Italy – Leonardo Da Vinci And Cesare Borgia

SEVERAL of Leonardo da Vinci’s biographers refer to the personal relations of the artist with Cesare Borgia, generally called Il Valentino, in the years 1501-2, and do not refrain from assigning special importance to that intercourse which according to them lasted some time. But even if there is little occasion to wonder, allowing for the conditions of the times, that Leonardo should ,have met Il Valentino in his peregrinations through Italy after the down-fall of Ludovico il Moro, this fact does not lessen our aversion to the idea that Leonardo should have been for long in the service of the man who was the personification of guile, violence, and murder. It may be, therefore, worth our while to restore this episode in the lives of Leonardo and Borgia to its due proportions.

It is quite conceivable that Il Valentino, on the point of consolidating the Duchy of Romagna, the possession of which he owed to his audacity and treachery, should in the year 1502 have turned his eyes to Leonardo. Twenty years before that date the artist had already offered his services to the Duke of Milan, asserting his experience in military science with words which might be deemed presuming, were they not justified by hundreds of drawings and sketches contained in the Codici Vinciani, and bearing upon the art of war.

Indeed, Leonardo studied not only the arms of antiquity described by Volturio and those of the Middle Ages, which he improved and brought to perfection, but, being faced by the quite recent and radical innovation caused by fire-arms, he made notes of his inventions and improvements, both for offence and defence, which anticipated the advance in military science for some centuries to come. In the days when Il Valentino had cast his eyes on Leonardo, the latter had studied a scheme to stem the newly threatened Turkish invasion across the Isonzo ; and at the same time, with a view of fighting the Mussulman fleet which constituted a danger to the Gulf of Venice, he conceived and planned submarine boats to sink the Turkish galleys. For the Turks, emboldened by their victory of the Zonchio, had dared to raid the country west of the Isonzo, and after having burnt 132 villages and towns, invaded Friuli and even threatened Vicenza.

It was the boast of Venice that she could resist against her enemies by sea and by land for ten years with a monthly expenditure of 300,000 ducats. Leonardo betook himself to the imperilled frontier, and speedily laid down a vast defensive plan, based on the principle of obstructing the massed advance of the Turks by establishing a movable dam across the river, and thus flooding the plains along the Isonzo ; for ” per qualunque parte di terraferma vi passino i turchi aile parti di la Italia, al fine conviene capitino al detto flume.”

In the midst of the panic that had beset the population, Leonardo embarked on another enter-prise : that of planning and constructing a device in order to approach the Turkish galleys under water, ” per rompere i navili in fondo e sommergerli con li omini che vi son dentro.” 1 He first plans an apparatus by means of which it should be possible to sink under water, leaving above the surface only ” la bocca della canna onde alitare.” He then contemplates to free the apparatus from this only connection with the air, making it quite independent for a length of time of at least four hours, indeed as long as a man could remain in it without food. Together with the technical notes of this apparatus, studied in its minutest details,’ are intermingled not only cautions for the strictest secrecy to be observed during its construction, but even the transactions to ensure due compensation for the enterprise ” senza alcuna eccezione.”

We may discern a consideration of an elevated moral character, truly worthy of that powerful mind, in the very determination of secrecy, not limited only to an obvious reason of tactics against the enemy, but inspired by a feeling of humanity. Indeed, Leonardo studies with the hope of being able ” to smash the ships in the keel and sink them with the men that are inside ” because it is necessary for the defence ” delle nostre parti italicize,” for the ultimate fate of Venice ; but at the same time he remarks : ” Il mio modo di star sotto l’acqua, quanto io posso star senza mangiare, questo non pubblico e divolgo, per le male nature delli omini, li quali userebbero li assassinamenti ne’ fondi dei mari.” 1

Does it not seem as if we were reading a lesson of morality addressed to the barbarity of the present day which so cynically exceeds the harsh necessities of warfare ?

It was after he had completed these studies that Leonardo da Vinci in the latter half of the year 1502 made a journey to Romagna along the Adriatic coast. Brief entries in Codex L at the Institut de France enable us to follow his itinerary. On July 30th Leonardo was at Urbino, and two days later at Pesaro ; on August 8th at Rimini. At Cesena he stopped from the 10th to the 15th of that month ; at the beginning of September he was at Porto Cesenatico. The small Codex in which Leonardo entered his various notes does not contain any further items concerning him personally from September 1502 to March 1503, at which time the artist had returned to Florence to undertake the painting of The Battle of Anghiari for the Hall of the Grand Council.

Father Guglielmo della Valle in the edition of Vasari’s Vite, published in Siena in 1793, produced an inedited document to prove that this journey of Leonardo to Romagna was in connection with a mission with which he had been entrusted by Duke Valentino to inspect the fortresses of the latter’s dominions. The document in question was a Letter Patent by which Cesare Borgia conferred on Leonardo, in his capacity of General Engineer, the most unlimited powers for the fulfilment of his task. Father della Valle published this important document on the strength of a copy taken at the instigation of the Secretary to the Government of Maria Theresa, De Pagaye, by the notary Consonni from the original vellum then preserved in the Melzi Archives at Milan. Other students of Leonardo recopied that Letter Patent, but Giuseppe Bossi, in the year 1810, in his work on Leonardo’s Cenacolo had already announced that the original vellum ” had been lost in quite recent times.”

For more than a hundred years the numerous researches of students were fruitless. Gustavo Uzielli (1911), who ardently devoted himself to the study of Leonardo, and brought to light a large quantity of inedited documents now preserved in the Raccolta Vinciana in the Castello Sforzesco, could not account for the disappearance of the precious vellum so soon after its importance for Vincian studies had been made known.

It will therefore afford special satisfaction to hear that the original document, after more than a hundred years, has been found. The fact that Father della Valle’s copy had come to him from De Pagaye, to whom are due several papers on art concerning Lombardy, which still lie unpublished in the Archives of the Counts Melzi, fostered the belief that the original of the Letter Patent was preserved in those Archives. It is instead in the Archives of the Ducal House of Melzi in Milan that the document has been quite recently rediscovered among other papers and vellums on different subjects and of secondary importance. I owe to the gracious concession of Her Excellency the Duchess Josephine Melzi d’Eril Barbo the possibility of presenting here a photographic reproduction of the Letter Patent, not only for the benefit of Vincian studies, but also as a contribution in keeping with the noble aims of this book.

The name of Melzi enables us to establish how this vellum came to us. In fact, it was young Francesco G. Melzi who from Amboise, on June 1, 1519, announced to the Vinci family the death of Leonardo ; he had accompanied the old artist in his voluntary exile to France, and had assisted him up to his last moments. The circumstance that Leonardo appointed him his heir explains how it was that Melzi brought back to Lombardy with Vinci’s manuscripts the vellum of I1 Valentino.

The Letter Patent runs thus : Caesar Borgia de Francia Dei Gratia Dux Romandiole Valentieque, Princeps Hadrie, Dominus Plumbini etc. Ac Sancte Romane Ecclesie Confalonerius et Capitaneus Generalis. Ad Tutti nostri Locotenenti, Castellani, Capitanij, Conducteri, Officiali, Soldati et Subditi ; A li quali de questa peruerra notitia ; Commettemo et Commandamo the al nostro Prestantissimo et Dilectissimo Familiare Architecto et Ingengero Generale Leonardo Vinci dessa ostensore ; el quale de nostra Commissione ha da considerare li Lochi et Forteze de li Stati nostri ; Ad cio the secundo la loro exigentia et suo iudicio possiamo prouederli Debiano dare per tutto passo libero da qualunque publico pagamento per se, et li soi Amichevole recepto et lassarli uedere, mesurare, et bene extimare quanto uorra ; Et ad questo effecto, Commandare homini ad sua requisitione, et prestarli qualunque adiuto adsistentia, et Fauore recercara, Volendo the dellopere da /arse neli nostri Dominij Qualunque Ingengero sia astrecto conferire con lui, et con el parere suo conf ormarse ; Ne de questo presuma alcuno fare to contrario per quanto li sia charo non incorrere in la nostra Indignatione.1 Datum Papie die Decimo octavo Augusti, Anno Domini Millesimo Quingentesimo Secundo Ducatus Vero Nostri Romandiole Secundo.


Mandatus Illm Domini Ducis



The vellum, folded as a letter, bears the seal of the Duke on the written side and the papal seal of Alessandro Borgia on the back.

We shall now briefly relate the circumstances in which the mission was given to Leonardo by Valentino.

“To all our Lieutenants, Castellains, Captains, Condottieri, Officers, Soldiers and Subjects, to whom these presents may be known, we commit and command that to our Most Excellent and Most Beloved Private Architect and General Engineer Leonardo Vinci, bearer of the same, and who has our Commission to survey the holds and fortresses of our States, in order that according to their exigencies and his judgment we may equip them, they are to give free pass, exempt from all public toll to himself and his company, and friendly reception ; and to allow him to see, measure and estimate all he may wish. And to this effect they shall order men on his requisition and lend him all the help, assistance and favours he may request, it being our wish that for all works to be done in our Dominions any engineer be compelled to consult him and to conform to his opinion ; and to this may none presume to act in opposition, if it be his pleasure not to incur our indignation.”

The power of Cesare Borgia had suddenly asserted itself in the latter years of the fifteenth century, owing its origin both to the protection of Pope Alessandro Borgia and to his marriage with the sister of the King of Navarre. Placed thus in condition to satisfy his unbounded personal ambition, and at the same time to be of service to the French cause in Italy, Il Valentino had succeeded through violence, intrigue, and treachery in securing for himself the Duchy of Romagna, not meeting with any resistance except from Caterina Sforza.

This woman manfully sustained the siege of the Citadel of Forli, and only surrendered when reduced to the last extremity, thus becoming the heroine of the sole glorious military episode that redeemed the close of the fifteenth century. Il Valentino also consolidated his power by forcing upon the House of Este the marriage of his sister Lucrezia Borgia to Alfonso, eldest son of the Duke of Ferrara.

Furthermore, when Louis XII in the summer of 1502 again crossed the Alps and entered Milan on the 28th of June, Il Valentino seized the opportunity to strengthen his position against the recriminations of his principal victims, the Duke of Urbino and Giovanni Sforza. The King of France greeted and entertained II Valentino with marked familiarity in the Castello Sforzesco, as we gather from a confidential letter dated August 8, 1502, from Niccolo da Correggio to Isabella d’Este :

” Sabato sera giunse quz il Duca Valentino, venuto per staffetta ; la china Maesth lo accolse et abbraccib con molta alegreza et lo menb in Castello, dove lo fece allogiare ne la camera pit propinqua a la sua, et lui stesso sollecito la cena et ordino diverse vivande, et per quella sera per tre o quatro volte li ando alla camera fin in camisa, quando doveva entrare in lecto. Et ha voluto che el vestisse de le camise, zupponi et habiti suoi, perché it Duca Valentino non ha carraggi come de cavalcature. In summa più non si potria fare a fiolo, nè a fratello.”

All these special marks of deference prove the importance that Louis XII attached to the friend-ship of I1 Valentino, whom he considered a blind tool for his object of strengthening French rule, and as a sort of vedette placed between the Pope and the Venetian Republic. To consolidate by every possible means Borgia’s power with a view of getting rid of him at the right moment, was for the King of France the most elementary policy. Therefore Il Valentino’s resolve to order an inspection of the fortresses of his State as a preliminary measure for their defence was probably the immediate consequence of the meeting with the King of France at Milan. That meeting took place on the 6th of August, and on the 18th of the same month I1 Valentino, proceeding in the company of Louis XII, who was on his way to Genoa, forwarded from Pavia the Letter Patent to his General Engineer.

In those days Leonardo was at Cesena, and the ” Saturday evening the Duke Valentino arrived here, having come by estafette; His gracious majesty very cheerfully greeted and embraced him and conducted him to the Castle, where he gave him the room nearest to his own, he himself speeding supper and ordering several courses, and that evening three or four times he went to the room even in his nightshirt when he was going to bed. And he insisted on giving the Duke his own shirts and gowns and clothes to wear, the Duke Valentino not having as many waggons as he has horses. In one word, one could not do more for a son or a brother.”

The first entry that refers to his successive peregrinations is precisely the one concerning the Port of Cesenatico, dated September 6th, where Il Valentino’s decree of the 18th August probably reached him. Leonardo’s notes on the Port of Cesenatico may consequently be in connection with his appointment. That Port had strategical importance for Cesare Borgia, as it had later when under Napoleonic rule it was bombarded by the British fleet, and again in 1849 during the march of Garibaldi to help Venice out of her perilous plight.

The fact of not finding other entries in Codex L which refer to Il Valentino’s commission justifies the doubt as to whether Leonardo actually fulfilled it. It may be presumed that in October of that same year Leonardo was at Imola, where Il Valentino had at the time been obliged to barricade himself owing to a revolt of his troops. The interesting topographical sketch of the town drawn by Leonardo in his own hand still extant might lend a colour to that theory. But the lack of positive proofs compels us to conclude that Leonardo was not slow in breaking off all his engagements with the adventurer at the time when the latter was resuming his profligate vocation by crushing the insurrection of Urbino, sacking Sinigaglia, seizing Perugia, and besieging Siena. Before Il Valentino’s star was on the wane in consequence of the death of Pope Alexander VI, Leonardo was already in Florence deeply absorbed in his studies for the cartoon of The Battle of Anghiari.

Thus the relations between Il Valentino and Leonardo, the theme of elaborate variations by several writers tending to place the artist for two years at the unrestricted service of the man who has passed into history for his acts of violence and cruelty, fail to stand the test of facts. Il Valentino’s Letter Patent seems to be more than anything the out-come of his endeavour to secure prestige for him-self by making use of Leonardo’s name. But as much as the artist rose in the public estimation not only for his incomparable talent but also for the rectitude of his life, so did the power and the reputation of Cesare Borgia decline : an instance of the frailty and inefficiency of all that is based on violence and on contempt of humanity, justice, and loftiness of purpose.

The man who only a few months previously, on the completion of his studies for a submarine boat which was to perforate the keel of enemy ships, declared that he did not wish to publish the details of his invention lest it should be misused for foul deeds instead of being employed in the fair conduct of war, that man could certainly not be in the service of him who in January 1503, after providing Paolo Orsini, Vitellozzo Gravina, and Oliverotto da Fermo with a safe-conduct to come and confer with him in Sinigaglia, embraced them at the gate of the town and received them in his house only to have them treacherously put in chains and beheaded.