As I write, history is palpably being made, so I take refuge in the past. I have been asked how over 600 drawings and sketches by Leonardo da Vinci came into the possession of the Queen of the British Isles.
No pictures survive from Antiquity, so no depictions in colour apart from mosaics and fragments of wall decoration in Pompei and Herculaneum with illusionistic paintings hanging on them. So perhaps they did have paintings in Roman, and presumably Greek, dwellings, but none have survived. Apart from mosaics uncovered in ancient Roman dwellings, few works using colour have survived from Antiquity. Literary sources tell us that they existed – the picture illustrating Calumny by the Greek painter Apelles being, perhaps, the most famous. Botticelli recreated it in a small painting nobody usually notices in the Uffizi Gallery. If memory doesn’t betray me, it is in the same room as Botticelli’s large and famous painting, The Birth of Venus.
Leonardo left all his possessions including a vast number of drawings to his young assistant, Francesco Melzi. After Leonardo’s death in France in1519, Melzi took them to his family villa at Vaprio outside Milan and spent the next fifty years trying to sort them into some coherent order. After Melzi’s death in 1570, the sculptor Pompeo Leoni acquired most of the sheets from Melzi’s son who had left them in the attic of his villa. Leoni mounted them in at least two volumes: technical studies and maps were placed in the large Codex Atlanticus, now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and the more artistic drawings in a smaller album containing around 600 sheets. By 1608 Pompeo Leoni was an artist in the Madrid court of Philip II and works by Leonardo were listed in an inventory of Leoni’s residence after his death there in 1608. One can only speculate what happened to them between 1608 and 1630 when the album put together by Pompeo Leoni appeared in the collection of the Earl of Arundel in England. It may have been purchased directly by one of Arundel’s agents, or it may have been acquired by Prince Charles in 1623, or someone in his circle, while in Madrid to prospect a possible marriage to the Spanish infanta. Or perhaps by his companion on that journey, the Duke of Buckingham, himself a collector, who was murdered soon afterwards. There is no record of the Leonardo manuscripts during the mid-century civil war and Cromwell’s commonwealth.
Sketches, lacking the range of a colour vocabulary, inhabit a fascinating but shadowy region in the history of connoisseurs and collecting. Seen as ways in which the artist tried out ideas, they were mostly discarded as valueless, but there were three significant exceptions, one German, one Italian, the other English. Early in the 1500s, Albrecht Durer crossed the Alps in the hope of meeting Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. He is documented as anxious to acquire a sketch by Raphael as a way into the mind of a painter he so admired. Fifty years later, Giorgio Vasari became an early collector of drawings by the artists he admired, perhaps he first to do so in modern times. Sixty years after him, the Earl of Arundel was following his example in the early 1600s.
It is in Madrid in the early 1600s where the muddle starts. When I first became interested in Leonardo’s notes and drawings, I remember it was said that they came to England from Madrid mixed up with laundry lists! Chance survivals add drama, the more fantastical the better. Though documentation is scarce, it seems that the Earl of Arundel holds the clue.
Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and his wife, Alethia Talbot, are old historical friends of mine. I met them some years ago in companion portraits at Arundel Castle. In the background of each painting was an indication of the sitter’s taste: the Earl had his sculpture gallery, the first in England, painted in behind him with the Thames in the background, while the Countess had a portrait gallery behind her, presumably referring to her ancestors and, by implication, her descendants. Over a hundred years earlier, pope Julius II was among the first since the Ancient world, to create his own sculpture gallery in the Vatican. It was widely known and admired, thus a sculpture gallery filled with genuine works from Antiquity acquired the power to bestow status on all who followed suit. In 1628 Prince Charles Stuart embarked on a long journey to Madrid with the purpose of asking for the hand in marriage of the Infanta, the king of Spain’s eldest daughter. He was accompanied by an array of ambitious courtiers including his father, James I’s favourite, the handsome Duke of Buckingham – later murdered. The Spanish king possessed a magnificent collection of paintings including many by Titian. These were particularly admired by young prince Charles who was in search of prestigious paintings. His ambition was to possess the greatest collection of paintings in Europe, and many scholars say he achieved just that.
Maybe not mixed up with lists of laundry, but Leonardo’s sketches somehow must have made their way to England in the entourage of Prince Charles, the future tragic Charles I. My guess is that the colourful courtier Endymion Porter, who accompanied them to and from Madrid, had a hand in it. This was the world of Shakespeare’s young contemporaries, of Ben Johnson the playwright and Inigo Jones, Britain’s first classical architect, all bristling with energy and ideas. Somehow the Leonardo papers must have travelled with this cohort to England.
Leonardo’s manuscripts are documented in Leoni’s Madrid residence after his death in 1608 and by 1630 some are in England in the collection of the Earl of Arundel. The Earl may have acquired them from the notorious Duke of Buckingham, a keen collector, or from another member of the royal circle who accompanied the future Charles I on his journey to Madrid in 1523 to seek a bride. So the Leonardo manuscripts came to London from Madrid in the early seventeenth century. Decades later, after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, they appear in a 1663 display for Christmas guests in the family palace in Norwich in 1663 of the works collected by the then earl’s grandfather. By 1690 the Leonardo album is recorded in the Royal Collection of Charles II, probably presented to him by the grandson of the Earl of Arundel who had founded the collection, in return for the land confiscated from the Arundel family in the middle of the seventeenth century during the Civil War. They have remained in the Royal Collection to this day.