Portrait by Giovanni Boltraffio, c. 1496–1498
|Died||1570 (aged 78–79)|
Early life and training
Francesco's father, Gerolamo Melzi, was an engineer for Francesco II Sforza's military and a captain in the militia in Milan under Louis XII. Francesco lived with his family in the Villa Melzi in Vaprio d'Adda (not to be confused with the Villa Melzi d'Eril in Bellagio, Lombardy), which today is still under the ownership of the Dukes Melzi d'Eril. Francesco grew up in the Milanese court, and was raised with proper manners and was granted a good education, which included training in the arts. He was reasonably talented in the arts and worked very hard. As a member of a prominent family of the Milanese court, however, Francesco would have had political and social responsibilities as he got older that would have caused him to discontinue his studies in art had it not been for Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo returned to Milan for some time around 1505 and stayed with the Melzi family. It was there that he met Francesco for the first time, enticed by his good nature and handsomeness. In a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, it is argued that he felt compelled to stay in Milan longer than he had intended after meeting with the young Francesco. Francesco is described in literature as charming and graceful, an adolescent without the awkwardness or lack of manners typical of boys around this age. Francesco and another pupil of Leonardo's, Boltraffo, stood out from the other students as they were capable painters, very bright, and well-learned. Because of his upbringing in the high court, Francesco was gracious and dignified, and had a very good education. Shortly after they met, Francesco began studying and working at Leonardo's workshop and quickly became his master's favorite pupil, and the most devoted as well. Despite this, fairly little is written about the apprentice painter, and what is known about him is almost exclusively within the context of Leonardo. In fact, other than Francesco, none of Leonardo's pupils went on to become respected artists. And although he is not well-known, Francesco is referred to as being the first person responsible for collecting, organizing, and preserving Leonardo da Vinci's notes on painting, and transforming it into a manuscript copy known as the Codex Urbinas. After Leonardo's death in 1519, Francesco returned to Italy and married Angiola di Landriani, and with her he fathered eight children. One of his children, Orazio, would inherit Leonardo's manuscripts after Francesco's death in 1569/70.
Career and Life
Francesco Melzi's career is inextricably linked to Leonardo da Vinci, and this could be a reason that he is not well-known, because his master overshadowed him. Sigmund Freud attributed the lack of success of Leonardo's pupils, including the talented Francesco, to their inability to distinguish themselves as separate from their master, and thus their careers were unable to flourish after his death. Before Leonardo's death in 1519, Francesco's career consisted largely of being an assistant to, and an executor for, Leonardo. Because of their close relationship, more like father-son rather than master-apprentice, he was content with aiding and caring for Leonardo, a companion/secretary. One of his main tasks was to scribe his master's Codex Trivulzianus, a manuscript of learned words and ideas, which is presumed to have been written entirely in Milan because Francesco (or Leonardo) scribed "Milan" on the last page.
Francesco was Leonardo's only pupil who stayed with him until his death, traveling and working with him in Milan, Rome, and France. He accompanied the master painter to Milan, where the French governor of Milan Charles d'Amboise was Leonardo's patron, and went to Rome with him in 1513. In his notebook Leonardo wrote, "I left Milan for Rome on the 24th day of September 1513, with Giovanni Boltraffio, Francesco de' Melzi, Lorenzo di Credi, and il Fanfoia." After three years in Rome, Francesco accompanied Leonardo to France in 1516 where they stayed in the Chateau de Cloux in Amboise. During this time, Francis I of France was Leonardo's patron, and the French court account books logged Leonardo's annual payment was 1000 gold crowns (écus de soleil), while Francesco Melzi received 400.
During this time in France, Andrea Salaí, another pupil, left Leonardo and built a house on his (Leonardo's) estate in Italy, and so Francesco was the last pupil who continued to work for his master until his death. He was the executor and heir of Leonardo's will. Although Francesco was Leonardo's official heir and was bequeathed with his master's manuscripts, drawings, workshop materials and machinery, Andrea Salaino (Andrea Salaí) received Leonardo's paintings in 1524 in France and brought them back to Milan. Francesco's responsibility attaching him to Leonardo da Vinci was to care for his late master's works after he passed. Leonardo wanted his works to be shared with the world and read by others after his death, however Francesco never fully accomplished this. The works would eventually be compiled, and published as the Codex Urbinas. In addition to this, Melzi actually executed and completed a number of plans for paintings, and paintings themselves, that were left unfinished after Leonardo's passing.
Francesco Melzi is known for creating the Codex Urbinas, which is a selection and careful compilation of Leonardo's thousands of pages of notes and sketches under the title "On Painting", and was later known as the Tratatto della Pittura (Treatise on Painting). Although today we would not have the many manuscript copies and versions of Leonardo's notes and sketches if it weren't for Francesco's initial efforts, we can also attribute the loss of much of Leonardo's genius to Francesco. Once he inherited Leonardo's manuscripts, he extensively catalogued them and most likely had the intention to publish them. However the reality is that Leonardo's works were not seen for the larger part of the 16th century. After Francesco's death in ca. 1570 the manuscripts were not properly cared for. His son Orazio Melzi, who was a lawyer, inherited the manuscripts. He knew very little of Leonardo da Vinci and the manuscripts his father kept and therefore did not understand their value, so they laid neglected in his attic for years. When Orazio died on his estate in Vaprio d'Adda, his heirs sold the collection of Leonardo's works, and thus began their dispersal.
Despite his failure to publish them, Francesco did in fact ensure the future preservation of his late master's works that he treasured so greatly. He gathered 944 short chapters from Leonardo's scattered notes, but had difficulty organizing and arranging the material and even left some pages blank. Being a Milanese noble, he must have employed helpers to sort through the thousands of pages of notes, but he was the only one who could decipher Leonardo's unique left-handed mirror-like writing style and enigmatic abbreviations and spellings. However, this was just the beginning. Before the manuscript was published at least five copies were hand scribed by students after Francesco's original copy, some of which reside today in The Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana at the University of California, Los Angeles Library. We can see each of these efforts, starting with Francesco's, as steps leading up to the final production and printing of the manuscript. In addition, he made Leonardo's works accessible to scholars at the time such as Vasari, Lomazzo, Antonio Gaddiano, Cardano, among others, whose names are listed in numerous manuscript copies.
In addition to preserving Leonardo's manuscripts, Francesco Melzi also is said to have contributed greatly towards the legacy of Leonardo in future generations. Because he owned his master's manuscripts, notes, and works, after his death, he was able to share with the next generation of artists Leonardo's genius, techniques, and oeuvre. This Leonardismo, the continued influence that Leonardo's legacy had on future painters' style and thought, continued throughout the 1500s. For example, Francesco's pupil, Girolamo Figino, was described by the Italian scholar Francesco Albuzio in his Memorie per servire alla storia de'pittori, scultori e architect milanesi (1776) as "illuminator and disciple of Francesco Melzi." Girolamo created two paintings which are references to his predecessors; his Madonna and Saints is thought to be inspired by Melzi's Vertumnus and Pomona, and his Portrait of Margherita Colleoni references Leonardo's Mona Lisa, which is a testimony to the continuation of Leonardo's teachings after his death.
Relationship with Leonardo da Vinci
From the time Francesco Melzi became an apprentice at Leonardo da Vinci's workshop, his life largely revolved around his master's. Leonardo took an immediate liking to Francesco when he met him as an adolescent at his house in Milan and took him under his wing as an apprentice. Francesco became like a son to his master, and Leonardo like a father, and followed him up until his death in 1519. Francesco quickly became aware of his master's loneliness, seeing past his legendary fame and genius, and felt impelled to care for him, essentially devoting his whole life to him. Leonardo's second Milanese period, when he resided with the Melzi family, is by some considered his most creative years in art and canal engineering. This is the time when he created the engineering plans for the Martesana Canal, which was completed and still regulates the Arno river in Milan today (the Arno runs through Florence).
Because the two were so close, lived together, and cared for each other so deeply, there have been theories that Leonardo and Francesco engaged in romantic, homosexual relations. However, these theories have no hard evidence and have been largely refuted, stating their relationship never extended past platonic or familial affection. It does, however, seem plausible based on Leonardo's past. There have been no accounts of Leonardo having sexual or romantic relations of any kind with a woman, and he was also charged with homosexual acts that were at the time forbidden during his apprenticeship with Verrocchio, however was acquitted.
Francesco also influenced his master's religious beliefs. As a man of science, Leonardo was not particularly religious. In Giorgio Vasari's first edition of Lives of the Artists he accused the polymath of having heretical beliefs, however in his second edition revised this statement and states that he "earnestly resolved to learn about the doctrines of the Catholic faith and the good and holy Christian religion." Although he may have overstated his master's devotion to Christianity, it is true that he was a firm believer towards the end of his life, and that his apprentice influenced him greatly—Francesco was a very devoted Christian and they spent much time together. In fact, the only people at Leonardo's deathbed were Francesco and members of the clergy—the vicar of the church of St. Denis at Amboise, two Franciscan friars, and two priests. Because Francesco was the only person resembling family at Leonardo's deathbed, it was he who notified the master's brothers of his death. He described in his letter Leonardo's love for his pupils as "sviscerato e ardentissimo amore", meaning "uncontrolled and passionate love".
Leonardo da Vinci chose only very handsome boys, as was Francesco, to be his pupils and cared for them considerably as if they were family. In addition to Francesco Melzi, some of his pupils were Cesare da Sesto, Boltraffio and Andrea Salaí. However, as they were chosen based on attractiveness rather than talent, they were not very skilled painters, and therefore it is easy to identify paintings they worked on based on their lower quality. Because of the general workshop practice where multiple artists work on one painting, it has become common practice to ascribe Leonardo's pupils to his less known (or lower quality) works. These might be referenced to as paintings done by his pupils that Leonardo touched up as opposed to the inverse.
Francesco Melzi, in contrast to his peers, actually does have a handful of completed, high quality paintings attributed to him, as well as drawings and studies. He is responsible for the infamous red chalk portrait, from approximately 1515, of da Vinci's profile which depicts him as very classically handsome and regal. This is most likely the portrait to which Vasari and Anonimo Gaddiano, as well as other later writers, refer to in describing Leonardo as having such "grace and beauty."
There are several other drawings attributed to him in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. This includes Head of an Old Man which he signed himself saying "1510 a dí 14 Augusto p.a caveat de relic Franchesco de Melzo de anti 17" which means "on the day 14 August taken from a relief by Francesco Melzi 17 years of age." There is a note on the back sheet that identifies the man in this drawing as Artus Boysi. This drawing is red chalk on paper, and although it highlights the artist's keen ability to render from observation, Francesco's note at the bottom leads us to believe that it was based on a relief, most likely by Leonardo. It is also conjectured that he uses this same head in his Vertumnus and Pomona. He also created the chalk drawing Five Grotesque Heads, in addition to Seven Caricatures and Two Grotesque Heads, all in similar style. There are many drawings attributed to Francesco, however it is often difficult to know definitively if they are his because his style is so influenced by, and therefore similar to, Leonardo's.
He is also responsible for some paintings, some of which are relatively well-known. His Vertumnus and Pomona is in the Berlin Museum displayed in the altarpiece, and his Flora, which was attributed to Leonardo until the mid 19th century, hangs in the Leningrad Hermitage. La Belle Ferronniére is a painting of an unidentified woman whose author is not certain. In the Louvre it is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, but is sometimes attributed to Francesco Melzi, and even other times to Leonardo's Workshop. Other paintings by or attributed to Francesco are Nymph at the Spring (Washington Gallery of Art), Portrait of a Young Man with a Parrot (Milan, private collection), and Saint Anne with the Virgin and the Child Embracing a Lamb (Gallery degli Uffizi).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Francesco Melzi.|
- Flora by Francesco Melzi at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
- Description of Vertumnus and Pomona.
- Painters of reality: the legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Melzi (see index)