Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 25, 2022
Simon Hewitt Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom: Bianca Sforza, the Sforziada and Artful Propaganda in Renaissance Milan London: Unicorn Publishing Group, 2021. 352 pp.; 200 color ills. Paper $37.95 (9781912690572 )

An overwhelming display of selfish ambition, treachery, betrayal, and megalomania defines the art—from small works to large—commissioned by Ludovico Sforza and analyzed by Simon Hewitt in Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom: Bianca Sforza, the Sforziada & Artful Propaganda in Renaissance Milan. A dedication to detail characterizes Hewitt’s chronicle, opening with synopses of the lives of those persons central to the volume, which are extremely helpful, given the historical complications of the text. Next, “Notes on Names” tracks the genealogy of the Sforza-Viscontis, identifying monikers so that readers will not be confused, as intricate genealogical connections are woven throughout the narrative.

Questions arising from the 2009 identification of the Portrait of Bianca Sforza, a delicate drawing in chalk and ink on vellum of a young girl in profile as the work of Leonardo da Vinci, and the subsequent discovery of its source, ultimately propelled Hewitt to engage in extensive research that led to this multidisciplinary study of the historical context in which the portrait was created, and its aftermath. Later, in the epilogue, we learn of the path its authentication took as it was examined and argued over by numerous experts, and the role played by Christie’s auction house in the confusion and denial that surrounded the attribution. Continued in the postscript, the portrait’s journey is traced from Italy finally into the hands of artist and restorer Giannino Marchig, whose widow, Jeanne, consigned the portrait in 1997 to Christie’s, believing it to be a work by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

The Portrait of Bianca Sforza was created for the fourth and final volume of the Sforziada, a series of illuminated manuscripts commissioned in 1490 by Ludovico Sforza (Il Moro) to glorify Francesco Sforza (1401–1466), patriarch of the Sforza dynasty. These consist of Italian translations of two earlier Latin editions, of 1483 and 1486, that argue for Il Moro’s rightful place as Duke of Milan. This biography of his father was to be “Il Moro’s greatest literary project” (53). Hewitt christens the final volume “The Book of Doom” because of the fates of some of its later owners, providing a primary, but not exclusive focus for Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom.

Hewitt’s book is divided into sixteen chapters. Leonardo’s arrival in 1483 in Milan is announced in chapter 1, which begins with a discussion of the Virgin of the Rocks, an altarpiece created for San Francesco Grande in Milan. Hewitt argues that the composition is without precedent, defying “religious convention,” Leonardo thereby proving to Il Moro that “he could paint” (24).

Hewitt then turns his attention to a portrait in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana traditionally known as The Musician, Leonardo’s “first major Milanese portrait.” Hewitt argues that it is, in fact, the likeness of Galeazzo Sanseverino, who will marry Il Moro’s illegitimate daughter Bianca Sforza and who was a major figure in the politics surging in and around the Court of Milan. This is a new attribution that Hewitt supports with both visual and historical data (26–30).

References to Leonardo’s Last Supper appear a bit later, Hewitt arguing in chapter 9 that this work, with its overwhelming message of treachery and betrayal, was commissioned by Il Moro upon his attainment of the dukedom he so unscrupulously worked and manipulated to achieve. In other words, Leonardo’s Last Supper, one of the most famous paintings in the history of art, was not merely commissioned for the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie because of its traditional, Christian subject matter, but because it served as a product of Il Moro’s political, propagandistic agenda. The role of Leonardo as the author of propaganda at the behest of his patron—assumed here by Hewitt as well as elsewhere in his discussion of Leonardo’s portraits and religious subjects produced for Il Moro—if that is indeed how we should understand these works on this level, until now has gone unrecognized.

In chapter 4 we are introduced to artist-illuminators Ambrogio de Predis and Gianpietro Birago. De Predis is described as Il Moro’s official portraitist and a “key cog in the court propaganda machine throughout Il Moro’s reign” (70). Hewitt’s treatment of Birago’s career as an illuminator, before his return to Milan, includes an enlightened discussion of little-known or -studied works he produced during his two-decade long absence from the Milanese court, where he subsequently took his place as Il Moro’s primary illustrator.

Leading up to the examination in chapter 10 of the Portrait of Bianca Sforza and a recounting of Bianca’s brief life is a thoroughgoing examination of the earlier volumes of the Sforziada, encompassing chapters 5 through 7, and the illuminations of each of the three frontispieces discussed within the context of Il Moro’s rise to power. The choice of symbolic imagery, and its not-so-hidden agenda, is expressive of the means employed to secure the dukedom.

Intrinsic to each of the four illuminated frontispieces is imagery that was carefully chosen to carry messages of Il Moro’s position, sense of self, selfishness, desires, and ambitions, arguing thereby for his rightful place as Duke of Milan, with a fascinatingly direct relationship at times existing between the imagery and current affairs. Introducing the fourth frontispiece, Hewitt writes: “The first three illuminated volumes saw Birago vaunt Il Moro’s ducal credentials and lampoon his rival nephew. His fourth frontispiece, prepared three years later to mark the marriage of Il Moro’s daughter, saw Leonardo da Vinci team up with Gianpietro Birago and Ambrogio de Predis to produce the ultimate Renaissance Superbook” (153).

The Portrait of Bianca Sforza, created for the fourth volume of the Sforziada, is described and analyzed in the beginning pages of chapter 10. Hewitt discusses Leonardo’s choice of the profile portrait, Bianca’s plain but meaningfully decorated garments, and the complex tying of her fashionable coazzone (long braid), as well as Leonardo’s unusual choice of media and his astonishing manipulation of the vellum support and the use of just three colors of chalk—white, black, and red—to produce what appears to be a painting of great subtlety.

Chapter 12 focuses on the examination of a number of other manuscripts, some related in various ways—such as context and imagery—to the Sforziada, illuminated not only by Birago but by other talented illustrators working at the court of Milan. This chapter also includes reference to the “visual irreverence with which Leonardo was treated by Birago and his colleagues” (213). One example offered is a “ginger-haired cherub” (213) contained in the frontispiece of the “London” Sforziada that appears to be involved in sodomy. This is but one of several instances that Hewitt identifies that makes Leonardo’s homosexuality the brunt of vicious visual jokes, imagery clearly appealing to and in accord with the taste and sense of humor of the client, that is, Il Moro. At the same time, for Birago and other artists of his ilk, Leonardo’s works created at the Milanese court were essential sources of inspiration.

Chapter 13 is an account of Il Moro’s final years before the 1499 French invasion. Artistically and politically noteworthy is the decoration by Leonardo of the Sala delle Asse, a major commission on the scale of The Last Supper aimed, as Hewitt informs us, to maintain the artist’s presence in Milan. The vaulted chamber was a necessary point of navigation for anyone destined for the state rooms of the Castello. The transformation of the ceiling into a glade of mulberry trees—a play on Moro and a significant, personal symbol—must have been powerfully evocative in its original condition, announcing to anyone who stood beneath this garden the immense stature of the person whose domain they were entering. This room served also as Il Moro’s private entrance to a suite constructed for him by Bramante in the 1490s. Of perhaps even greater significance to Il Moro was that it was the “room used for the ceremony marking his appointment as Guardian to Gian Galeazzo in November 1480, confirming his status as Regent” (234).

Chapter 14, “Duke’s End,” is a profoundly detailed, intricate reconstruction of military campaigns, betrayals, cowardice, and murders culminating in Il Moro’s ignominious downfall and escape from Milan in September 1499. He would return in January 1500 only to be captured by the French in April of that year. He died on May 27, 1508, incarcerated in the castle of Loches.

Altogether, Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom is an elaborate account of Il Moro’s rise and fall, his iniquities, his alliances and betrayals, his fears, his military and political acumen or lack thereof, expressed through works of art. It is perhaps curious that his name is not included in the title, since he plays a larger role than any other figures involved in Hewitt’s narrative. Hewitt examines in exquisite detail the imagining and imaging of each and every major work relevant to Il Moro’s being, his ambitions, his position, created by Leonardo, and by Birago and his circle, wherein Leonardo is also present as a significant influence, but is also at times the subject of unkind mockery.

Ellen Longsworth
Professor Emerita, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Merrimack College