Back to Milan

1503. Leonardo returned to Florence where he followed, alongside Niccolò Machiavelli, the despotic ambitions of Cesare Borgia. The artist was fascinated by political power and the intellectual impetus of Borgia. However, he was also repulsed by the horrors that the despot left behind him as he passed.

A note, written by Leonardo before his return to the Florentine city, expressed regret for the atrocities he had witnessed.

“Save me from discord and battle, madness bestialissima” he wrote in one of his sheets.

In Florence the ashes of the bonfires of the Vanities were still warm, and the memory of Savonarola still impressed in the minds of the citizens; an austere repression of freedom seemed to have occurred.

Florence was also a republic, different from the Milanese monarchy. There were no benevolent protectors but supervisory commissions. However, after the war and conspiracies, Il ritorno was accompanied by a period of tranquility, during which Leonardo worked on the construction of the Battle of Anghiari, a wall painting commissioned by the Gonfaloniere of the city.

But a few years later, at the height of the artistic effort for the realization of the painting, the death of his father, Ser Piero da Vinci, completely distracted the artist’s attention from the realization of the work.

An annotation, written with a cold and notary hand on one of the notebooks, reports his death. A few lines documenting the date and the children that Ser Piero left to the world: 2 females and 10 males. It is not possible to know what was the feeling that Leonardo felt for Ser Piero, the father who had not legitimized him as a son. And yet, from the words on the notebook, amidst the almost reverential formality of the annotation, the agitation transpires.

The death of his father, the winds of mourning expired, led to an eventful hereditary dispute between Leonardo and his half-brothers, but little time passed before the artist left the city for Milan. He was called to resolve a dispute concerning the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The painting was deemed “incomplete” and “imperfect”, and paid only in part. He had therefore resolved, with a collaborator who had helped him in the realization, to appeal to the court to resolve the thorny controversy.

The call of the dispute was nothing more than a pretext to seize the opportunity to leave Florence. He wanted to get away from the half brothers and the hereditary battle. Moreover, he wanted to take a certain detachment from the public role of painter to which the city tied him. He was keen to point out, as he wrote in a letter to Luigi XII, that he was not only concerned with painting, but that he could design magnificent engineering works, war machines and structures for controlling water motions.

However, Leonardo had left the works unfinished, and the Florentine authorities disagreed with the unexpected demise. Louis XII, reigning in Milan and a great admirer of the Cenacle, had expressed the desire to take the artist with him to court. The authorities, intimidated by the power of the French king, could not restrain him, but forced him to sign a legalized document, in which he undertook to complete the unfinished work: he would have to return to Florence three months after his departure. Despite the exhortations and the constant references, he never completed neither the Battle of Anghiari, nor the other incomplete works.

It was 1506 and Leonardo, immersed in his second return to Milan, was fifty-five. After his appointment as “Painter and official engineer”, he carried out his first assignment: the preparations for the sumptuous entry into the city of the king. A magnificent procession, with three hundred soldiers in tow, accompanied the triumphant return of Louis XII, following the suppression of a rebellion near Genoa. The sovereign crossed the gates of Milan. At his side, among some illustrious figures, was also Isabella d’Este, the lady of Mantua. Isabella held a certain grudge against Leonardo, who had never made a portrait she had repeatedly commissioned, but which the artist, lost in the fleeting creative search, had not realized.

At the end of 1507, the hereditary dispute with the half-brothers, forced Leonardo to return to malice in Florence. Despite the intervention of the king and protector Charles d’Amboise to speed up the process, the controversy, brought to court, continued for a long time. During that period, Leonardo did not dedicate himself to the completion of the Battle of Anghiari, still incomplete, but to the study of sciences and engineering. He dissected the body of a hundred-year-old man, an amazing phenomenon for the time, studied the motions of the waters and designed some military systems that Milan could have used against the Republic of Venice.

Eight months later, the trial came to an end. It was 1508 and the artist returned to Milan. The lapse of time that followed was a rediscovery of the tranquility that he had abandoned during the Florentine events. A new court was waiting for him, that of the new protector, Charles d’Amboise.

Once again Milan became the artistic outlet that Leonardo had indissolubly needed.