The Sforza Castle in Milan is one of those places I’d heard about for decades before finally visiting. Famously the home of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, during the time of Leonardo da Vinci… it was also the home of Leonardo da Vinci while he was in the employ of the Duke.
Leonardo, who hailed from Florence, was a foreigner in Milan. There was no modern sense of Italy as we know it today, but rather a staggered array of smaller city states each with their own distinct cultures and histories.
The biggest and best-known of the Italian city states were Florence and Venice. Renowned for their sophistication and culture, as well as their Republic style governments and distinctive art, sculpture, and architecture... these twin jewels were the cities everyone else tried to emulate. So naturally when Ludovico Sforza decided Milan wasn’t fancy or metropolitan enough for his tastes he looked to Florence for inspiration and wound up borrowing their talent. Sforza was a powerful man and had amassed great wealth, and wasn't someone you'd say 'no' to.
Sforza was a 2nd generation Duke who hadn’t “actually” been granted the title of Duke… he inherited the city from his father, who was a mercenary who’d essentially taken it by brute force and crowned himself. But the younger Sforza, Ludovico, was keenly aware of the politics of power, and of image, and went about modernizing his city and his image in the hopes of appearing more formidable than perhaps he was.
First, he lured the architect Bramante – who would, decades later, famously design and begin construction on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and who became his court architect; expanding and fortifying his castle and modernizing the defenses. Then he hired Leonardo Da Vinci. Renowned both far and wide for his intellect and unsurpassed abilities as an artist, da Vinci found himself a comfortable spot as the court artist for Ludovico. Here he was able to hobnob with the greatest minds of his day. This was a job which found him largely decorating the palace rooms, designing costumes and elaborate stage-sets and props for plays, and even composing songs for the female courtiers. But mainly… for EIGHTEEN years… he was charged with designing, sculpting and casting the largest bronze statue ever attempted. From his mid-20’s until his early 40’s his main job… his biggest responsibility – was to sculpt and cast a massive horse.
Da Vinci’s great bronze was meant to be an equestrian (horse) statue with rider, in memory of the Duke’s late father. The Duke set aside over a ton of bronze, for decades, for the project; while Leonardo tried to figure it all out on the pages of his notebooks. In many instances he invented from scratch the equipment and devices he thought he'd need. His ability to conceive engineering plans in 3D was truly remarkable and part of what made him one of the best - perhaps the best - draftsmen who ever lived.
This statue truly was meant to be the largest, most ambitious bronze ever conceived or executed: and I mean ever. Nothing like it had been attempted because the risks of casting that much molten bronze were too dangerous. There was no way to control it. Which is probably why, ultimately, Leonardo failed so spectacularly. He never actually tried to cast it. For 18 years he planned, and planned, and planned… but never executed. He got as far as a clay model which – when the city was overrun by French forces – was used for target practice by French archers. They shot it so full of arrows that it was famously reduced to a lump of clay. Today all that we have to show for 18 years of labor by the great Leonardo da Vinci, are his sketches, notes and drawings about what might have been. One of my favorite designs (see below) is the red chalk drawing depicting the casting-mold he designed for the giant horses head. This wooden contraption would have been built over and around the giant clay head he'd sculpted, and the molten bronze would then be poured inside. But he never got that far. Maybe if he'd had another 18 years...
This massive failure would dog Leonardo for the rest of his life and largely contribute to his reputation as a genius who couldn’t be relied upon to finish anything. It is no coincidence that the world has only a handful of paintings by which to remember the great Leonardo; he completed very few works (and almost no “great” works). Modernity exalts Da Vinci for the genius he exhibited in his notebooks; for his sketches and rough drawings and engineering acumen; but not for his masterpieces. We don't judge LD the way we judge other Old Master or Renaissance artists. His observations on human anatomy and his direct scientific observations of the world around him were surprisingly accurate, and as we saw his theories proven right with the advances of science and biology, both the 19th and 20th centuries began to respect him for his intellect. At this point his myth is a bit overblown and you'd think he was always exalted. But in his day his genius wasn't as immediately understood or well known.
But lets get back to the Sforza castle. Today it doubles as a historical museum. You can tour it and see parts that are still quite “old” – they were restoring the fresco ceiling that Leonardo da Vinci painted for the Dukes wife – which was comprised of a series of interlocking branches and tree limbs, some of which form elaborate knots and some which are just beautifully rendered foliage. There is also an outstanding collection of arms and armor; and they lay claim to one of Michelangelo’s very last marbles, a pieta which he was said to be working on up until about a month before he died at the unheard-of-old-age of 89; which was left unfinished in his Roman studio.
The Sforza castle was there before the Sforza family took it… and has existed for over 4 centuries since they were driven out of Milan; but it’s renaissance affiliations with Da Vinci and Bramante insure it will always be remembered as The Sforza castle.
After 18 years of planning but never executing his bronze sculpture, the ton of bronze that had been set aside for Leonardo needed to be used to create cannons with which they attempted to (unsuccessfully) repel the French. To have lost this opportunity to create something so startlingly unique, after planning it for so long ,must’ve driven LD slightly mad.
The Duke, who had recently lost his wife, asked Leonardo instead to paint a decoration on the wall at the Dominican church and convent where his wife was recently buried. As if this wasn't bad enough, it wasn't even a public commission. This was not a highly prestigious commission for an altarpiece the world would flock to visit. It was to be a private, contemplative work in a dining room used by the clergy who lived at the convent.
Like most of his other work it took him an extraordinarily long time to complete this painting. Over 3 years. And because he insisted on using his own methods rather than the accepted and time-honored fresco technique that all artists before him used… his painting began deteriorating and falling apart almost as soon as it was completed. That painting, of course, was The Last Supper. Which at 42 was the first major masterpiece he ever completed. It was a work he owed the world... and which was late in coming. And which - characteristically - he completed in such a way that it was doomed to disintegrate.
Leonardo fled Milan when the French invaded in 1499. He went back to Florence where he was contracted to paint another mural; in the same room and at the same time as Michelangelo; but like so many of his projects that, too, was never completed. Apparently learning nothing from his experiments in Milan he insisted on using ‘his own methods’ on the Florentine comission and destroyed it accidentally while it was still in progress, causing him to abandon it.