Nero: destroyer or builder?

Until 24th October 2021, visitors to the British Museum have the opportunity to explore the life of one of Rome’s most infamous rulers. Nero: the man behind the myth tells Nero’s story through 200 ancient objects, many of which are lucky to exist today. As well as learning about Nero’s tyrannical rule, the items on display reveal the history and skill of an ancient civilisation. The British Museum allows individuals to admire the craftsmanship of statues, armour, coins and items of luxury. Sticking to the known facts, the museum encourages people to develop their own opinion about the Emperor Nero. Was he a destroyer of Rome or Rome’s finest rebuilder?

The exhibition begins with a marble statue of Nero as a boy, approximately 13 years old. Three years later, Nero would become the fifth Emperor of Rome and the final ruler of Rome’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Born on 15th December AD 37, Nero’s real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father died when he was very young and his mother, Agrippina (AD 15/16-59), later married Emperor Claudius (10 BC-AD 54).

Eighty years before Nero became Emperor, his great-great-grandfather, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), established a new form of government in Rome, known as a principate. Augustus was adopted into the Julian family by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), whose death sparked a civil war. When Augustus crowned himself Emperor, he ended the war, which resulted in a long period of peace and prosperity.

In 38 AD, Augustus married Livia (58 BC-AD 29), the mother of Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37), who became the next Emperor of Rome. Before Augustus died, he persuaded Tiberius to adopt his great-nephew Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19). Augustus wished Germanicus to be the heir to the throne after Tiberius. Unfortunately, Germanicus died prematurely, probably from poison, so the throne passed down to Germanicus’ son, Caligula (AD 12-41).

Caligula, to put it bluntly, was a tyrant. He banished his sisters, Agrippina, the mother of Nero and Livilla, for allegedly conspiring against him. To end his destructive rule, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him. Since Caligula had no children, his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, became the next Emperor. Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile and married her. Although Claudius wanted his son Britannicus to inherit the throne, Agrippina persuaded him to choose Nero as crown prince and heir.

Not everyone approved of Claudius’ decision, particularly the supporters of his previous wife Messalina, the mother of Britannicus. Even before Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile, Messalina feared Nero’s growing popularity. She allegedly sent men to kill Nero, but they were chased away by snakes hiding in the boy’s bedroom. Although Nero denied this story, he began wearing a gold bracelet containing the remains of a snakeskin.

To cement his claim as heir, Nero married Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. According to rumours, Agrippina believed her son was ready to take over as Emperor, so she poisoned Claudius. To begin with, Agrippina acted as her son’s co-ruler and appointed Nero’s former tutor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, as his chief advisor.

Seneca, along with the Praetorian Guard, tried to weaken Agrippina’s grip on her son. The Praetorians were established by Augustus as his personal guard, and they continued to support and protect each subsequent emperor. They swore allegiance to Nero the moment his mother crowned him as Emperor, but they disapproved of her constant meddling in empire affairs. Over time, Nero managed to push his mother away, eventually removing her from the palace after Britannicus’ death in AD 55. Agrippina’s waning power is evident when studying Roman coins. The first silver denarius issued after Claudius’ death shows a profile of Agrippina in a prominent position. Later coins contained the heads of both Agrippina and Nero, facing each other. In AD 55, a new design put Nero’s face in front of his mother’s, and the following year, Agrippina disappeared from coins altogether.

As well as the throne, Nero inherited the empire’s many problems, including tensions with rival powers. For years, the Parthians argued over the state of Armenia, but soon Nero directed his attention to Britain, where Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe, started a violent rebellion. Claudius captured parts of Britain in AD 43, and by AD 60, Boudica raised an army powerful enough to fight back. As well as the Iceni tribe, Boudica hired soldiers from the Trinovante tribe of Essex, totalling tens of thousands of people. They destroyed many Roman settlements, including Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London). The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, finally defeated Boudica in AD 61.

Following the war with Britain, Nero resumed focusing on Rome’s long-standing struggle for control of Armenia. Relations with Parthia grew worse when the Parthian king installed his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. After taking military action, Nero agreed to let Tiridates rule over Armenia on the condition that he let Nero crown him as king. With this compromise in place, the two empires finally experienced a period of peace.

When not worrying about the actions of his enemies, Nero concentrated on the people of the Roman Empire. He built many new buildings, including the Imperial Palace, baths and food markets. Nero improved the food system and implemented tax reforms to benefit the population. Unlike previous emperors, Nero also believed providing entertainment for his people was important. He encouraged public performances of plays and became the first emperor to act on stage – something that divided public opinion. Nero was also a keen musician, but his eagerness to perform in public provoked resentment among the senatorial elite who believed the Emperor should not mix with the plebs.

Nonetheless, Nero’s involvement with everyday entertainment made him popular with the people of Rome. Nero enjoyed chariot racing, despite the consensus that Charioteers were of low status. Racers competed in specific teams or factiones, each recognised by a different colour. Written evidence suggests Nero raced for the Green team because he often dyed the sand in the arena that colour. Nero’s passion for horse racing began as a child when he and his friends reportedly played with wooden chariots and toy horses.

According to Nero’s biographer, Suetonius (AD 69-122), Nero performed the roles of the mythical figures Orestes and Oedipus in tragedies on the stage. Based on Greek myths, Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father, and Oedipus unknowingly committed incest with his mother. There is no physical evidence that Nero played these roles, and some suggest Suetonius deliberately made this claim to hint at crimes Nero committed against his mother Agrippina.

Nero ordered his mother’s death in AD 59 after he suspected her of plotting against him. He also exiled and executed his first wife for similar reasons. Actions such as these were not uncommon in the Roman Empire, and Roman princesses often faced accusations of conspiring against rulers. Nonetheless, Nero’s actions tarnished his reputation, particularly his act of matricide.

During her lifetime, wild tales of Agrippina’s sexual promiscuity spread across the empire, as did her alleged sexual relationship with her son. These may only be rumours made up by those who feared her power. Nero openly admitted to ordering Agrippina’s death but claimed she had planned to assassinate him. Whilst some celebrated Nero’s salvation, others soured towards the Emperor, despite previously disliking Agrippina.

In AD 62, Nero remarried to Poppaea Sabina, who soon faced the wrath of the senate, who distrusted women in power. Nonetheless, the public loved Poppaea, which they demonstrated with poems and writing scratched into walls: NeroPoppaenses.

“Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl and a large single pearl. When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.”

Poppaea gave birth to Nero’s only child, Claudia Augusta, in AD 63. Sadly, the child died three months later. Poppaea passed away in AD 65 after suffering a miscarriage. Although Nero expressed his grief by honouring his wife with a lavish funeral, many believed her death was his fault, suggesting he had violent tendencies.

Both Poppaea and Claudia Augusta were deified, and a marble statue of the latter was produced, depicting what she might have looked like if she had reached childhood. The hairstyle resembles Nero’s at the time of her birth, and in her right hand, she holds a butterfly. This insect is a symbol of the soul, which flutters out of the body after death.

Following Poppaea’s death, Nero married a third time. Not much is know about his third wife, Statilia Messalina, other than she outlived him. The lack of information suggests the public did not warm to her as they had Poppaea, who they saw as the perfect wife for Nero.

It is hard to trust ancient documents, especially those concerning the Roman Empire because they often contain exaggerated facts or outright lies depending on the author’s opinion or feelings. Poppaea’s death is one such example, and another is the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Flames raged for nine days, destroying a large portion of the city. Although Nero helped reconstruct buildings and provided relief for citizens, many accused him of starting the fire. The myth claims Nero stayed in his palace and “fiddled while Rome burned”, yet other evidence suggests Nero was not in the city at the time of the fire.

Three of fourteen Roman districts were reduced to ruins by the fire, including the Imperial Palace. Fires were common in Rome, as they were in most major cities due to flammable building materials and the reliance on flames for light and warmth. Yet many suspected an act of arson and pinned the blame on Nero, who in turn accused a new sect of Jewish origin, later known as Christians. Natural disasters also impacted Nero’s reign, for instance, the earthquake in AD 62, which destroyed most of Pompeii.

Whilst Nero supplied aid for the rebuilding of Rome and Pompeii, he also started building a new palace to replace the one lost in the fire. Only a few traces of the old palace remain, but its opulence is evident from the surviving fragments of ornate columns. Nero wanted his new palace to be bigger and better and named it Domus Aurea, “Golden House”. Nero’s plans were ambitious, and the building remained incomplete by his death in AD 68. He imported yellow marble from North Africa, red and green porphyry from Egypt and Greece, and white and black marble from Turkey to decorate the floors and walls of the palace. Frescoes adorned the ceilings, and the walls featured intricate geometric friezes.

Nero planned to host large banquets in the Domus Aurea as a way of expressing his wealth and power. He owned many expensive items with which he could impress his guests, including an exceptionally rare cup made from the mineral fluorspar. Ancient historians claim Nero paid one million sesterces for this item. He also owned silver dining sets. Nero’s political enemies used the construction of Domus Aurea and Nero’s possessions to paint him as a tyrant, pointing out that his new palace sat on land that once belonged to the public.

During the aftermath of the fire and the death of his second wife, Nero was at the height of his power. This was also the turning point that led to his demise. Nero planned to expand the empire across the Black Sea by invading Ethiopia, but revolts in Judea, Gaul (France) and Spain forced him to abandon these ideals. He also had less support from the senate than he had in previous years.

Nero managed to suppress the rebellions in the outer areas of the empire and marked the end of a lengthy war with Pathia in AD 66 by opening the gates of the temple of Janus in Rome. These gates were symbolically closed during times of conflict and opened during times of peace. The last time the gates were open was during the reign of Augustus. Nero celebrated this victory by issuing coins to mark the occasion.

During a tour of Greece, Nero aimed to participate in all the Greek festivals, but some of his military campaigns prevented him. Nonetheless, he granted Greece freedom from taxation in AD 67 and used the 6,000 prisoners captured during the rebellion in Judea to start building a canal in Corinth. These acts made Nero popular with the people, but those in the elite classes began to despise him.

Many members of the Senate felt threatened by Nero’s love of the common people. They wanted the Emperor and Senate to tower above the rest of the empire, but Nero often stooped down to his people’s level – although his palace suggests this was not always the case. In AD 65, the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso led a plot against Nero known as the Pisonian Conspiracy. When Nero found out, he ordered Piso and the other conspirators to commit suicide. Although the people of Rome rejoiced that Piso’s plot had failed, other senators started to turn against Nero, and more plots followed. By AD 67, Nero had few allies left in political and military positions. Knowing this, many senators and governors took the opportunity to rebel, including Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gaul.

As the rebellions gained momentum, the remaining members of the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state and threatened him with execution. To avoid this degrading death, Nero chose to commit suicide in June AD 68 at the age of 30. His 14-year reign came to an abrupt end, leaving people torn between grief and joy. For some, Nero had been a saviour, and rumours spread that he would return from the dead. For others, Nero had been a tyrant and someone to fear.

The year following Nero’s death became known as the Year of the Four Emperors, where the elite classes fought over the throne. Nero had no children and no heir, so there was no obvious successor. The first man to claim the throne was Lucius Sulpicius Galba, the 70-year-old governor of Spain. He reigned for seven months but failed to gain popularity with the people, resulting in his assassination. Marcus Salvius Otho, the governor of Lusitania (Portugal), took Galba’s place but found it equally difficult to exert his power. After three months, Otho took his life.

Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), took Otho’s place but failed to gain support. Although he tried to abdicate, he was executed by the Praetorian Guard. Finally, Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), a man from relatively humble origins, claimed the throne in December AD 69. He had supported Nero and fought on the Emperor’s behalf during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The people and Senate were happy with this final competitor, and Vespasian ruled for ten years until his death, after which his son Titus took the throne.

During the Year of the Four Emperors, many of Nero’s statues were destroyed. As a result, very few remain today. Nero’s enemies deliberately decapitated his stone portraits, and others were used to produce new statues of later emperors. A marble portrait of Vespasian, for example, was re-carved from a likeness of Nero. Traces of Nero’s signature hairstyle are evident at the base of the neck.

The Romans attempted to write Nero out of history, which adds weight to the stories about the tyrannical Emperor. The British Museum questions these beliefs by providing evidence to the contrary. The exhibition, whilst trying to stay impartial, leans towards a more positive description of Nero. Many of the negative connotations were written long after Nero’s death. These stories were likely distorted and exaggerated over the years. That is not to say there is no truth in those allegations, but the physical evidence reveals Nero rebuilt Rome after the great fire, achieved peace throughout the empire and had a large public following.

So, was Nero a cruel, ruthless tyrant or was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society? Was he a megalomaniac, or did Nero try to do what was best for his Empire? Should we believe what historians of the past have written or make judgements based on evidence unearthed by archaeologists? Ultimately, we will never know the truth, but this exhibition reveals we cannot fully rely on anything to give us an accurate account of ancient history.

Nero: the man behind the myth is open until 24th October 2021 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £20 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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A Life in Drawing

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Leonardo da Vinci – attributed to Francesco Melzi

It has been 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died on 2nd May 1519, aged 67, at Amboise in central France. To mark the anniversary, the Royal Collection Trust has curated an exhibition that brings together over 200 of Leonardo’s greatest drawings. Not only are these works of art, but they served as thought processes of the superhuman polymath. With interests including painting, architecture, anatomy, engineering and botany, these sketches provide an exceptional insight into the workings of Leonardo’s mind.

The first drawing featured in the exhibition is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci with long wavy hair and beard. This is the only surviving representation of the influential genius to survive today, however, it is not a self-portrait. It has been accredited to one of Leonardo’s pupils, Francesco Melzi (1493-1570) who was bequeathed all of his teacher’s drawings. Melzi kept tight hold of every scrap of paper that Leonardo had drawn on, almost as if they were relics. After his death in 1570, they were passed onto the Italian sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533-1608) who painstakingly mounted them all into at least two albums. By 1670, one of the albums had found its way into the hands of King Charles II (1630-85) and the drawings have remained in the Royal Collection ever since. In the early 1900s, the pictures were removed from the album, stamped with the cypher of Edward VII (1841-1910) and individually framed. There are around 550 of Leonardo’s drawings in the Collection, 200 of which have been specially selected for this exhibition.

Leonardo was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci in Florence, Italy. He was the illegitimate son of a lawyer, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant girl called Caterina. He was raised by his paternal grandfather, however, little else is known about his childhood. Leonardo was educated in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88) and, by the age of 20, was working as a painter in Florence. In 1480, Leonardo received his first big commission, the Adoration of the Magi, however, this remained unfinished by the time he moved to Milan the following year.

As a juvenile artist, Leonardo learnt how to draw using metalpoint. This was a stylus made from either lead, silver, copper or other metals. It was a laborious technique for, in order to make a mark on the paper, the surface had to be coated with a mixture of ground bone ash and glue. By the late 1490s, the method had fallen out of use across Italy.

The older drawings in the exhibition are examples of the metalpoint technique. These include a profile of a young woman wearing a cap, which may have been a preparatory study for a painting that is now lost. Leonardo also used this drawing method to practice and work out compositions before picking up a paintbrush. A sheet of paper containing a study of hands shows how Leonardo experimented with different positions before settling on the one that created the effect he was after.

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Leonardo da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks, 1503-1506

In 1483, Leonardo received the commission to paint what is now known as the Virgin of the Rocks for a church in Milan. He painted two versions, one which was never installed and now resides in the Louvre in Paris, and the other that was put in place in 1508. The painting has since been moved and hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Leonardo began working on the Virgin of the Rocks by producing a number of preparatory studies. One of these, which is on display, is for the drapery of a kneeling figure. Comparing this drawing to the final painting, it can be noted that the composition changed slightly, however, the study was an experimental sketch for the pose of the angel on the right of the Virgin Mary. The drawing has been produced with a series of brushstrokes, fine hatching and cross-hatching, which was almost unique to Leonardo at the time. Being left-handed, his strokes slant at a different angle to the majority of right-handed artists.

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A horse divided by lines c.1490

During the 1480s, Leonardo entered the service of Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), the ruler of Milan. He commissioned Leonardo to design a bronze equestrian monument in honour of his father Francesco (1401-66), the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo began by studying and drawing horses in various positions, such as rearing and walking, from all angles. When satisfied with his design, he built a bigger-than-lifesize model out of clay in order to construct the mould ready for casting. Unfortunately, the bronze needed for the monument was requisitioned in order to build a canon, thus the project was suspended.

Five years later, Sforza was deposed by the French and Leonardo’s clay model was used for target practice by the troops and ultimately destroyed.

Leonardo’s drawings from this period also include designs for weapons, armour and grotesque figures. The latter deliberately distorted the ideals of beauty at the time and, perhaps, are some of the first examples of caricatures.

Before Sforza lost his position as Duke of Milan, he commissioned what would become one of Leonardo’s greatest works, second only, perhaps, to the Mona Lisa. Leonardo was tasked with painting a mural of The Last Supper onto the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This painting represents the Passover meal Jesus had with his apostles not long before his arrest as written in the Gospel of John.

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”- John 13:21 (NIV)

It is thought that Leonardo produced hundreds of sketches, refining his ideas for the final painting, however, only a few survive. Only one compositional sketch remains, showing a couple of ideas he experimented with. The challenge was to fit thirteen figures around a table whilst giving each one a distinctive characteristic. In one sketch, Judas is depicted at the end of the table and in another, he is standing to receive the bread from Christ. In the final painting, Judas has been integrated into the group of disciples.

The exhibition displays some of Leonardo’s initial sketches of some of the disciples, one of which is Judas. The traitor has a hooked nose, close-set lips and a muscular neck. His head is turned away from the viewer to look at Christ in mild surprise. In the painting, Judas’ facial expression appears to reveal his evil intent, however, it is thought this has been added by restorers at a later date.

The sketch of St Philip shows the disciple’s youth, emphasised by his long wavy hair and smooth face. St James also appears to be young with a similar hairstyle. The latter sketch, however, has been produced more rapidly than the others, suggesting it was drawn from a live model. Leonardo also practised the drapes of the clothing the disciples wore, for example, the sketch of St Peter’s arm who, dressed in thick fabric, leans over Judas’ shoulder in the final painting.

Leonardo briefly returned to Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. By now, he was using natural red and black chalks to produce his sketches, as can be seen in the delicate bust of a young child. This is likely a drawing of the Christ Child, although, no evidence of a painting featuring the same figure exists. Also in orangey-red is a study of drapery for the recently rediscovered painting of Christ as the saviour of the world, Salvator Mundi.

In a combination of black chalk or charcoal and ink are a few studies for the head of Leda for the lost painting of Leda and the Swan. In Greek mythology, Leda was a queen of Sparta who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Leda then bore two eggs from which hatched two sets of twins: Helen and Polydeuces, and Castor and Pollux.

The painting, which was destroyed in the eighteenth century, is thought to be the only image of the female nude Leonardo produced; however, he was far more interested in the elaborately coiled and braided hair and plants in the foreground than her body. The exhibition also displays a number of plant sketches that indicate Leonardo’s scientific interest in botany.

One of Leonardo’s main reasons for returning to Florence was to paint a huge mural in the Palazzo della Signoria to represent the Battle of Anghiari. The painting had been commissioned by the government to show the victory over the Milanese in 1440. Unfortunately, Leonardo never had the chance to complete the painting and the progress he had made was later destroyed.

What has survived, however, are some of Leonardo’s studies of horses and riders. In some, the horses are running at full gallop, their manes billowing in the wind. In others, the artist has focused on the powerful expressions on the horses’ faces, their lips drew back and eyes wild.

Although Leonardo had nothing to show for the Battle of Anghiari commission, it rekindled an old interest of his: anatomy. Leonardo had begun studying anatomy many years before, however, his sketches were largely inaccurate. He had no knowledge of the circulatory system and believed that veins distributed nutrition to the liver. The heart, he assumed, produced the body’s spirit, which was pumped around the body via the arteries.

From around 1506, Leonardo had access to human corpses from which to study in detail. He was on good terms with a handful of physicians who regarded Leonardo as an anatomist. In the winter of 1507-8, Leonardo performed his first post-mortem on the body of an elderly man in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. He recorded his findings in a series of notes and detailed drawings.

During his first dissection, Leonardo discovered the gastrointestinal tract and appendix. In writing, written backwards in mirror-image so that other people could not easily plagiarise his ideas but more so because, being left-handed, he was less likely to smudge the ink, Leonardo has produced the first description of this structure in Western medicine. He mentions the process of urine from the kidneys through to the bladder amongst other findings.

Leonardo also dissected animals, recording details of their internal organs, such as the lungs. Whilst claiming to have dissected thirty humans, he never performed an autopsy on a female. Nonetheless, he attempted to produce a diagram of the cardiovascular system and organs of a woman by combining the knowledge gained from other dissections, including animal, and ancient beliefs, such as a spherical, seven-chambered uterus.

Although recalled back to Milan where he served French occupiers in a number of ways for about seven years, he continued to work intensively on the anatomy. In 1513, Leonardo moved to Rome under the patronage of Giuliano de’ Medici (1479-1516), brother of Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Despite wanting to continue with his studies, he was not allowed to conduct any more dissections and his anatomical studies came to a halt.

Leonardo was ahead of his time with his anatomy discoveries and his drawings and notes were not fully understood until the 1900s. Although his work did not impact modern developments in biology, in hindsight it is clear that the Renaissance anatomist had learnt the scientific accuracies about the structure of the human body long before anyone else.

One sheet of sketches and jottings made by Leonardo show the musculature in an arm and the veins flowing from the body to the limb. Another sketch details the skeletal structure, revealing the spinal column, pelvis, arm bones and leg bones. There are a few errors on this particular page, for example, an elongated shoulder blade, but on the whole, it was an unprecedented drawing of a human skeleton.

In a heavily annotated drawing of muscles and tendons of a lower leg and foot, Leonardo debunked the theory that contraction of the muscles involved inflation with systemic air. In his drawing of a foetus in a womb, however, he had no real knowledge of the insides of a female’s reproductive system and yet he produced a drawing that looks close to the truth. Leonardo was intrigued that a foetus could fit in the uterus and so, using his knowledge of a cows placenta drew a curled up foetus with the umbilical cord wrapped around the crossed legs. Apart from being in the breech position, this illustration of the foetus is not too dissimilar to contemporary diagrams.

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The Chateau of Amboise c.1517-19 – attributed to Francesco Melzi

From Rome, Leonardo travelled to France after accepting an offer of employment at the court of Francis I (1494-1547), the king of France. By now, Leonardo was 64 years old and he and his assistants were still painting his future famous works including St Anne and Mona Lisa. Settling at Amboise in the Loire valley, Leonardo held the position of painter, engineer and architect to the king. He mainly worked as a designer, producing sketches of architecture, costumes and equestrian monuments. The sketch of the Chateau of Amboise on display, however, was not produced by Leonardo’s hand. It is most likely the work of one of his assistants, the aforementioned Francesco Melzi. Although the style is similar to Leonardo’s the direction of the hatching indicates it was produced by a right-handed artist.

Francis I was a keen party-goer and held several lavish entertainments, for which Leonardo designed costumes. Leonardo went to town with the detail producing designs rich with ribbons, fringes, furs, quilted sleeves and breeches. Clothing ranged from mercenary soldiers’ uniforms to fools and even prostitutes.

Not only did Leonardo design costumes, but his drawings also showed the characters in action, for example, a young man on horseback complete with a lance. This showed how the material would fall as the body moved and may even have been a help to the seamstress. Not all the costumes were elaborate, however; his sketch of a masquerader dressed up as a prisoner involved rags and shackles.

Toward the end of his life, Leonardo became preoccupied with cataclysmic storms, floods and man’s futile struggle against the overwhelming forces of nature. Art historians tend to believe Leonardo was extremely aware of the limited time he had left and was reflecting on some of his greatest creations, which had been destroyed in front of his very eyes, i.e. the equestrian monument commissioned by Sforza. Leonardo understood the impermanence of the world, having studied human anatomy, dissected dead bodies and examined plant and animal life for a number of years.

These sketches of deluges, however, were not created by an elderly man suffering from despair. They were drawn with the eye of a scientist, showing the optical qualities of cloud, rain, water and smoke.

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A description of a deluge, with marginal sketches c.1517-18

As well as drawing, Leonardo wrote detailed instructions about how to draw an accurate deluge.

Let there first be shown the summit of a rugged
mountain surrounded by valleys. From its sides
the soil slides together with the roots of bushes,
denuding great areas of rock. And descending from
these precipices, ruinous in its boisterous course, it
lays bare the twisted and gnarled roots of large trees,
throwing their roots upwards; and the mountains,
scoured bare, reveal deep fissures made by ancient
earthquakes. The bases of the mountains are covered
with ruins of trees hurled down from their lofty
peaks, mixed with mud, roots, branches and leaves
thrust into the mud and earth and stones.

And into the depths of a valley the fragments of
a mountain have fallen, forming a shore to the
swollen waters of its river, which has burst its banks
and rushes on in monstrous waves, striking and
destroying the walls of the towns and farmhouses
in the valley. The ruin of these buildings throws up
a great dust, rising like smoke or wreathed clouds
against the falling rain. The swollen waters sweep
round them, striking these obstacles in eddying
whirlpools, and leaping into the air as muddy
foam. And the whirling waves fly from the place of
concussion, and their impetus moves them across
other eddies in a contrary direction […]

The rain as it falls from the clouds is of the same
colour as those clouds, in its shaded side, unless the
sun’s rays break through them, in which case the
rain will appear less dark than the clouds. And if the
heavy masses of ruined mountains or buildings fall
into the vast pools of water, a great quantity will
be flung into the air, and its movement will be in a
contrary direction to that of the object which struck
the water; that is to say, the angle of reflection will
be equal to the angle of incidence.

Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018

This is the writing of a man still of sound mind; a scientist and an artist whose skills complement each other rather than contrast. Leonardo was a great thinker both visually and intellectually, and there has arguably not been anyone since who matches his genius.

By 1518, Leonardo’s health was deteriorating and reports state that he had lost the use of his right arm, which suggests he may have suffered a stroke. His weakness is evident in one of his final sketches, a portrait of an old, bearded man, which whilst not a literal self-portrait may at least be an indication of how he viewed himself: lank hair and rheumy eyes. The chalk lines are shorter and more hesitant than Leonardo’s previous work, suggesting he did not have full control over the chalk.

Leonardo da Vinci passed away at Amboise on 2nd May 1519, leaving all his loose sheets and notebooks to Francesco Melzi. Due to Melzi’s care and protection, and of those who handled them afterwards, the drawings have survived to today, where we can appreciate an insight into the greatest mind of the Renaissance.

The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing does not display any of Leonardo’s famous works. There are no paintings or complete artworks. Instead, the 200 or so sketches piece together the real man: the artist, the engineer, the botanist, the anatomist, the scientist, the mathematician, the inventor, the geologist, the astronomer, the writer, the historian, the cartographer, the greatest man of all time. We are extremely lucky to have the opportunity to view these drawings when many of his major works have been lost or destroyed.

The chance to view the exhibition of Leonardo’s work in London is possible at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th October 2019 after which it will move to the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse. Tickets are £13.50 for adults and it is highly recommended that they are booked in advance online.


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Michelangelo and Sebastiano

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.

It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.

Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.

Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.

This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.

Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.

Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.

Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.

As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.

Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.

As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.

Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.

The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.

The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.