Histoire de l’art,

des représentations et de

l’administration en europe

Leonardo da Vinci as an Architect with Professor Sabine Frommel

Chercheur(s) Intervenant(s)


Cet article a initialement été publié Brenda Lee Bohen

The activities of the famous Florentine master in this discipline have been understudied, simply because his ideas did not manifest into actual buildings, says Professor Sabine Frommel. Many his drawings show us that he continually invented architectural projects inspired by the more illustrious contemporary architects in Florence, Milan, and Rome.

Leonardo is known as one of the most famous painters — the Joconde in the Louvre is without a doubt a major international attraction — admired because of its precise analysis of anatomy and natural sciences, demonstrating bold technical inventiveness, seemingly a prefiguration of recent discoveries in mechanics and technology. His restless creative energy shifted from one field to another without concern for boundaries, enabling the advancement of spectacular experimentations. However, little is known of his architectural competencies, documented by an important number of sketches and drawings, scattered in different manuscripts, and often difficult to date, though as Frommel explains, a discernible thread runs throughout his career.

Famous patrons such as Lodovico Sforza, Cesare Borgia, Charles d’Amboise and Francis I greatly appreciated his proposals and projects. The fact that Leonardo did not actually construct buildings does not minimize his role as an architect, since during the Renaissance ideas and designs were considered autonomous, established standards and principles, and not entirely dependent on materialization. Leonardo considered architecture to be part of a total all-encompassing organism, an integration of buildings, gardens, hydraulic installations, ephemeral art and even flora and fauna.

An unexplored avenue to consider that is persistent in the history of art and architecture is the purposeful art of hybridation especially in the field of architecture. To explore this lacuna, I met with Professor Sabine Frommel at the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome for a coffee discussing Leonardo Da Vinci and his architectural contributions, which are less known.

In the Balcony Room in the Vatican Museums there is a large Latin inscription on the wall which states that the great Leonardo da Vinci was invited by the Florentine Pope Leo X to use these rooms, as well as others at the Belvedere Palace as his workshop and residence. Leonardo lived in the Vatican from 1513 to 1516. When did he become interested in architecture and what’s the story?

Professor Sabine Frommel:

His interest in architecture begins in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici who promoted a renewal of architecture. Antique prototypes, the treatise of Vitruvius and its interpretation by the humanist Leon Battista Alberti, the spiritus rector of young Lorenzo, and the concepts of the pioneers of Neoplatonism were the main references. Churches organized with strong centralized plans, the “sacralization” of private architecture, urban planning aligned with Renaissance principles, harmonious proportions, and a classicizing language, changed the physiognomy of buildings. The Manuscript B (Institut de France), conceived at the court of Lodovico Sforza at Milan between 1487–90, and sheets contained in the heterogenous Codex Atlanticus, show the way Leonardo reacted to such challenges. He tried to associate antique models with the functional requirements of Christian liturgy in a new way: the altar is situated at the center below a cupola and surrounded by tiers derived from the Roman amphitheatre. In his design of an ideal city, he plans to restructure Milan, which was affected by the plague, on two levels, with an upper level distinguished by elegant palaces for rich habitants including porticoes, avenues, canals, bridges, and gardens, and a lower one devoted to infrastructure, the transport of goods by boat, deliveries to the palaces, and evacuation of harmful substances. At the same time this ambitious design is meant as an emphatical celebration of the power of the prince. His more meticulous project conceived during his first stay at Milan refers to the competition of the cathedral of Milan whose crossing had be crowned by the typical Lombard tiburio, like a tower. Leonardo proposed a cupola with two shells recalling Brunelleschi’s masterpiece of cathedral of Florence — a proposal which was incongruent with the local patrons’ traditions.

After the expulsion of the Sforza by the French king Louis XII in 1499 Leonardo returned to Florence, and it seems that in April 1505, he came to Rome just in time when an intensive debate with Bramante and Michelangelo was taking place regarding the reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Peter’s by Julius II. As a specialist of centralized churches, he may have reinforced the position of Bramante, his close colleague from the years in Milan, and argued for such a building type, which evidently was not suitable to accommodate the “storm” of believers that would gather in this major church of Christendom. At the center of the choir Michelangelo’s gigantic tomb for the pope was to be raised. A drawing from the Codex on the Flight of Birds from 1505/1506 reveals that Leonardo had been highly influenced by recent Roman architecture: Bramante’s Palazzo Caprini, Giuliano da Sangallo’s combination of an attic and pediment proposed for the Loggia of the trumpet players at the Piazza San Pietro as well as Baldassarre Peruzzi’s loggia vestibulum at the Farnesina, built for the super-rich banker Agostino Chigi. His projects from the second stay in Milan from 1506 to 1513 show how greatly impacted he was by these impressions, mainly in terms of his design for the major representatives of the French king in Lombardy, the villa of Charles d’Amboise near Milan, the funeral monument of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, where one of his projects ties to the tempietto of Bramante and the narrative dialogue between architectural order and human figures in the representation of slaves of the tomb of Julius II by Michelangelo. The relationship between building and nature, and the interactions of scenic effects, were major concerns for Leonardo. After leaving Milan in 1512 he spent a sojourn at the villa of his pupil Francesco Melzi, the marvelous site above the river Adda, which inspired him to design an extension marked by a most impactful silhouette of contrasting bodies, roofs, cupolas, and lanterns.

In 1513, a short time after the triumphal return of the dynasty after an exile of eighteen years, Leonardo met his patron Giuliano de’ Medici in Florence. A sketch of Leonardo proposes an urban reconstruction of the surroundings of the San Lorenzo, the mausoleum of the Medici. The ascension to the papal throne of Leo X, Giovanni de’ Medici, seemed to evoke the promise of new perspectives. Nevertheless, things did not develop for Leonardo in the most propitious manner. The famous artist had to accept a marginal role in the shadow of Michelangelo and Raphael, and after the death of Bramante, it was Raphael who became the leading master of the huge building-site even though he was relatively inexperienced. The situation worsened even more after the death of Giuliano de’ Medici in 1516.

Are there any drawings of Da Vinci’s architecture?

Professor Sabine Frommel:

Leonardo da Vinci left several hundred architectural drawings, mostly simple sketches, rarely accompanied by written inscriptions, and often interwoven with each other. This graphic production, representing different stages of his thought processes, remains a challenge for the research. Some of the drawings can be linked to identifiable projects, but most of them are related to personal research: central plan churches, palaces and villas, fortifications, staircases with several ascents, ideal cities, ephemeral architecture, and more. These drawings reveal that he followed certain contemporary trends, but also indicate that he developed projects according to his personal taste, far from any stylistic tendencies of the time.

The coherent group of central plan churches in Ms. B shows that he preferred to associate the ground-plans of a building with bird’s-eye perspectives. This technique, which no other master had employed at the time, highlights Leonardo’s vision, and his focus on the interplay of the function of the interior spaces with the plastic volumes of the building. About 1508 he adopts the triad of plan/section/elevation that was already used by some architects prior, and then recommended by Raphael in the “Letter to Leo X” (1518–19). In accordance with the methods of his time he also used wooden models as a tool to improve and refine projects. Some architectural drawings show his progress, featuring greater complexity in the rhythm of the façade and a more uncanonical behavior in the composition of details.

In the end, the circulation of his ideas, among the illustrious architects like Baldassarre Peruzzi, Michelangelo, Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, and the milieu of Giulio Romano, who assimilated and elaborated particular aspects of his inventions, has ensured a long and enduring Nachleben.

Leonardo, Studies of centralized churches and notes on technology, Manuscript B, folio 22r, Paris, Institut de France

What brought Leonardo to France? Was there a leading architect of Chambord and how and why Leonardo’s proposals were so radically changed. Who was Leonardo competing with and against?

Professor Sabine Frommel:

The death of his last Italian patron Giuliano de’ Medici in 1516, and perhaps the loss of status afforded to our illustrious protagonist, as well as his advanced age of 64, contributed to his acceptance of Francis I’s invitation to work in France. It was veritably the pinnacle of his career. With the title as a First Painter, Engineer, and Architect of the King (Premier peintre, ingénieur et architecte du roi) he benefited from an annual pension of 1,000 gold coins and was allowed to dedicate himself to his own research. The marvelous project of a residence at Romorantin, commissioned mainly by Louise of Savoy, the mother of the king, remained a vision on paper; it clearly reveals the difficulties faced by the master as he tried to assimilate French traditions, rooted in medieval principles and techniques, highly dependent on the rules of the court, its ceremonies and social life. Francis I had decided then to build a fairy-tale-like castle at Chambord, and it seems that Leonardo inspired the king with his preliminary design of this astonishing building, most significantly the impressive spiral staircase at the heart of the centralized plan. Additionally, he further impressed the court with his wonderful ephemeral decorations for feasts and theatrical events, a facility he had perfected while working under Lodovico Sforza.

Who were the local, French, designers, architects he was competing with? Was it the local craftsmen who changed his designs? Probably not. Craftsmen usually follow orders of a master. Was Leonardo not the master of the project? Was he just an advisor? And outside the system advisor?

Professor Sabine Frommel:

It seems that during his long career in Italy Leonardo had never been inclined to supervise building sites and control the work of masons, stonecutters, and carpenters. His prodigious creativity is the result of a free flow of ideas and inventions, independent from external obligations. Sources like Benvenuto Cellini suggest that he had intimate dialogues with the young Francis I, and most certainly they spoke often about the new spectacular buildings. In France, an autonomous status of the architect did not yet exist. The royal building sites were managed by high-ranking officials from the nobility, commissaire, treasurer and controlleur, who directed local craftsmen that had worked on the prestigious royal constructions of the predecessor Louis XII. They were associated with the powerful guilds and trained in the trades and practices required to erect the late Gothic cathedrals. Thus, there was no competition between Leonardo, the author of the ideas and sketches, and those who were responsible for the actual execution of the castle. It may be that Domenico da Cortona, a Tuscan master active in France since 1495, experienced in French language, building techniques and architectural models, was an intermediary during the transmission of Leonardo’s concepts and the organization of the construction site.

Leonardo, Elevation of a building and its planimetry, Codex on the flight of birds, front cover, Turin, Royal Library

We now think of Leonardo Da Vinci as the ‘best’ , but did his contemporaries in France also think of him as the premier polymath of his time? What popular style in France at the time was he competing against?

Professor Sabine Frommel:

Leonardo’s reputation was founded mainly on his paintings and his prestige as “uomo universale” in the humanistic sense. He lived in the Clos Lucé near by the royal castle of Amboise, where a colony of Italian artists had settled after the first Italians crossed the Alps with Charles VIII in 1495. Illustrious masters like Fra Giocondo and Guido Mazzoni had come to France and so the employment of Leonardo was far from an isolated phenomenon. Accompanied by his pupils, Francesco Melzi and Salai, and his servant Batista del Vilanis, he brought his most famous paintings, manuscripts, and drawings to France. After having been in Italy a kind of “prophet who had no honour”, he now enjoyed the ideal conditions of a real court artist, one of the first to embody this status in modern time. As an old and highly esteemed man he certainly evoked an air of mystery and glory, while his presence was especially appreciated because of his skillful ephemeral creations for meetings, feasts, and theatre. We can imagine that he was astonished by the traditional artistic climate in his host country where late Gothic forms and techniques held firm, and thus tried to introduce the principles of symmetry in a place where Italian influence had yet to be assimilated.

In conclusion with my interview with Professor Sabine Frommel, I took this

opportunity to discuss one Leonardo’s Da Vinci’s distinctive style in architecture found on the far-right portion of his unfinished Saint Jerome (c. 1482, Oil on wood, 103 x 74 cm) located in Room IX in the Vatican Museum’s Pinacoteca (picture gallery).

According to the official website of the Vatican Museums, ‘no information is available as to the destination of the painting and who commissioned it.’ The church façade stands out in the far-right upper background. The origins and the background scene of this Saint Jerome painting in the Vatican are all very mysterious. Can you share some light on this unfinished work?

Professor Sabine Frommel:

The Saint Jerome in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican, which also remained unfinished, had been conceived by Leonardo during the same period as the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi), so just before his departure from Florence to Milan in 1482. Nothing is known about details of the commission. The representation of the father of the church and important author of late antiquity as an ascetic in the desert was a favored subject of the time. The saint inclines his head, probably in direction of a crucifix, while in the upper right-hand side of the panel one notes a small three-dimensional representation of a church. The façade is reminiscent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, a significant prototype of sacred architecture in the second half of the fifteenth century, finished in 1470 according to the project of Leon Battista Alberti. It is a somewhat anachronistic addition, but probably aims, as in the case of the Adoration of the Magi, to anchor the scene in the present imaginary and to evoke the church as the institution of the Christian believers (or better “congregation”?). The choice of an Albertian model corresponds to the “esprit” of the time since the famous humanist was considered a pioneer of the architectural renewal in Florence, and Angelo Poliziano, who prepared the publication of the editio princeps of his treatise in 1485, dedicated the text to Lorenzo de’ Medici. For Leonard himself this treatise become an important source of his architectural studies.

Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Jerome c. 1482, oil on wood  Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums (photo by Brenda Lee Bohen)

My compliments to you and your colleague’s recent publication

Léonard de Vinci: l’architecture: Leonardo da Vinci: l’architettura (ed. Francesco di Teodoro, Emanuela Ferretti, Sabine Frommel, Hermann Schilmme, Campisano Editore/Éditions Hermann, Roma/Paris, 2022). There is no doubt that Da Vinci is one of the leading Renaissance artists of his time and throughout history (and always competing with Michelangelo) or even better “the premier polymath of his time” as my friend art historian Elizabeth Whiting from Chicago brilliantly sums up Da Vinci.