Friday, April 14, 2006

The Master and the King of France





The top image, from Artchive, is of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, in its restoration. The second and third photos are close-ups of Christ before and after the restoration. Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia defines the meal thus:


The last meal shared by Jesus and his twelve apostles. They celebrated the Passover, then Jesus gave his followers bread and wine, thus instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, also known as the Lord's Supper and Holy Communion. The original occasion has been the subject of many works of art, the most famous of which is a fresco by Leonardo da Vinci...It shows the consternation of the disciples when Jesus told them that he would be betrayed that night.

Notice how Benét uses "apostle" and "disciple" interchangeably. They were disciples (pupils) during the earthly life of their teacher; after the Crucifixion they became apostles (messengers).

There is, of course, a French connection involving Leonardo and François I, King of France from 1515 to 1547. A book I've had for years, Prince of the Renaissance, by Desmond Seward, describes their relationship:

François was determined to make his court a centre of art and learning. For his models he had Papal Rome and Medici Florence...

Significantly, he appointed many poets, painters, and scholars as gentlemen-in-waiting. Guillaume Budé was among these and frequently employed as a diplomat. The King was most anxious to enhance France's reputation for learning. In 1517, through Budé, he invited Erasmus to become chancellor of a college for the study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, which he intended to found in Paris. Erasmus declined and the project was shelved, though only for the time being...

In Italy he had seen the wonders of the High Renaissance with his own eyes. He was overwhelmed by Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, in the Friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan. According to Vasari, the sixteenth-century art historian, the King "tried all he could to find architects to make cross-stays of wood and iron with which the painting could be protected and brought safely to France, without any regard for expense, so great was his desire to have it. But as the painting was done on a wall His Majesty failed to have his way and it remained in the possession of the Milanese". Instead, François acquired the Master himself. By this time Leonardo was ageing, his energies impaired...François, who addressed him as "mon père", simply offered him a post in France. Vasari...tells us that "Leonardo for a long time put him off with more words." Only when the Pope showed what Leonardo considered excessive preference for his rival Michelangelo did he accept.

"The divinely endowed Leonardo" was now over sixty, bald and venerably bearded. He made the wearisome journey over the Alps, accompanied by his favourite pupil, Francesco Melzi, whom he treated as a son, and a faithful servant, Battista de Villanis, to arrive in France in 1516. His baggage included drawings and notebooks, together with some of the greatest paintings in the world - amongst them the Mona Lisa.

François revered him. He said that "no one in the world knows as much as Leonardo", and appointed him "First Painter, Engineer, and Architect to the King". He also gave him an annuity of 700 gold crowns and a pleasant little house of white stone and red brick at Amboise, the manoir of Cloux - a tunnel connected it with the château...

On May 1519, Leonardo da Vinci died at Cloux, lamenting that he had not made better use of his wonderful gifts. He was sixty-seven...

If his "First Painter" had produced almost nothing during his stay in France, the King none the less obtained the masterpieces which Leonardo had brought from Italy. He now possessed the Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, the Mona Lisa, and the strange, hermaphroditic St. John. Undoubtedly François acquired other works by Leonardo... Unfortunately, no one knows just what François's collection contained, while no dates have been established for most of his acquisitions.

Note: Guillaume Budé and Erasmus were great Renaissance scholars. A manoir is a small estate or château.

Another book of mine, Leonardo da Vinci by Raffaele Monti says:


His work in France was mainly of a philosophical and scientific nature; he was old and paralysed in his right hand. He also devoted himself to teaching his favourite pupil, Francesco de' Melzi, to whom he dictated his will on 19 April 1519; on 2 May of the same year Leonardo died. He was buried in the monastery of Saint-Florentin, Amboise. By the latter half of the eighteenth century no trace remained of his grave.

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