A man of peace, a cynic or in the end, just plain desperate?
When I had the lucky break of talking to Martin Kemp, Art Historian and one of the world’s leading experts on the art of Leonardo da Vinci, about the novel I was writing, his reaction spoke volumes about the way the subject of Leonardo da Vinci has often been approached. No codes please, he said, firmly. I was very grateful for the advice Martin gave me then, and I’ve tried, in writing Gioconda, to navigate the myths that surround Leonardo and his life in the way that seemed right to me, based on what Leonardo wrote and what he achieved. But why do all these myths exist in the first place?
The most obvious answer has to be that since we know very little about Leonardo’s private life, the temptation to plaster him with labels is strong. Still, there is more to it than that. There is something deliberately enigmatic about Leonardo’s legacy. His handwriting, for instance, which runs from right to left in mirror script, is designed to deter rather than invite. It shows us at the very least that Leonardo was not ready to share what he knew with other people. He certainly did not publish his discoveries in his day. It is possible that he didn’t publish for fear of making enemies in the clergy, or perhaps he didn’t publish because, as he admitted in his notebook, he was concerned about the use that would be made of his work by people in general. Again, as is so often the case with Leonardo’s life, contradictions come up as you dig. If he was reticent, why did he then go on to create and share his war machine designs with people such as the Duke of Milan or Cesare Borgia, who were the Putins of their day?
Leonardo provides no clear answer to this puzzle. Reading between the lines we find a scribble jotted down on the edge of a page: ‘The Medici made me, the Medici destroyed me’. Revealing words. Perhaps he had become impatient with other people, and decided that they deserved the death chariot over the flying machine they would never understand or the anatomical discoveries they were bound to question as heretical. Or it could be that he simply did it out of naivety, although that is more doubtful. Alternatively, it is possible that he wanted to buy himself time and patronage, so that he could put his greater schemes into effect, and to do this he had to give the big guns what they wanted, whatever the cost to himself.
If this was the case, it is not surprising that at one point in his life he just took off — not on the flying machine he believed in but in search of other, more enlightened patronage. His search took him to old Constantinople, sketching bridges for the Bosphorous. He would have found things very different there, far from rivals back in Florence, such as Michelangelo, and the dangerous currents of the Borgia dynasty. But perhaps his saddest departure, at least from an Italian perspective, must be his decision to spend his final days in France, the country of the old enemy. He took the portrait of Mona Lisa with him, and the French king promptly hung it on his wall. In his testament Leonardo left the portrait to Salai, his old friend and companion, and as Professor Martin Kemp says in his book ‘Leonardo’ (published by Oxford University Press in 2011) Francis I actually had to buy it back to return it to his court for a considerable sum of money. Thus it remained in France, along with the body of its creator, an outcome deplored and regretted by most Italians even to this day. Which brings me to what is perhaps Leonardo’s most enduring legacy — the one that has inspired generations of artists and writers, myself included. Why has the portrait of an unimportant woman from Florence become such a worldwide phenomenon, and what did Leonardo intend her to be?