Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Raucous Rumor of the Month: Did Leonardo da Vinci die in the arms of King Francis I?

In 1818, Ingres captured the poignant moment of Leonardo’s death in the arms of his patron, Francis I. In the painting, the forlorn king cradles an aged Leonardo in an intimate lovers embrace as a distraught figure (believed to be Leonardo’s assistant Melzi) dramatically gestures toward the deathbed. The scene is so intense that critics of the time felt that Francis looked like he was suffocating Leonardo. (I think he looks more like he is about to lay a wet one on him.) It certainly is an emotionally charged scene and one that would inspire other artists such as Cesare Mussini in 1929 (shown below). But does this painting really capture Leonardo’s death or was it just another tall tale passed down through legend? Let's trace the history of this rumor...

Following the death of his patron Giuliano de’Medici, Leonardo left Italy and came to France in 1516, at the age of 64. In France, he spent his final years in the manor of Clos-Luce near Ambroise. Despite the fact that his hand had become too crippled to paint, Francis and Leonardo enjoyed a lively and respectful friendship discussing architectural projects, philosophy, engineering and art to all hours of the night. (Imagine being a fly on the wall for one of those conversations?) According to Benvenuto Cellini, Francis, “did not think that any other man had come into this world with more knowledge than Leonardo.” (1) The king so admired Leonardo’s art that he even attempted to have The Last Supper transported to France. If walls had not proved so hard to move, Milan might have lost its national treasure.

After many crippling months of sickness, Leonardo da Vinci died on On May 2nd, 1519 at Ambroise. A contemporary description of Leonardo’s death was left by Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects:

The king, who was accustomed frequently and affectionately to visit him, came immediately afterwards to his room, and he, causing himself out of reverence to be raised up, sat in his bed describing his malady and the different circumstances connected with it, lamenting besides that he had offended God and man, not having worked in art as he ought to have done. He was then seized with a violent paroxysm, the forerunner of death, when the king, rising and supporting his head to give him such assistance and do him such favour as he could, in the hope of alleviating his sufferings, the spirit of Leonardo, which was most divine, conscious that it could attain to no greater honour, breathed its last in the arms of the king. “(1)

Vasari probably heard the death bed tale from Melzi, but Melzi does not mention such a scene in any of his surviving letters. Would Vasari invent a story just to be more colorful? Perhaps. Vasari certainly did his share of gossiping, but his biographies are one of the few contemporary art history works of the Renaissance that we have today.*

The legend of Leonardo’s death continued into the reign of Louis XIV when the French Chronicler, Andre Felibien wrote:

“...the king having been to visit him during his illness, he wished to half raise himself in bed, and that, desiring to express to the king his deep feeling of the honour His Majesty did him, he failed in his speech and expired in the arms of the king. "(3)

Many historians have argued that Francis could not possibly have been at Ambroise for Leonardo’s last breath because the king had issued an Order in Council from Saint-Germaine-en-Laye one day prior. But Mrs Charles Heaton makes a valid point that this proves nothing because an Order in Council was often issued in the king’s absence and signed by the secretary of state.

Unfortunately, we will never know for certain who was present at Leonardo's death. Art critics have categorized Ingres' painting as an example of artistic hegemony meant to symbolize that the great master had come home to his true resting place – France. But even if the painting does not depict Leonardo’s death accurately, the emotions it captures on losing such a extraordinary artist and inventor are certainly genuine.

* In one on his biographies he tells an amusing tale of Giotto di Bondone who painted a fly on the surface of a portrait that looked so real that his older master, Cimabue repeatedly tried to brush it away. (this tale has now been doubted by art historians but it seems to me like the kind of hijinx that Giotto might get himself into).

(1)Knecht, P 173
(2)Heaton, p. 192

Sources and Further Reading:

Knecht, Robert J., The French Renaissance Court 1438-1589, New Haven: CT, Yale University Press, 2008.
Heaton, Charles, Leonardo da Vinci and his works: consisting of a life of Leonardo da Vinci, MacMillan and Co. 1874.
Stanley, Diane. Leonardo da Vinci, New York: NY, Harper Collins, 2000.


Passages to the Past said...

Great post and very interesting!

After reading Signora da Vinci by Robin Maxwell, I am fascinated with Leonardo!

Bearded Lady said...

oh I will have to check that book out. I loved - To the Tower Born by her.

Mandy Katz said...

You can visit the Clos Luce in Amboise, in fact, where Francis housed Leonardo rather sumptuously. Almost more inspiring than the manor itself are the models on display there of "machines" -- guns, tanks, pumps and more -- that Leonardo designed but never produced. Working from his handsome blueprints, modern curators built them true to size for exhibition purposes.

STAG said...

I like Ingress's painting of Joan of Arc better.

The solution to an armour without a codpiece was brilliant.