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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Young Leonardo

The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist, 1472-1499

Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown

Thomas Dunne Books



The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.


The traditional view of Leonardo’s early career is that he was recognized as a prodigy in the workshop of Verrocchio, enjoyed a promising start in Florence, and then moved to Milan to become the celebrated court artist of Duke Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of the Duchy of Milan. As this book aims to show, the opposite is true. Almost from the beginning, Leonardo struggled to develop a style that rejected the formulaic Quattrocento “brand” of his master, Andrea del Verrocchio, but he was stymied in his efforts to finish his first masterpiece in Florence. He then left for Milan on little more than a wing and a prayer, but for many years was studiously ignored by Ludovico. It was only because of his association with the de Predis brothers that he was able to survive. Worse, when he finally did receive a ducal commission—the famous Sforza equestrian monument—it ended in failure, whereupon he had to satisfy himself with secondary commissions, such as the portraits of Sforza’s mistresses.

In fact, the reader may be astonished by the questions that still swirl around the work of young Leonardo. For example, what is the true reason that The Adoration of the Magi, the seminal work of his early Florentine period, is unfinished? And why did Leonardo decide to move to Milan, of all places—a court known more for its wealth than for the quality of its artistic endeavors? And why did Milan’s ruler, Duke Ludovico Sforza, ignore Leonardo for so many years? Why did all the truly important commissions that emanated from the court of Milan, such as church frescoes, monuments, and “Sforza propaganda art,” go to Lombard artists who were much less talented? Indeed, should Leonardo be considered a “court artist” at all? If he was truly Sforza’s celebrity painter, the leading light of his court, then why was he not involved in the projects the duke genuinely cared about, such as the decoration of the massive Milan Cathedral, or the Certosa di Pavia monastery complex, or countless other churches, including the Santa Maria delle Grazie itself?

Even the Last Supper fresco, about which scores of books have been written, still harbors many mysteries. For example, what is the relationship between The Last Supper and the fresco of The Crucifixion, which was begun on the opposite wall at exactly the same time as Leonardo began his painting? Is there a hidden program between the two? And why is there such an obvious connection between Leonardo’s donor portraits on the Crucifixion and the mysterious “Sforza Altarpiece,” the Pala Sforzesca?

Why have these questions not been addressed before? The answer is perhaps simpler than we might expect. Most modern authors are so focused on the centuries-old effort to physically restore the Last Supper fresco, Leonardo’s Milanese masterpiece, that they are almost blindsided by it. And while the latest restoration, completed in 1999, is certainly impressive from a technical point of view, its outcome is rather sobering: only some 20 percent of Leonardo’s original masterpiece is still extant.

The conclusion is inevitable: we no longer know what this painting looked like. Yet, there is no question that with this painting, Leonardo singlehandedly introduced the era of the High Renaissance. But how can we appreciate the work as Leonardo’s contemporaries saw it? Is it possible to reconstruct the fresco by other means?

This provocative book was written to answer these questions, and to offer a fascinating window on the mind of a young artist as he slowly developed the groundbreaking techniques that would transform Western art.

Copyright © 2017 by Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown