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Francesco, 'Cecco' Melzi - age 14

Francesco ‘Cecco’ Melzi – age 14

Meet Count Francesco Melzi,

Leonardo’s most important apprentice, secretary, archivist, confidante, guardian bulldog, and the executor of his estate after a friendship of only thirteen years.

Francesco, ‘Cecco,’ made his way to Leonardo’s studio in 1506 at the age of fourteen as an apprentice. He was invaluable, and likely the reason Leonardo was later able to retire in more than concept. Cecco began assisting Leonardo to organize his notes into treatises and document his portfolios in the last years of his life.

The conservation of Leonardo’s collective works was Cecco’s legacy to his master. Without his efforts, Leonardo may have become as invisible as Botticelli until he was ‘discovered’ by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Aesthetic Movement of the romantic poets, and the ‘Mona Lisa’ may have remained a portrait of a housewife hanging on a hook in someone’s spare room. It can happen. One of Leonardo’s lost works (the ‘Salvator Mundi’) took this ignoble journey and was found in 2005. Others remain in hiding. How do I know? I am a writer of historical fantasy and a believer in serendipity over vast periods of time.

The historical facts show the ‘Mona Lisa’ had her moments in the shade. There was a time when she was so shuffled out of fashion, relegated to a government office, completely out of favor. For years she graced Napoleon’s bathroom. She was often displaced from the whims of a wife or personal taste. She was not always a valued asset.

The crime of kidnapping shot her to fame and granted Leonardo a spotlight denied him for centuries. He and Lisa emerged from the shadows, and now it’s Cecco’s turn.

Cecco accompanied Leonardo to the home, Clos Luce, that King Francis I provided for him in Amboise. It was a sister residence near his own palace, the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. The two residences were connected by an underground tunnel.

Clos Luce, Amboise. Leonardo's retirement home

Clos Luce, Amboise. Leonardo’s retirement home

It’s enticing to imagine this is the first journey the ‘Mona Lisa’ took without her creator and protector when she was delivered to the king shortly after May 2, 1519, the day of Leonardo’s death. Cecco would have wrapped her in lambs wool and oiled skins and accompanied her as one of his last promises to his master. If only tunnels and walls and bedposts could talk.

One has to read fiction to see what the tunnel saw and hear the last conversation of master to devotee. Happily for me, I can transform into wallpaper, speak ‘tunnelese’ and translate the forgotten language of bedposts.

‘Second Lisa’ is my first novel to celebrate the ‘Mona Lisa’ and Leonardo, and in my latest ‘Cherry White,’ the story of Leonardo, Cecco, and the ‘Mona Lisa’ take a new turn around the dance floor, when a sentient android is designed to harvest the lost works of the Italian Renaissance’s fifteenth-century.

Posted in Books, Fine Art, Historical Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Leonardo da Vinci, Lost Paintings, romance, Second Lisa, supernatural, time travel, women's fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Guilty till proven innocent

First-century plaque or well cover embedded into the wall of the church of ‘Santa Maria in Cosmedin,’ in Rome.

First-century plaque or well cover embedded into the wall of the church of ‘Santa Maria in Cosmedin,’ in Rome.


The Buchi Della Verita or ‘the mouths of truth’ were ballot boxes for anonymous accusations during the time of Leonardo da Vinci.

It was one such ‘ballot’ which drove the twenty-four year-old Leonardo into irrecoverable shame that surfaced from time to time all his life. It’s easy to imagine how many jealous apprentices there might have been when a newcomer prodigy entered the scene of a busy art factory such as the one run by Andrea Verrocchio, Leonardo’s first official master teacher. Leonardo became an instant favorite (read most valued assistant) in Verrocchio’s studio, supplanting many older pupils.

The ‘holes of truth’ in Florence were not as glamorous as the one pictured above which is a famous example in Rome. In the fifteenth-century Florentines cast their accusations in plain letter boxes, set throughout the city, nonetheless, they were effective means of causing trouble.

After ten years of stardom, perhaps one demoted competitor was bitter enough to want rid of the special talent that had even upstaged the draftsmanship of their master. So, without names or details, any reputation could be maligned at the drop of a piece of paper.

Leonardo was accused twice, two months apart, of lewd sexual activity linked to a known male prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli, a young goldsmith apprentice who moonlighted as an artist’s model. Two ballots later, mission accomplished, irrevocable damage done. Fortunately, Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, estranged as he may have been from Leonardo at this time, was a lawyer protective of his family’s reputation who argued (and or bribed) both charges to be dropped.

Regardless of acquittal, Leonardo chose to leave Florence in the aftermath of speculation, perhaps to avoid the fallout of general disapproval until the scandal died down or until it was replaced with another forthcoming newsflash of front page gossip (read lies).

It’s impossible to wash a psychic stain from one’s professional resume, but in addition to Leonardo’s humiliation, his position as bastard son and sole heir to the da Vinci name, had just been supplanted by Ser Piero’s first legitimate son.

Leonardo left the city, a twice-defeated young man, to take up a commission passed on to him by his master, Verrocchio, likely to cover his own reputation and that of his business, by association.

The truth is, all Italian Renaissance artists depended on the apprenticeship system, and were accepted themselves as young boys on the lookout for a career connected to the business of art. In due course, they took in young lads to teach and act as assistants and servants. Botticelli, it is documented, ‘kept a boy.’ As ominous as that can sound to some, it meant Sandro had inherited the guardianship of his first master, Fra Filippo Lippi’s ten-year-old son, Filippini Lippi.

Scene from ‘Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

Scene from ‘Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck

Rather than putting one’s hand on a holy book to pledge the truth, it was believed in ancient times that one placed their hand inside a ‘mouth of truth’ where it would be bitten off in the event of a lie.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning an artist who lived five-hundred years ago is impossible to paint in black and white, but given the vast passages of time, the evolution of ethics, and the latest codes of subjective morality, it behoves us to bestow the same golden rule on Leonardo da Vinci – to be treated as we would wish ourselves to be treated, namely, innocent until proven guilty.

 

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There’s No Place Like Home!

A place like home?

A place like home?

On April 15th 1452, at the 3rd hour of the night, no less. Leonardo’s birth was so recorded by his grandfather. Now that’s precise.

Where he was born is another story. Personally, standing in the landscape where Leonardo played as a child is enough for me. It seems appropriate to celebrate he is everywhere and no… where.

There is a record of the family using the font still existing in the parish church of Santa Croce for his christening. After that … there’s no place like home. Really. No. Place. It is impossible to know the location of the house where Leonardo da Vinci was born.

An honest tourist attraction would have to say: ‘Leonardo was born somewhere near here in a cottage like this one, give or take a few miles, although we wish it was here, we’re pinning him to earth for the sake of tourism.’ A farmhouse unmarked in its time is lost in a network of stone foundations five-hundred years old, maybe longer. Leonardo’s childhood home could have been standing two-hundred years by 1452.

Historical fiction has to jump serious leaps of faith. History never recorded Leonardo’s mother’s full name. She comes down to us as, Caterina. Women, in general, were insignificant. Their names were absorbed (read overwhelmed) by a list of their husbands ‘dynasty’ when they married. But apparently, Caterina had no such dynasty worth recording. Ever. Not even by her son.

Leonardo was probably born in a house in Tuscany, near the village of Vinci, no distinctive than any other. He lived ‘cheek by jowl’ with his mother, stepfather, five step-siblings, three cousins, an uncle and aunt and grandparents. What an obscure census report tells us, is he had a sister named Lisabetta.

What are the odds? Leonardo had a sister named Lisa! And many have observed Leonardo resembles the ‘Mona Lisa,’ as a sister just might.

What if’s began to flutter for me. I wondered … had she been the sitter for the Louvre’s ‘Mona Lisa?’ The most famous woman in the world being a woman whose identity was lost but for one mention in a faded document was too intriguing a storyline, and so I turned her life into a fanciful trilogy.

What if Lisa of the Louvre had a different story to tell? What if she were trapped in her portrait? What if she were to tell a woman and a boy who happened by in the Louvre? What if the three had an extraordinary connection than first met the eye? What if there was a ‘Second Lisa?’

LEONARDO SLEPT HERE! - Clos de Luce, Amboise, France

LEONARDO SLEPT HERE! – Clos de Luce, Amboise, France

However, in the case of the manor house Clos Lucé, we can be sure of the proud declaration, ‘Leonardo slept here!’  

Is it known for sure in which room? No, that can only be a calculated best guess, but we can say ‘Clos Lucé’ (its new name) was his last home and offered the last roof he slept under and was most definitely where he died. Although we cannot say with any certainty within a mile, which patch of soil or marble floor he was buried under.

His gravesite beside the church of St Florentin was desecrated in 1802, and his bones, along with his neighbors, were buried in a mass grave in a corner of the churchyard. Which corner is a wild leap of faith. Which bones, if any, would be impossible to authenticate even with modern forensics. Leonardo died in 1519. His resting place is unknown. Finito.

Tourists seem to need a shrine and to gaze at a plaque saying here he is, so there is one, but in truth, after the upheaval of the revolution, the churchyard where Leonardo was buried, was raked over and robbed of its most famous citizen. So much for fame.

Fragments of a damaged stone marker unearthed from a refuse pile in 1863, is tantalizingly inscribed: DEO (space) DUS ( space) VINC, but sadly, that’s it that’s all. Birth and death leave fragile footprints. It’s the life lived in-between which is worth celebrating.

If you want to follow Leonardo’s footsteps you must traipse the countryside around Vinci and walk the streets of Florence, and the Via Zenale in Milan. The site of his ‘once bequeathed property’ in Milan (scooped by the smarmy little creep, known as the ‘little devil,’ Salai, at Leonardo’s death) is located across from a massive fitness centre.

Reputedly, within a block or two of this site were the aristocratic stables of elite horses Leonardo used to sketch. Ironically, hundreds of years later, that site became the headquarters of an elite car manufacturer.

So, from the stables of the horses Leonardo used to visit, to horsepower, to physical fitness, traces of his original vineyard address is, by my reckoning, an apartment building and a parking lot, as near to destroyed as one can get.

If you need to walk mile in Leonardo’s shoes then you have tall boots to fill, and you will need to hunker down at the university of hard knocks and study whatever is around you, under you, and above you, at all hours of the day and night.

If you need to leave flowers on his grave you may as well plant a tree somewhere that could use one. Nature was his country. Birthplace and tomb are unnecessary for an immortal artist. There is no true marker here lies the great Leonardo, but he embodies the letters R.I.P … RENAISSANCE IN PERPETUITY

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Leonardo’s secret hiding place?

the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, Florence

the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, Florence

Verrocchio's orb for the Santa Maria del Fiore

Verrocchio’s orb for the Santa Maria del Fiore

The golden orb for the top of Florence’s Duomo, the Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flowers), was under construction in the studio of Andrea Verrocchio when Leonardo da Vinci arrived there as a twelve-year-old apprentice.

 

The orb is a hollow ball constructed from bronze and copper plates, eight feet in diameter. It could have been an ideal hideaway for a shy new arrival to use as an escape from the foreign bustle of a working art ‘factory.’ By all accounts, Verrocchio’s studio was a hierarchy of workers ranking from age, experience, and natural talent. A thirteen year-old boy used to the quiet sanctuary of idyllic country freedom may have found the transition to city life, daunting.

The orb was raised into place in 1471, after sitting unfinished for years, when Leonardo was seventeen. He would have lived and worked beside it for almost four years. A painting exists of a ‘Tobias with Three Archangels’ by Biagio d’Antonio Tucci, with the orb’s installation in the distant background. I love such miracles. A five-hundred year-old snapshot of what the artist saw. A frozen day we can actually see.

In my historical fantasy, ‘Second Lisa’ a fictional biography of Lisabetta, Leonardo’s kid sister, I premise the seventeen year-old Leonardo, helped install the orb. He has left notes regarding welding, and sketches of Brunelleschi’s designs for winches and screws, and the hoists and scaffolds that were used to raise the orb to the lantern of the cathedral. Leonardo wrote a memo to himself in one of his manuscripts: Remember the way we soldered the ball of Santa Maria del Fiore.

I find it amazing to gaze 350 feet in the air and imagine the boy Leonardo clambering on a scaffold, welding inside the great ball, dizzy from the toxic fumes of copper and mercury.

The cupola with tourists

The cupola with tourists

Two-hundred and thirty-one years later, after many direct lightning strikes over the years, the copper ball finally succumbed and fell to the ground during a severe electrical storm and had to be replaced.

Verrocchio had a few workers engaged in the installation. Who better than a light and nimble teenager eager for recognition who may have been goaded into volunteering for such a task? Can you see Leonardo up there as close to the sky and his beloved birds as any Florentine was likely to get?

 

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Leonardo’s Pocket Camera

One of Leonardo's 'cameras'

One of Leonardo’s ‘cameras’

Small ‘libricini’ (pocket sized notebooks) recorded whatever image took Leonardo’s fancy.

They were tied to his belt, and captured more detail than an ‘Instamatic.’ Notations of color, size, and even the weather was important to document, as it designated the quality of light.

No bigger than a pack of playing cards, Leonardo was able to take home glimpses of a fleeting pose or a line of poetry or the folds of a robe ruffled by the wind, or an elusive math equation that walking in the marketplace suddenly resolved.

“Observe people carefully in the streets and in the piazza and the fields. Note them down with a brief indication of forms, thus for a head make an O, and for an arm, a straight or bent line, the same for the legs and the body, and when you get home work these sketches up into a complete form.” - Leonardo da Vinci

- excerpt from ‘Leonardo da Vinci- flights of the mind’ by Charles Nicholl

And again: He writes questions to remind himself what to study:

a Leonardo 'libricini' (small book)

a Leonardo ‘libricini’ (small book)

describe how clouds are formed and how they dissolve, and what causes vapor to rise  - Leonardo

 - excerpt from ‘Leonardo da Vinci- flights of the mind’ by Charles Nicholl

Pick a ‘libricini.’ Any ‘libricini.’ Each one was full of tricks. What was up Leonardo’s sleeve? … Everything!

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The Saddest Words in Art…

The Louvre, 1911  after the theft of the 'Mona Lisa'

The Louvre, 1911 after the theft of the ‘Mona Lisa’

 NOW LOST These two devastating words have inspired most of my novels.

I write about missing art and the lost lives of artists and their forgotten models who, over time, have become the anonymous heroes and heroines of art.

While it can’t be helped that galleries and museums and houses sometimes burn to the ground and priceless art is destroyed. Some artefacts have been burned in ignorance (such as the last, stuffed, dodo from the Ashmolean Museum) and others from acts of violence. The vanity fires of the fifteenth-century spring to mind. Thousands of objects, including paintings and sculpture considered profane, were burned during the time of Savonarola’s religious cleansing.

But, it’s the confiscated (read stolen) items that still exist out there in actual space that captivates my imagination.

You can tell from the stark space between a lacklustre presentation of paintings displayed in a row, that ‘Lisa’ was not yet the star of the Louvre. Her abduction in 1911 transformed her from an ‘oh, hang it over there as it’s the same size’ to a front page news celebrity with her own glass case.

So, why would a present day artist ever plant their paintings in a casual art show, public display, or the walls of a busy local restaurant, hanging on a single nail, and not expect them to grow legs? Granted, the larger ones may have a chance to escape light-fingered ‘art collectors,’ and some paintings would be hard-pressed to give away, being less than covetable, but art with heart is a temptation.

The 'Buccleuch Madonna'

The ‘Buccleuch Madonna’

In 2003, Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder,’ known as the ‘Buccleuch Madonna’ was stolen from a Scottish castle. Two thieves posing as tourists made a lighthearted quip to a surprised observer saying, “Don’t worry, love, we’re the police. This is just practice,” and continued exiting through a window. The painting is approx. 19 in. X 14.5 in. It remained on the missing paintings list until 2007, and is now safe in a secure gallery.

Curiously, there are many copies of this work from Leonardo’s studio, but none contain a key detail documented by an eye-witness report during its creation. A basket is missing from all known versions, none of which is considered the prime original. Does this masterpiece wait ‘out in the open’ under dirt and varnish to be discovered, sold to the highest bidder, and become ‘lost’ to the rest of the world?

The ‘Mona Lisa’ was in the ‘small enough to stuff under a coat’ variety, and left via the museum door in broad daylight, in what Leonardo liked to call hiding the obvious in plain sight where it would be assimilated as nothing noteworthy to rouse suspicion.

Sometimes the words: ‘sold at auction’ are as sad as ‘now lost.’

The most subtle forms of iconography blend under the radar, and provenance often ends with a murky flash of ‘now you see it; now you don’t; now it’s lost; now it’s found; now it’s sold; now it’s… somewhere.’

Which rather lends creative meaning to the term: vanishing point.

 

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Nothing Up Her Sleeve

GINEVRA de BENCIStuff happens…

The lower third of this painting by Leonardo is missing. Where did it go? Was it destroyed through accident or by malicious design? What was this girl holding in her hands? I premise it was a bouquet of flowers that held a sinister secret.

Only the perpetrator or perpetrators of this crime know the answer, since the details of her sabotage are as lost as the damaged portion of the panel. It was cut down to form a square – an awkward and unlikely shape for Leonardo, who was committed to the divine proportions of the golden section. The sides may have also been trimmed to eliminate an odd ‘landscape’ format. To my mind, it is most unlikely for Leonardo to have painted half-a-tree, as seen on the right, in the uncropped original.

This painting reveals another hidden secret – a fingerprint made when the portrait was wet, has recently been discovered.

Ginevra de Benci details

‘Ginevra de Benci’ details of fingerprint

The Latin inscription, ‘virtutem forma decorat’ which means beauty adorns virtue’ (perhaps a tad tongue-in cheek) on the reverse of the painting is off-centre which is further indication of a compromised original ‘format.’ Although I cannot speak for Leonardo (other than in my novels) he seems to be a symmetrical thinker. His inscription would most probably be centered to balance the overall shape of the panel.

back of the 'Ginevra de Benci' painting

back of the ‘Ginevra de Benci’ painting

 

Any guesses as to how this work of art came to be destroyed?

In my trilogy, Second Lisa, there is an original image, changed under bizarre circumstances of jealousy and rage, and it becomes a prime example of ‘momento mori’ (Latin for ‘remember that you will die. Often portrayed as a still-life painting of decaying fruit and flowers)

portrait of Cecelia Gallerani by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo painted one woman holding a ferret. How much magnificent detail would be lost forever if it had been ‘edited’ by a vindictive hand? How many ‘Leonardos’ have been retouched, over-cleaned, and purposely disguised to evade ‘capture?’

Leonardo’s drawing of hands may have been a study for the Ginevra commission. They are attributed as a precursor to Mona Lisa’s serenely-composed hands. A marble bust, believed to be Ginevra, sculpted by Leonardos’s first master, Andrea Verrocchio, posed her holding a bouquet of flowers, and several savvy poets dedicated sonnets to her during her ‘most popular girl of the month’ status. Many referenced their ‘it girl’ to a flower.

marble bust of Ginevra de Benci by Andrea Verrocchio

marble bust of Ginevra de Benci by Andrea Verrocchio

drawing of hands by Leonardo da Vinci

drawing of hands by Leonardo da Vinci

In my novel Second Lisa, I place something more sinister in Ginevra’s hands, and the portrait’s ‘abductor’ is revealed.

This is why writing historical fiction/fantasy is so cool. An author can listen to their muse and characters can reveal truths that even surprise themselves.

Read an excerpt for Second Lisa in the BOOKS category of this website.

 

 

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