Leonardo da Vinci
Probably acquired by Charles II; Royal Collection by 1690
Leonardo had left Milan after the fall of his patron Ludovico Sforza to French forces, but in 1506 he returned as something of a diplomatic ‘gift’ from the Florentine Republic to the French occupiers of the city. French rule in Milan was relatively stable during the first decade of the century, until the machinations of the War of the League of Cambrai led to a succession of alliances against France. In 1510 and 1511 Swiss mercenaries in the pay of the Pope made inroads into Lombardy, and though the brilliant commander Gaston de Foix reasserted French dominance over large parts of northern Italy in early 1512, his death at the Battle of Ravenna on Easter Day proved a turning point. During that summer combined Swiss and Venetian forces advanced on Milan, and in August 1512 the city fell. The young Massimiliano Sforza, son of the now-dead Ludovico, was installed as Duke; the French briefly took the city again the following year, but were finally ousted in June 1513.
During this prolonged period of political and military strife, artistic life and patronage in Milan must have been severely hampered, if not impossible. Leonardo thus withdrew to the family villa of his well-born young assistant Francesco Melzi, at Vaprio on the river Adda, twenty miles (30 km) to the east of Milan. Now aged around sixty, Leonardo was working less and less as an artist, and he began no new paintings in this period. Instead he designed improvements to the villa and pursued his scientific studies, primarily his anatomical investigations – though unavoidably with the corpses of animals, including dogs, birds and oxen, rather than humans as his subjects.
Leonardo also made a number of charming tiny landscape drawings around the Villa Melzi, including this sheet that shows a stretch of the Adda in the narrow valley directly below the villa. In exaggerated perspective, the river flows away from the viewer in a series of shallow rapids, with small trees and low fragmented rock formations on the banks of the river. Running across the bottom of the sheet is a chain ferry, composed of two hulls lashed together with a winching mechanism attached to a chain stretched from one bank to the other, to hold the ferry against the fast-flowing water. On the boat can be seen several oxen and a herdsman raising a stick to strike one of the beasts; another ox waits beyond the landing stage to the right of the scene.
This chain ferry on the Adda remained in use for many centuries and fell into disuse only when the iron road bridge across the river was built in the late nineteenth century. That bridge now cuts across the view from the villa, but it is still possible nonetheless to see the river in essentially the form that Leonardo drew it five hundred years ago.
Pen and ink
10.0 x 12.8cm