The Pitfalls of Genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons

I’m in the midst of giving several talks and papers – two in the last week, in Birmingham and Glasgow respectively, and one next week in Washington D.C. at the Renaissance Society of America conference. I thought I’d post my powerpoints here in a series of posts (as more manageable PDF files) for those who might be interested.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Battles on Horseback and on Foot, Venice, Accademia, c. 1503-6.

First the Birmingham talk, which was give at a study day for the exhibition of ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. There’s a summary of the whole study day by Mar Dixon.

My talk was about how difficult Leonardo could be to work with – and how Florentines tended to complain about the fact that he really just never got round to finishing anything. Most famously (and frustratingly for the Florentine government) he never finished his mural of the Battle of Anghiari. This has been very much in the news this week as initial researches have indicated that something MAY be behind Vasari’s frecoes in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio; who knows what they will find if they go on with this procedure, given that this was an incomplete painting that went badly wrong technically from the beginning…

Dilatoriness mattered in the mercantile culture of renaissance Florence. Unlike in courts – where people seemed to be able to make a living by hanging around, being charming and coming up with witty or fantastical ideas – Florentines expected results for their money. Leonardo also, compared with Michelangelo, was a bit of a spendthrift, both with his own money and other people’s. As Bartolommeo Cerretani said, around 1509:

“At this time there were two Florentines who were leaders, most excellent in sculpture and painting. One was called Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, he wasn’t legitimate and was employed with the king of France in Milan… amongst other excellent things he did a very famous Last Supper; but he didn’t do much work. The other was Michelangelo di Francesco di Buonarotto Simoni, citizen, who did many things in sculpture, especially a marble David, which is in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, and also in painting, and he was in Rome painting the Chapel of Pope Sixtus, and he was doing the tomb of Julius II. And they both earnt a lot, but Michelangelo earnt more because he worked harder, and really well. And I spoke to them many times and saw them work.

The talk was partly taken from recently published material, arguing for the construction of the notion of “artistic temperament” in the early sixteenth century – (“Missed Deadlines and Creative Excuses: Fashioning Eccentricity for Leonardo and Michelangelo” in “una insalata di piu erbe”: A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin, ed. Jim Harris, Scott Nethersole and Per Rumberg (Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 2011), pp. 129-37.

Here’s’ the powerpoint (as a PDF file):
The pitfalls of genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons

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The Da Vinci Debate

Often, people who don’t have an in-depth knowledge of renaissance art use the short hand “Da Vinci” instead of “Leonardo”. Sometimes you will come across some cognoscenti admitting to “squirming” when they come across people referring to Da Vinci instead of Leonardo – see here or here for example.

Although they are certainly correct that the art historical convention is to use first names or nicknames for renaissance artists, the emphasis on the wrongs and rights of naming irks me. In fact, any sense of superiority about knowing the “proper” artist’s name, or the “correct” pronunciation/application of Italian terms (“chiaroscuro”, “pentimento”, “contrapposto”) irks me.  Why? Partly because I imbibed Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction  as a graduate student – and have spent much research time investigating  the ways people seek to delineate and shore up social difference. Partly because I think this kind of pettiness can make renaissance art seem scary, unapproachable and snobbish. Anything that might put people off coming to these often spectacular objects with a fresh appreciative eye is to a real shame.

Also – and this is the key bit –renaissance artists’ names are just conventions. They are not “correct” or “incorrect”; they are generally just what has been deemed the “correct” name by art historians, curators and collectors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What’s in a name? Conventions and names for renaissance artists.

Leonardo da Vinci


Agostino Vespucci on "Leonardus Vincius", 1503

This really does just mean Leonard from Vinci, and so da Vinci might not be thought of as a “proper” surname, just a way of distinguishing him from Leonard from Prato, or Leonard from Poggibonsi etc. But then what are surnames for if not to distinguish people? How to people gain their surnames in the first place? Da Vinci does seem to be established as some kind of family name during Leonardo’s lifetime. His father, after all, is called Ser Piero da Vinci. Contemporary documents use “Vinci” pretty much as a surname. He’s referred to in Latin as “Leonardus Vincius” at least a couple of times in 1503;  “Magistro Leonardo de Vinci”; “maestro Leonardo vinci, pittore del Christiamissimo Re” in 1507; in the same year he signs himself “Leonardus vincius pictor”. People don’t ever call him just “da Vinci” in the documents. But they don’t call Lorenzo de’ Medici just “Medici” either. It’s not a convention to use surnames in this way in the fifteenth century.


This means little barrels. It’s a nickname for a painter actually called Alessandro Filipepi. As far as I know, no-one “squirms” when people don’t say Filipepi or Alessandro.

Rosso Fiorentino

This means the red-headed Florentine. It’s normally shortened to Rosso. His real name is Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, but no-one calls him that.


This is the Latin/French/English version of Raffaello Sanzio, which has been in common usage since the sixteenth century.  He’s called Raffaello, of course, in Italian texts, often referred to as il Sanzio. His dad, though, is referred to as Giovanni Santi, a different form of the same surname.

Sebastiano del Piombo

Means Sebastian of the lead, reflecting his position of keeper of the papal seal, which he received from the pope in 1531. He shouldn’t really be referred to as Sebastiano del Piombo when referring to the earlier part of his life, if we are going to be strictly “correct”, but this has become the conventional way to refer to him in English-language sources.  His real name was Sebastiano Luciani, and he is referred to as Luciani in French sources.

There are many other Italian renaissance artists’ names that I could mention that are mainly derived from nicknames. In most cases, there’s a variety of potential names that, in theory, could be used.

In the end, if we all know who we mean, isn’t that what really matters?

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Another priapic Vitruvian man!

This is just a quick addition to my previous post. One response to Cesariano’s man was a 1536 Italian edition of Vitruvius by Giovanni Battista Caporali. As far as I understand it, the passage about human proportion here was based on Cesariano’s  translation, but edited and with  new images. You might assume that the potentially problematic erect phallus was omitted in this later edition, but no. It is, however, really quite different from Cesariano’s version. The picture’s to the right. (from the wonderful University of Heidelberg library; the original text is also on

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Leonardo’s Measure – The Genitals of Vitruvian Men

There seems to have been something of a genital fixation amongst commentators on Vitruvius’  in the 1490s and early 1500s. Vitruvius’ book on architecture was a favourite for many renaissance theorists, and his small passage about human proportion was revisited several times, notably by Leon Battista Alberti in his On Sculpture, by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in his treatise on architecture, and, most famously, by Leonardo da Vinci (some of these are collected together here; Leonardo’s version of the Vitruvian Man is to the right).

In a very tricky to interpret bit of text, Vitruvius attempts to create some rules to how each part of the human (for which read male) body relates to the rest (so the length of a foot is a sixth of the height of the entire man etc), and also says that” if a man lies on his back with his hands and feet outspread, and the centre of a circle is placed on his navel, his figure and toes will be touched by the circumference. Also a square will be found described within the figure, in the same way as a round figure is produced”.

Leonardo’s drawing is basically a response to Vitruvius’ ideas. He remeasured people himself and made a series of his own proportional drawings. His notes on proportions are written around the image (in mirror writing, of course).  He agrees with Vitruvius  that the stomach button could be the centre of a circle, but also argues that it is not the navel that’s the exact centre of the body, but the penis – or “virile member” to translate exactly (“Il membro virile nascie nel mezo dell’omo“). He’s shown this on the drawing with the horizontal line that goes across the base of the penis which is, indeed, half-way down the square.

Another commentator on Vitruvius, Cesare Cesariano,  translated the Latin text in a published edition of 1521. His illustration of a perfectly proportioned man has the belly button as the centre of both the circle and the square, but as if to make up for that, his figure has a prominent erection.

In yet another edition of Vitruvius from the early sixteenth century, a manuscript now in Ferrara by an anonymous  writer, his drawing of the canon of proportions is  illustrated by a man who also seems to have an erect penis (unless I’m seeing things) – the illustration is to the right.

I have a few ideas why this should be, and am currently writing them into a chapter on life drawing, proportion, and the perfect body. I’m still puzzling over this a little bit though, and wonder how Cesariano’s original audience may have reacted to this image?

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Humanities Research and New Knowledge: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Battle Scenes in the Hall of the Great Council

A couple of years ago, I had a student who asked me if it was OK to base her general renaissance reading on a book she’d found in the local library – Heinrich Wölfflin’s Classic Art.  Now, I have a lot of time for Classic Art. It was a very important book when it was first published in 1899, and we’re still working out the ramifications of Wölfflin’s approach now. But , as I explained to her, research does move on in humanities subjects. It’s not just a matter of approach or methodology, but a matter of information too. Because of decades of archival research, we simply know more about the culture and history of the Renaissance than we did a hundred years ago. I can’t think that a student would ever ask if a book written in 1899 was a suitable textbook for science subject.

I have felt the speed at which humanities research can move at first hand. In 2005, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book on Florence in the Cambridge University Press Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance series.  Like a lot of edited books, this was was delayed for various reasons, and is only just being published this month.  I’d written most of my first draft by spring 2006, when my son was born, just after I’d started a new teaching post, which meant that research was on a back-burner for a while. Emerging from a haze of babies and course writing by about 2008, coupled with research leave, I had some time to see how the discipline had moved on.

I had to rewrite considerable sections of the text because of new discoveries. First of all, there was the great find by Armin Schlechter of a marginal note that discussed Leonardo da Vinci’s projects in 1503 (available via – the Mona Lisa, a painting of St Anne and the beginnings of the Great Council Hall Battle Scene (my English summary of the German text appeared in the May 2008 Leonardo da Vinci society newsletter). Secondly, Rab Hatfield and Maurizio Seracini had been busily considering if and how they were going to find Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari painting, which they argue has been hidden for almost five hundred years under Vasari’s paintings in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  This project has been in and out of the news for the past few years, and, fingers crossed, it will now be possibly finally to secure enough funding to see if the Leonardo painting still exists.

Hatfield, in Finding Leonardo, a short book published in 2007,  argued that the widely held view that Leonardo and Michelangelo painted frescos on either side of the same wall was incorrect. By carefully reviewing the available evidence he (convincingly I think) suggested that they each painted their battle scenes on opposite walls.  Although this might seem a minor change to people who are not renaissance art specialists, it means that our perception of what the hall might have looked like, and the scale of the operation have to change entirely – hence many of the textbooks now used are almost certainly incorrect. More practically it meant that I had to quickly draw up a new plan of the room and write a new paragraph for the book. Unfortunately, Hatfield’s work is not available online, which is a real shame – I do wish this had been published in an accessible refereed journal, if only to give other scholars a chance to debate these ideas in a public forum. Because of this, what follows is a section of my text which (I hope) represents these new ideas. It’s accompanied by a plan, which more or less reconstructs how the hall may possibly have been intended to look. Of course, if they do manage to find Leonardo’s painting under Vasari’s fresco in the next couple of years, we’ll have to rewrite the textbooks all over again.

Extract from “Republican Florence and the Arts, 1494-1513”, in Francis Ames-Lewis (ed.), Florence, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, October 2011.

By the end of 1507, a council member entering the Sala di Gran Consiglio from the street would have gone up the new, elaborately decorated stone staircase leading from a courtyard of the old palace, and entered the hall on the south side of the west wall. To borrow Landucci’s phrase, he may have stood there “lost in admiration,” looking across the width of a huge room, trapezoidal in shape, with two east–west long walls (of about 61.9 meters and 52.56 meters , respectively) and shorter north–south walls. Around almost the entire length and width of the hall he would have noted an intricately carved and inlaid wooden gallery, about 1.75 meters high, where the magistrates of the commune sat on two rows of benches. Looking from the entrance to the center of the east wall, our council member would have seen the loggia of the Signoria, where the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia sat in the middle of the Priors, with the other two bodies of the Tre Maggiore – the sixteen Gonfalonieri di Compagnia and the Dodici Buonomini (Twelve Good Men) – ranged along the raised dais at either side. This loggia, finished in 1500, was a large arcaded structure that must have been an impressive sight. Seven meters wide, it was decorated with inlaid wood, and boasted an entablature that was entirely gilded. If everything had gone to plan, it would have been surmounted by a life-size marble Savior carved by Andrea Sansovino that was to be placed right in the center of the loggia, above the seat of the Gonfaloniere.

At either side of the loggia were two doors that led to small rooms where the votes of the council were counted and registers were kept. Flanking them, above the spaces for the sixteen Gonfalonieri and twelve Dodici Buonomini, was a large expanse of windowless wall that were to be given over to a wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci commemorating a previous Florentine military victory, the Battle of Anghiari. By late 1505, council members would have seen the early stages of this commission just to the right of the prior’s loggia – Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of the Battle of the Standard. This was to have been just one section of an enormous painting that would have covered almost the entire wall. The entrance wall opposite was to have boasted Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina. Although we have records of the cartoon for one section of this projected painting, Michelangelo never actually started painting in the hall.

This entrance wall of the chamber was also lined by a carved wooden gallery, with a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary at its center. One of the first commissions for the hall was for an altar and framed altarpiece for the chapel. Judging by the size of the unfinished altar panel by Fra Bartolommeo – 441 x 306 cm – and the fact that the woodworker Baccio d’Agnolo took four years to make the frame and was paid the massive amount of 280 gold florins for his work, it would have been a very impressive object indeed. The frame must have dwarfed the altarpiece that was placed in the chapel as an interim measure. This temporary altarpiece – Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Child with Saints Bernard and John the Baptist –was one of the objects taken from the Palazzo Medici. Because Bernard was a saint traditionally associated with the Signoria, this placement can be seen as another attempt by the new government to wrest communal iconography from the grip of the Medici family.

The chapel would have been the focus of attention of council members not only during Mass but also during the many sermons and political orations made from its pulpit. Somewhere near the centre of the room, between the chapel and the seat of the Signoria, were the richly-decorated benches for the magistracy of the Ten of Liberty and Peace, an office that was in charge of the conduct of war. Their central placement reflected their importance in the commune, and also would have underlined the many speeches made from the pulpit which attempted to persuade the council to raise taxes to fund the war against Pisa. While being harangued in this way, council members sat on rows of wooden benches with carved wooden barriers that packed the hall. This crowding was necessary to seat a large number of people – potentially up to 3000 men. In practice, rather less came to weekly council meetings, though there was still a great number: 1,755 in March 1496, according to Giovanni Cambi and it was necessary to have at least a thousand men present to make the council quorate.  Between, or around, these benches (the documentation is unclear) two passages gave access from one side of the hall to another – one from the doorway on the north side of the west wall to the chapel, and one leading from the chapel through the middle of the hall to the seat of the Signoria. The north doorway was the entrance from the Palazzo, and a passageway through the seats constructed in 1504 perhaps allowed magistrates to make a dignified ceremonial entrance at times when the council was in session, after the normal council members were seated.  The differences in roles and status between the magistrates and the council members were reinforced not only through the respective height of their seats but also through marble inscriptions. One inscription, in Latin (and thus presumably for educated members of the council), reminded them that the new government was inspired by God and that ruin would befall anyone who challenged it. The other contained a stern admonition in Italian not to summon a popular parliament, which would allow Florence to fall into the hands of tyrants.

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Teaching and Researching the Renaissance

Dirk Jacobsz Vellert, School Room, woodcut, 1526. Image (c) British Museum

I’m officially back from two years’ research leave (courtesy of a Philip Leverhulme Prize). I can’t pretend that I didn’t find the time useful in finishing several book projects that have been ongoing for a while (as well as starting others), but like most academics I know, one of the reasons I wanted to do this job in the first place was to teach, and I have missed working with undergraduate students.

The research/teaching divide is a little false anyway; pulling together material for a course, dividing it up into separate weeks and choosing on significant themes (while necessarily discarding others) is exactly the kind of thing you have to do whilst writing a book. It seems to me a shame that thousands of renaissance studies courses are being taught internationally, but relatively few are accessible online. You can learn a lot from reading other people’s courses; as I’ve just found out reading a new course about early modern human/animal relationships by a friend and colleague, Sarah Cockram, and learnt huge amounts about an area that I would like to know more about, but wasn’t entirely sure how to get started with.

To that end, I’ve put my course materials online, using the wiki service offered by the University of Edinburgh. My new second semester course (“How to Make Italian Renaissance Art”) is very much a work in progress,  and will be filled in progressively during the next month or so. My first semester course (“The Renaissance Body”) is one that I’ve taught for a few years, (in fact it has been responsible for framing many of my research questions) but I made some extensive changes to it this summer after doing all the reading for my nudes book. My MSc options course, Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Texts, Objects and Practices, is taught onsite in Florence and Prato, in collaboration with History at Monash University, the website was written last year so that Australian students could easily access the course materials. I’ll be transferring this to Edinburgh University’s wiki pages this semester.

Of course, there’s bound to be gaps in my knowledge that will be exposed here – and in some way that’s the point of putting the courses on the web. I hope that if people know articles, books or websites that they think would help my students (and me), they’ll  let me know in the comments to this post.  If there’s any collection of online renaissance/early modern courses that would also be useful – and if not I’m happy to put together a page of links here if I get sent any. Collaboration can only be good for both research and teaching.

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That’s no saint! Mirrors, witches and seeing yourself naked

As last week was overrun with discussing, making up, and trying out renaissance cosmetics ( and I’m updating the Making Up the Renaissance website as fast as I can alongside my other work) I didn’t have time for my normal blog post. I did, however, spot a couple of images that I thought would be perfect to talk about whilst I was once again looking through the fantastically useful British Museum Collections Database. I was searching for images of mirrors. As I briefly mentioned in a previous post,  I’m interested in how innovations in mirror technology (particularly the advent of flat glass mirrors, as opposed to convex glass or polished metal) may have affected body image. This happened at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, the first flat glass mirror patent being taken out in Venice in 1507. Largescale flat mirrors meant, I think, that people would be able to observe their entire bodies in mirrors for the first time. I’m wondering what kind of emotional charge that might have had. Anyone who remembers the TV series  What not to Wear, where candidates were ritually humiliated about their fashion choices and their rubbish bodies whilst standing in a small room lined with large mirrors, will know what I mean.

Monogrammist M, Vanity and Death, mid 16th century, British Museum

Although the What not to Wear hosts might have been vindictive, at least they weren’t actually Death, as in this Italian print from around the mid-sixteenth century. He peaks round the corner, holding an hour glass leering (as much as skeletons can leer?) at a naked woman trying to see herself from behind in a large flat mirror.  “Mortalia Facta Peribunt” says the Latin inscription at the bottom, “mortal things will perish”. The woman seems to be a kind of mixture of  Michelangelo’s Louvre Dying Slave and his Dawn in the Medici chapel, possibly an indicator of the most beautiful body someone could aim to own in the mid-sixteenth century?

Death and Vanity, to my knowledge, is much more common as a subject for prints in Northern Europe, particularly Germany, than in Italy. The same is true of images of witchcraft. There’s some fantastic German images of witches undertaking demonic rituals from the early sixteenth century by Dürer and Hans Baldung, but not many Italian images that are equivalent (if you want to read more about the German images, the relevant chapter in Joseph Koerner’s The Moment of Self-Portraiture might be a good start). Perhaps the nearest Italian equivalent to the frenzied German witches is an enigmatic print possibly by Agostino Veneziano called Lo Stregozzo.

Agostino Veneziano, Witch(?), British Museum.

So I was happy, and surprised,when I noticed the print to the left. Definitely by Agostino Veneziano (his signature is on it), the BM had catalogued this as an image of St Margaret, Looking at her though, it’s not likely that this woman is a saint – she’s all together too lascivious. Although she’s alongside a demon-type creature (at the bottom right), which could be St Margaret’s dragon, St Margaret isn’t normally shown next to a cave, nor does she wear a flimsy see-through dress which she suggestively raises with her left hand. That demon-type creature also seems suspiciously phallic if you look closely. In her other hand she holds a convex mirror – perhaps intended to be a scrying glass (like a crystal-ball, convex mirrors were sometimes held to reveal the future and other occult secrets to people who knew how to use them). I have to say I don’t work on witchcraft, so I’m not going to do much with this image, but I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to do further research on it, or from those people who have already done some great research on witchcraft images in Italy. Anyhow, it seems to me that we can add this print to the small list of Italian images of witches. It would be good to know if this reflects actual ritual (there are several extant witchcraft trials, especially from northern Italy), or whether it’s just an artist’s fantasy. I wonder if there’s any others that have been miscatalogued?

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