In 1512, Leonardo da Vinci turned sixty. In the autumn of the following year, he moved to live in the recently-constructed Villa Belvedere in the Vatican, in Rome. This had been designed by Pollaiuolo as a summer retreat from the heat of the main palace, and had just been linked by a long court, the Cortile del Belvedere, with the Vatican Palace.
This must have been an exciting period with both Raphael and Michelangelo active at the time. Raphael was still working on his Stanze there, the “Raphael Rooms”, whose frescoes are generally considered to be his greatest works. Michelangelo had just completed his masterpiece fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and was promptly commissioned by the new Medici Pope Leo X to reconstruct the façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, and was busy with drawings and designs for that work before it was abruptly cancelled in 1520.
One painting of Leonardo’s which is thought to date from this stay in the Vatican is his striking portrait of Saint John the Baptist, from about 1513-16. Investigations have demonstrated that it was painted in a very similar way to the Mona Lisa, and visually it takes the delicate sfumato of the earlier portrait to its ultimate conclusion.
Paul Barolsky has argued that it is based on the opening verses of the Gospel of Saint John (the apostle this time, of course) in which John the Baptist’s role as a witness to God’s light is expounded. The raised hand and serene smile, surely another reminder of the Mona Lisa, have become popularly quoted, although less known are the details obscured by its darkened varnish: the crucifix which parallels the raised index finger, and camel-skin robe cradled in his left arm.
Just before Christmas in 1515, Leonardo attended the meeting of Pope Leo X with King Francis I of France, who had just recaptured the city of Milan. The following year, the artist entered the service of King Francis, and retired with his friend and apprentice Count Francesco Melzi to a manor house, Clos Lucé, close to the royal residence at Château d’Amboise, on the bank of the River Loire. He died there on 2 May 1519.
There are no paintings which have been safely attributed to Leonardo from those final years, but there is a controversial candidate in the world’s most expensive painting, Salvator Mundi. If painted by Leonardo himself, it is thought that was after 1507, and may have been during those years of retirement in France.
Of all the works which have been claimed to be painted by Leonardo, this presents the greatest problems. Associated with a work from which engravings were made in the seventeenth century, its provenence proper doesn’t start until 1900, when it was thought to be a copy after a work by one of Leonardo’s assistants, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, who died in 1516. When auctioned in 1958, it wasn’t seriously considered to be an original by Leonardo, but was bought again in 2005 by a New York art historian, who had it restored in 2007.
It was only following that restoration that this was presented as a painting by Leonardo’s own hand, and exhibited as such in London’s National Gallery in a temporary exhibition in 2011. On the strength of that, Christie’s in New York sold it at auction on 15 November 2017 for $450.3 million to the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
The painting that remains is, whoever its creator, a shadow of its former self, particularly in the head, which appears to have lost much of its original paint layer and been overpainted poorly. One plausible suggestion is that Leonardo produced a cartoon which was then used by his studio assistants as the basis for their paintings. At best, then, the hands might have been painted by Leonardo’s own hand. This controversy is unlikely to be settled for a long time to come.
By the time of his death, Leonardo had been a great influence over his studio assistants, close associates, and other leading artists of the day.
Many of those who had worked in Leonardo’s studio proved very competent painters, but hardly compare to the Master himself. For example, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, generally known as Il Sodoma, painted The Three Fates in about 1525.
More significant are the changes which took place in the paintings of Raphael. Here, for example, is his magnificent Madonna della seggiola (Madonna of the Chair), painted in 1513-14 when both he and Leonardo were working in the Vatican.
Leonardo’s paintings were already revered by artists during his life, and continue to influence even today. His Last Supper, for instance, remains the benchmark. In about 1546, Jacopo Bassano took that formal composition and added informality by loosening the groups of apostles and relaxing their postures and activities. But there’s no mistaking its pictorial reference.
More general enthusiasm for the work of Leonardo waned, though. It wasn’t really until the twentieth century that the Mona Lisa became so generally revered, or attracted such crowds. Over the last century, general knowledge about Leonardo’s artistic and many other accomplishments has grown considerably, and he has at last achieved recognition as the genius that he undoubtedly was.
Luke Syson, Larry Keith et al. (2011) Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery (London). ISBN 978 1 85709 491 6.
Frank Zöllner (2017) Leonardo da Vinci, the Complete Paintings, Taschen. ISBN 978 3 8365 6297 3.