See Leonardo's boyhood years in Vinci and Leonardo's apprenticeship in Florence before his time in Milan.
Leonardo received increased opportunities as he moved to Milan to serve the powerful Duke of Milan – a city of less than 80,000 people in 1480. Leonardo was partially adopted for his ability to design defences and war machines for the Duke – an ironic twist for this pragmatic but pacifist being. By this time, Leonardo was starting to become noteworthy and Milan has more evidence of Leonardo’s life.
Leonardo also commenced his famous notebooks (or codices) filling between 20,000 and 30,000 densely filled pages packed with ideas, sketches, creations, maps and thoughts. Leonardo was a pioneer in virtually every field he studied and researched – an unmatched achievement in human history.
Broken up and sold over time, only 7,000 pages exist stored in twelve modern codices and held by various libraries and institutions (and one by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and one by The Queen of England) around the world. Most have been scanned and can be viewed through the internet to see the unusual mind of Leonardo – the same page potentially containing an anatomical sketch of a limb, notes on water flow and a drawing in preparation for a painting.
When virtually everyone wrote right-handed, Leonardo’s famously wrote left-handed and in a perfect mirror-script. Experts argue as to whether this was for a sense of secrecy or the practical reason of not smudging the ink before it dried.
On one page, Leonardo recorded his observations of fossils suggesting correctly that they were ancient creatures preserved by time. His notes include the identification of tracks and burrows left behind by ancient creatures, controversially against the teachings of the church (who claimed it was either from the Great Flood or simply bits of coincidental rock) and hence never spread beyond his notebook. Such ideas would only be matched by modern naturalists hundreds of years later.
On another page is the familiar Vitruvian Man highlighting the proportions of man (now in the Accademia in Venice) while another details a fully functioning robot capable of playing drums automatically.
I have sighted several of these codices though sadly most only go on display for special events. Codex Arundel at the British Museum and Codex Windsor at Windsor Castle are the most likely to be on public display while Bill Gates loans his codex on an annual display somewhere in the world. The two in Milan at the Ambrosiana Library (largest codex) and Sforza Castle are rarely sighted.
The highlight in Milan is undoubtedly Leonardo’s extraordinary Last Supper painted on a wall of the dining hall of the monastery at Santa Maria delle Grazie (visits are limited to a strict 15 minutes and only accessible by ticket – buy them well in advance online).
The outstanding Milan National Science and Technology Museum includes a rich selection of models from Leonardo’s notes highlighting paddle boats, gliders, cars, winches and cranes with notes from his pages showing the original drawings.
A cruise on The Milan canals (sadly many are now filled in) reveals much of Leonardo’s thinking at work. While the canals existed well before Leonardo’s time, he dramatically improved and interconnected them with the development of lock designs and sluices some of which remain in usage in Milan today.
Sforza Castle remains a major landmark in Milan, highlighting the power of the dukes in the middle ages. Today it hosts a number of museums and art galleries. Leonardo assisted in designing the defences of the castle (including a moat, now grassed) and decorated the Tower Room (sala delle asse) which was eventually given to him as his own private room. Leonardo constructed a bridge over the moat to gain access and decorated the room with an exceptional (but heavily restored) fresco of eighteen willow trees with a single golden rope intertwined and looped through the branches and the Sforza coat of arms in the centre.
Milan is an elegant city based on its unusual mix of fashion and finance, often excluded on Italian itineraries for the popular Florence, Rome and Venice. For those seeking the treasures of Leonardo, it highlights a number of elements of Leonardo’s life at the time when Leonardo was at his most prolific and inspirational.
The final part takes up Leonardo's last years in France.
Photo Credit: salle della asse