07 08 artemisia gentileschi self portraitToday I want to tell you about a famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. But before I start, I wanted to warn you that my research today has involved reading through the details of a seventeenth century rape trial, which I will be mentioning. If it’s a subject you find distressing, and frankly, why wouldn’t you? Maybe give this one a miss.

July 8th is the birthday of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in 1593, in Rome. Her father, Orazio, was a painter, her mother, Prudentia, died when she was twelve. She showed much more artistic talent than any of her younger brothers and her father taught her drawing, how to prepare colours and how to paint. Orazio was much influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was his contemporary and both his work and that of Artemisia share his dramatic use of light and dark.

07 08 susannah and the eldersIt couldn’t have been particularly easy for a young girl to make her way in a profession dominated by men. Her first signed painting, here on the left, is dated 1610, when she was only seventeen. It depicts the story of Susannah and the Elders. Susannah was a young married woman who was bathing alone in her garden. Two old and lecherous men were spying on her. As she returned to the house, they accosted her and said that they would tell everyone that she had been planning to meet a young man there, unless she promised to have sex with them. She refused, was arrested and was about to be put to death when Daniel, of Lion’s Den fame, came along and saved her. He questioned the two men separately and their stories did not match, so they were proved to be liars. It has been a popular subject in classical art, but Artemisia’s painting is one of the few that shows it as a traumatic event. Artemisia knew what it was like to be at the mercy of an older man.

In 1611, her father was working with another painter called Argostino Tassi. During that time, he employed Tassi to teach Artemisia about perspective. Tassi forced his attentions on Artemisia and he raped her. There’s no need to dwell too much on the details but she put up a fight. She scratched him, she threw a knife at him, but he was too strong for her. Tassi was fifteen years older than her. He promised Artemisia that they would be married and continued to visit her for the next nine months. Then, it turned out that he wasn’t going to marry her at all. Her father Orazio, accused Tassi of rape, and also of stealing a painting. In 1612, there was a huge and very public trial which lasted for seven months. Tassi at first claimed that he had never touched Artemisia, or even been alone with her. Then he changed his mind and said that he had visited her only to protect her honour. He produced witnesses who swore that the Gentileschi household was practically a brothel, slandered her dead mother and claimed her father had committed incest with her and then sold her for a loaf of bread. They were blatant lies and some of the witnesses were afterwards prosecuted for it. During the trial it transpired that Tassi had been aided by another man called Cosimo Quorlis, who had previously been rejected by Artemisia, and that a woman called Tuzia, who she had previously trusted, had allowed Tassi into the house through her apartment. It was also revealed that Tassi was married, had previously raped his sister-in-law and that his wife was missing and presumed murdered by him. Up until half way through the trial, Artemisia did not even know that he was married. Artemisia was subjected to a gynaecological examination and she was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison. He was forgiven and released after only eight months.

A month after the trial, Artemisia was married off to a friend of the family and moved to Florence. Either during or just after the trial she painted this picture of Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia herself is the model for Judith. It’s a very powerful painting by, I can’t help feeling, a very angry woman.

07 08 judith beheading holofernes

Again, the subject of Judith and Holofernes was a popular one. I mentioned it back in January when I wrote about Elisabetta Sirani. Most artists had previously shied away from depicting the beheading part of the story, choosing to show instead, Judith and her maidservant carrying the head away. Probably the closest earlier example is this one by07 08 judith beheading holofernes caravaggio Caravaggio, painted around 1598. Caravaggio’s Judith is filled with revulsion as she slices through the neck of Holofernes and her maidservant stands aside holding a bag. Artemisia’s Judith is very focused, devoid of emotion and her maidservant is helping to hold him down. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that her Holofernes was based on the likeness of Tassi.

Artemisia got on pretty well in Florence. She painted for the Medicis and for Michaelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, who was building a museum in honour of his famous great uncle. There she painted a second, larger and even more bloody version of Judith beheading Holofernes with an even bigger sword. There is another of Judith and her maidservant escaping with the head in a basket. Not all her 07 08 allegoria dell'inclinazionepaintings deal with such violent subjects, on the left is a painting from Casa Buonarroti. But around ninety percent of those that survive show a female protagonist, or one who is at least the equal of men. It’s not surprising that most of her paintings feature women. As a female artist, she would not have been allowed access to male models. Whilst in Florence, she also became friends with the astronomer Galileo Galilei and became the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Arts and Drawing. Her new husband did not fair so well. He got them into a horrible amount of debt and, in 1621, she left him and returned to Rome. After Rome, she moved to Venice, then to Naples, where her daughter was married in 1634. In 1638, she went to England, at the request of King Charles I, where her father was already working. She collaborated with him on a large commission at the Queen’s House at Greenwich.

It was probably at the court of Charles I that she painted the self portrait at the top of this post. She has painted herself as an allegory of painting. Abstract concepts like painting were often represented as female figures and, as a female artist, Artemisia was in the unusual position of being able to put herself in the picture. Her father died in England in 1639 and we don’t know much about what happened to her after that. She went to Naples and may have died during a plague there in 1656. What we do know is that the terrible rape case in her early life, and possibly deserting her husband, left her with a tarnished reputation. Artemisia Gentileschi worked as an artist her whole life, overcoming not only the difficulty of being a female in a male dominated profession, but also her reputation as a fallen woman. It seems as though her early experience with Tassi coloured the rest of her life. There is certainly a lot of power and a lot of rage in many of her paintings. I like to think that she might have turned this to her advantage and found herself a rather niche client base who really enjoyed paintings of powerful women.

Good Riddance

05 14 john xiiSometimes, when I’m searching for a subject, I have to write about someone on the day of their death. Usually it’s because no one knows when their birthday was. But occasionally, just occasionally it feels more appropriate to mark the day that they left us. Today’s post is not about someone brilliant. It’s about someone completely awful. But his story is too outrageous to ignore. The other day I wrote about Pope Sylvester II and how people thought he was in league with the Devil. I said I thought that his reputation might have been ill deserved and that there were other Popes who were far worse. Well, today, I give you Pope John XII…

I’ll start with a bit of family background. His grandmother, named Marozia, had once been mistress to Pope Sergius III and together they gave birth to another Pope, Pope John XI, but that is a separate issue. Marozia later married Alberic I, who was a duke and they had a son, who became Alberic II. Alberic number one died and Marozia married his half brother, Hugh, who became King of Italy. Alberic number two was, for various reasons pretty upset and tried to overthrow Hugh at the wedding ceremony. Hugh escaped but Marozia was imprisoned for the rest of her life. Alberic number two became the self-styled prince of Rome. He was the father of John XII.

Alberic II made the Roman nobles swear that his son, then named Octavianus, would be made Pope the next time the situation became vacant. Then Alberic died in 954 and his son became the next prince of Rome. The following year, the Pope died and Octavianus was, as promised, made Pope as well. Being both a prince and a pope, and also rather young, somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, he got a bit above himself. Actually that’s putting it mildly. He did what ever he wanted.

He had a lot of trouble hanging onto his lands and called in the help of a German king, Otto I. He had Otto crowned Holy Roman Emperor. But later, he went back on all his promises of loyalty to the new emperor. If you’re a prince, hanging onto your lands is pretty important, as I think I mentioned when I wrote about Machiavelli the other day. As a pope though, John XII was absolutely terrible. Among his many mistresses were one of his father’s concubines and his own niece. He had sexual relationships with both women and men. No one was safe. He was such an awful sex pest that female pilgrims were put off visiting the tomb of Saint Peter in case they were attacked by the Pope. He turned the Papal Palace into a brothel. And that’s not all…

Pope John XII was a drinker and a gambler. He drank toasts to the Devil. He invoked the names of Jupiter and Venus whilst playing dice. When he lost, he used money from the papal treasury to pay off his debts. He once ordained a ten-year-old boy as a bishop and ordained a deacon in a stable. While we’re talking about stables, he is said to have kept 2,000 horses which he fed on figs and almonds soaked in wine. Anyone who tried to criticise him was severely punished. He had a cardinal castrated, put out the eyes of his confessor and had an archive-keeper’s nose cut off.

Eventually, Otto called a council and asked John to defend himself against a number of charges. John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone who threatened to depose him, then he ran away. Whilst he was gone, another Pope was elected, Leo VIII. But then, John returned, evicted Leo, maimed many of his supporters and beheaded sixty-three bishops and noblemen. Fortunately just as he was about to try and make things up with Otto, he died. Want to know how? A man caught him in bed with his wife and hit him on the head with a hammer.

05 14 benedict ixOddly, the Catholic Church later made his cousin a pope. And two of his nephews. And his great nephew, Benedict IX, who was also spectacularly awful. I can mention him as well today, as no one seems to know when he died. Which is unusual for a pope. Benedict also had a string of lovers, both men and women, but he also added a few animals into the mix. He was forced out twice, then abdicated after selling the papacy to his godfather for fifteen hundred pounds of gold. But then he tried to seize power again and was excommunicated. He was eventually replaced by Pope Damasus II, who’s reign lasted less than a month. It’s a pity Popes don’t often rule under their own name, because his given name was Poppo. Pope Poppo would have been a fantastic name.

Nobody’s Perfect

05 03 machiavelli Today is the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli. He was born on this day in 1469. Even though the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ has become a pejorative term to describe someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. Even though the Devil may be called ‘Old Nick’ in his honour. I’d like to argue that he may have made some good points.

Machiavelli lived through a time of enormous political unrest. New leaders were constantly rising to power, only to be immediately knocked down by someone else. He wrote his most famous work, ‘The Prince’, for Lorenzo II de’ Medici (father of Catherine) at a time when the Medici family were newly reinstated as rulers of Florence. Machiavelli had lost his job in the upheaval. He had been accused of plotting against the Medicis, he had been arrested, he had been tortured. He had been released and he had banished from the city. He was hoping to win Lorenzo’s favour. It is a political treatise offering advice on how a new prince might retain his power. Machiavelli knew that a prince should be both loved and feared, but if it is not possible to have both, it is best to be feared. He advised that the prince kill not only his enemies, but anyone who might be powerful enough to become an enemy.

His belief was that, sometimes, violence is necessary to maintain a stable society. That if you do something awful, most people will not notice if it achieves a result that is good. That there is no point imagining an ideal society where everyone is lovely because it’s not going to happen. He thought that religion was a bad thing for leaders because it made them lazy. Those who left everything up to the ‘Will of God’ never achieved anything. On the other hand, religion was a good thing for the geneal populace because it made them easy to manipulate. You could say anything was the ‘Will of God’ and they’d be fine with it. Some of his observations are based on the life of Cesare Borgia (brother of Lucrezia). He tells the story of how Cesare appointed a deputy to do his more unpleasant jobs. When his deputy was hated for it, he had him killed. Not only that, but he had his body cut in half and left in the town square along with a butcher’s block and a blood-stained knife. Of course, I’m not in favour of people who lie, cheat and murder their way into a position of power. But, let’s face it, destroying the opposition and having a good scapegoat is the way people get into postions of power.

Unfortunately Lorenzo didn’t like his book and Machiavelli continued to live on his farm outside the city, which he didn’t like very much at all. That’s when he wrote his comedy ‘La Mandragola’. I’d like to tell you about that because it sort of illustrates his political thoughts in microcosm and in a much less violent way. Everyone in the play does something completely immoral and yet everyone ends up happy.

05 03 mandragolaThe protagonist, Callimaco, falls hopelessly for a lady named Lucrezia who is young and beautiful. She is marries to an old man called Nicia who is a complete idiot. They have no children and Nicia is desperate for a son and heir. Callimaco’s scheming friend, Ligurio, devises a plan that will allow Callimaco to spend the night with Lucrezia which also involves a corrupt priest. Our hero poses as a doctor who can offer a solution to the couple’s childlessness. He convinces Nicia to drug Lucrezia with mandrake, claiming it will increase her fertility. However there is a caviat. The mandrake will undoubtedly kill the first man to have sex with her. Callimaco helpfully suggests to Nicia that an unwitting fool be found for this purpose. The ‘mandrake’ will be, in fact, just a big glass of wine and the ‘unwitting fool’, Callimaco in diguise. Lucrezia, being a religeous lady is reluctant but is eventually convinced by her mother and the priest to comply. The priest tells her that, like eating meat on a Wednesday, it is a sin that can be easily washed away with holy water. She allows a disguised Callimaco into her bed and, believing that the events which caused her to break her marriage vows were due to divine providence, accepts him as her lover on a more permanent basis.

Callimaco is happy because he gets to keep seeing Lucrezia. Lucrezia is happy because she has a nice new lover and has been told it’s not a sin. Nicia is happy because he will get his son and heir. Lucrezia’s mother is happy because she will have a grandchild. The priest is happy because he got a big bribe for taking part in a lie. Ligurio is happy everyone is pleased and that means he can get himself a free lunch whenever he wants.

Tell it Like it Is

04 20 aretino by titianToday is the birthday of Pietro Aretino, who was born in Arezzo in the Florentine Republic in 1492. His life didn’t have a very promising start, he was the illegitimate son of a cobbler, was probably not well educated and was, for reasons I’ve been unable to divine, banished from his home town as a teenager. Aretino at first thought he might be a painter, but soon realised that writing was where his real talent lay. He would be honoured by Popes and befriended by Kings, but not because he was a writer of fine and elevated literature. Aretino was good at noticing people’s weaknesses and he wasn’t afraid to write about them. This made him a lot of enemies, so he survived on his wits and also a certain amount of good fortune. He also wrote poetry and plays that were extremely sexually explicit that have earned him the title of the inventor of literate pornography.

When he was about fourteen, he moved to the nearby city of Perugia, where he worked as assistant to a bookbinder. But he had to leave the city after he vandalised a statue of Mary Magdalene by painting a lute in her hands. By the time he was twenty-four, he was living in Rome, working for a rich man called Argostino Chigi. For Chigi, he began to write obscene and witty poems which he recited at dinner parties, much to everyone’s delight. But Aretino wanted more. He wanted fame and he thought a combination of his writing and access to a printing press could probably help him achieve that. He just needed to find the right subject.


Then, in 1516, the Pope’s pet elephant died. The Pope, Leo X, loved his elephant. His name was Hanno and he used to appear in parades. Sadly, after two years of living in Rome he died after a failed attempt to treat his constipation. The Pope composed Hanno’s epitaph himself and commissioned Raphael to paint a fresco in his honour. It might have seemed a bit over the top to some people, and then a pamphlet appeared, purporting to be ‘The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno’. It mocked pretty much every cardinal and authority figure in Rome. The elephant bequeathed his jaws to Cardinal Danti Quattro so that he will be able to devour the revenues of the Church more easily. To Cardinal Santa Croce, he left his knees: “so that he can imitate my genuflections, but only on the condition that he tells no more lies in Council” and to Cardinal Grassi, his generative organs because he is such an ‘incorrigible fornicator’. Luckily, the Pope saw the funny side. Leo X was a member of the Medici family and was, like Aretino, from the Republic of Florence. Maybe he thought it would be useful to have a man like Aretino in his employ and he hired him for himself.

Five years later, Pope Leo died and Aretino was naturally hoping that another Medici would be elected in his place. He published a lot of rude things about the other potential candidates. Unfortunately for him, someone else was elected. Adrian of Utrecht was known to: “scorn the vanities of this world”. As a man who relied pretty heavily on the vanities of this world, Aretino could see that things were not going to work out very well form him and he fled Rome

Pope Adrian died the following year and another Medici, Clement VII, was elected in his place. Aretino returned to Rome and began, once again to publish rude pamphlets mocking the power hungry men who surrounded the Pope. This time though, he made himself a powerful enemy called Giovanmatteo Giberti, who swore revenge. It wasn’t long before he was presented with the ideal opportunity.

To explain what happened, I need to tell you about a couple of artists. The first was Giulio Romano. He was doing some work in the Vatican, but when he was bored he did a few sketches for his friends. There were sixteen drawings and they all: “dealt with the various attitudes and postures in which lewd men have intercourse with lewd women.” Legend suggests that he actually drew these pictures on the walls of the Vatican. I’d love that to be true, but it probably isn’t. When he left to work on another commission elsewhere he left the drawings with his friend Marcantonio Raimondi. Marcantonio had learned how to reproduce drawings as engravings and had them printed. He sold thousands of them. When the Pope heard about it, Marcantonio was arrested and thrown in prison. Every single copy of the engravings was found and destroyed. Somehow, and we don’t know how because he was not a popular man, Aretino managed to campaign for Marcantonio’s release.

Then, of course, he wanted to know what all the fuss had been about. Marcantonio showed him the drawings and Aretino was so impressed that he was inspired to write a sonnet to accompany each illustration. Each poem is a conversation between a courtesan and her client. Some of the characters were recognisable as prominent public figures. The work was published all over again as a book which is called ‘I Modi’ or ‘Aretino’s Positions’. They were dedicated to his enemy Giberti. When this came to the attention of Giberti he ordered Aretino arrested. But when the guards arrived at his house, he was already gone. All copies were again sought out and destroyed. All that remains of Marcantonio’s engravings are a single illustration and a few fragments which now belong to the British Museum. Aretino’s sonnets have survived along with some woodblock prints from a forged copy of their book.

04 20 i modi fragments

04 20 i modi raimondi

Aretino fled to Mantua, but Giberti’s influence was far reaching and in July 1525 Aretino was on his way home from a party, when he was stabbed twice. He was stabbed once in the chest and once in the hand and was expected to die. But slowly he began to recover. He had to learn to write with his left hand because his right was so badly damaged. In 1527, he moved to Venice, which was an extremely liberal place and pretty much perfect for him. Aretino knew a lot of things about a lot of very important people. Sometimes he made a living writing about them, sometimes by not writing about them. People would give him gifts in the hope that he would publish something salacious about their enemies. Sworn rivals Francis I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V both petitioned him in the hope that he would have something to say about the other one.

Before we leave Aretino today, I want to tell you a bit about one of his other works. His ‘Capricciosi Ragionamenti’ (Capricious Dialogues) was a three part work. It was a discussion between one prostitute and another about how she should raise her daughter. Basically, there were three life choices open to women. They could become a nun, a wife or a whore. The mother Nanna, wondered which was best. Her friend, Antonia, suggests that, as Nanna had been all three, she should describe the life of nuns, the life of wives and the life of whores and she will be able to tell which is best for her daughter.

As a young woman, Nanna had been sent to a convent. She expected to find a place of piety and prayer, a place where she might as well have been dead. Instead, as she sat 04 20 nun picking penises off a treedown to eat, a man brought a basket, which he claimed contained fruits from paradise. But what the basket contained was loads of glass penises made out of Murano glass. The picture on the right is not an illustration from his work, it’s actually from around two hundred years earlier, but I was reminded of it. Nanna was completely debauched in the nunnery and eventually left to return to her family. Then, she was married off to a very old and rich man. To convince him that she was a virgin, her mother placed an egg shell filled with chicken’s blood inside Nanna’s vagina. The ruse completely fooled her husband and Nanna later met many other wives and learned about the tricks they’d pulled on their foolish husbands. Nanna had lots of affairs while she was married and wound up stabbing her husband when he found her in the arms of a beggar. It was after that, that she became a whore, selling her ‘virginity’ over and over. Her friend concluded that she would be better off making her daughter a whore straight away. That way she wouldn’t be breaking any promises to God, or her marriage vows.

04 20 death of aretinoPietro Aretino died in 1556. He died of laughing too much. Either he asphyxiated or he fell backwards and hit his head on the floor. Which isn’t the worst way to go. You can see a nineteenth century depiction of the event by Anselm Feuerbach on the left. His work continues to cause controversy. In 2007, Michael Nyman set some of his ‘lust sonnets’ to music. When they were performed in 2008 at Cadagon Hall in Chelsea, the programme was withdrawn on grounds of obscenity. It is one of the few pieces of classical music which carries a ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Content’ sticker.


Can’t Choose Your Family

04 18 possibly lucreziaToday is the birthday of Lucrezia Borgia, she was born in 1480 in Subiaco near Rome. She was said to be very beautiful, with golden hair that fell past her knees. There aren’t any contemporary paintings that we definitely know are of her, but of the likely candidates, the one on the right is my favourite. Historically, she has been seen as a dreadful person. A depraved incestuous poisoner and general worst person ever. You can find stories about how she carried poison hidden inside a ring, and how she attended a party at the Vatican where fifty prostitutes were made to crawl around on a floor that was strewn with lit candelabra and chestnuts (don’t know why). Although she was certainly a member of a very ruthless and power hungry family, she may have been completely innocent of the crimes of which she was accused.

Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of a Cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia, and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. This sounds like a pretty shocking thing to us, but it really wasn’t. It was quite normal for men of the cloth to have mistresses, they just weren’t allowed to marry. As with any daughter of a powerful family, her value was that she could be married off to someone who could provide them with political advantage. Rodrigo arranged for her to be married at the age of ten, but then he changed his mind and betrothed her to someone else. When she was twelve, her father was made Pope. As Pope Alexander VI, he could arrange a much more advantageous marriage for her and he broke of her second engagement. At thirteen, she was married to Giovanni Sforza.

Two years later though, the marriage ceased to be of political advantage to the Borgia family. The easiest way to have got rid of him would have just been to have him killed, and it seems this is what Alexander and Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare planned to do. But Cesare warned Lucrezia and she told Giovanni to leave Rome. Next, Alexander wanted their marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Giovanni was understandably upset by this and launched a counter attack. He accused both the Pope and Cesare of committing incest with his wife. It all got pretty nasty but Giovanni eventually agreed to be thought of as impotent if he could keep her huge dowry. It is possible that Lucrezia was pregnant at this time and later gave birth to a son. A child was certainly born in the Borgia family, but no one is sure of his parentage. The Pope issued two separate Papal Bulls. One claiming that Cesare was the father the other claiming that the child was his. There is no mention of the mother’s name, but it certainly fuels the rumours of incest. Lucrezia herself may have been having an affair with Alexander’s chamberlain, Pedro Calderon. It wasn’t very long before Pedro’s body washed up in the Tiber.

Her first husband was probably lucky to escape with his life. Her second, Alfonso d’Aragon was not so lucky. When his family fell out of favour he was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica and stabbed several times. This was not what killed him though. Lucrezia, who seems to have genuinely cared for him, was nursing him as he recovered from his wounds when someone strangled him. Suspicion fell very heavily in the area of one of her brother Cesare’s trusted servants.

04 18 lock of hairIt is not surprising that Lucrezia’s next prospective father-in-law, Ercole I d’Este, was a bit uneasy about the match. He had seen how badly her first marriages had turned out and he had heard the rumours of incest. In fact, he sent a spy to the Vatican to see what Lucrezia was really like. He received a report that she seemed like a sweet and lovely girl, who was not at all depraved. Also, a combination of a large dowry and a threat to unseat him as Duke of Ferrara helped secure her marriage to his eldest son and heir. Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este remained married until she died after complications in her last pregnancy. It doesn’t seem like they were in love as they both had loads of affairs. She had a long affair with her brother-in law. Also, in the Ambrosian Museum in Milan, there are a number of love letters that she sent to a court poet, Pietro Bembo, along with a lock of her hair. Lord Byron visited the museum in 1816 and declared them to be ‘the prettiest love letters in the world. He also made off with a strand of her hair. What remain is now encased in glass, to keep it safe from poets.

Lucrezia’s third marriage probably stood the test of time because her scheming father, Pope Alexander VI and her awful brother Cesare Borgia both died, releasing her from their machinations. Free to live her own life, she made an excellent Duchess of Ferrara. She was a patron of the Arts. She bought up marshy land and had it drained for agricultural use and she gave much of her wealth to fund the building of hospitals and convents. When she died, people were truly sorry.

04 18 rossetti's lucreziaSo, her evil reputation seems ill-deserved. It really began with rumours started by her spurned first husband and continued after the next Pope, Julius II, seriously fell out with her third husband. There was an incident where a bronze statue of the Pope was toppled and broken into pieces. Alfonso had the bits melted down and made into a cannon. Macchiavelli repeated the rumours as fact, so did a historian called Guicciardini. Then, in 1833, Victor Hugo wrote a stage play about her which got turned into an opera by Donizetti. Which is probably what led Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint this picture of her, cavorting with her father and brother.


04 15 leonardo de vinciOn this day in 1452 Leonardo da Vinci was born, in the town of Vinci in the Florentine Republic. I truly love Leonardo. He is a person for whom the term ‘Renaissance Man’ might have been invented. He was interested in painting, sculpture, architecture, invention, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography. With such a wide range of interests, he seems to have been easily distracted and rarely finished any of his projects. Even his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was with him until he died because he didn’t think it was finished.

His interests were so wide-ranging that I can’t possibly do justice to him in a single blog post. So I mainly want to talk about some of his lost projects and what he might have been like as a person. Of course, that’s going to make it rather hard to illustrate, but let’s see what happens…

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a wealthy legal notary called Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman called Caterina. He showed an early talent for art and his father sent him to study with an artist called Andrea del Verroccio in Florence. At some point his father was given a shield made by a local peasant. The man wanted Ser Piero to find someone in Florence to paint it for him. Ser Piero took the shield to his son. It was quite roughly made so Leonardo had it fixed up and made smooth, then started to think about something scary to paint on it. He collected together specimens of slow worms, lizards, crickets, snakes, moths, grasshoppers and bats. Then he devised a horrifying imaginary creature made up from bits of all of them. He painted it breathing fire and smoke. It was so terrifying and so good that his father never gave it back to the peasant. He bought him another with a heart pierced by an arrow on it and sold Leonardo’s shield to a Florentine merchant for a hundred ducats. The Duke of Milan later paid three hundred for it.

In 1482, he was sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to work for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He brought with him a letter detailing all his skills of building fortifications and siege 04 15 horseweapons. He also mentions, almost as an afterthought, that he also does painting and sculpture. Leonardo also brought his lyre with him. He played very well and had built the instrument himself out of silver, in the shape of a horse’s skull. He also designed floats for the Duke’s pageants and planned to build a huge equestrian monument in honour of Ludovico’s father, Francesco.  It would have been the biggest in the world and seventy tons of bronze were set aside for casting it. He worked on it on and off for sixteen years but unfortunately, when he had finished the life-size clay model, Michaelangelo rudely suggested that he wouldn’t be able to cast it. This put the Duke off and he gave away the bronze to make cannons instead. The cannons didn’t do the Duke much good though, as soon after he was overthrown by the French. They also destroyed Leonardo’s clay horse, their archers used it for target practice.

At the same time as he was working on the giant horse, Leonardo was also painting his famous ‘Last Supper’. This also took a very long time and the Prior who had commissioned him started to worry about it. He sent the Duke of Milan round to try and hurry him up a bit. Leonardo was having trouble with two of the faces. Jesus, because he couldn’t imagine anything holy enough, and also the face of Judas, because he couldn’t find a model who looked evil enough. Leonardo loved interesting faces, but more of that in a moment. He told the Duke that he was looking really hard for a suitable face for Judas, but if he couldn’t find one, he would just use the face of the Prior instead.
 04 15 last supper

I don’t think he was terribly fond of the Clergy in general. Once, at Easter, he was visited by a Priest who went round his studio sprinkling his paintings with Holy Water. Leonardo asked the priest why he’d done this. The priest replied that he was doing a good thing and that his actions would be rewarded a hundred times over in heaven. Leonardo watched from his window as the man left and threw a bucket of water down on him, shouting ‘There’s your gift from on high, you’ve ruined half my paintings.’

I’m very fond of  his drawings, So I thought, as we’re short on pictures of his lost works, I’d show you a couple of them. He’s so clearly fascinated by people and it seems that the more unusual looking they were, the more he liked them. An early biographer, Vasari, tells us that if he saw someone with an interesting face he would follow them around all day, observing them. Then he would go home and draw them. But his interest in people wasn’t only skin deep. Working with a doctor called Marcantonio della Torre, he made loads of very detailed anatomical drawings that would probably have been massively useful if he’d ever got around to finishing them and getting them published. He studied not only the skeleton and muscles, but also the internal organs. He was the first to draw a foetus in utero and he also made a glass model of the aorta which he filled with water and grass seed to watch how liquid flowed through it.

04 15 warrior04 15 portrait

Leonardo loved animals. He was a vegetarian, which was unusual at the time. Also he would buy caged birds in the market just so he could let them go. But in contrast to this, he also dissected animals, and he did some pretty strange things with them. He seems to have enjoyed filling them with air and flying them round like a balloon. His favourite trick was to get hold of some intestines from a sheep or a bullock. Wash them out, then invite his friends round. He showed them how small the intestines were. You could hold them in the palm of your hand. Then he would attach them to a pair of bellows and inflate them so that they filled the whole room. Everyone had to hide in the corners to get away from the ballooning innards.

I think my favourite story though, I like it even more than the Priest and the bucket of water, is about a lizard. He was at the Vatican working for Pope Leo X. A vine-dresser brought him an unusual looking lizard. Leonardo was delighted. He made it a pair of wings from the scales of other lizards and mercury. They trembled when the lizard walked around. He also gave it some false eyes, horns and a beard. Then he tamed it and kept it in a box. What he liked to do then was suddenly show it to people.

Between Superstition and Reason

02 04 giambattista della portaToday I want to tell you about a sixteenth century polymath called Giambattista della Porta. Unfortunately, I don’t know when his birthday was but he might have been born in 1535. He died on this day in 1615. Giambattista was extremely curious about the world and everything in it. At a time in history when it was still just about possible to hold all the world’s knowledge in a single human brain, it’s always interesting to come across someone who had a jolly good stab at writing it all down. Giambattista della Porta wrote a lot of things about a lot of subjects, he even wrote a few plays, but his best known work is ‘Magiae Naturalis’ (Natural Magic) which covers a wide range of subjects.

He was born at Vico Equense, near Naples into a noble family, but not noble enough for anyone to have recorded his date of birth. His father also had a thirst for knowledge and filled his house with learned men. It was a trait he passed on to all three of his surviving sons. He wanted to give them a well rounded education so that they could all grow up to be fine young gentleman. All of them were pretty talented when it came to science and mathematics but they were also interested in the arts, especially music. None of them had any talent for music and couldn’t sing, but because they were good at music theory, or perhaps because they were from a rich family, they were all somehow accepted into a prodigious music academy. Three tone-deaf mathematicians in a school for the musically gifted must have been very difficult for everyone.


Around 1560 Giambattista founded one of the earliest scientific societies in Europe, the ‘Academia Secretorum Naturae’, Academy of the Mysteries of Nature. Anyone could join as long as they could present a new fact regarding natural science. Unfortunately they were forced to disband by Pope Gregory XIII in 1578 because they had been suspected of sorcery. Despite being in trouble with the Inquisition on more than one occasion, Giambattista himself seems to have largely avoided serious trouble. Though he did have friends who were under arrest. It seems he used his scientific knowledge to smuggle messages to them. He knew how to write a message on the inside of an egg, without breaking the shell. He first wrote on the shell using an ink that he made from galls and alum. As the ink dried, it soaked through the porous shell. Then he boiled the egg. The ink on the outside was washed away, but when his friend peeled off the shell, he could read the message on the white of the egg. That’s pretty damned clever.

Secret messages and ciphers were one of his areas of interest. He wrote a whole book about them. But he was also interested in philosophy, astronomy, astrology, optics, mathematics, meteorology, the art of memory, agriculture, hydraulics, military engineering, distillation, the occult and physiognomy. He perfected the camera obscura and may have invented the telescope. He also disproved, through experiment, an ancient belief that magnets could be disempowered by garlic. He was writing and working just before the dawn of what we call ‘The Age of Reason’ so some of what he says makes sense, but some of it is utter nonsense.

02 04 physiognomyPhysiognomy, for example, involves studying a person’s character by their outward appearance. He believed that if people looked beautiful, they were good. It was an unpleasant theory that once rivalled anatomy in importance as a way of studying the human body. Some of della Porta’s beliefs though are an absolute delight. I found a copy of Magiae Naturalis at Internet Archive and I could have read it all day. It has a large section on the spontaneous generation of animals. He tells us earnestly how scorpions can be made out of chewed up basil leaves or bits of dead crab. He also believed that serpents could grow in the spines of men and tells us that in Hungary, three thousand men died from it.

It’s a strange world that he inhabits, between superstition and reason. In his ‘cookery’ section, he advises against eating a partridge that has fed on garlic, because he says ‘it stinks’, which is fair enough if you don’t like garlic. But he also tells us not to eat the meat of a deer in the summer, because they eat adders then and it makes them poisonous.

In his chapter on hunting, he tells us that animals can be trapped with two kinds of bait, food or love. He describes catching a male cuttlefish by attracting it with a female, which is sensible. But then he describes how to catch a fish called a sargue, which is a kind of sea bream. The thing he thinks you need to know about the sargue is that it really, really loves goats. Can’t get enough of them. Whenever a goat comes near the shore it will swim up to be near it. He offers no explanation for this. The best way to catch one is therefore to dress up in a goatskin, complete with horns, and hang around on the beach.

Among his own scientific investigation that were less successful was an attempt to invent what he called a ‘sympathetic telegraph’, an invention for sending messages. There were two devices a little like compasses. Only instead of directions on the dial it had the letters of the alphabet. He hoped that by using a magnet to drag the point to the letters on one device, it would somehow be communicated to the other one, even if it was far away. He also experimented with sound. He knew that sound travelled through the air and he knew that you could speak to someone through a lead pipe. He really thought that if you could construct a long enough pipe, you could stop up the end before the sound had travelled all the way through and then open it up and listen to it later. He blamed his lack of success in this on his inability to find anyone who could build a long enough pipe.

It must have been a terribly frustrating time to be a scientist, with so much superstitious nonsense that was indistinguishable from reality, no clear scientific method, no reliable body of work to build on and running the risk of falling foul of the Inquisition. One of his friends, Giordano Bruno endured a seven year trial and was eventually burned at the stake. Mainly for suggesting that the earth went round the sun.