Is this Leonardo?
We think of him as a bearded druid. In reality, the Renaissance master was a dandy, says Charles Nicholl

Charles Nicholl
Saturday October 2, 2004

The Guardian

What did Leonardo da Vinci look like? Anyone asked to visualise him is likely to come up with that image of the ancient, bearded sage in the famous self portrait in the Biblioteca Reale at Turin. This drawing is controversial: the faded inscription below it, in a contemporary hand, is tantalisingly illegible. Some claim it is not a self portrait at all.
I think it is, but I also think it has excessively suffused our visual sense of Leonardo. He was not always a druidic figure with a long white beard, any more than Shakespeare was always that bald chap with a goatee depicted in the frontispiece of the First Folio. These images work their way into the collective unconscious, become a kind of shorthand. It is a moot point whether Leonardo had a beard at all before his mid-50s - it was a late addition to the Leonardo "look".

He was a handsome man. An eyewitness in Florence describes him thus: "He was very attractive, well-proportioned, graceful and good-looking. He wore a short, rose-pink tunic, knee-length at a time when most people wore long gowns. He had beautiful curling hair, carefully styled, which came down to the middle of his chest." There are nuances of fashion and sociology in this that are hard to catch, but the essential image is of someone very elegantly turned out, a bit of a dandy.

This is frequently confirmed by entries in the notebooks - jasper rings and boots of Córdoba leather, cloaks and hats, a spray of rose water at the barber's (which sets him thinking about the engineering possibilities of pressurisation), and, later in his life, much snazzy finery purchased for his handsome young pupil and companion Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salai.

There are many other images of him to consider. Some are famous, like the lovely red-chalk profile at Windsor, attributed to Francesco Melzi. Others are less well known, and provide fresh and unexpected views of him. And one, I believe, is a hitherto unidentified portrait of him. It is to be found in an altarpiece in an old monastery in the village of Ospedaletto Lodigiano, some 30 miles south of Milan. Apart from a brief absence in the early 1980s, when it was stolen, it has been there ever since it was painted, nearly 500 years ago. It has not hung there unnoticed, for it is a very fine painting, but the face it contains has gone unrecognised until now.

There is a tradition that the earliest portrait of Leonardo is the skinny young lad with long wavy hair depicted in the bronze sculpture of David by Andrea del Verrocchio. The sculpture was cast in the mid-1460s, around the time when Leonardo joined Verrocchio's workshop in Florence, aged about 14. This is plausible, if unverifiable, and is made more likely by the similarities of the face to that of the young man at the edge of the crowd in Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi, which is almost certainly a self portrait.

This painting, now in the Uffizi, is the unfinished masterwork of his early Florentine period, begun in 1481 and abandoned the following year when he left for Milan. The tall young man in a long cloak looks out from the painting, a mediator between the spectator and the archetypal religious scene behind him. He is in the same position as the young man on the edge of Botticelli's Adoration , also in the Uffizi, which is also thought to be a self portrait. This was painted for the church of Santa Maria Novella a couple of years before Leonardo's Adoration, and was certainly known to him.

In Milan in the early 1490s, in service at the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo drew one of the most famous drawings in the world - the so-called Vitruvian Man, or Homo ad circulum, which has become a kind of logo for Leonardo and his aspirant mind. The drawing has a single figure in two positions, one in a circle and one in a square, each illustrating precise rules of human proportion laid down by the great Roman architect of the first century AD, Vitruvius.

Part of what makes the drawing so extraordinary is the interplay of abstract geometry and observed physical reality. The body of the man is synoptic but beautifully contoured and muscled. The feet actually seem to be standing on the lower line of the square, or pushing against the hoop of the circle. The body is delineated with clean, spare, diagrammatic lines, but the face has been treated rather differently. It is more intensely worked, more dramatically shadowed: it glowers.

I have often wondered if the Vitruvian Man is another self portrait. In a literal sense perhaps not - the drawing is dated about 1490, and the man looks older than 38. The face figures proportions listed in the accompanying text - for instance, the distance from the roots of the hair to the eyebrows is equal to the distance from the nose to the tip of the chin to the mouth. The features are in this sense ideal or prototypical. And yet the whole idea of the drawing seems to be physically realistic, the stern-looking man in the circle seems to be someone, rather than a cypher - someone with penetrating, deeply shadowed eyes, and a thick mane of curly hair parted in the middle. At the least, I would say that there are elements of self portraiture in the Vitruvian Man; that this figure that represents these secret natural harmonies also represents the man uniquely capable of understanding them - the artist-anatomist-architect Leonardo da Vinci.

This possibility is strengthened by another portrait of him, in the enigmatic Men at Arms fresco painted by his close friend Donato Bramante. The cycle, formerly in a large Milanese town house and now in the Brera gallery, features seven standing figures in fictive niches, and a half-length portrait of the two Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus seated at a table with a large terrestrial globe between them. Their identities are signalled by their traditional attributes of laughter and tears. Democritus is said to have laughed at the follies of mankind, and Heraclitus was known as the "weeping philosopher" because of his pessimistic view of the human condition.

There is a tradition going back to the 16th-century commentator Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo that some of the figures in Bramante's fresco were portraits of Milanese contemporaries. Technical analysis, done in the 1970s, tends to confirm this. The two philosophers certainly have a contemporary look. They do not have the usual attributes of ancient philosophers - no long beards or flowing antique robes. They are clean-shaven and, in the case of Heraclitus, in patently Renaissance costume.

There is a good case for taking Democritus as Bramante's self portrait: comparison can be made with the later portrait of him in Raphael's School of Athens fresco in the Vatican, and in a related chalk portrait in the Louvre. If Democritus is Bramante, who is Heraclitus? It is his friend and fellow philosopher Leonardo da Vinci, whose fascination with flux and movement could be seen as parallel to the philosophy of Heraclitus ("all things flow; nothing abides"), and whose aura of mystery might earn him the other epithet applied to Heraclitus, the "Dark One"?

This identification, first made by the Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti in the 1970s, is strengthened by the manuscript book on the desk in front of Heraclitus. It is written from right to left - a lifelong idiosyncrasy of Leonardo's handwriting. Take away the tears and the wrinkled, sunken eyes - Heraclitan attributes of sorrow - and we see here a fresco portrait of Leonardo da Vinci painted by one of his closest friends. It shows him in his mid-40s, with long, dark curling hair, a fur-trimmed gown and long-fingered hands elegantly laced together. The face has strong similarities to that of the Vitruvian man.

In the marvellous collection of Leonardo drawings in the Royal Library at Windsor there is a rather scruffy sheet with some studies of a horse's legs, and among them is a small pen-and-ink sketch. This is almost certainly a portrait of Leonardo by one of his pupils (the shading is right-handed, so it is not a self portrait by the left-handed Leonardo). The face is in three-quarters profile but the features compare closely to those of the authentic red-chalk profile by Melzi. The studies of horses' legs may be connected to Leonardo's project for an equestrian monument he was involved in between 1508 and 1511, which is a plausible date-range for the portrait sketch, showing him in his later 50s. Interestingly, the sketch shows him wearing some kind of hat - a recurrent feature in posthumous portraits of him.

It was this drawing that led me to the altarpiece at Ospedaletto Lodigiano, where the figure of St Jerome has exactly the features of the Windsor sketch: the line of the nose, the moody eyes, the beard, even the line of the hat (the cardinal's hat traditionally worn by St Jerome) and the hood. The only difference is that the image is reversed - a three-quarter profile to the right. Artists frequently used reverse tracings and mirror imprints, thus producing two models from a single drawing; many of Leonardo's drawings are traced through on to the verso.

The altarpiece was painted by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, known as Giampietrino. It was commissioned in about 1515 by the Gerolamini or Jeromite Order for their monastery, which is now the parish church of Ospedaletto Lodigiano. It is visibly influenced by Leonardo, as was all Giampietrino's work. The Christ-child playing with a lamb quotes from the Louvre Virgin and St Anne, and the face of the Madonna is closely modelled on the later version of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery. These are both works from Leonardo's second Milanese period, when Giampietrino was attached to his studio. Giampietrino's beautiful Leda was based on Leonardo's drawings (one of them in the Duke of Devonshire's Collection at Chatsworth), and recent x-ray analysis has shown that it was painted over an underdrawing of the Virgin and St Anne group. These paintings belong to the years around 1510, broadly the same period as the Windsor sketch.

The sketch is not in itself a significant drawing, just a briefly elaborated doodle. It is significant because it is an eye-witness portrait of Leonardo, and because it is mirrored in Giampietrino's St Jerome, which is therefore also a refracted portrait of him. The probable link between them is a lost portrait-drawing of Leonardo by Giampietrino. It was the source of the Windsor sketch, which is a brief copy of it in reverse, and it was used by Giampietrino as the model or cartoon for the features of St Jerome in the Lodigiano altarpiece - a tribute to his old master, by then down in Rome, but seen in the painting as he would have been seen in Milan, nearing 60: the beard flecked with silver, the chiselled face, the intensity of the eyes, the fondness for hats.

© Charles Nicholl

·: Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind by Charles Nicholl is published by Penguin Press on October 7, at £25

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