1499 was a year full of surprises. The 28-year-old King of France, Charles VIII, after drinking wine with his peers in the Amboise castle, hit the lintel of a door. The royal surgeon proved powerless to stop an internal haemorrhage and on 7 April he died. On 28 April the crown of France rested on the head of Louis XII. That was bad news for some of the small kingdoms on the Italian peninsula and for their shaky alliances, because he had claims on some of them. His grandmother was a Visconti, the former masters of Genoa and Milan, who were deprived of their dynastic rights by the Sforzas. Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, knew that his days were numbered unless he acted ruthlessly, trying to form a defensive alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian who had married his nephew, Bona Sforza.
Ludovico used his gold to enlist thousand of Swiss mercenaries and scrapped the commission he had given to Leonardo da Vinci for a giant equestrian monument to honour his father, Francesco Sforza, and sent all the bronze to Ferrara to cast cannons. When the Venetians, sworn enemies of Milan, sided with King Louis XII, in a desperate move, Ludovico threw his lot with the enemies of the Venetians: the Turks. They did not waste that golden chance and entered into Italy's northern region of Friuli, crossing the Isonzo River. They raided some villages, taking away hundreds of children and women as slaves.
On the 26 April, Leonardo da Vinci had received a vineyard in the centre of the city, close to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, by Ludovico Sforza, as payment of his past services and, perhaps, because of this reason he wanted to stay. He watched Ludovico leave the city with his troops and then waited for the French King's entry on 6 October 1499. The King went to see the newly completed Last Supper and while watching it, spellbound, he asked his engineers to detach that large wall and move it to France with the painting on it. He had no time to implement his plan because the rumours of Ludovico coming back with an army of Swiss and Germans forced him out, then the city did fall into a sort of anarchy: Gascon soldiers used the clay model of the great horse of Leonardo for their target practice, thus shattering it into pieces.
Leonardo collected his money from a bank and with his friend Luca Pacioli, a great mathematician, in December 1499 abandoned the city in which he had been living since 1482. They moved first to Mantua, were they rested for a couple of weeks, then to Venice, where Leonardo and Luca Pacioli spent two months.
In February 1500, Ludovico Sforza took Milan with his troops but then he had to move out against the French and Venetians. While staying in the fortified city of Novara, on 13 April 1500, he was betrayed by some Swiss soldiers and, once taken by the French, he was locked into an iron cage like a bear, and moved to the Castle of Lockes, where he would die in 1508.
We don't know what Leonardo did in Venice, as he seems to disappear for a few weeks from the city. We know that Luca Pacioli was well known there and had certainly introduced him to some powerful merchants and politicians. We can find hints of what he could have been up to on page 638 v. of Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus kept at the Ambrosiana Library in Milan, in a particular paper known as 'Memorandum Ligny'. It is a page that shows marks indicating that it had been folded several times, perhaps to be hidden inside a vest, with a small fragment ripped off. On it we see two drafts of a letter directed to the Venetian Senate. He was giving advice on how to protect Friuli from new attacks. Leonardo mentions some studies about defences to be built on the Isonzo River, to slow down the enemy's advance - incidentally a similar strategy will be used by the Italian army in 1917 to stop the advance of German-Austrian army. The points raised by Leonardo are so precise that he must have surveyed the place, mentioning poles to be planted on the river's bank. There is another hint to this effect on another page of the Codex Atlanticus the 822 v. dating to 1508 where again he was musing on some studies done previously in Gradisca, Friuli, about river damming.
We have a record, dated 13 March 1500, about a debate at the Venetian Senate on sending a man called Giampaolo Manfron to study the situation in Friuli. During that debate Pietro Moro (master of the Arsenal) stood up and said that he knew some capable military engineers. This man is connected somehow with Luca Pacioli. The delegation departed and then demanded founding and soldiers on the 22 of March. By 3 April they were back in Venice were the technical recommendations were presented to the Senate. It is likely that Moro took Leonardo with him on a secret mission (secret because Ludovico Sforza was still at large with a powerful army). The danger of a full-scale Turkish invasion passed only when the French caged Ludovico and the alliance with the 'infidels' fell apart.
By the end of April 1500 Leonardo and Luca Pacioli were in Florence and in 1502 Leonardo was employed as military engineer by Cesare Borgia. Even if we find close to nothing about his military operations in Leonardo's notebooks we do have a note made by his admirer and fellow traveller, Luca Pacioli. He says that during a river crossing of Borgia's army, Leonardo built a temporary bridge in no time, a work that was seen as a miracle.
(Article changed on February 17, 2016 at 23:56)
(Article changed on February 18, 2016 at 00:11)