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Letter to the Duke of Milan

Leonardo da Vinci's Letter to the Duke of Milan Speaker: Dr. David Drogin . Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] When Leonardo is emerging on his own as a artist in Florence in the late 1470's, Florence, at that time, was full of very important, successful artists. Not only is their Verrocchio, but you also people like Botticelli, Filipino Lippi and the Pollaiuolo brothers. And so Leonardo decides to try his luck elsewhere, outside of Florence. And he writes a letter to the Duke of Milan. And in the job letter, Leonardo states all of the skills that he has. He's trying to get hired. And he's essentially trying to sell himself to the Duke of Milan. And what's very interesting about this letter, which actually survives, most of the letter is a list of Leonardo's skills that have absolutely nothing to do with painting or sculpture. The things that Leonardo says he can do include building forts, inventing new weapons and so on. And then at the very end of the letter he says, also "I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also painting." We can think of Leonardo as a great painter, and, indeed, that's what he was. But when we read this letter from Leonardo, he does not prioritize painting. And if anything, it comes last in the long list of things that he can do. For instance, he could invent new weapons systems. And so here's a crossbow machine where you see men climbing on the wheel and the crossbow would be shooting arrows out. He's interested in saying he can design weapons of war, because that's what he thinks the Duke of Milan is going to want. When an artist would be a court artist, when they will be working for something like a duke, they were responsible for many, many things. It was not just making paintings and sculptures. They had to design weapons. And here's another one. It's almost like a tank that slices people in half. He tells other things that he can do for the duke, including irrigation things. This is a machine that is designed to make water go uphill. He also says he can draw maps for military purposes, but also for agricultural purposes. And this one is from a little bit later. But it shows the same basic idea. This is of a valley in Tuscany. This is the way that an artist needed to sell himself when he is looking for a job in late 15th century Italy. Now one other thing that Leonardo talks about in his letter was the idea of making an equestrian monument for the duke's illustrious father, Francesco Sforza. This was a project that had actually been, at first, given to one of the Pollaiuolo brothers. And here we see the Pollaiuolo design for the Sforza Equestrian Monument. And this was to be, probably, made out of bronze, although it's not entirely certain. And this project was never completed by the Pollaiuolo. And so when Leonardo was writing his letter he says specifically, I can carry out this project, because he knows that this is a priority of the duke. And what it illustrates is that a work of art wasn't necessarily linked exclusively to the artist who thought it up. But that it existed as an idea, as a project for a patron. And that various, different artists could claim to execute the project, or say that they wanted to finish it. And so here we see Pollaiuolo's drawing. And then Leonardo's early drawing for the same project, is this. And you can see that, basically, it is the same design that Pollaiuolo had, but in a slightly more Leonardo, more energetic kind of style. [MUSIC PLAYING]