And Leonardo needed the money. As an autodidact and the unprivileged son of a local dignitary, he had to outshine his specialist rivals. But the times were past when one single man could know everything. The man who in so many ways was ahead of his time was himself an anachronism. I even sense a hint, between the lines of his history, that his claims and schemes sometimes provoked the amusement of the Great and the Bad themselves.
Any one of these princes to whom Leonardo drafted letters (which after the usual preamble of cringing courtesies soon expanded into lists of what be could do to improve the city's drainage, equip the army with the latest in weaponry, sort out the traffic and celebrate the reigning thug with a dazzling pageant) could have transformed the history of art by giving Leonardo a lifetime job as a sort of Minister of Works. Fortune, however, made sure that Leonardo was thwarted in his several ambitions, for although he did get the occasional canal or armament consultancy, he was more often than not cornered into merely painting pictures.
Ever since Vasari's brilliant (and nearly contemporary) account in his Lives, Leonardo has been the subject more of extravagant and semi-fictitious biography than of sober chronicle. He has been the prime target for cranky theorists, among whom the prize for eccentric twaddle could well go to Sigmund Freud.
Serge Bramly tells the tale thoughtfully and well, showing how Leonardo ran the whole gauntlet of late Renaissance patronage. Starting with the Medici in Florence, he moved on to the Sforza in Milan, then to the Borgia and back to the Medici again (this time in the person of Pope Leo X, in Rome) before dying in the arms of the King Francois I of France, who had brought the old and partly paralysed sage to a last safe haven in Amboise. The nightmare of Italian politics in those fast-moving days is well sketched.
The best art, of course, is not always done in peaceful times: yet a little more stability would have given us, say, the great equestrian statue on which Leonardo spent more than five years of his Sforza period, resolving huge design problems and planning its complex casting. By the time the moulds were ready, bronze was wanted for cannons rather than monuments. 'Of the horse,' Leonardo noted, 'I say nothing, for I know what times these are.'
On this and other practical episodes Serge Bramly is informed and illuminating. Where he falls short is in his response to the art itself. A casual flip through the sparse and blotchy illustrations arouses suspicion. The (surely spurious) drawing of a bicycle heads one page. Another is given over to that cross between a chestnut and a red herring, the so-called Nude Mona Lisa, allegedly commissioned by a libidinous
Medici, which should rather stand as the first of that long gallery of Mona Lisa derivatives whose most recent manifestation is currently on show, complete with collar and tie, in a London exhibition of Lesbian Art.
Although the book is blurbed as having been 'five years in the making', Bramly still thinks the great Cartoon to be in the Royal Academy, which it left many years before he started writing. One must therefore doubt whether he has examined at first hand the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks, or the drawings at Windsor and the British Museum which he uses for his back and front covers. This also is a long tradition, for Vasari described the Mona Lisa vithout having seen it. But apart from a long description of the celebrated Turin self-portrait drawing, there is precious little active analysis of works of art.
Had the author been to the Royal Academy recently, he would have seen in the Private Rooms (which paradoxically are freely open to the public) one of its greatest treasures, the best and most contemporary of all the full- scale copies of the Last Supper. Painted by a pupil or pupils, its accuracy is such that it recently made a brief trip back to Milan to serve as a working guide for the restorers working on its all but vanished source.
To gaze at this replica is both to experience as near as possible what the original looked like, and yet to be agonisingly aware of what it did not look like. The wooden touch of the pupil lacks what one can still apprehend in the tenuous remaining flakes of paint of the ruined original: that risky magic which announces Leonardo's hand.
As an artist he walks the highest wire. On either side of him yawn vertiginous chasms. The smile of the Mona Lisa (if fame and familiarity have made it invisible to you, look at a reproduction in the mirror) is a hair's breadth from the simpering inanity of the mannerist imitators who were to follow. The haunted landscape behind her is inches away from the lunar playing fields of the duller Surrealists. The sfumato shadows, those smoky transitions trom dark to light, were soon and for ever to become in other hands a method of fudging the trickier passages of anatomy. This is the last moment of ripeness in the Renaissance, shared with that other great arm-chancer Raphael; the perfection of the fruit reached just before it drops.
Though Bramly provides none of the tension of looking, he communicates the span of a complex life in changeable times with unprecedented clarity. The art world of Italy at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries seems, with its vanities, power struggles, underhand dealings and quick shifts of reputation, all too familiar. Leonardo's sexuality is not brought into a spotlight, but treated as part of the fabric of his life. Bramly (rightly, I suspect) concludes that we cannot know how active a homosexual the artist was, though we may observe (with some art-historical regret) his sad knack of employing apprentices for their looks rather than their ability.
It is probable that no one will ever again be, as newspeak would have it, so 'vocationally challenged' as this man beset by doubt, who still had the insight to affirm that '. . . the painter who does not doubt himself will never achieve much'. His bitterness grew as each failed, abandoned, or never-taken-up scheme followed another. Yet unlike many such tales, it ends with redemption and consolation, in that scene at Amboise which moved the unsentimental Ingres so much that he painted it not once, but in three different versions.