his proceedings free from any suspicion of personal interest. With Zoroastro it was just the reverse.
His aim was to make money, and he was as expert in raising coin as in raising the dead!
SKETCHES OF AGRICULTURAL LA BOURS.
Once again do we find Leonardo in relation with one of those
inquisitive and mystery-loving spirits in which Italy was so rich. After telling us that Giuliano de' Medici, the brother of Leo X., attached the painter to himself, Vasari hastens to add that the prince was an ardent student of philosophy, and especially of alchemy
Compromising friendships like this afford arguments to d'Annunzio and his co-believers! And, to enhance my final triumph, I will supply yet more weapons to my opponents. The biography of Leonardo abounds, indeed, in things calculated to excite our distrust. No one enjoyed the mystification of his circle more than he. Sometimes he would arrange, in some room adjoining that in which his friends were assembled, the lower section of a sheep's bowel, carefully cleaned and stripped of fat. This, with the help of a forge bellows, he would blow up to such a size that his visitors were driven into a corner, or even out of the house altogether. The moral extracted by Leonardo from such an experiment gives it some right to remembrance, for he compared virtue to one of these transparent bowels, which began by being so small, and then became so vast ! On another occasion, during his journey to Rome, he modelled animals in wax, hollow, and so light that when blown into they would float away through the air. After his arrival on the banks of the Tiber and installation by Leo X. in the Vatican, he amused himself by concocting a sort of demon lizard, giving it huge eyes, a beard, horns, and wings, to which an injection of quicksilver gave a trembling movement. This remarkable beast he used to carry about in a box, bringing it out to frighten his friends. He also used to terrify his guests by making the outline of a skeleton appear in the shadowed part of a room.
All this, my opponents may say, is very suspicious; but I will put them “hors de combat” with a single question : Is a fondness for mystifications synonymous with a belief in mystic arts ?
Appearances, but appearances alone, may be against my client. In any other country but Italy, he would have run the risk of the stake, as sorcerer, magician, or Magian ; but such an idea was foreign to the Holy Inquisition.