Veni, Vidi, daVinci – Leonardo’s journey from Rome to Amboise in 1516 – (Part 1) Rome to Milan

In 1516, Leonardo da Vinci set off from Rome with three assistants and at least one guide and traveled for over 1500 km all the way to Amboise in northern France. It would take Leonardo and his entourage three months to make it to Amboise travelling most of the way on horseback. Leonardo took a number of unfinished paintings with him on his journey, one of which was the Mona Lisa. Nowadays, this is probably the most famous painting of all time but it would be 1518 before Leonardo completed the painting, two years after arriving in Amboise and one year before his death. It is a wonder the unfinished painting wasn’t damaged beyond repair as Leonardo and his entourage made the perilous journey over the Alps in the autumn of 1516. This was by far the longest journey Leonardo ever made during his lifetime but incredibly, he made no reference to it in the many sketchbooks he compiled throughout his lifetime. No-one else in his entourage made an account of their journey either meaning researchers and historians have had to piece together details of Leonardo’s journey from other sources.

Just some of the hundreds of books written about Leonardo da Vinci

There have been hundreds of books published about Leonardo da Vinci ever since his death in 1519, 3 years after arriving in Amboise. Many of these books go into incredible detail about Leonardo’s life, his works of art and his drawings of various contraptions. The most famous book in recent times is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo, which was released in 2017. It is over 600 pages long yet less than one page is devoted to Leonardo’s journey from Rome to Amboise eventhough it took the Italian almost 3 months to complete. Other biographers gloss over Leonardo’s epic journey in a similar vein probably because Leonardo himself did not make any notes or write about it. Leonardo often traveled throughout Italy and his journey to Amboise was not much further than going from Rome to Milan and back again to Rome. Leonardo traveled extensively through Italy in his lifetime and rarely recorded details of those journeys so that might explain why he did not write about his trip over the Alps to France either.

Map of Italy during the Renaissance showing the extent of territory controlled by the Republic of Venice

While Leonardo made no notes about his journey, others did record him passing various points on his way to Amboise. At that time, the Venetian Republic controlled most of north eastern Italy and had ambassadors in many European capitals. These ambassadors recorded any significant events that happened in their city and sent dispatches every day to Venice. Many of these dispatches have survived to this day in the Venetian State Archives and have provided historians with all sort of details about historical events. Some of these dispatches also mentioned Leonardo’s progress as he made his way from Rome to Amboise.

Route between Rome in Italy and Amboise in France that Leonardo may have taken in 1516

Three documents in the Venetian State Archives refer to Leonardo’s journey and each dispatch is dated meaning it is possible to track Leonardo’s progress with a high degree of accuracy. The Venetian State Archives record that Leonardo left Rome on August 12th 1516 and that he arrived in Castelnuovo near Mantua in northern Italy on September 1st before then making his way to Amboise in France on October 28th. However, where he went in between these 3 specific locations and dates is still open to interpretation.

Guillame Gouffier de Bonnivet, secretary to Francis 1, king of France and the letter he wrote inviting Leonardo to Amboise

While there are three references to Leonardo’s journey in the Venetian State Archives, surprisingly, there is no reference at all to Leonardo’s journey in the French Royal archives though this might be because many Royal documents were destroyed during the French Revolution. However, other documents have survived including a copy of the letter sent to Rome inviting Leonardo to move to France. On 13th March 1516, Guillame Gouffier de Bonnivet, the secretary to Francis 1, king of France, wrote a letter to the French ambassador in Rome, Antonio Maria Pallavicini. In the letter, Bonnivet urges Pallavicini to try and convince Leonardo to move to France and to assure him that he would be made most welcome by both by the King and by Madame Louise, the King’s mother. Leonardo had met with Bonnivet and King Francis when the French King met with Pope Leo X at Bologna in December 1515 but turned down their invitation to move to France and instead returned to Rome. But in March 1516, Leonardo’s patron, Guiliano de Medici, passed away after a short illness. Pallavicini promised Leonardo that he would be very well looked after by King Francis and managed to convince Leonardo to move to France. However, Leonardo’s departure to France was delayed for a few months to allow King Francis to appoint a new ambassador in Rome as the French king did not want anyone else apart from Pallavicini accompanying Leonardo on his journey from Rome to Amboise.

Painting of the Vatican Palace beside Saint Peter’s Church in Rome by Ippolitto Caffi

On 12th August 1516, Leonardo moved out of his apartment in the Belvedere Court of the Vatican Palace and left Rome accompanied by his assistants Francesco Melzi, Salai and Battista de Vilanis as well as Ambassador Pallavicini. Records show that Pallavicini was given 200 ducats to arrange for an armed escort, so all in all, about 10 people, including bodyguards, set off from Rome on August 12th along with Leonardo da Vinci.

Route taken by Leonardo da Vinci during the first leg of his journey from Rome to Amboise

In July 2020, Jan Sammer, of the Columbia University in the USA, published a document outlining the route he believed Leonardo da Vinci after leaving Rome in August 1516. From Rome to Florence is 280 km so averaging 30 km a day, the party would have taken at least 9 days to reach Florence arriving there on August 21st. Records show that Leonardo stopped for a few days in Florence to say goodbye to his friends and family before then setting out for Bologna.. From there, Leonardo and his fellow travelers made their way north to Castelnuovo near Mantua arriving there on September 1st. It is 220 km between Castelnuovo and Florence meaning Leonardo and his entourage spent at least 7 days traveling this route.  So the group probably left Florence on August 24th, arrived in Bologna on August 28th before then making their way to Castelnuovo on September 1st. At that time, Castelnuovo was located on the border between territory controlled by the Republic of Venice and the King of France. We can be certain that Leonardo was here on September 1st as a letter has survived in the Venetian Archives detailing Ambassador Pallavicini’s arrival in Castelnuovo. Interestingly, while the letter mentions the French king’s ambassador to Rome, there is no mention of anyone accompanying him including Leonardo.

16th Century map of Milan

From Castelnuovo, Sammer estimates that it would have taken a further 5 days to travel to Milan and that Leonardo and his entourage arrived there on or around September 6th. In his article, Jan Sammer speculates that Leonardo and his assistants spent the next 4 weeks in Milan. However, I find this hard to believe as winter was fast approaching and the party would have been keen to cross over the Alps before the Alpine passes were blocked by heavy snow. Not only that but the French ambassador, Pallavicini had been given precise instructions by the King of France to get Leonardo to Amboise as quickly and as safely as possible. Therefore, I believe Leonardo and his party only stayed for a week or two in Milan before then setting out to cross over the Alps.

16th Century sketch of the Sforza Castle (left) and Torre del Filarete (right)

While in Milan, Leonardo was asked by the French to draw up some plans for the re-construction of the Sforza castle walls. After the French victory over the Swiss Confederacy in the Battle of Marignano, in September 1515,  the defeated Maximilian Sforza and his Swiss mercenaries had retreated into the Sforza castle in Mil;an, which had been built by his grandfather. However, King Francis I of France followed them to Milan, and his soldiers placed mines under the castle’s foundations, whereupon the defenders capitulated. When Leonardo visited Milan a year later, some of the Sforza castle walls were still in ruins.  However, the Torre del Filarete which had been built by the architect Filarete in 1451 survived the destruction. However, 5 years later in 1521, it exploded after arms and munitions stored in it blew up. The explosion killed over 300 soldiers garrisoned in the castle and it would be 1905 before the Torre del Filarete was re-built to look like it did when first built in the 15th Century.

Sforza Castle in Milan from the air

It is reasonable to assume Leonardo stayed for at least two weeks in Milan to allow him time to complete his drawings for the reconstruction of the Sforza Castle walls.  While in Milan, Leonardo was joined by another Italian, a musician called Giacomo who would later accompany him to Amboise. A letter has survived which states that Giacomo left Mantua on September 18th so he probably arrived in Milan around September 23rd. It is probable that Leonardo and his entourage left Milan shortly afterwards on or around September 25th but where they went next has been a mystery for the last 500 years. Travelling from Milan to France meant crossing over the formidable Alps and with winter fast approaching, only a few mountain passes would still be open. So just how did Leonardo and his entourage cross over the Alps? The truth is we cannot be certain as neither Leonardo nor any of his his colleagues left any account of their journey but there are clues that can be gleamed from other sources. It is these clues that I will examine in more detail in Part 2 of Veni, Vidi, DaVinci – Leonardo’s journey from Rome to Amboise in 1516.

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