Leonardo da Vinci, the Last Supper, and Ludovico Sforza

Making my way to Milan Malpensa airport, following the road past the vineyards of Monferrato and through the countryside around Asti in the heart of the Piamonte region, I couldn’t help remembering the Gonzagas, the Marquis of Mantua, and, for a time, the owners of a large swathe of these lands.

Until it became the property of the Mantua, the Monferrato belonged to the dynasty founded by Aleramo in the 10th century, which died out at the end of the 16th century, when the Gonzagas took possession of the Marquisate of Monferrato.

I began thinking back over this period in history while going to visit the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazia in Milan, during the couple of hours I had free before catching a plane back to Madrid.

It was at Santa Maria delle Grazia that Leonardo da Vinci left one of his most amazing artistic legacies: The Last Supper. It is his vision of one of the most important events in the life of Christ and one which, until then, nobody had interpreted in such a miraculous fashion. What is even more miraculous is that it has survived, given the challenges of the place where he chose to paint and the damage it suffered over the centuries, so that we can still see it today. For instance, during the Napoleonic occupation of northern Italy, the dining hall where the fresco is found was used as a barn and stable for soldiers’ horses.

Let’s go a little further back in time, however. Leonardo da Vinci was in Milan quite a while before the Gonzaga came to Monferrato, so we have to travel back to the end of the 15th century, one hundred years earlier.

On October 24, 1441, Francesco Sforza, an ambitious military man and tactician, was married – for the second time, in his case – to Bianca Maria Visconti, the daughter of the last Duke of Milan from the Visconti dynasty. Meanwhile, in Spain, Juan II was on the throne, married to Maria of Aragon (his first cousin and the daughter of Fernando I of Aragon, who, in turn, was the brother of Juan II’s late father, Enrique III of Castille), and the father of three daughters and a son who went on to become Enrique IV of Castille upon his father’s death.

Sforza was the King’s right-hand man and was very close to the most powerful man in Castille, Don Alvaro de Luna, who had helped the King during his conflict with the Infantes of Aragon, the Queen’s sisters. Scorza resolved the attempted coup at Tordesillas in 1420, with the aid of Don Alvaro, in favor of the King, the same year he was first married. They managed to escape from Talavera de la Reina, where the King was held prisoner with his cousin and brother-in-law, Enrique de Aragon, to take refuge in the castle of Puebla de Montalban, where the King was safe and from where he continued to reign. Jorge Manrique talks about Alvaro de Luna in his “Coplas por la muerte de su padre” and Cervantes also mentions him in Don Quijote.

When Maria de Aragon, Juan II’s first wife, died in 1445, he married Isabel of Portugal in Madrigal de las Altas Torres on August 17, 1447. Isabel never took to Don Alvaro and, in yet another demonstration of a woman’s power, she had him arrested at Portillo Castle, stripped of his offices, and executed in Valladolid’s Plaza Mayor on June 3, 1453. Two children were the fruit of Juan II’s second marriage: Alfonso, who was born in 1453 and died aged 15, and Isabel, born in 1451 and who would later become the Catholic Queen, who was also Enrique IV’s half sister.

But let’s continue with the story…

In 1466, Francesco Scorza, the first of Milan’s Sforza dynasty, died. Upon the demise of his father-in-law, Fillipo Visconti, he had seized control of Milan, avoided invasion by the Venetians and, backed by his dynamic and intelligent wife, Bianca, was named Duke of Milan. He would be followed by his son, Galeazzo, who ruled for just 10 years until, on December 26 1476, two years after Isabel became the Catholic Queen, was stabbed fatally three times in the Church of San Stefano. An aside: his murder inspired some of the parts of the famous video game, Assasins Creed. And, when Galeazzo died, power was passed on to his underage son, who ceded it in 1481 to Ludovico, his uncle, who became the Regent.

Francesco II, a Gonzaga, had married Isabella d’Este, the daughter of Ercole I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara and one of the leading patrons of the Renaissance. Her siblings, Beatriz and Alfonso, were also married to Sforzas; Alfonso with Anna, in January 1491, and Beatriz with Ludovico Sforza, who was still Regent of Milan at the time.

Just as there had often been arguments between the different factions which supported various pretenders to the throne in Castille, the same thing was taking place in Milan. There, it had been more than 20 years since Isabel, Enrique IV’s half-sister, had come to the throne in Castille, victorious over those who defended the rights of Juana, Enrique’s daughter, who her own father had removed from the succession in order to avoid civil war in Castille.

Meanwhile, the Borja, a Valencian family that originated in Xativa, were gaining importance in the power struggles that developed, thanks to the strength that having one of their own, Alonso de Borja, reigning as Pope Calixto III in Rome. To understand him, you have to realize that before becoming Pope, he played a major role in the Western Schism, which saw three Popes in office in Europe, fighting over St Peter’s Mitre. Rodrigo Llanzol, Calixto III’s nephew and the son of Isabel de Borja, changed his father’s surname for his mother’s and Italianized it, to become Rodrigo de Borgia. Aged 25, and thanks to his family ties to the Pope who had wrested control of the church the year before, he became a Cardinal and a great ally of Spain’s Catholic monarchy.

Just a few years before, in Spain, Queen Isabel I had an audience with an unknown sailor, Christopher Columbus, who told her of his desire to sail across the Ocean Sea with the goal of discovering a new and shorter route to the Indies. She negotiated with him, and without perhaps being fully aware of the magnitude of the expedition she was about to finance, granted him a series of privileges under the Capitulations of Santa Fe, which made Christopher Columbus and his heirs potential competitors for the Crown and which caused no small amount of concern both for Carlos I, her son and heir, and Felipe II, her great-grandson.

It’s a time of massive upheaval in Europe and around the world. The Renaissance was flowering more than people at the time could have imagined, and the history of the world was about to be rewritten on a much wider scale as its borders expanded to include the Americas in a short time.

In 1492, the same year Columbus arrived in America, Rodrigo Borgia was named Pope after a conclave at which, it appears, the most frequent issue of discussion was the cost of buying the votes necessary to be nominated. He chose the name of Alexander VI and led the church until his death in 1503 and was the Pope who resolved the doubts about the rights of Spain and Portugal over the America, with his famous Alexandrian Bulls of 1493. He was also the Pope to commission Miguel Angel Buonarotti to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica.

Two years after being appointed Pope, in 1494, Borgia allied himself with Alfonso II, the King of Naples, with the goal of occupying Milan and dethroning the Sforza, among other reasons because of his desire to leave land for his children, of whom he had at least nine. Both he and the King of Naples, the son of Isabel of Spain, were closely related. Alfonso V was the great-grandson of Fernando I of Aragon, who, for a time, had been the heir to the throne of Castille and Aragon, while his brother, Enrique II, had no children.

But when Juan II was born, who would become the father of Enrique IV and Isabel of Spain, and the King died, his brother, Fernando, became Regent for a few years and, subsequently, was enthroned as the King of Aragon. Alfonso II of Naples was, therefore, also the grandson of Alfonso V, the Magnanimous, also known as Alfonso I, and the son of Fernando I of Naples, who, in turn, was a bastard son of Alfonso V. Fernando I of Naples married twice, had eight children from his two unions, and another eight bastard children with three different concubines. Alfonso II, the next King of Naples, was the fruit of his first marriage to Isabel de Taranto.

While the crown of Naples was passed around, and squabbled over by different European monarchs, Ludovico Sforza, known as the Moor, still governed Milan as its Regent. During which time, Leonardo painted The Last Supper: between 1494 and 1498. The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which had been built on top of an older church as a Dominican convent, on the orders of Francesco Sforza, was remodeled by Ludovico and expanded to become the Sforza’s mausoleum. In fact, he went so far as to link his palace with the convent via a secret passage which has space to ride a horse between both places. Its main room, known as the Sala Bramante, houses the greatest collection of Leonardo’s works found today, which I had the chance to visit, also contains the entrance to this passageway, hidden behind a clock.

These were some of the hardest years in Ludovico’s life. In 1494, he managed to contain an initial attack by Carlos VIII, the French King, via an alliance with Maximiliano I, the Emperor of the Holy Empire. In 1495, on the death of his nephew, the hier to the throne of Milan, who succumbed in suspicious circumstances, he was named Duke of Milan and invested by the Milanese nobility and the Emperor himself. On January 3, 1497, he lost his wife, Beatriz D’Este, in childbirth, and buried her in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and, in 1498, three years after being appointed Duke of Milan, and 17 after being named Regent, he was banished from the city by the new French King, Louis XII, Louis d’Orleans, who won his claim to the throne as the grandson of the daughter of the first Duke, Giangaleazzo Visconti, invading with a force of soldiers and mercenaries.

Ludovido was emprisoned by the French in April, 150 and died in custody on May 17, 1508.

His son, Maximiliano, recovered the Milanese throne from 1513-15 and another of his sons, Francisco II, was named Duke under Emperor Carlos I, when the crown was wrested back from the Franch in 1525. Years laters, Francisco II fought with the Emperor who had returned his throne, and died without issue soon afterwards, in 1535. After a brief war between Carlos I and Francisco I, the French King, from 1536-38, the Dukedom of Milan became part of the Spanish crown.

For Francisco I, it must have been a bitter loss, and yet another against the Emperor, after having suffered at Pavia in 1525, when he was held captive in Madrid for an entire year. But Francisco I did not leave Milan empty-handed. He took Leonardo to Paris, and Leonardo, among other items, also took the Mona Lisa with him, which, since then, has remained in France. The Louvre, where La Gianconda has been hung for years, used to be a medieval fortress which Francisco I remodeled completely and converted into the Renaissance palace we know today.

Isn’t this period of history fascinating?


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  1. 16 October, 2020

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