Thursday May 05, 2022
Comparable to none
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting ‘The Last Supper’ was painted between 1492 and 1498 on the dining hall wall at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, Italy.
My friends, Caroline and Peter, had urged me to brave covid on flights and visit them in Milan, Italy’s fashion and financial hub. As their seven-week stay in this metropolis was coming to an end, I booked, packed and flew into the city’ international airport, called “malpensa,” or “swampy area,” in vernacular Italian.
Caroline and Peter were living in a flat in central Milan in a traditional U-Shaped apartment bloc built around a green courtyard. Balconies were festooned with flowers, a treetop was visible on the veranda of a roof flat on the opposite side. The sun was high in the sky and the wind cool. Covid masks, many in bright colours, were worn in shops, restaurants, cafes, churches, and museums, but not outside. Milan was perfect for a visit.
For me, Milan became a pilgrimage to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Renaissance painter, sculptor, inventor, architect, designer, anatomist, and environmentalist. A vegetarian and pacifist, he lived in violent times and survived by serving brutal tyrants. He was a man for all seasons and jack of all trades.
I discovered Leonardo while I was a child when leafing through a high class magazine which reproduced on linen paper some of his fantastic drawings of a helicopter, weapons of war, a device to capture solar power, and an adding machine — as well as sketches of people and animals.
While modern experts put Leonardo at number three in a list of the world’s greatest men led by Johann Goethe and Albert Einstein with Isaac Newton in fourth place. All appeared centuries later on the world scene and none of the three could match Leonardo’s wide range of interests and activities. There is no comparison.
Everyone should make humbling journeys to Leonardo’s Milan, Florence and Paris in order to comprehend that this man of colossal genius once walked this planet.
On my first afternoon in Milan, I went to the National Museum of Science and Technology — Leonardo Da Vinci. When I asked the young lady who sold me my 7.50 euro ticket how to find the Leonardo exhibits, she smiled, left her post and guided me to a stairway to the rooms filled with his works. I began my visit with a delicate drawing of two crabs.
The exhibition contains far more than simple sketches or drawings of machines. Small-scale models of his inventions are on display, demonstrating not only Leonardo’s brilliance but also how far he saw into the future when materials and technologies would be available to build his inventions. Among the most famous are his helicopter, an artillery mount, a glider which looks like the skeleton of a bird, a powered loom for weaving, a howitzer, a moveable construction crane, churches, and a city of the future. All have been lovingly replicated in the galleries displaying his detailed plans. They flowed from his scientific expertise and imagination while masterpieces of paint on canvas, wood, and walls put food on the table.
During his time in Milan, Leonardo dwelled in the massive Sforza castle/fort, which now houses 18 museums and libraries. Among them is the Sala delle Asse (the Room of the Wooden Boards) where Leonardo is said to have painted frescoes which have been largely obliterated over the centuries. It is closed for renovation at present, unfortunately, but visitors touring other exhibits walk through the galleries and hallways in the footsteps of Leonardo and his assistants.
His most famous painting the Last Supper — depicting Jesus with his apostles the night before his betrayal — was commissioned by the Dominican convent at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The fresco is in the refectory which was bombed by the Allies during World War II but survived and has been restored. (I was unable to see it as tickets were sold out until the end of April).
Across the street is the historic Renaissance Atellani mansion with its garden which contains a vineyard gifted to Leonardo by his patron. Italian experts have tracked down the type of grapes grown during his day and planted several vines of this variety.
Leonardo’s first patron was Lorenzo de Medici, de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, where the artist/scientist was born and began his career as a painter at the age of 14. De Medici sent Leonardo as an ambassador to Ludovico Sforza the ruler of Milan where the young man settled for 17 years. During this period, his first in Milan, he completed his The Last Supper, iconic drawings and major paintings while pursuing his scientific vocation.
Leonardo was forced to flee Milan for Florence in 1500 when Ludovico Forza was ousted by France. Leonardo found a new patron in Cesare Borgia who briefly hired him as his chief military engineer and architect and commissioned maps of Tuscany. After leaving Borgia’s service, Leonardo began working on a painting of Lisa del Giocondo, the model for the Mona Lisa, his most well-known portrait of a person. He returned to Milan in 1508 where he remained until 1513 when he travelled to Rome and then Paris where he died of a stroke at the age of 67, believing he had failed to enter the history of the world.
Paintings and drawings by Leonardo are on the walls of museums and in collections of wealthy people around the world, including Queen Elizabeth of Britain. His drawings, paintings, and smaller statuary also tour the globe. During 2017 the Louvre in Abu Dhabi displayed on loan from the Louvre in Paris the Leonardo oil painting of an unknown young woman, “La Belle Ferroniere,” identified as the wife or daughter of an ironmonger.
While we hail Leonardo as a fine draughtsman and superb painter, he was, in the view of historian Stefan Klein, “the first modern man.” His inventions and “discoveries ushered in a new era and devised a new mode of thinking.” In addition to the inventions in the science museum in Milan, he “designed functioning robots and digital computers, and built the first heart valve.” It has taken Leonardo’s successor scientists 500 years to catch up.