In 1494 the fear of the coming of the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament begins to make itself felt in Italy. Greek and Roman statues, which were recently excavated and accepted as supreme works of art by such men as Leonardo da Vinci, are considered by the common people to be pagan deities returning to prepare the world for the reign of the Antichrist.
Leonardo is a member of the court of Duke Moro in Milan. Besides acting as chief architect for the duke, he interests himself in teaching his pupils, Giovanni Beltraffio and Andrea Salaino, and in working on whatever catches his fancy. Most of the money he receives from the duke’s treasury goes to buy pieces of amber with insects embedded in them, old shells, live birds that he studies and then frees, and other curious objects that distract his attention and keep him from completing his painting, The Last Supper.
The student Giovanni is attracted to Monna Cassandra, a beautiful girl who lives in the neighborhood. Unknown to him, she practices the black arts and is a favorite of suspected witches. The duke of Milan calls upon the king of France to help protect and support his dukedom. Louis XII of France, however, soon proves false to his friendship with the duke and overruns the duchy. The French forces use a clay statue of a mounted warrior, which Leonardo did not yet cast in bronze, as a target for a shooting contest, and a flood causes the walls on which The Last Supper is painted to bulge and crack. Realizing that these two works of art can never be finished, Leonardo decides to leave Milan and go to the court of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI.
As Borgia’s adviser, Leonardo designs many pieces of war equipment and machinery, which Borgia uses in his attempt to seize all of Italy for the pope. None of Leonardo’s pupils approves of his working for Borgia, whose cruelties and vices make him hated throughout Italy.
One day one of Leonardo’s students, a blacksmith named Zoroastro da Peretola, goes against his orders and tries to fly in Leonardo’s only partly completed airplane. Falling from a considerable height, he receives such a jolt that his mind is never again sound. Leonardo leaves Borgia’s services and, with the help of his friend, Niccolò Machiavelli, receives a commission from the city of Florence to plan a system of waterways that would divert the course of the Arno River. Machiavelli underestimates the expense of the work, and Leonardo is soon in trouble with the authorities. The canal project is abandoned, and Leonardo is asked instead to paint a large picture depicting the battle of Anghiari. At that time Michelangelo is also working in Florence, and a great jealousy grows up between admirers of the two artists. Leonardo tries to make friends with Michelangelo, but the passionate artist will have nothing to do with the mild...
(The entire section is 1180 words.)