Dressed as if he were on fire—in a doublet of heliotrope and crimson over a blood-red shirt—Leonardo da Vinci entered the workshop of his master, Andrea Verrochio.
Verrochio had invited a robust and august company of men to what had become one of the most important salons in Florence. The many conversations were loud and the floor was stained with wine. Leonardo's fellow apprentices stood near the walls, discreetly listening and interjecting a word here and there. Normally, Master Andrea cajoled the apprentices to work—he had long given up on Leonardo, the best of them all, who worked when he would—but tonight he had closed the shop. The aged Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli, who had taught Leonardo mathematics and geography, sat near a huge earthenware jar and a model of the lavabado that would be installed in the old Sacristy of San Lorenzo. A boy with dark intense eyes and a tight accusing mouth stood behind him like a shadow. Leonardo had never seen this boy before; perhaps Toscanelli had but recently taken this waif into his home.
I want you to meet a young man with whom you have much in common," Toscanelli said. "His father is also a notary, like yours. He has put young Niccolo in my care. Niccolo is a child of love, also like you, and extremely talented as a poet and playwright and rhetorician. He is interested in everything, and he seems unable to finish anything! But unlike you, Leonardo, he talks very little, isn't that right, Niccolo."
"I am perfectly capable of talking, Ser Toscanelli," the boy said.
"What's your name?" Leonardo asked.
"Ach, forgive me my lack of manners," Toscanelli said. "Master Leonardo, this is Niccolo Machiavelli, son of Bernardo di Niccolo and Bartolomea Nelli. You may have heard of Bartolomea, a religious poetess of great talent."
Leonardo bowed and said with a touch of sarcasm, "I am honored to meet you, young sir."
"I would like you to help this young man with his education," Toscanelli said.
"You are too much of a lone wolf, Leonardo. You must learn to give generously of your talents. Teach him to see as you do, to play the lyre, to paint. Teach him magic and perspective, teach him about the streets, and women, and the nature of light. Show him your flying machine and your sketches of birds. And I guarantee, he will repay you."
"But he's only a boy!"
Niccolo Machiavelli stood before Leonardo, staring at him expectantly, as if concerned. He was a handsome boy, tall and gangly, but his face was unnaturally severe for one so young. Yet he seemed comfortable alone here in this strange place. Merely curious, Leonardo thought.
"What are you called," Leonardo asked, taking interest.
"Niccolo," the boy said.
"And you have no nickname?"
"I am called Niccolo Machiavelli, that is my name."
"Well, I shall call you Nicco, young sir. Do you have any objections."
After a pause, he said, "No, Maestro," but the glimmer of a smile compressed his thin lips.
"So your new name pleases you somewhat," Leonardo said.
"I find it amusing that you feel it necessary to make my name smaller. Does that make you feel larger?"
Leonardo laughed. "And what is your age?"
"I am almost fifteen."
"But you are really fourteen, is that not so?"
"And you are still but an apprentice to Master Andrea, yet you are truly a master, or so Master Toscanelli has told me. Since you are closer to being a master, wouldn't you prefer men to think of you as such? Or would you rather be treated as an apprentice such as the one there who is in charge of filling glasses with wine? Well, Master Leonardo...?
Leonardo laughed again, taking a liking to this intelligent boy who acted as if he possessed twice his years, and said, "You may call me Leonardo."
At that moment, Andrea Verrochio walked over to Leonardo with Lorenzo de' Medici in tow. Lorenzo was magnetic, charismatic, and ugly. His face was coarse, overpowered by a large, flattened nose, and he was suffering one of his periodic outbreaks of eczema; his chin and cheeks were covered with a flesh-colored paste. He had a bull-neck and long, straight brown hair, yet he held himself with such grace that he appeared taller than the men around him. His eyes were perhaps his most arresting feature, for they looked at everything with such friendly intensity, as if to see through things and people alike.
"We have in our midst Leonardo da Vinci, the consummate conjurer and prestidigitator," Verrochio said, bowing to Lorenzo de Medici as he presented Leonardo to him; he spoke loud enough for all to hear. "Leonardo has fashioned a machine that can carry a man in the air like a bird...."
"My sweet friend Andrea has often told me about your inventiveness, Leonardo da Vinci," Lorenzo said, a slight sarcasm in his voice; ironically, he spoke to Leonardo in much the same good-humored yet condescending tone that Leonardo had used when addressing young Machiavelli. "But how do you presume to affect this miracle of flight? Surely not be means of your cranks and pulleys. Will you conjure up the flying beast Geryon, as we read Dante did and so descend upon its neck into the infernal regions? Or will you merely paint yourself into the sky?"
Everyone laughed at that, and Leonardo, who would not dare to try to seize the stage from Lorenzo, explained, "My most illustrious Lord, you may see that the beating of its wings against the air supports a heavy eagle in the highest and rarest atmosphere, close to the sphere of elemental fire. Again, you may see the air in motion over the sea fill the swelling sails and drive heavily laden ships. Just so could a man with wings large enough and properly connected learn to overcome the resistance of the air and, by conquering it, succeed in subjugating it and rising above it.
"After all," Leonardo continued, "a bird is nothing more than an instrument that works according to mathematical laws, and it is within the capacity of man to reproduce it with all its movements."
"But a man is not a bird," Lorenzo said. "A bird has sinews and muscles that are incomparably more powerful than a man's. If we were constructed so as to have wings, we would have been provided with them by the Almighty."
"Then you think we are too weak to fly?"
"Indeed, I think the evidence would lead reasonable men to that conclusion," Lorenzo said.
"But surely," Leonardo said, "you have seen falcons carrying ducks and eagles carrying hares; and there are times when these birds of prey must double their rate of speed to follow their prey. But they only need a little force to sustain themselves, and to balance themselves on their wings, and flap them in the pathway of the wind and so direct the course of their journeying. A slight movement of the wings is sufficient, and the greater the size of the bird, the slower the movement. It's the same with men, for we possess a greater amount of strength in our legs than our weight requires. In fact, we have twice the amount of strength we need to support ourselves. You can prove this by observing how far the marks of one of your men's feet will sink into the sand of the seashore. If you then order another man to climb upon his back, you can observe how much deeper the foot marks will be. But remove the man from the other's back and order the first man to jump as high as he can, and you will find that the marks of his feet will now make a deeper impression where he has jumped than in the place where he had the other man on his back. That's double proof that a man has more than twice the strength he needs to support himself...more than enough to fly like a bird."
Lorenzo laughed. "Very good, Leonardo. But I would have to see with my own eyes your machine that turns men into birds. Is that what you've been spending your precious time doing, instead of working on the statues I commissioned you to repair?"
Leonardo let his gaze drop to the floor.
"Not at all," Verrochio interrupted, "Leonardo has indeed been with me in your gardens applying his talent to the repair of—"
"Show me this machine, painter," Lorenzo said to Leonardo. "I could use such a device to confound my enemies, especially those wearing the colors of the south"—the veiled reference was to Pope Sixtus IV and the Florentine Pazzi family. "Is it ready to be used?"
"Not just yet, Magnificence," Leonardo said. I'm still experimenting."
Everyone laughed, including Lorenzo. "Ah, experimenting is it...well, then I'll pledge you to communicate with me when it's finished. But from your past performance, I think that none of us need worry."
Humiliated, Leonardo could only avert his eyes.
"Tell me, how long do you anticipate that your...experiments will take?"
"I think I could safely estimate that my 'contraption' would be ready for flight in two weeks," Leonardo said, taking the advantage, to everyone's surprise. "I plan to launch my great bird from Swan Mountain in Fiesole."
The studio became a roar of surprised conversation.
Leonardo had no choice except to meet Lorenzo's challenge; if he did not, Lorenzo might ruin his career. As it was, his Magnificence obviously considered Leonardo to be a dilettante, a polymath genius who could not be trusted to bring his commisions to fruition.
"Forgive my caustic remarks, Leonardo, for everyone in this room respects your pretty work," Lorenzo said. "But I will take you up on your promise: in two weeks we travel to Fiesole!"
One could almost imagine that the great bird was already in flight, hovering in the gauzy morning light like a great, impossible hummingbird. It was a chimerical thing that hung from the high attic ceiling of Leonardo's workshop in Verrocchio's bottega: a tapered plank fitted with hand operated cranks, hoops of well-tanned leather, pedals, windlass, oars, and saddle. Great ribbed batlike wings made of cane and fustian and starched taffeta were connected to the broader end of the plank. They were dyed bright red and gold, the colors of the Medici, for it was the Medici who would attend its first flight.
As Leonardo had written in his notebook: Remember that your bird must imitate only the bat because its webbing forms a framework that gives strength to the wings. If you imitate the birds' wings, you will discover the feathers to be disunited and permeable to the air. But the bat is aided by the membrane which binds the whole and is not pervious. This was written backwards from right to left in Leonardo's idiosyncratic 'mirror' script that was all but impossible to decipher. Leonardo lived in paranoid fear that his best ideas and inventions would be stolen.
Although he sat before a canvas he was painting, his eyes smarting from the miasmas of varnish and linseed oil and first grade turpentine, Leonardo nervously gazed up at his invention. It filled the upper area of the large room, for its wingspan was over fifteen ells—more than twenty-five feet.
For the past few days Leonardo had been certain that something was not quite right with his great bird, yet he could not divine what it might be. Nor could he sleep well, for he had been having nightmares; no doubt they were a consequence of his apprehensions over his flying machine, which was due to be flown from the top of a mountain in just ten days. His dream was always the same: he would be falling from a great height...without wings, without harness...into a barely luminescent void, while above him the familiar sunlit hills and mountains that overlooked Vinci would be turning vertiginously. And he would awaken in a cold sweat, tearing at his covers, his heart beating in his throat as if to choke him.
Leonardo was afraid of heights. While exploring the craggy and dangerous slopes of Monte Albano as a child, he had fallen from an overhang and almost broken his back. But Leonardo was determined to conquer this and every other fear. He would become as familiar with the airy realms as the birds that soared and rested on the winds. He would make the very air his ally, his support and security.
There was a characteristic knock on the door: two light taps followed by a loud thump.
"Enter, Andrea, lest the dead wake," Leonardo said without getting up.
Verrocchio stormed in with his foreman Francesco di Simone, a burly, full-faced, middle-aged man whose muscular body was just beginning to go to seed. Francesco carried a silver tray, upon which were placed cold meats, fruit, and two cruses of milk; he laid it on the table beside Leonardo. Both Verrocchio and Francesco had been at work for hours, as was attested by the lime and marble dust that streaked their faces and shook from their clothes. They were unshaven and wore work gowns, although Verrocchio's was more a frock, as if, indeed, he envisioned himself as a priest to art—the unblest 'tenth muse.'
Most likely they had been in one of the outer workshops, for Andrea was having trouble with a terra cotta risurrezione relief destined for Lorenzo's villa in Careggi. But this bottega was so busy that Andrea's attention was constantly in demand. "Well, at least you're awake," Andrea said to Leonardo as he looked appreciatively at the painting-in-progress. Then he clapped his hands, making such a loud noise that Niccolo, who was fast asleep on his pallet beside Leonardo's, awakened with a cry, as if from a particularly nasty nightmare. Andrea chuckled and said, "Well, good morning, young ser. Perhaps I could have one of the other apprentices find enough work for you to keep you busy during the spine of the morning."
"I apologize, Maestro Andrea, but Maestro Leonardo and I worked late into the night." Niccolo removed his red, woolen sleeping cap and hurriedly put on a gown that lay on the floor beside his pallet, for like most Florentines, he slept naked.
"Ah, so now it's Maestro Leonardo, is it?" Andrea said good-naturedly. "Well, eat your breakfast, both of you. Today I'm a happy man; I have news."
Niccolo did as he was told, and, in fact, ate like a trencherman, spilling milk on his lap.
"One would never guess that he came from a good family," Andrea said, watching Niccolo stuff his mouth.
"Now tell me your news," Leonardo said.
"It's not all that much to tell." Nevertheless Andrea could not repress a grin. "Il Magnifico has informed me that my 'David' will stand prominently in the Palazzo Vecchio over the great staircase."
Leonardo nodded. "But, certainly, you knew Lorenzo would find a place of special honor for such a work of genius."
"I don't know if you compliment me or yourself, Leonardo," Andrea said. "After all, you are the model."
"You took great liberties," Leonardo said. "You may have begun with my features, but you have created something sublime out of the ordinary. You deserve the compliment."
"I fear this pleasing talk will cost me either money or time," Andrea said.
Leonardo laughed. "Indeed, today I must be out of the city."
Andrea gazed up at Leonardo's flying machine and said, "No one would blame you if you backed out of this project, or, at least, allowed someone else to fly your contraption. You need not prove yourself to Lorenzo."
"I would volunteer to fly your mechanical bird, Leonardo," Niccolo said earnestly.
"No, it must be me."
"Was it not to gain experience that Master Toscanelli sent me to you?"
"To gain experience, yes; but not to jeopardize your life," Leonardo said.
"You are not satisfied it will work?" Andrea asked.
"Of course I am, Andrea. If I were not, I would bow before Lorenzo and give him the satisfaction of publicly putting me to the blush."
"Leonardo, be truthful with me," Verrocchio said. "It is to Andrea you speak, not a rich patron."
"Yes, my friend, I am worried," Leonardo confessed. "Something is indeed wrong with my Great Bird, yet I cannot quite put my finger on it. It is most frustrating."
"Then you must not fly it!"
"It will fly, Andrea. I promise you that."
"You have my blessing to take the day off," Verrocchio said.
"I am most grateful," Leonardo said; and they both laughed, knowing that Leonardo would have left for the country with or without Andrea's permission.
"Well, we must be off," Leonardo said to Andrea, who nodded and took his leave.
"Come on, Nicco," Leonardo said, suddenly full of energy. "Get yourself dressed;" and as Niccolo did so, Leonardo put a few finishing touches on his painting, then quickly cleaned his brushes, hooked his sketchbook onto his belt, and once again craned his neck to stare at his invention that hung from the ceiling. He needed an answer, yet he had not yet formulated the question.
When they were out the door, Leonardo felt that he had forgotten something. "Nicco, fetch me the book Maestro Toscanelli loaned to me...the one he purchased from the Chinese trader. I might wish to read in the country."
"The country?" Niccolo asked, carefully putting the book into a sack, which he carried under his arm.
"Do you object to nature?" Leonardo asked sarcastically. "Usus est optimum magister...and in that I agree wholeheartedly with the ancients. Nature herself is the mother of all experience; and experience must be your teacher, for I have discovered that even Aristotle can be mistaken on certain subjects." As they left the bottega, he continued: "But those of Maestro Ficino's Academy, they go about all puffed and pompous, mouthing the eternal aphorisms of Plato and Aristotle like parrots. They might think that because I have not had a literary education, I am uncultured; but they are the fools. They despise me because I am an inventor, but how much more are they to blame for not being inventors, these trumpeters and reciters of the works of others. They considered my glass to study the skies and make the moon large a conjuring trick, and do you know why?" Before Niccolo could respond, Leonardo said, "Because they consider sight to be the most untrustworthy of senses, when, in fact, it is the supreme organ. Yet that does not prevent them from wearing spectacles in secret. Hypocrites!"
"You seem very angry, Maestro," Niccolo said to Leonardo.
Embarrassed at having launched into this diatribe, Leonardo laughed at himself and said, "Perhaps I am, but do not worry about it, my young friend."
"Maestro Toscanelli seems to respect the learned men of the Academy," Niccolo said.
"He respects Plato and Aristotle, as well he should. But he does not teach at the Academy, does he? No, instead, he lectures at the school at Santo Spirito for the Augustinian brothers. That should tell you something."
"I think it tells me that you have an ax to grind, Master...and that's also what Maestro Toscanelli told me."
"What else did he tell you, Nicco?" Leonardo asked.
"That I should learn from your strengths and weaknesses, and that you are smarter than everyone in the Academy."
Leonardo laughed at that and said, "You lie very convincingly."
"That, Maestro, comes naturally."
The streets were busy and noisy and the sky, which seemed pierced by the tiled mass of the Duomo and the Palace of the Signoria, was cloudless and sapphire-blue. There was the sweet smell of sausage in the air, and young merchants—practically children—stood behind stalls and shouted at every passerby. This market was called Il Baccano, the place of uproar. Leonardo bought some cooked meat, beans, fruit, and a bottle of cheap local wine for Niccolo and himself. They continued on into different neighborhoods and markets. They passed Spanish Moors with their slave retinues from the Ivory Coast; Mamluks in swathed robes and flat turbans; Muscovy Tartars and Mongols from Cathay; and merchants from England and Flanders, who had sold their woolen cloth and were on their way to the Ponte Vecchio to purchase trinkets and baubles. Niccolo was all eye and motion as they passed elegant and beautiful 'butterflies of the night' standing beside their merchant masters under the shade of guild awnings; these whores and mistresses modeled jeweled garlands, and expensive garments of violet, crimson, and peach. Leonardo and Niccolo passed stall after stall—brushing off young hawkers and old, disease-ravaged beggars—and flowed with the crowds of peddlers, citizens, and visitors as if they were flotsam in the sea. Young men of means, dressed in short doublets, wiggled and swayed like young girls through the streets; they roistered and swashbuckled, laughed and sang and bullied, these favored ones. Niccolo could not help but laugh at the scholars and student wanderers from England and Scotland and Bohemia, for although their lingua franca was Latin, their accents were extravagant and overwrought.
"Ho, Leonardo," cried one vendor, then another, as Leonardo and Niccolo turned a corner. Then the screes and cries of birds sounded, for the bird-sellers were shaking the small wooden cages packed with wood pigeons, owls, mousebirds, bee-eaters, hummingbirds, crows, blue rockthrushes, warblers, flycatchers, wagtails, hawks, falcons, eagles, and all manner of swans, ducks, chickens, and geese. As Leonardo approached, the birds were making more commotion than the vendors and buyers on the street. "Come here, Master," shouted a red-haired man wearing a stained brown doublet with torn sleeves. His right eye appeared infected, for it was bloodshot, crusted, and tearing. He shook two cages, each containing hawks; one bird was brown with a forked chestnut tail, and the other was smaller and black with a notched tail. They banged against the wooden bars and snapped dangerously. "Buy these, Maestro Artista, please...they are just what you need, are they not? And look how many doves I have, do they not interest you, good Master?"
"Indeed, the hawks are fine specimens," Leonardo said, drawing closer, while the other vendors called and shouted to him, as if he were carrying the grail itself. "How much?"
"Four, and if that is not satisfactory, I can easily talk to your neighbor, who is flapping his arms as if he, himself, could fly."
"Agreed," said the vendor, resigned.
"And the doves?"
"For how many, Maestro?"
"For the lot."
While Leonardo dickered with the bird vendor, Niccolo wandered about. He looked at the multicolored birds and listened, as he often did. With ear and eye he would learn the ways of the world. Leonardo, it appeared, was known in this market; and a small crowd of hecklers and the merely curious began to form around him. The hucksters made much of it, trying to sell to whomever they could.
"He's as mad as Ajax," said an old man who had just sold a few chickens and doves and was as animated as the street thugs and young beggars standing around him. "He'll let them all go, watch, you'll see."
"I've heard tell he won't eat meat," said one matronly woman to another. "He lets the birds go free because he feels sorry for the poor creatures."
"Well, to be safe, don't look straight at him," said the other woman as she made the sign of the cross. He might be a sorcerer. He could put evil in your eye, and enter right into your soul!"
Her companion shivered and followed suit by crossing herself.
"Nicco," Leonardo shouted, making himself heard above the din. "Come here and help me." When Niccolo appeared, Leonardo said, "If you could raise your thoughts from those of butterflies"—and by that he meant whores—"you might learn something of observation and the ways of science." He thrust his hand into the cage filled with doves and grasped one. The tiny bird made a frightened noise; as Leonardo took it from its cage, he could feel its heart beating in his palm. Then he opened his hand and watched the dove fly away. The crowd laughed and jeered and applauded and shouted for more. He took another bird out of its cage and released it. His eyes squinted almost shut; and as he gazed at the dove beating its wings so hard that, but for the crowd, one could have heard them clap, he seemed lost in thought. "Now, Nicco, I want you to let the birds free, one by one."
"Why me?" Niccolo asked, somehow loath to seize the birds.
"Because I wish to draw," Leonardo said. "Is this chore too difficult for you?"
"I beg your pardon, Maestro," Niccolo said, as he reached into the cage. He had a difficult time catching a bird. Leonardo seemed impatient and completely oblivious to the shouts and taunts of the crowd around him. Niccolo let go of one bird, and then another, while Leonardo sketched. Leonardo stood very still, entranced; only his hand moved like a ferret over the bleached folio, as if it had a life and will of its own.
As Niccolo let fly another bird, Leonardo said, "Do you see, Nicco, the bird in its haste to climb strikes its outstretched wings together above its body. "Now look how it uses its wings and tail in the same way that a swimmer uses his arms and legs in the water; it's the very same principle. It seeks the air currents, which, invisible, roil around the buildings of our city. And there, its speed is checked by the opening and spreading out of the tail.... Let fly another one. Can you see how the wing separates to let the air pass?" and he wrote a note in his mirror script below one of his sketches: Make device so that when the wing rises up it remains pierced through, and when it falls it is all united. "Another," he called to Niccolo. And after the bird disappeared, he made another note: The speed is checked by the opening and spreading out of the tail. Also, the opening and lowering of the tail, and the simultaneous spreading of the wings to their full extent, arrests their swift movement.
"That's the end of it," Niccolo said, indicating the empty cages. "Do you wish to free the hawks?"
"No," Leonardo said, distracted. "We will take them with us," and Leonardo and Niccolo made their way through the crowd, which now began to disperse. As if a reflection of Leonardo's change of mood, clouds darkened the sky; and the bleak, refuse-strewn streets took on a more dangerous aspect. The other bird vendors called to Leonardo, but he ignored them, as he did Niccolo. He stared intently into his notebook as he walked, as if he were trying to decipher ancient runes.
They passed the wheel of the bankrupts. Defeated men sat around a marble inlay that was worked into the piazza in the design of a cartwheel. A crowd had formed, momentarily, to watch a debtor, who had been stripped naked, being pulled to the roof of the market by a rope. Then there was a great shout as he was dropped headfirst onto the smooth, cold, marble floor.
A sign attached to one of the market posts read:
Give good heed to the small sums thou
The man dropped by the rope was dead.
Leonardo put his arm around Niccolo's shoulders, as if to shield him from death. But he was suddenly afraid...afraid that his own 'inevitable hour' might not be far away; and he remembered his recurring dream of falling into the abyss. He shivered, his breath came quick, and his skin felt clammy, as if he had just been jolted awake. Just now, on some deep level, he believed that the poisonous phantasms of dreams were real. If they took hold of the soul of the dreamer, they could effect his entire world.
Leonardo saw his Great Bird falling and breaking apart. And he was falling through cold depths that were as deep as the reflections of lanterns in dark water.
"Do not worry. I am fine, my young friend," Leonardo said.
They talked very little until they were in the country, in the high, hilly land north of Florence. Here were meadows and grassy fields, valleys and secret grottos, small roads traversed by ox carts and pack trains, vineyards and cane thickets, dark copses of pine and chestnut and cypress, and olive trees that shimmered like silver hangings each time the wind breathed past their leaves. The deep red tiles of farmstead roofs and the brownish-pink colonnaded villas seemed to be part of the line and tone of the natural countryside. The clouds that had darkened the streets of Florence had disappeared; and the sun was high, bathing the countryside in that golden light particular to Tuscany, a light that purified and clarified as if it were itself the manifestation of desire and spirit.
And before them, in the distance, was Swan Mountain. It rose 1300 feet to its crest, and looked to be pale gray-blue in the distance.
Leonardo and Niccolo stopped in a meadow perfumed with flowers and gazed at the mountain. Leonardo felt his worries weaken, as they always did when he was in the country. He took a deep breath of the heady air and felt his soul awaken and quicken to the world of nature and the oculus spiritalis: the world of angels.
"That would be a good mountain from which to test your Great Bird," Niccolo said.
"I thought that, too, for it's very close to Florence. But I've since changed my mind. Vinci is not so far away; and there are good mountains there, too." Then after a pause, Leonardo said, "And I do not wish to die here. If death should be my fate, I wish it to be in familiar surroundings."
Niccolo nodded, and he looked as severe and serious as he had when Leonardo had first met him, like an old man inhabiting a boy's body.
"Come now, Nicco," Leonardo said, resting the cage on the ground and sitting down beside it, "let's enjoy this time, for who knows what awaits us later. Let's eat." With that, Leonardo spread out a cloth and set the food upon it as if it were a table. The hawks flapped their wings and slammed against the wooden bars of the cages. Leonardo tossed them each a small piece of sausage.
"I heard gossip in the piazza of the bird vendors that you refuse to eat meat," Niccolo said.
"Ah, did you, now. And what do you think of that?"
Niccolo shrugged. "Well, I have never seen you eat meat."
Leonardo ate a piece of bread and sausage, which he washed down with wine. "Now you have."
"But then why would people say that—"
"Because I don't usually eat meat. They're correct, for I believe that eating too much meat causes to collect what Aristotle defined as cold black bile. That, in turn, afflicts the soul with melancholia. Maestro Toscanelli's friend Ficino believes the same, but for all the wrong reasons. For him magic and astrology take precedence over reason and experience. But be that as it may, I must be very careful that people do not think of me as a follower of the Cathars, lest I be branded a heretic."
"I have not heard of them."
"They follow the teaching of the pope Bogomil, who believed that our entire visible world was created by the Adversary rather than by God. Thus to avoid imbibing the essence of Satan, they forfeit meat. Yet they eat vegetables and fish." Leonardo laughed and pulled a face to indicate they were crazy. "They could at least be consistent."
Leonardo ate quickly, which was his habit, for he could never seem to enjoy savoring food as others did. He felt that eating, like sleeping, was simply a necessity that took him away from whatever interested him at the moment.
And there was a whole world pulsing in the sunlight around him; like a child, he wanted to investigate its secrets.
"Now...watch," he said to Niccolo, who was still eating; and he let loose one of the hawks. As it flew away, Leonardo made notes, scribbling with his left hand, and said, "You see, Nicco, it searches now for a current of the wind." He loosed the other one. "These birds beat their wings only until they reach the wind, which must be blowing at a great elevation, for look how high they soar. Then they are almost motionless."
Leonardo watched the birds circle overhead, then glide toward the mountains. He felt transported, as if he too were gliding in the Empyrean heights. "They're hardly moving their wings now. They repose in the air as we do on a pallet."
"Perhaps you should follow their example."
"What do you mean?" Leonardo asked.
"Fix your wings on the Great Bird. Instead of beating the air, they would remain stationary."
"And by what mode would the machine be propelled?" Leonardo asked; but he answered his own question, for immediately the idea of the Archimedian Screw came to mind. He remembered seeing children playing with toy whirlybirds: by pulling a string, a propeller would be made to rise freely into the air. His hand sketched, as if thinking on its own. He drew a series of sketches of leaves gliding back and forth, falling to the ground. He drew various screws and propellers. There might be something useful....
"Perhaps if you could just catch the current, then you would not have need of human power," Niccolo said. "You could fix your bird to soar...somehow."
Leonardo patted Niccolo on the shoulder, for, indeed, the child was bright. But it was all wrong; it felt wrong. "No, my young friend," he said doggedly, as if he had come upon a wall that blocked his thought, "the wings must be able to row through the air like a bird's. That is nature's method, the most efficient way."
Restlessly, Leonardo wandered the hills. Niccolo finally complained of being tired and stayed behind, comfortably situated in a shady copse of mossy-smelling cypresses.
Leonardo walked on alone.
Everything was perfect: the air, the warmth, the smells and sounds of the country. He could almost apprehend the pure forms of everything around him, the phantasms reflected in the proton organon: the mirrors of his soul. But not quite....
Indeed, something was wrong, for instead of the bliss, which Leonardo had so often experienced in the country, he felt thwarted...lost.
Thinking of the falling leaf, which he had sketched in his notebook, he wrote: If a man has a tent roof of caulked linen twelve ells broad and twelve ells high, he will be able to let himself fall from any great height without danger to himself." He imagined a pyramidal parachute, yet considered it too large and bulky and heavy to carry on the Great Bird. He wrote another hasty note: Use leather bags, so a man falling from a height of six brachia will not injure himself, falling either into water or upon land.
He continued walking, aimlessly. He sketched constantly, as if without conscious thought: grotesque figures and caricatured faces, animals, impossible mechanisms, studies of various madonnas with children, imaginary landscapes, and all manner of actual flora and fauna. He drew a three-dimensional diagram of a toothed gearing and pulley system and an apparatus for making lead. He made a note to locate Albertus Magnus' On Heaven and Earth—perhaps Toscanelli had a copy. His thoughts seemed to flow like the Arno, from one subject to another, and yet he could not position himself in that psychic place of languor and bliss, which he imagined to be the perfect realm of Platonic forms.
As birds flew overhead, he studied them and sketched feverishly. Leonardo had an extraordinarily quick eye, and he could discern movements that others could not see. He wrote in tiny letters beside his sketches: Just as we may see a small imperceptible movement of the rudder turn a ship of marvelous size loaded with very heavy cargo— and also amid such weight of water pressing upon its every beam and in the teeth of impetuous winds that envelop its mighty sails—so, too, do birds support themselves above the course of the winds without beating their wings. Just a slight movement of wing or tail, serving them to enter either below or above the wind, suffices to prevent their fall. Then he added, When, without the assistance of the wind and without beating its wings, the bird remains in the air in the position of equilibrium, this shows that the center of gravity is coincident with the center of resistance.
"Ho, Leonardo," shouted Niccolo, who was running after him. The boy was out of breath; he carried the brown sack, which contained some leftover food, most likely, and Maestro Toscanelli's book. "You've been gone over three hours!"
"And is that such a long time?" Leonardo asked.
"It is for me. What are you doing?"
"Just walking...and thinking." After a beat, Leonardo said, "But you have a book, why didn't you read it?"
Niccolo smiled and said, " I tried, but then I fell asleep."
"So now we have the truth," Leonardo said. "Nicco, why don't you return to the bottega? I must remain here...to think. And you are obviously bored."
"That's all right, Maestro," Niccolo said anxiously. "If I can stay with you, I won't be bored. I promise."
Leonardo smiled, in spite of himself, and said, "Tell me what you've gleaned from the little yellow book."
"I can't make it out...yet. It seems to be all about light."
"So Maestro Toscanelli told me. Its writings are very old and concern memory and the circulation of light." Leonardo could not resist teasing his apprentice. "Do you find your memory much improved after reading it?"
Niccolo shrugged, as if it was of no interest to him, and Leonardo settled down in a grove of olive trees to read The Secret of the Golden Flower; it took him less than an hour, for the book was short. Niccolo ate some fruit and then fell asleep again, seemingly without any trouble.
Most of the text seemed to be magical gibberish, yet suddenly these words seemed to open him up:
There are a thousand spaces, and the
Perhaps he fell asleep, for he imagined himself staring at the walls of his great and perfect mnemonic construct: the memory cathedral. It was pure white and smooth as dressed stone...it was a church for all his experience and knowledge, whether holy or profane. Maestro Toscanelli had taught him long ago how to construct a church in his imagination, a storage place of images—hundreds of thousands of them—which would represent everything Leonardo wished to remember. Leonardo caught all the evanescent and ephemeral stuff of time and trapped it in this place...all the happenings of his life, everything he had seen and read and heard; all the pain and frustration and love and joy were neatly shelved and ordered inside the colonnaded courts, chapels, vestries, porches, towers, and crossings of his memory cathedral.
He longed to be inside, to return to sweet, comforting memory; he would dismiss the ghosts of fear that haunted its dark catacombs. But now he was seeing the cathedral from a distant height, from the summit of Swan Mountain, and it was as if his cathedral had somehow become a small part of what his memory held and his eyes saw. It was as if his soul could expand to fill Heaven and earth, the past and the future. Leonardo experienced a sudden, vertiginous sensation of freedom; indeed, heaven and earth seemed to be filled with a thousand spaces. It was just as he had read in the ancient book: everything was circulating with pure light...blinding, cleansing light that coruscated down the hills and mountains like rainwater, that floated in the air like mist, that heated the grass and meadows to radiance.
He felt bliss.
Everything was preternaturally clear; it was as if he was seeing into the essence of things.
And then with a shock he felt himself slipping, falling from the mountain.
This was his recurring dream, his nightmare: to fall without wings and harness into the void. Yet every detail registered: the face of the mountain, the mossy crevasses, the smells of wood and stone and decomposition, the screeing of a hawk, the glint of a stream below, the roofs of farmhouses, the geometrical demarcations of fields, and the spiraling wisps of cloud that seemed to be woven into the sky. But then he tumbled and descended into palpable darkness, into a frightful abyss that showed no feature and no bottom.
Leonardo screamed to awaken back into daylight, for he knew this blind place, which the immortal Dante had explored and described. But now he felt the horrid bulk of the flying monster Geryon beneath him, supporting him...this, the same beast that had carried Dante into Malebolge: the Eighth Circle of Hell. The monster was slippery with filth and smelled of death and putrefaction; the air itself was foul, and Leonardo could hear behind him the thrashing of the creature's scorpion tail. Yet it also seemed that he could hear Dante's divine voice whispering to him, drawing him through the very walls of Hades into blinding light.
But now he was held aloft by the Great Bird, his own invention. He soared over the trees and hills and meadows of Fiesole, and then south, to fly over the roofs and balconies and spires of Florence herself.
Leonardo flew without fear, as if the wings were his own flesh. He moved his arms easily, working the great wings that beat against the calm, spring air that was as warm as his own breath. But rather than resting upon his apparatus, he now hung below it. He operated a windlass with his hands to raise one set of wings and kicked a pedal with his heels to lower the other set of wings. Around his neck was a collar, which controlled a rudder that was effectively the tail of this bird.
This was certainly not the machine that hung in Verrocchio's bottega. Yet with its double set of wings, it seemed more like a great insect than a bird, and—
Leonardo awakened with a jolt, to find himself staring at a horsefly feeding upon his hand.
Could he have been sleeping with his eyes open, or had this been a waking dream? He shivered, for his sweat was cold on his arms and chest.
He shouted, awakening Niccolo, and immediately began sketching and writing in his notebook. "I have it!" he said to Niccolo. "Double wings like a fly will provide the power I need. You see, it is just as I told you: nature provides. Art and invention are merely imitation." He drew a man hanging beneath an apparatus with hand- operated cranks and pedals to work the wings. Then he studied the fly, which still buzzed around him, and wrote: The lower wings are more slanting than those above, both as to length and as to breadth. The fly when it hovers in the air upon its wings beats its wings with great speed and din, raising them from the horizontal position up as high as the wing is long. And as it raises them, it brings them forward in a slanting position in such a way as almost to strike the air edgewise. Then he drew a design for the rudder assembly. "How could I not have seen that just as a ship needs a rudder, so, too, would my machine?" he said. "It will act as the tail of a bird. And by hanging the operator below the wings, equilibrium will be more easily maintained. There," he said, standing up and pulling Niccolo to his feet. "Perfection!"
He sang one of Lorenzo de Medici's bawdy inventions and danced around Niccolo, who seemed confused by his master's strange behavior. He grabbed the boy's arms and swung him around in a circle.
"Perhaps the women watching you free the birds were right," Niccolo said. "Perhaps you are as mad as Ajax."
"Perhaps I am," Leonardo said, "but I have a lot of work to do, for the Great Bird must be changed if it is to fly for Il Magnifico next week." He placed the book of the Golden Flower in the sack, handed it to Niccolo, and began walking in the direction of the city.
It was already late afternoon.
"I'll help you with your machine," Niccolo said.
"Thank you, I'll need you for many errands."
That seemed to satisfy the boy. "Why did you shout and then dance as you did, Maestro?" Niccolo asked, concerned. He followed a step behind Leonardo, who seemed to be in a hurry.
Leonardo laughed and slowed his stride until Niccolo was beside him. "It's difficult to explain. Suffice it to say that solving the riddle of my Great Bird made me happy."
"But how did you do it? I thought you had fallen asleep."
"I had a dream," Leonardo said. "It was a gift from the poet Dante Alighieri."
"He gave you the answer?" Niccolo asked, incredulous.
"That he did, Nicco."
"Then you do believe in spirits."
"No, Nicco, just in dreams."
In the streets and markets, people gossiped of a certain hermit—a champion—who had come from Volterra, where he had been ministering to the lepers in a hospital. He had come here to preach and harangue and save the city. He was a young man, and some had claimed to have seen him walking barefoot past the Church of Salvatore. They said he was dressed in the poorest of clothes with only a wallet on his back. His face was bearded and sweet, and his eyes were blue; certainly he was a manifestation of the Christ himself, stepping on the very paving stones that modern Florentines walked. He had declared that the days to follow would bring harrowings, replete with holy signs, for so he had been told by both the Angel Raphael and Saint John, who had appeared to him in their flesh, as men do to other men, and not in a dream.
It was said that he preached to the Jews in their poor quarter and also to the whores and beggars; and he was also seen standing upon the ringheiera of the Signore demanding an audience with the 'Eight'. But they sent him away. So now there could be no intercession for what was about to break upon Florence.
The next day, a Thursday, one of the small bells of Santa Maria de Fiore broke loose and fell, breaking the skull of a stonemason passing below. By a miracle, he lived, although a bone had to be removed from his skull.
But it was seen as a sign, nevertheless.
And on Friday, a boy of twelve fell from the large bell of the Palagio and landed on the gallery. He died several hours later.
By week's end, four families in the city and eight in the Borgo di Ricorboli were stricken with fever and buboes, the characteristic swellings of what had come to be called "the honest plague." There were more reports of fever and death every day thereafter, for the Black Reaper was back upon the streets, wending his way through homes and hospitals, cathedrals and taverns, and whorehouses and nunneries alike. It was said that he had a companion, the hag Lachesis, who followed after him while she wove an ever-lengthening tapestry of death; hers was an accounting of 'the debt we must all pay', created from her never-ending skein of black thread.
One hundred and twenty people had died in the churches and hospitals by nella quidtadecima: the full moon. There were twenty-five deaths alone at Santa Maria Nuova. The 'Eight' of the Signoria duly issued a notice of health procedures to be followed by all Florentines; the price of foodstuffs rose drastically; and although Lorenzo's police combed the streets for the spectral hermit, he was nowhere to be found within the precincts of the city.
Lorenzo and his retinue fled to his villa at Careggi. But rather than follow suit and leave the city for the safety of the country, Verrocchio elected to remain in his bottega. He gave permission to his apprentices to quit the city until the plague abated, if they had the resources; but most, in fact, stayed with him.
The bottega seemed to be in a fervor.
One would think that the deadline for every commission was tomorrow. Verrocchio's foreman Francesco kept a tight and sure rein on the apprentices, pressing them into a twelve to fourteen hour schedule; and they worked as they had when they constructed the bronze palla that topped the dome of Santa Maria dell Fiore, as if quick hands and minds were the only weapons against the ennui upon which the Black Fever might feed. Francesco had become invaluable to Leonardo, for he was quicker with things mechanical than Verrocchio himself; and Francesco helped him design an ingenious plan by which the flying machine could be collapsed and dismantled and camouflaged for easy transportation to Vinci. The flying machine, at least, was complete; again, thanks to Francesco who made certain that Leonardo had a constant supply of strong-backed apprentices and material.
Leonardo's studio was a mess, a labyrinth of footpaths that wound past bolts of cloth, machinery, stacks of wood and leather, jars of paint, sawhorses, and various gearing devices; the actual flying machine took up the center of the great room. Surrounding it were drawings, insects mounted on boards, a table covered with birds and bats in various stages of vivisection, and constructions of the various parts of the redesigned flying machine—artificial wings, rudders, and flap valves.
The noxious odors of turpentine mixed with the various perfumes of decay; these smells disturbed Leonardo not at all, for they reminded him of his childhood when he kept all manner of dead animals in his room to study and paint. All other work—the paintings and terra-cotta sculptures—were piled in one corner. Leonardo and Niccolo could no longer sleep in the crowded, foul-smelling studio; they had laid their pallets down in the young apprentice Tista's room.
Tista was a tall, gangly boy with a shock of blond hair. Although he was about the same age as Niccolo, it was as if he had become Niccolo's apprentice. The boys had become virtually inseparable. Niccolo seemed to relish teaching Tista about life, art, and politics; but then Niccolo had a sure sense of how people behaved, even if he lacked experience. He was a natural teacher, more so than Leonardo. For Leonardo's part, he didn't mind having the other boy underfoot and had, in fact, become quite fond of him. But Leonardo was preoccupied with his work. The Black Death had given him a reprieve—just enough time to complete and test his machine—for not only did Il Magnifico agree to rendezvous in Vinci rather than Pistoia, he himself set the date forward another fortnight.
It was unbearably warm in the studio as Niccolo helped Leonardo remove the windlass mechanism and twin 'oars' from the machine, which were to be packed into a numbered, wooden container. "It's getting close," Niccolo said, after the parts were fitted securely into the box. "Tista tells me that he heard a family living near the Porta alla Croce caught fever."
"Well, we shall be on our way at dawn," Leonardo said. "You shall have the responsibility of making certain that everything is properly loaded and in its proper place."
Niccolo seemed very pleased with that; he had, in fact, proven himself to be a capable worker and organizer. "But I still believe we should wait until the dark effluviums have evaporated from the air. At least until after the becchini have carried the corpses to their graves."
"Then we will leave after first light," Leonardo said.
"You might be right about the possible contagion of corpses and becchini. But as to your effluviums...."
"Best not to take chances," Verrocchio said; he had been standing in the doorway and peering into the room like a boy who had not yet been caught sneaking through the house. He held the door partially closed so that it framed him, as if he were posing for his own portrait; and the particular glow of the late afternoon sun seemed to transform and subdue his rather heavy features.
"I think it is as the astrologers say: a conjunction of planets," Verrocchio continued. "It was so during the great blight of 1345. But that was a conjunction of three planets. Very unusual. It will not be like that now, for the conjunction is not nearly so perfect."
"You'd be better to come to the country with us than listen to astrologers," Leonardo said.
"I cannot leave my family. I've told you."
"Then bring them along. My father is already in Vinci preparing the main house for Lorenzo and his retinue. You could think of it as a business holiday; think of the commissions that might fall your way."
"I think I have enough of those for the present," Andrea said.
"That does not sound like Andrea del Verrocchio," Leonardo said, teasing.
"My sisters and cousins refuse to leave," Andrea said. "And who would feed the cats?" he said, smiling, then sighing. He seemed resigned and almost relieved. "My fate is in the lap of the gods...as it has always been. And so is yours, my young friend."
The two-day journey was uneventful, and they soon arrived in Vinci.
The town of Leonardo's youth was a fortified keep dominated by a medieval castle and its campanile, surrounded by fifty brownish-pink brick houses. Their red tiled roofs were covered with a foliage of chestnut and pine and cypress, and vines of grape and cane thickets brought the delights of earth and shade to the very walls and windows. The town with its crumbling walls and single arcaded alley was situated on the elevated spur of a mountain; it overlooked a valley blanketed with olive trees that turned silver when stirred by the wind. Beyond was the valley of Lucca, green and purple-shadowed and ribboned with mountain streams; and Leonardo remembered that when the rain had cleansed the air, the crags and peaks of the Apuan Alps near Massa and Cozzile could be clearly seen.
Now that Leonardo was here, he realized how homesick he had been. The sky was clear and the air pellucid; but the poignancy of his memories clouded his vision, as he imagined himself being swept back to his childhood days, once again riding with his Uncle Francesco, whom they called 'lazzarone' because he did not choose to restrict his zealous enjoyment of life with a profession. But Leonardo and the much older Francesco had been like two privileged boys—princes, riding from farmstead to mill and all around the valley collecting rents for Leonardo's grandfather, the patriarch of the family: the gentle and punctilious Antonio da Vinci.
Leonardo led his apprentices down a cobbled road and past a rotating dovecote on a long pole to a cluster of houses surrounded by gardens, barns, peasant huts, tilled acreage, and the uniform copses of Mulberry trees, which his Uncle Francesco had planted. Francesco, 'the lazy one,' had been experimenting with sericulture, which could prove to be very lucrative indeed, for the richest and most powerful guild in Florence was the 'Arte della Seta': the silk weavers.
"Leonardo, ho!" shouted Francesco from the courtyard of the large, neatly kept, main house, which had belonged to Ser Antonio. It was stone and roofed with red tile, and looked like the ancient long-houses of the French; but certainly no animals would be kept in the home of Piero da Vinci: Leonardo's father.
Like his brother, Francesco had dark curly hair that was graying at the temples and thinning at the crown. Francesco embraced Leonardo, nearly knocking the wind out of him, and said, "You have caused substantial havoc in this house, my good nephew! Your father is quite anxious."
"I'm sure of that," Leonardo said as he walked into the hall. "It's wonderful to see you, Uncle."
Beyond this expansive, lofted room were several sleeping chambers, two fireplaces, a kitchen and pantry, and workrooms, which sometimes housed the peasants who worked the various da Vinci farmholds; there was a level above with three more rooms and a fireplace; and ten steps below was the cellar where Leonardo used to hide the dead animals he had found. The house was immaculate: how Leonardo's father must have oppressed the less than tidy Francesco and Alessandra to make it ready for Lorenzo and his guests.
His third wife, Margherita di Guglielmo, was nursing his first legitimate son; no doubt that accorded her privileges.
This room was newly fitted-out with covered beds, chests, benches, and a closet cabinet to accommodate several of the lesser luminaries in Il Magnifico's entourage. Without a doubt, Leonardo's father would give the First Citizen his own bedroom.
Leonardo sighed. He craved his father's love, but their relationship had always been awkward and rather formal, as if Leonardo were his apprentice rather than his son.
Piero came down the stairs from his chamber above to meet Leonardo. He wore his magisterial robes and a brimless, silk berretta cap, as if he were expecting Lorenzo and his entourage at any moment. "Greetings, my son."
"Greetings to you, father," Leonardo said, bowing.
Leonardo and his father embraced. Then tightly grasping Leonardo's elbow, Piero asked, "May I take you away from your company for a few moments?"
"Of course, Father," Leonardo said politely, allowing himself to be led upstairs.
They entered a writing room, which contained a long, narrow clerical desk, a master's chair, and a sitting bench decorated with two octagonally-shaped pillows; the floor was tiled like a chessboard. A clerk sat upon a stool behind the desk and made a great show of writing in a large, leather-bound ledger. Austere though the room appeared, it revealed a parvenu's taste for comfort; for Piero was eager to be addressed as messer, rather than ser, and to carry a sword, which was the prerogative of a knight. "Will you excuse us, Vittore?" Piero said to the clerk. The young man rose, bowed, and left the room.
"Yes, father?" Leonardo asked, expecting the worst.
"I don't know whether to scold you or congratulate you."
"The latter would be preferable."
Piero smiled and said, "Andrea has apprised me that Il Magnifico has asked for you to work in his gardens."
"I am very proud."
"Thank you, father."
"So you see, I was correct in keeping you to the grindstone."
Leonardo felt his neck and face grow warm. "You mean by taking everything I earned so I could not save enough to pay for my master's matriculation fee in the Painters' Guild?"
"That money went to support the family...your family."
"And now you—or rather the family—will lose that income."
"My concern is not, nor was it ever, the money," Piero said. "It was properly forming your character, of which I am still in some doubt."
"I'm sorry, but as your father, it is my duty—" He paused. Then, as if trying to be more conciliatory, he said, "You could hardly do better than to have Lorenzo for a patron. But he would have never noticed you, if I had not made it possible for you to remain with Andrea."
"You left neither Andrea nor I any choice."
"Be that as it may, Master Andrea made certain that you produced and completed the projects he assigned to you. At least he tried to prevent you from running off and cavorting with your limp-wristed, degenerate friends."
"Ah, you mean those who are not in Il Magnifico's retinue."
"Don't you dare to be insolent."
"I apologize, father," Leonardo said, but he had become sullen.
"You're making that face again."
"I'm sorry if I offend you."
"You don't offend me, you—" He paused, then said, "You've put our family in an impossible position."
"What do you mean?"
"Your business here with the Medici."
"It does not please you to host the First Citizen?" Leonardo asked.
"You have made a foolish bet with him, and will certainly become the monkey. Our name—"
"Ah, yes, that is, of course, all that worries you. But I shall not fail, father. You can then take full credit for any honor I might bring to our good name."
"Only birds and insects can fly."
"And those who bear the name da Vinci." But Piero would not be mollified. Leonardo sighed and said, "Father, I shall try not to disappoint you." He bowed respectfully and turned toward the door.
"Leonardo!" his father said, as if he were speaking to a child. "I have not excused you."
"May I be excused, then, father?"
"Yes, you may." But then Piero called him back.
"Yes, father?" Leonardo asked, pausing at the door.
"I forbid you to attempt this...experiment."
"I am sorry, father; but I cannot turn tail now."
"I will explain to Il Magnifico that you are my first-born."
"Thank you, but—"
"Your safety is my responsibility," Piero said, and then he said, "I worry for you!" Obviously, these words were difficult for him. If their relationship had been structured differently, Leonardo would have crossed the room to embrace his father; and they would have spoken directly. But as robust and lusty as Piero was, he could not accept any physical display of emotion.
After a pause, Leonardo asked, "Will you do me the honor of watching me fly upon the wind?" He ventured a smile. "It will be a da Vinci, not a Medici or a Pazzi, who will be soaring in the heavens closest to God."
"I suppose I shall have to keep up appearances," Piero said; then he raised an eyebrow, as if questioning his place in the scheme of these events. He looked at his son and smiled sadly.
Though once again Leonardo experienced the unbridgeable distance between himself and his father, the tension between them dissolved.
"You are welcome to remain here," Piero said.
"You will have little enough room when Lorenzo and his congregation arrive," Leonardo said. "And I shall need quiet in which to work and prepare; it's been fixed for us to lodge with Achattabrigha di Piero del Vacca."
"When are you expected?"
"We should leave now. Uncle Francesco said he would accompany us."
Piero nodded. "Please give my warmest regards to your mother."
"I shall be happy to do so."
"Are you at all curious to see your new brother?" Piero asked, as if it were an afterthought.
"Of course I am, father."
Piero took his son's arm, and they walked to Margherita's bedroom.
Leonardo could feel his father trembling.
And for those few seconds, he actually felt that he was his father's son.
The Great Bird was perched on the edge of a ridge at the summit of a hill near Vinci that Leonardo had selected. It looked like a gigantic dragonfly, its fabric of fustian and silk sighing, as the expansive double wings shifted slightly in the wind. Niccolo, Tista, and Leonardo's stepfather Achattabrigha kneeled under the wings and held fast to the pilot's harness. Zoroastro da Peretola and Lorenzo de Credi, apprentices of Andrea Verrochio, stood twenty-five feet apart and steadied the wing tips; it almost seemed that their arms were filled with outsized jousting pennons of blue and gold. These two could be taken as caricatures of Il Magnifico and his brother Giuliano, for Zoroastro was swarthy, rough- skinned, and ugly-looking beside the sweetly handsome Lorenzo de Credi. Such was the contrast between Lorenzo and Giuliano di Medici, who stood with Leonardo a few feet away from the Great Bird. Giuliano looked radiant in the morning sun while Lorenzo seemed to be glowering, although he was most probably simply concerned for Leonardo.
Zoroastro, ever impatient, looked toward Leonardo and shouted, "We're ready for you, Maestro."
Leonardo nodded, but Lorenzo caught him and said, "Leonardo, there is no need for this. I will love you as I do Giuliano, no matter whether you choose to fly...or let wisdom win out."
Leonardo smiled and said, "I will fly fide et amore."
By faith and love.
"You shall have both," Lorenzo said; and he walked beside Leonardo to the edge of the ridge and waved to the crowd standing far below on the edge of a natural clearing where Leonardo was to land triumphant. But the clearing was surrounded by a forest of pine and cypress, which from his vantage looked like a multitude of rough- hewn lances and halberds. A great shout went up, honoring the First Citizen: the entire village was there—from peasant to squire, invited for the occasion by Il Magnifico, who had erected a great, multi-colored tent; his attendants and footmen had been cooking and preparing for a feast since dawn. His sister Bianca, Angelo Poliziano, Pico Della Mirandola, Bartolomeo Scala, and Leonardo's friend Sandro Botticelli were down there, too, hosting the festivities.
They were all on tenterhooks, eager for the Great Bird to fly.
Leonardo waited until Lorenzo had received his due; but then not to be outdone, he, too, bowed and waved his arms theatrically. The crowd below cheered their favorite son, and Leonardo turned away to position himself in the harness of his flying machine. He had seen his mother Caterina, a tiny figure nervously looking upward, whispering devotions, her hand cupped above her eyes to cut the glare of the sun. His father Piero stood beside Giuliano de Medici; both men were dressed as if for a hunt. Piero did not speak to Leonardo. His already formidable face was drawn and tight, just as if he were standing before a magistrate awaiting a decision on a case.
Lying down in a prone position on the fore-shortened plank pallet below the wings and windlass mechanism, Leonardo adjusted the loop around his head, which controlled the rudder section of the Great Bird, and he tested the hand cranks and foot stirrups, which raised and lowered the wings.
"Be careful," shouted Zoroastro, who had stepped back from the moving wings. "Are you trying to kill us?"
There was nervous laughter; but Leonardo was quiet. Achattabrigha tied the straps that would hold Leonardo fast to his machine and said, "I shall pray for your success, Leonardo, my son. I love you."
Leonardo turned to his step-father, smelled the good odors of Caterina's herbs—garlic and sweet onion—on his breath and clothes, and looked into the old man's squinting, pale blue eyes; and it came to him then, with the force of buried emotion, that he loved this man who had spent his life sweating by kiln fires and thinking with his great, yellow-nailed hands. "I love you, too...father. And I feel safe in your prayers."
That seemed to please Achattabrigha, for he checked the straps one last time, kissed Leonardo and patted his shoulder; then he stepped away, as reverently as if he were backing away from an icon in a cathedral.
"Good luck, Leonardo," Lorenzo said.
The others wished him luck. His father nodded, and smiled; and Leonardo, taking the weight of the Great Bird upon his back, lifted himself. Niccolo, Zoroastro, and Lorenzo de Credi helped him to the very edge of the ridge.
A cheer went up from below.
"Maestro, I wish it were me," Niccolo said. Tista stood beside him, looking longingly at Leonardo's flying mechanism.
"Just watch this time, Nicco," Leonardo said, and he nodded to Tista. "Pretend it is you who is flying in the heavens, for this machine is also yours. And you will be with me."
"Thank you, Leonardo."
"Now step away...for we must fly," Leonardo said; and he looked down, as if for the first time, as if every tree and upturned face were magnified; every smell, every sound and motion were clear and distinct. In some way the world had separated into its component elements, all in an instant; and in the distance, the swells and juttings of land were like that of a green sea with long, trailing shadows of brown; and upon those motionless waters were all the various constructions of human habitations: church and campanile, and shacks and barns and cottages and furrowed fields.
Leonardo felt sudden vertigo as his heart pounded in his chest. A breeze blew out of the northwest, and Leonardo felt it flow around him like a breath. The treetops rustled, whispering, as warm air drifted skyward. Thermal updrafts flowing invisibly to heaven. Pulling at him. His wings shuddered in the gusts; and Leonardo knew that it must be now, lest he be carried off the cliff unprepared.
He launched himself, pushing off the precipice as if he were diving from a cliff into the sea. For an instant, as he swooped downward, he felt euphoria. He was flying, carried by the wind, which embraced him in its cold grip. Then came heart-pounding, nauseating fear. Although he strained at the windlass and foot stirrups, which caused his great, fustian wings to flap, he could not keep himself aloft. His pushings and kickings had become almost reflexive from hours of practice: one leg thrust backward to lower one pair of wings while he furiously worked the windlass with his hands to raise the other, turning his hands first to the left, then to the right. He worked the mechanism with every bit of his calculated two hundred pound force, and his muscles ached from the strain. Although the Great Bird might function as a glider, there was too much friction in the gears to effect enough propulsive power; and the wind resistance was too strong. He could barely raise the wings.
The chilling, cutting wind became a constant sighing in his ears. His clothes flapped against his skin like the fabric of his failing wings, while hills, sky, forest, and cliffs spiraled around him, then fell away; and he felt the damp shock of his recurring dream, his nightmare of falling into the void.
But he was falling through soft light, itself as tangible as butter. Below him was the familiar land of his youth, rising against all logic, rushing skyward to claim him. He could see his father's house and there in the distance the Apuan Alps and the ancient cobbled road built before Rome was an empire. His sensations took on the textures of dream; and he prayed, surprising himself, even then as he looked into the purple shadows of the impaling trees below. Still, he doggedly pedaled and turned the windlass mechanism.
All was calmness and quiet, but for the wind wheezing in his ears like the sea heard in a conch shell. His fear left him, carried away by the same breathing wind.
Then he felt a subtle bursting of warm air around him.
And suddenly, impossibly, vertiginously, he was ascending.
His wings were locked straight out. They were not flapping. Yet still he rose. It was as if God's hand were lifting Leonardo to Heaven; and he, Leonardo, remembered loosing his hawks into the air and watching them search for the currents of wind, which they used to soar into the highest of elevations, their wings motionless.
Thus did Leonardo rise in the warm air current—his mouth open to relieve the pressure constantly building in his ears—until he could see the top of the mountain...it was about a thousand feet below him. The country of hills and streams and farmland and forest had diminished, had become a neatly patterned board of swirls and rectangles: proof of man's work on earth. The sun seemed brighter at this elevation, as if the air itself was less dense in these attenuated regions. Leonardo feared now that he might be drawing too close to the region where air turned to fire.
He turned his head, pulling the loop that connected to the rudder; and found that he could, within bounds, control his direction. But then he stopped soaring; it was as if the warm bubble of air that had contained him had suddenly burst. He felt a chill.
The air became cold...and still.
He worked furiously at the windlass, thinking that he would beat his wings as birds do until they reach the wind; but he could not gain enough forward motion.
Once again, he fell like an arcing arrow.
Although the wind resistance was so great that he couldn't pull the wings below a horizontal position, he had developed enough speed to attain lift. He rose for a few beats, but, again, could not push his mechanism hard enough to maintain it, and another gust struck him, pummeling the Great Bird with phantomic fists.
Leonardo's only hope was to gain another warm thermal.
Instead, he became caught in a riptide of air that was like a blast, pushing the flying machine backward. He had all he could do to keep the wings locked in a horizontal position. He feared they might be torn away by the wind; and, indeed, the erratic gusts seemed to be conspiring to press him back down upon the stone face of the mountain.
Time seemed to slow for Leonardo; and in one long second he glimpsed the clearing surrounded by forest, as if forming a bull's-eye. He saw the tents and the townspeople who craned their necks to goggle up at him; and in this wind-wheezing moment, he suddenly gained a new, unfettered perspective. As if it were not he who was falling to his death.
Were his neighbors cheering? he wondered. Or were they horrified and dumbfounded at the sight of one of their own falling from the sky? More likely they were secretly wishing him to fall, their deepest desires not unlike the crowd that had recently cajoled a poor, lovesick peasant boy to jump from a rooftop onto the stone pavement of the Via Calimala.
The ground was now only three hundred feet below.
To his right, Leonardo caught sight of a hawk. The hawk was caught in the same trap of wind as Leonardo; and as he watched, the bird veered away, banking, and flew downwind. Leonardo shifted his weight, manipulated the rudder, and changed the angle of the wings. Thus he managed to follow the bird. His arms and legs felt like leaden weights, but he held on to his small measure of control.
Still he fell.
Two hundred feet.
He could hear the crowd shouting below him as clearly as if he were among them. People scattered, running to get out of Leonardo's way. He thought of his mother Caterina, for most men call upon their mothers at the moment of death.
And he followed the hawk, as if it were his inspiration, his own Beatrice.
And the ground swelled upward.
Then Leonardo felt as if he was suspended over the deep, green canopy of forest, but only for an instant. He felt a warm swell of wind; and the Great Bird rose, riding the thermal. Leonardo looked for the hawk, but it had disappeared as if it had been a spirit, rising without weight through the various spheres toward the Primum Mobile. He tried to control his flight, his thoughts toward landing in one of the fields beyond the trees.
The thermal carried him up; then, just as quickly, as if teasing him, burst. Leonardo tried to keep his wings fixed, and glided upwind for a few seconds. But a gust caught him, once again pushing him backward, and he fell—
Slapped back to earth.
I have come home to die.
His father's face scowled at him.
Leonardo had failed.
Even after three weeks, the headaches remained.
Leonardo had suffered several broken ribs and a concussion when he fell into the forest, swooping between the thick, purple cypress trees, tearing like tissue the wood and fustaneum of the Great Bird's wings. His face was already turning black when Lorenzo's footmen found him. He recuperated at his father's home; but Lorenzo insisted on taking him to Villa Careggi, where he could have his physicians attend to him. With the exception of Lorenzo's personal dentator, who soaked a sponge in opium, morel juice, and hyoscyamus and extracted his broken tooth as Leonardo slept and dreamed of falling, they did little more than change his bandages, bleed him with leeches, and cast his horoscope.
Leonardo was more than relieved when the plague finally abated enough so that he could return to Florence. He was hailed as a hero, for Lorenzo had made a public announcement from the ringhiera of the Palazzo Vecchio that the artist from Vinci had, indeed, flown in the air like a bird. But the gossip among the educated was that, indeed, Leonardo had fallen like Icarus, with whom it was said he resembled in hubris. He received an anonymous note that seemed to say it all: victus honor.
Honor to the vanquished.
Leonardo would accept none of the countless invitations to attend various masques and dinners and parties. He was caught up in a frenzy of work. He could not sleep; and when he would lose consciousness from sheer exhaustion, he would dream he was falling through the sky. He would see trees wheeling below him, twisting as if they were machines in an impossible torture chamber.
Leonardo was certain that the dreams would cease only when he conquered the air; and although he did not believe in ghosts or superstition, he was pursued by demons every bit as real as those conjured by the clergy he despised and mocked. So he worked, as if in a frenzy. He constructed new models and filled up three folios with his sketches and mirror-script notes. Niccolo and Tista would not leave him, except to bring him food, and Andrea Verrocchio came upstairs a few times a day to look in at his now famous apprentice.
"Haven't you yet had your bellyful of flying machines?" Andrea impatiently asked Leonardo. It was dusk, and dinner had already been served to the apprentices downstairs. Niccolo hurried to clear a place on the table so Andrea could put down the two bowls of boiled meat he had brought. Leonardo's studio was in its usual state of disarray, but the old flying machine, the insects mounted on boards, the vivisected birds and bats, the variously designed wings, rudders, and valves for the Great Bird were gone, replaced by new drawings, new mechanisms for testing wing designs (for now the wings would remain fixed), and various large-scale models of free-flying whirlybird toys, which had been in use since the 1300's. He was experimenting with inverted cones— Archimedian Screws—to cheat gravity, and he studied the geometry of children's tops to calculate the principle of the fly-wheel. Just as a ruler whirled rapidly in the air will guide the arm by the line of the edge of the flat surface, so did Leonardo envision a machine powered by a flying propeller. Yet he could not help but think that such mechanisms were against nature, for air was a fluid, like water. And nature, the protoplast of all man's creation, had not invented rotary motion.
Leonardo pulled the string of a toy whirlybird, and the tiny four-bladed propeller spun into the air, as if in defiance of all natural laws. "No, Andrea, I have not lost my interest in this most sublime of inventions. Il Magnifico has listened to my ideas, and he is enthusiastic that my next machine will remain aloft."
Verrocchio watched the red propeller glide sideways into a stack of books: De Onesta Volutta by Il Platina, the Letters of Filefo, Pliny's Historia naturale, Dati's Trattato della sfera, and Ugo Benzo's On the Preservation of the Health. "And Lorenzo has offered to recompense you for these...experiments?"
"Such an invention would revolutionize the very nature of warfare," Leonardo insisted. "I've developed an exploding missile that looks like a dart and could be dropped from my Great Bird. I've also been experimenting with improvements on the arquebus, and I have a design for a giant ballista, a cross-bow of a kind never before imagined. I've designed a cannon with many racks of barrels that—"
"Indeed," Verrocchio said. "But I have advised you that it is unwise to put your trust in Lorenzo's momentary enthusiasms."
"Certainly the First Citizen has more than a passing interest in armaments."
"Is that why he ignored your previous memorandum wherein you proposed the very same ideas?"
"That was before, and this is now."
"Ah, certainly," Andrea said, nodding his head. Then after a pause, he said, "Stop this foolishness, Leonardo. You're a painter, and a painter should paint. "Why have you been unwilling to work on any of the commissions I have offered you? And you've refused many other good offers. You have no money, and you've gained yourself a bad reputation."
"I will have more than enough money after the world watches my flying machine soar into the heavens."
"You are lucky to be alive, Leonardo. Have you not looked at yourself in a mirror? And you nearly broke your spine. Are you so intent upon doing so again? Or will killing yourself suffice?" He shook his head, as if angry at himself. " You've become skinny as a rail and sallow as an old man. Do you eat what we bring you? Do you sleep?" Do you paint? No, nothing but invention, nothing but...this." He waved his arm at the models and mechanisms that lay everywhere. Then in a soft voice, he said, "I blame myself. I should have never allowed you to proceed with all this in the first place. You need a strong hand."
"When Lorenzo sees what I have—"
Andrea made a tssing sound by tapping the roof of his mouth with his tongue. "I bid thee goodnight. Leonardo, eat your food before it gets cold. Niccolo, see that he eats."
"Andrea?" Leonardo said.
"What has turned you against me?
"My love for you.... Forget invention and munitions and flying toys. You are a painter. Paint."
"I cannot," Leonardo answered, but in a voice so low that no one else could hear.
"Stop it, that hurts!" Tista said to Niccolo, who had pulled him away from Leonardo's newest flying machine and held his arm behind him, as if to break it.
"Do you promise to stay away from the Maestro's machine?" Niccolo asked.
"Yes, I promise."
Niccolo let go of the boy, who backed nervously away from him. Leonardo stood a few paces away, oblivious to them, and stared down the mountain side to the valley below. Mist flowed dreamlike down its grassy slopes; in the distance, surrounded by grayish-green hills was Florence, its Duomo and the high tower of the Palazzo Vecchio golden in the early sunlight. It was a brisk morning in early March, but it would be a warm day. The vapor from Leonardo's exhalations was faint. He had come here to test his glider, which now lay nearby, its large, arched wings lashed to the ground. Leonardo had taken Niccolo's advice. This flying machine had fixed wings and no motor. It was a glider. His plan was to master flight; when he developed a suitable engine to power his craft, he would then know how to control it. And this machine was more in keeping with Leonardo's ideas of nature, for he would wear the wings, as if he were, indeed, a bird; he would hang from the wings, legs below, head and shoulders above, and control them by swinging his legs and shifting his weight. He would be like a bird soaring, sailing, gliding.
But he had put off flying the contraption for the last two days that they had camped here. Even though he was certain that its design was correct, he had lost his nerve. He was afraid. He just could not do it.
But he had to....
He could feel Niccolo and Tista watching him.
He kicked at some loamy dirt and decided: he would do it now. He would not think about it. If he was to die...then so be it. Could being a coward be worse than falling out of the sky?
But he was too late, too late by a breath.
Startled, Leonardo turned to see that Tista had torn loose the rope that anchored the glider to the ground and had pulled himself through the opening between the wings. Leonardo shouted "stop" and rushed toward him, but Tista threw himself over the crest before either Leonardo or Niccolo could stop him. In fact, Leonardo had to grab Niccolo, who almost fell from the mountain in pursuit of his friend.
Tista's cry carried through the chill, thin air, but it was a cry of joy as the boy soared through the empty sky. He circled the mountain, catching the warmer columns of air, and then descended.
"Come back," Leonardo shouted through cupped hands, yet he could not help but feel an exhilaration, a thrill. The machine worked! But it was he, Leonardo, who needed to be in the air.
"Maestro, I tried to stop him," Niccolo cried.
But Leonardo ignored him, for the weather suddenly changed, and buffeting wind began to whip around the mountain. "Stay away from the slope," Leonardo called. But he could not be heard; and he watched helplessly as the glider pitched upwards, caught by a gust. It stalled in the chilly air, and then fell like a leaf. "Swing your hips forward," Leonardo shouted. The glider could be brought under control. If the boy was practiced, it would not be difficult at all. But he wasn't, and the glider slid sideways, crashing into the mountain.
Niccolo screamed, and Leonardo discovered that he, too, was screaming.
Tista was tossed out of the harness. Grabbing at brush and rocks, he fell about fifty feet.
By the time Leonardo reached him, the boy was almost unconscious. He lay between two jagged rocks, his head thrown back, his back twisted, arms and legs akimbo.
"Where do you feel pain?" Leonardo asked as he tried to make the boy as comfortable as he could. There was not much that could be done, for Tista's back was broken, and a rib had pierced the skin. Niccolo kneeled beside Tista; his face was white, as if drained of blood.
"I feel no pain, Maestro. Please do not be angry with me." Niccolo took his hand.
"I am not angry, Tista. But why did you do it?"
"I dreamed every night that I was flying. In your contraption, Leonardo. The very one. I could not help myself. I planned how I would do it." He smiled wanly. "And I did it."
"That you did," whispered Leonardo, remembering his own dream of falling. Could one dreamer effect another?
"Niccolo...?" Tista called in barely a whisper.
"I am here."
"I cannot see very well. I see the sky, I think."
Niccolo looked to Leonardo, who could only shake his head.
When Tista shuddered and died, Niccolo began to cry and beat his hands against the sharp rocks, bloodying them. Leonardo embraced him, holding his arms tightly and rocking him back and forth as if he were a baby. All the while he did so, he felt revulsion; for he could not help himself, he could not control his thoughts, which were as hard and cold as reason itself.
Although his flying machine had worked—or would have worked successfully, if he, Leonardo, had taken it into the air—he had another idea for a great bird.
One that would be safe.
As young Tista's inchoate soul rose to the heavens like a kite in the wind, Leonardo imagined just such a machine.
A child's kite....
"So it is true, you are painting," Andrea Verrochio said, as he stood in Leonardo's studio. Behind him stood Niccolo and Sandro Botticelli.
Although the room was still cluttered with his various instruments and machines and models, the tables had been cleared, and the desiccated corpses of birds and animals and insects were gone. The ripe odors of rot were replaced with the raw, pungent fumes of linseed oil and varnish and paint. Oil lamps inside globes filled with water—another of Leonardo's inventions—cast cones of light in the cavernous room; he had surrounded himself and his easel with the brightest of these watery lamps, which created a room of light within the larger room that seemed to be but mere appearance.
"But what kind of painting is this?" Andrea asked. "Did the Anti-Christ need to decorate the dark walls of his church? I could believe that only he could commission such work"
Leonardo grimaced and cast an angry look at Niccolo for bringing company into his room when he was working. Since Tista had died, he had taken to sleeping during the day and painting all night. He turned to Verrochio. "I'm only following your advice, Maestro. You said that a painter paints."
"Indeed, I did. But a painter does not paint for himself, in the darkness, as you are doing"; yet even as he spoke, he leaned toward the large canvass Leonardo was working on, casting his shadow over a third of it. He seemed fascinated with the central figure of a struggling man being carried into Hell by the monster Geryon; man and beast were painted with such depth and precision that they looked like tiny live figures trapped in amber. The perspective of the painting was dizzying, for it was a glimpse into the endless shafts and catacombs of Hell; indeed, Paolo Ucello, may he rest in peace, would have been proud of such work, for he had lived for the beauties of perspective.
"Leonardo, I have called upon you twice...why did you turn me away?" Sandro asked. "And why have you not responded to any of my letters?" He looked like a younger version of Master Andrea, for he had the same kind of wide, fleshy face, but Botticelli's jaw was stronger; and while Verrocchio's lips were thin and tight, Sandro's were heavy and sensuous.
"I have not received anyone," Leonardo said, stepping out of the circle of light. Since Tista was buried, his only company was Niccolo, who would not leave his master.
"And neither have you responded to the invitations of the First Citizen," Verrocchio said, meaning Lorenzo de Medici.
"Is that why you're here?" Leonardo asked Sandro. Even in the lamplight, he could see a blush in his friend's cheeks, for he was part of the Medici family; Lorenzo loved him as he did his own brother, Giuliano.
"I'm here because I'm worried about you, as is Lorenzo. You have done the same for me, or have you forgotten?"
No, Leonardo had not forgotten. He remembered when Sandro had almost died of love for Lorenzo's mistress, Simonetta Vespucci. He remembered how Sandro had lost weight and dreamed even when he was awake; how Pico Della Mirandola had exorcised him in the presence of Simonetta and Lorenzo; and how he, Leonardo, had taken care of him until he regained his health.
"So you think I am in need of Messer Mirandola's services?" Leonardo asked. "Is that it?"
"I think you need to see your friends. I think you need to come awake in the light and sleep in the night. I think you must stop grieving for the child Tista."
Leonardo was about to respond, but caught himself. He wasn't grieving for Tista. Niccolo was, certainly. He, Leonardo, was simply working.
Working through his fear and guilt and...
For it was, somehow, as if he had fallen and broken his spine, as, perhaps, he should have when he fell from the mountain ledge as a child.
"Leonardo, why are you afraid?" Niccolo asked. "The machine...worked. It will fly."
"And so you wish to fly it, too? Leonardo asked, but it was more a statement than a question; he was embarrassed and vexed that Niccolo would demean him in front of Verrochio.
But, indeed, the machine had worked.
"I am going back to bed," Verrochio said, bowing to Sandro. "I will leave you to try to talk sense into my apprentice." He looked at Leonardo and smiled, for both knew that he was an apprentice in name only. But Leonardo would soon have to earn his keep; for Verrochio's patience was coming to an end. He gazed at Leonardo's painting. "You know, the good monks of St. Bernard might just be interested in such work as this. Perhaps I might suggest that they take your painting instead of the altarpiece you owe them."
Leonardo could not help but laugh, for he knew that his master was serious.
After Verrochio left, Leonardo and Sandro sat down on a cassone together under one of the dirty high windows of the studio; Niccolo sat before them on the floor; he was all eyes and ears and attention.
"Nicco, bring us some wine," Leonardo said.
"I want to be here."
Leonardo did not argue with the boy. It was unimportant, and once the words were spoken, forgotten. Leonardo gazed upward. He could see the sky through the window; the stars were brilliant, for Florence was asleep and its lanterns did not compete with the stars. "I thought I could get so close to them," he said, as if talking to himself. He imagined the stars as tiny pricks in the heavenly fabric; he could even now feel the heat from the region of fire held at bay by the darkness; and as if he could truly see through imagination, he watched himself soaring in his flying machine, climbing into the black heavens, soaring, reaching to burn like paper for one glorious instant into those hot, airy regions above the clouds and night.
But this flying machine he imagined was like no other device he had ever sketched or built. He had reached beyond nature to conceive a child's kite with flat surfaces to support it in the still air. Like his dragonfly contraption, it would have double wings, cellular open-ended boxes that would be as stable as kites of like construction.
The pilot would not need to shift his balance to keep control. He would float on the air like a raft. Tista would not have lost his balance and fallen out of the sky in this contraption.
"Leonardo...Leonardo! Have you been listening to anything I've said?"
"Yes, Little Bottle, I hear you." Leonardo was one of a very small circle of friends who was permitted to call Sandro by his childhood nickname.
"Then I can tell Lorenzo that you will demonstrate your new flying machine? It would not be wise to refuse him, Leonardo. He has finally taken notice of you. He needs you now; his enemies are everywhere."
Indeed, the First Citizen's relationship with the ambitious Pope Sixtus IV was at a breaking-point, and all of Florence lived in fear of excommunication and war.
"Florence must show it's enemies that it is invincible," Sandro continued. "A device that can rain fire from the sky would deter even the Pope."
"I knew that Lorenzo could not long ignore my inventions," Leonardo said, although he was surprised.
"He plans to elevate you to the position of master of engines and captain of engineers."
"Should I thank you for this, Little Bottle?" Leonardo asked. "Lorenzo would have no reason to think that my device would work. Rather the opposite, as it killed my young apprentice."
"God rest his soul," Sandro said.
Leonardo continued. "Unless someone whispered in Lorenzo's ear. I fear you have gone from being artist to courtier, Little Bottle."
"The honors go to Niccolo," Sandro said. "It is he who convinced Lorenzo."
"This is what you've been waiting for, Maestro," Niccolo said. "I will find Francesco at first light and tell him to help you build another Great Bird. And I'll get the wine right now."
"Wait a moment," Leonardo said, then directed himself to Sandro. "How did Nicco convince Lorenzo?"
"You sent me with a note for the First Citizen, Maestro, when you couldn't accept his invitation to attend Simonetta's ball," Niccolo said. "I told him of our grief over Tista, and then I also had to explain what had happened. Although I loved Tista, he was at fault. Not our machine.... Lorenzo understood."
"Ah, did he now."
"I only did as you asked," Niccolo insisted.
"And did you speak to him about my bombs?" Leonardo asked.
"And did he ask you, or did you volunteer that information?
Niccolo glanced nervously at Sandro, as if he would supply him with the answer. "I thought you would be pleased...."
"I think you may get the wine now, Sandro said to Niccolo, who did not miss the opportunity to flee. Then he directed himself to Leonardo. "You should have congratulated Niccolo, not berated him. Why were you so hard on the boy?"
Leonardo gazed across the room at his painting in the circle of lamps. He desired only to paint, not construct machines to kill children; he would paint his dreams, which had fouled his waking life with their strength and startling detail. By painting them, by exposing them, he might free himself. Yet ideas for his great Kite seemed to appear like chiaroscuro on the painting of his dream of falling, as if it were a notebook.
Leonardo shivered, for his dreams had spilled out of his sleep and would not let him go. Tonight they demanded to be painted.
Tomorrow they would demand to be built.
He yearned to step into the cold, perfect spaces of his memory cathedral, which had become his haven. There he could imagine each painting, each dream, and lock it in its own dark, private room. As if every experience, every pain, could be so isolated.
"Well...?" Sandro asked.
"I will apologize to Niccolo when he returns," Leonardo said.
"Leonardo, was Niccolo right? Are you are afraid? I'm your best friend, certainly you can—"
Just then Niccolo appeared with a bottle of wine.
"I am very tired, Little Bottle," Leonardo said. "Perhaps we can celebrate another day. I will take your advice and sleep...to come awake in the light."
That was, of course, a lie, for Leonardo painted all night and the next day. It was as if he had to complete a month's worth of ideas in a few hours. Ideas seemed to explode in his mind's eye, paintings complete; all that Leonardo had to do was trace them onto canvass and mix his colors. It was as if he had somehow managed to unlock doors in his memory cathedral and glimpse what St. Augustine had called the present of things future; it was as if he were glimpsing ideas he would have, paintings he would paint; and he knew that if he didn't capture these gifts now, he would lose them forever. Indeed, it was as if he were dreaming whilst awake, and during these hours, whether awake or slumped over before the canvass in a catnap or a trance, he had no control over the images that glowed in his mind like the lanterns placed on the floor, cassones, desks, and tables around him, rings of light, as if everything was but different aspects of Leonardo's dream...Leonardo's conception. He worked in a frenzy, which was always how he worked when his ideas caught fire; but this time he had no conscious focus or goal. Rather than a frenzy of discovery, this was a kind of remembering.
By morning he had six paintings under way; one was a Madonna, transcendantly radiant, as if Leonardo had lifted the veil of human sight to reveal the divine substance. The others seemed to be grotesque visions of hell that would only be matched by a young Dutch contemporary of Leonardo's: Hieronoymus Bosh. There was a savage cruelty in these pictures of fabulous monsters with gnashing snouts, bat's wings, crocodile's jaws, and scaly pincered tails, yet every creature, every caricature and grotesquerie had a single haunting human feature: chimeras with soft, sad human eyes or womanly limbs or the angelic faces of children taunting and torturing the fallen in the steep, dark mountainous wastes of Hell.
As promised, Niccolo fetched Verrocchio's foreman Francesco to supervise the rebuilding of Leonardo's flying machine; but not at first light, as he had promised, for the exhausted Niccolo had slept until noon. Leonardo had thought that Niccolo was cured of acting independently on his master's behalf; but obviously the boy was not contrite, for he had told Leonardo that he was going downstairs to bring back some meat and fruit for lunch.
But Leonardo surprised both of them by producing a folio of sketches, diagrams, plans, and design measurements for kites and two and three winged soaring machines. Some had curved surfaces, some had flat surfaces; but all these drawings and diagrams were based on the idea of open ended boxes...groups of them placed at the ends of timber spars. There were detailed diagram of triplane and biplane gliders with wing span and supporting surface measurements; even on paper these machines looked awkward and heavy and bulky, for they did not imitate nature. He had tried imitation, but nature was capricious, unmanageable. Now he would conquer it. Vince la natura. Not even Tista could fall from these rectangular rafts. Leonardo had scribbled notes below two sketches of cellular kites, but not in his backward script; this was obviously meant to be readable to others: Determine whether kite with cambered wings will travel farther. Fire from crossbow to ensure accuracy. And on another page, a sketch of three kites flying in tandem, one above the other, and below a figure on a sling seat: Total area of surface sails 476 ells. Add kites with sails of 66 ells to compensate for body weight over 198 pounds. Shelter from wind during assembly, open kites one at a time, then pull away supports to allow the wind to get under the sails. Tether the last kite, lest you be carried away.
"Can you produce these kites for me by tomorrow?" Leonardo asked Francesco, as he pointed to the sketch. I've provided all the dimensions."
"Impossible," Francesco said. "Perhaps when your flying machine for the First Citizen is finished—"
"This will be for the First Citizen," Leonardo insisted.
"I was instructed to rebuild the flying machine in which young Tista was...in which he suffered his accident."
"By whom? Niccolo?
"Leonardo, Maestro Andrea has interrupted work on the altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard to build your contraption for the First Citizen. When that's completed, I'll help you build these...kites."
Leonardo knew Francesco well; he wouldn't get anywhere by cajoling him. He nodded and sat down before the painting of a Madonna holding the Child, who, in turn, was holding a cat. The painting seemed to be movement itself.
"Don't you wish to supervise the work, Maestro?" asked the foreman.
"No, I'll begin constructing the kites, with Niccolo."
"Maestro, Lorenzo expects us—you—to demonstrate your Great Bird in a fortnight. You and Sandro agreed.
"Sandro is not the First Citizen." Then after a pause, "I have better ideas for soaring machines."
"But they cannot be built in time, Maestro," Niccolo insisted.
"Then no machine will be built."
And with that, Leonardo went back to his painting of the Madonna, which bore a sensual resemblance to Lorenzo's mistress Simonetta.
Which would be a gift for Lorenzo.
After a short burst of pelting rain, steady winds seemed to cleanse the sky of the gray storm clouds that had suffocated the city for several days in an atmospheric inversion. It had also been humid, and the air, which tasted dirty, had made breathing difficult. Florentine citizens closed their shutters against the poisonous miasmas, which were currently thought to be the cause of the deadly buboes, and were, at the very least, ill omens. But Leonardo, who had finally completed building his tandem kites after testing design after design, did not even know that a disaster had befallen Verrochio's bottega when rotten timbers in the roof gave way during the storm. He and Niccolo had left to test the kites in a farmer's field nestled in a windy valley that also afforded privacy. As Leonardo did not want Zoroastro or Lorenzo de Credi, or anyone else along, he designed a sled so he could haul his lightweight materials himself.
"Maestro, are you going to make your peace with Master Andrea?" Niccolo asked as they waited for the mid- morning winds, which were the strongest. The sky was clear and soft and gauzy blue, a peculiar atmospheric effect seen only in Tuscany; Leonardo had been told that in other places, especially to the north, the sky was sharper, harder.
"I will soon start a bottega of my own," Leonardo said, "and be the ruler of my own house."
"But we need money, Maestro."
"We'll have it."
"Not if you keep the First Citizen waiting for his Great Bird," Niccolo said; and Leonardo noticed that the boy's eyes narrowed, as if he were calculating a mathematical problem. "Maestro Andrea will certainly have to tell Lorenzo that your Great Bird is completed."
"Has he done so?" Leonardo asked.
"He will be even more impressed with my new invention. I will show him before he becomes too impatient. But I think it is Andrea, not Lorenzo, who is impatient."
"You're going to show the First Citizen this?" Niccolo asked, meaning the tandem kites, which were protected from any gusts of wind by a secured canvass; the kites were assembled, and when Leonardo was ready, would be opened one at a time.
"If this works, then we will build the Great Bird as I promised. That will buy us our bottega and Lorenzo's love."
"He loves you already, Maestro, as does Maestro Andrea."
"Then they'll be patient with me."
Niccolo was certainly not above arguing with his master; he had, indeed, become Leonardo's confidant. But Leonardo didn't give him a chance. He had been checking the wind, which would soon be high. "Come help me, Nicco, and try not to be a philosopher. The wind is strong enough. If we wait it will become too gusty and tear the kites." This had already happened to several of Leonardo's large scale models.
Leonardo let the wind take the first and smallest of the kites, but the wind was rather puffy, and it took a few moments before it pulled its thirty pounds on the guy rope. Then, as the wind freshened, he let go another. Satisfied, he anchored the assembly, making doubly sure that it was secure, and opened the third and largest kite. "Hold the line tight," he said to Niccolo as he climbed onto the sling seat and held tightly to a restraining rope that ran through a block and tackle to a makeshift anchor of rocks.
Leonardo reassured himself that he was safely tethered and reminded himself that the cellular box was the most stable of constructions. Its flat surfaces would support it in the air. Nevertheless, his heart seemed to be pulsing in his throat, he had difficulty taking a breath, and he could feel the chill of his sweat on his chest and arms.
The winds were strong, but erratic, and Leonardo waited until he could feel the wind pulling steady; he leaned backward, sliding leeward on the seat to help the wind get under the supporting surface of the largest kite. Then suddenly, as if some great heavenly hand had grabbed hold of the guy ropes and the kites and snapped them, Leonardo shot upward about twenty feet. But the kites held steady at the end of their tether, floating on the wind like rafts on water.
How different this was from the Great Bird, which was so sensitive—and susceptible—to every movement of the body. Leonardo shifted his weight, and even as he did so, he prayed; but the kites held in the air. Indeed, they were rafts. The answer was ample supporting surfaces.
Vince la natura.
The wind lightened, and he came down. The kites dragged him forward; he danced along the ground on his toes before he was swept upwards again. Niccolo was shouting, screaming, and hanging from the restraining rope, as if to add his weight, lest it pull away from the rock anchor or pull the rocks heavenward.
When the kites came down for the third time, Leonardo jumped from the sling seat, falling to the ground. Seconds later, as if slapped by he same hand that had pulled them into the sky, the kites crashed, splintering, as their sails snapped and fluttered, as if still yearning for the airy heights.
"Are you all right, Maestro," Niccolo shouted, running toward Leonardo.
"Yes," Leonardo said, although his back was throbbing in pain and his right arm, which he had already broken once before, was numb. But he could move it, as well as all his fingers. "I'm fine." He surveyed the damage. "Let's salvage what we can."
They fastened the broken kites onto the sled and walked through wildflower dotted fields and pastures back to the bottega. "Perhaps now, Maestro, you'll trust your original Great Bird," Niccolo said. "You mustn't bury it with Tista."
"What are you talking about?" Leonardo asked.
"These kites are too...dangerous. They're completely at the mercy of the wind; they dragged you along the ground; and you almost broke your arm. Isn't that right, Maestro?"
Leonardo detected a touch of irony in Niccolo's voice. So the boy was having it up on his master. "Yes," Leonardo said. "And what does that prove?"
"That you should give this up."
"On the contrary, Nicco. This experiment has only proved how safe my new Great Bird will be."
Leonardo showed Niccolo his latest drawing of a biplane based on his idea of open ended boxes placed at the ends of timber spars.
"How could such a thing fly?" Niccolo asked.
"That's a soaring machine safe enough for Lorenzo himself. If I could show the First Citizen that he could command the very air, do you think he would regret the few days it will take to build and test the new machine?"
"I think it looks very dangerous...and I think the kites are very dangerous, Maestro."
Leonardo smiled at Niccolo. "Then at least after today you no longer think I am a coward."
"Maestro, I never thought that."
But even as they approached the city, Leonardo could feel the edges of his dream, the dark edges of nightmare lingering; and he knew that tonight it would return.
The dream of falling. The dream of flight.
He would stay up and work. He would not sleep. He would not dream. But the dream spoke to him even as he walked, told him it was nature and would not be conquered. And Leonardo could feel himself
If Leonardo were superstitious, he would have believed it was a sign.
When the roof of Verrochio's bottega gave way, falling timber and debris destroyed almost everything in Leonardo's studio; and the pelting rain ruined most of what might have been salvaged. Leonardo could rewrite his notes, for they were safe in the altar of his memory cathedral; he could rebuild models and replenish supplies, but his painting of the Madonna—his gift for Lorenzo—was destroyed. The canvass torn, the oils smeared, and the still-sticky varnish surface spackled with grit and filth. Most everything but the three paintings of his nightmare-descent into Hell was destroyed. They were placed against the inner wall of the studio, a triptych of dark canvasses, exposed, the varnish still sticky, protected by a roll of fabric that had fallen over them. And in every one of them Leonardo could see himself as a falling or fallen figure.
The present of the future.
"Don't you think this is a sign from the gods?" Niccolo asked after he and Leonardo had salvaged what they could and moved into another studio in Verrochio's bottega.
"Do you now believe in the Greek's pantheon?" Leonardo asked.
Looking flustered, Niccolo said, "I only meant—"
"I know what you meant." Leonardo smiled tightly. "Maestro Andrea might get his wish...he might yet sell those paintings to the good monks. In the meantime, we've got work to do, which we'll start at first light."
"We can't build your Great Bird alone," Niccolo insisted.
"Of course we can. And Francesco will allocate some of his apprentices to help us."
"Maestro Andrea won't allow it."
"We'll see," Leonardo said.
"Maestro, your Great Bird is already built. It is ready, and Lorenzo expects you to fly it."
"Would that the roof fell upon it." Leonardo gazed out the window into the streets. The full moon illuminated the houses and bottegas and shops and palazzos in weak gray light that seemed to be made brighter by the yellow lamplight trembling behind vellum covered windows. He would make Lorenzo a model of his new soaring machine, his new Great Bird; but he would not see the First Citizen until it was built and tested. Indeed, he stayed up the night redrawing his designs, reworking his ideas, as if the destruction of his studio had been a blessing. He sketched cellular box kite designs that he combined into new forms for gliding machines, finally settling on a design based almost entirely on the rectangular box kite forms. He had broken away from the natural bird-like forms, yet this device was not unnatural in its simplicity. He detailed crosshatch timber braces, which would keep his cellular wing surfaces tight. He made drawings and diagrams of the cordage. The pilot would sit in a sling below the double wings, which were webbed as the masts of a sailing vessel; and the rudder would be attached to long spars that stretched behind him at shoulder height. A ship to sail into the heavens.
Tomorrow he would build models to test his design. To his mind, the ship was already built, for it was as tangible as the notebook he was staring into.
Notebook in hand, he fell asleep, for he had been little removed from dreams; and dream he did, dreams as textured and deep and tinted as memory. He rode his Great Bird through the moonlit night, sailed around the peaks of mountains as if they were islands in a calm, warm sea; and the winds carried him, carried him away into darkness, into the surfaces of his paintings that had survived the rain and roof, into the brushstroked chiaroscuro of his imagined hell.
"Tell Lorenzo that I'll have a soaring machine ready to impress the archbishop when he arrives," Leonardo said. "But he's not due for a fortnight."
"You've taken too long already." Sandro Botticelli stood in Leonardo's new studio, which was small and in disarray; although the roof had been repaired, Leonardo did not want to waste time moving back into his old room. Sandro was dressed as a dandy, in red and green, with dags and a peaked cap pulled over his thick brown hair. It was a festival day, and the Medici and their retinue would take to the streets for the Palio, the great annual horse race. "Lorenzo sent me to drag you to the Palio, if need be."
"If Andrea had allowed Francesco to help me—or at least lent me a few apprentices—I would have it finished by now."
"That's not the point."
"That's exactly the point."
"Get out of your smock; you must have something that's not covered with paint and dirt."
"Come, I'll show you what I've done," Leonardo said. "I've put up canvass outside to work on my soaring machine. It's like nothing you've ever seen, I promise you that. I'll call Niccolo, he'll be happy to see you."
"You can show it to me on our way, Leonardo. Now get dressed. Niccolo has left long ago."
"Have you lost touch with everyone and everything?" Sandro asked. "Niccolo is at the Palio with Andrea...who is with Lorenzo. Only you remain behind."
"But Niccolo was just here."
Sandro shook his head. "He's been there for most of the day. He said he begged you to accompany him."
"Did he tell that to Lorenzo, too?"
"I think you can trust your young apprentice to be discreet."
Dizzy with fatigue, Leonardo sat down by a table covered with books and models of kites and various incarnations of his soaring machine. "Yes, of course, you're right, Little Bottle."
"You look like you've been on a binge. You've got to start taking care of yourself, you've got to start sleeping and eating properly. If you don't, you'll lose everything, including Lorenzo's love and attention. You can't treat him as you do the rest of your friends. I thought you wanted to be his master of engineers."
"What else has Niccolo been telling you?"
Sandro shook his head in a gesture of exasperation, and said, "Change your clothes, dear friend. We haven't more than an hour before the race begins."
"I'm not going," Leonardo said, his voice flat. "Lorenzo will have to wait until my soaring machine is ready."
"He will not wait."
"He has no choice."
"He has your Great Bird, Leonardo."
"Then Lorenzo can fly it. Perhaps he will suffer the same fate as Tista. Better yet, he should order Andrea to fly it. After all, Andrea had it built it for him."
"It killed Tista.... It's not safe."
"I'll tell Lorenzo you're ill," Sandro said.
"Send Niccolo back to me. I forbid him to—"
But Sandro had already left the studio, closing the large inlaid door behind him.
Exhausted, Leonardo leaned upon the table and imagined that he had followed Sandro to the door, down the stairs, and outside. There he surveyed his canvass- covered makeshift workshop. The air was hot and stale in the enclosed space. It would take weeks working alone to complete the new soaring machine. Niccolo should be here. Then Leonardo began working at the cordage to tighten the supporting wing surfaces. This machine will be safe, he thought; and he worked, even in the dark exhaustion of his dreams, for he had lost the ability to rest.
Indeed he was lost.
In the distance he could hear Tista. Could hear the boy's triumphant cry before he fell and snapped his spine. And he heard thunder. Was it the shouting of the crowd as he, Leonardo, fell from the mountain near Vinci? Was it the crowd cheering the Palio riders racing through the city? Or was it the sound of his own dream-choked breathing?
"Leonardo, they're going to fly your machine."
"What?" Leonardo asked, surfacing from deep sleep; his head ached and his limbs felt weak and light, as if he had been carrying heavy weights.
Francesco stood over him, and Leonardo could smell the man's sweat and the faint odor of garlic. "One of my boys came back to tell me...as if I'd be rushing into crowds of cutpurses to see some child die in your flying contraption." He took a breath, catching himself. "I'm sorry, Maestro. Don't take offense, but you know what I think of your machines."
"Lorenzo is going to demonstrate my Great Bird now?"
Francesco shrugged. "After his brother won the Palio, Il Magnifico announced to the crowds that an angel would fly above them and drop Hell's own fire from the sky. And my apprentice tells me that inquisitore are all over the streets and are keeping everyone away from the gardens near Santi Apostoli."
That would certainly send a message to the Pope; the church of Santi Apostoli was under the protection of the powerful Pazzi family, who were allies of Pope Sixtus and enemies of the Medici.
"When is this supposed to happen?" Leonardo asked the foreman as he hurriedly put on a new shirt; a doublet; and calze hose, which were little more than pieces of leather to protect his feet.
Francesco shrugged. "I came to tell you as soon as I heard."
"And did you hear who is to fly my machine?"
"I've told you all I know, Maestro." Then after a pause, he said, "But I fear for Niccolo. I fear he has told Il Magnifico that he knows how to fly your inventions."
Leonardo prayed he could find Niccolo before he came to harm. He too feared that the boy had betrayed him, had insinuated himself into Lorenzo's confidence, and was at this moment soaring over Florence in the Great Bird. Soaring over the Duomo, the Baptistry, and the Piazza della Signoria, which rose from the streets like minarets around a heavenly dome .
But the air currents over Florence were too dangerous. He would fall like Tista, for what was the city but a mass of jagged peaks and precipitous cliffs.
"Thank you, Francesco," Leonardo said, and, losing no time, he made his way through the crowds toward the church of Santi Apostoli. A myriad of smells delicious and noxious permeated the air: roasting meats, honeysuckle, the odor of candle wax heavy as if with childhood memories, offal and piss, cattle and horses, the tang of wine and cider, and everywhere sweat and the sour ripe scent of perfumes applied to unclean bodies. The shouting and laughter and stepping-rushing-soughing of the crowds were deafening, as if a human tidal wave was making itself felt across the city. The whores were out in full regalia, having left their district which lay between Santa Giovanni and Santa Maria Maggiore; they worked their way through the crowds, as did the cutpurses and pickpockets, the children of Firenze's streets. Beggars grasped onto visiting country villeins and minor guildesmen for a denari and saluted when the red carroccios with their long scarlet banners and red, dressed horses passed. Merchants and bankers and wealthy guildesmen rode on great horses or were comfortable in their carriages, while their servants walked ahead to clear the way for them with threats and brutal proddings.
The frantic, noisy streets mirrored Leonardo's frenetic inner state, for he feared for Niccolo; and he walked quickly, his hand openly resting on the hilt of his razor-sharp dagger to deter thieves and those who would slice open the belly of a passer-by for amusement.
He kept looking for likely places from which his Great Bird might be launched: the dome of the Duomo, high brick towers, the roof of the Baptistry...and he looked up at the darkening sky, looking for his Great Bird as he pushed his way through the crowds to the gardens near the Santi Apostoli, which was near the Ponte Vecchio. In these last few moments, Leonardo became hopeful. Perhaps there was a chance to stop Niccolo...if, indeed, Niccolo was to fly the Great Bird for Lorenzo.
Blocking entry to the gardens were both Medici and Pazzi supporters, two armies, dangerous and armed, facing each other. Lances and swords flashed in the dusty twilight. Leonardo could see the patriarch of the Pazzi family, the shrewd and haughty Jacopo de' Pazzi, an old, full-bodied man sitting erect on a huge, richly carapaced charger, His sons Giovanni, Francesco, and Guglielmo were beside him, surrounded by their troops dressed in the Pazzi colors of blue and gold. And there, to Leonardo's surprise and frustration, was his great Eminence the Archbishop, protected by the scions of the Pazzi family and their liveried guards. So this was why Lorenzo had made his proclamation that he would conjure an angel of death and fire to demonstrate the power of the Medici...and Florence. It was as if the Pope himself were here to watch.
Beside the Archbishop, in dangerous proximity to the Pazzi, Lorenzo and Giuliano sat atop their horses. Giuliano, the winner of the Palio, the ever handsome hero, was wrapped entirely in silver, his silk stomacher embroidered with pearls and silver, a giant ruby in his cap; while his brother Lorenzo, perhaps not handsome but certainly an overwhelming presence, wore light armor over simple clothes. But Lorenzo carried his shield, which contained "Il Libro," the huge Medici diamond reputed to be worth 2,500 ducats.
Leonardo could see Sandro behind Giuliano, and he shouted his name; but Leonardo's voice was lost in the din of twenty thousand other voices. He looked for Niccolo, but he could not see him with Sandro or the Medici. He pushed his way forward, but he had to pass through an army of the feared Medici-supported Companions of the Night, the darkly-dressed Dominican friars who held the informal but hated title of inquisitore. And they were backed up by Medici sympathizers sumptuously outfitted by Lorenzo in armor and livery of red velvet and gold.
Finally, one of the guards recognized him, and he escorted Leonardo through the sweaty, nervous troops toward Lorenzo and his entourage by the edge of the garden.
But Leonardo was not to reach them.
The air seemed heavy and fouled, as if the crowd's perspiration was rising like heat, distorting shape and perspective. Then the crowds became quiet, as Lorenzo addressed them and pointed to the sky.
Everyone looked heavenward.
And like some gauzy fantastical winged creature that Dante might have contemplated for his Paradisio, the Great Bird soared over Florence, circling high above the church and gardens, riding the updrafts and the currents that swirled invisibly above the towers and domes and spires of the city. Leonardo caught his breath, for the pilot certainly looked like Niccolo; surely a boy rather than a full-bodied man. He looked like an awkward angel with translucent gauze wings held in place with struts of wood and cords of twine. Indeed, the glider was as white as heaven, and Niccolo—if it was Niccolo—was dressed in a sheer white robe.
The boy sailed over the Pazzi troops like a bird swooping above a chimney, and seasoned soldiers fell to the ground in fright, or awe, and prayed; only Jacopo Pazzi, his sons, and the Archbishop remained steady on their horses. As did, of course, Lorenzo and his retinue.
And Leonardo could hear a kind of buzzing, as if he were in the midst of an army of cicadas, as twenty thousand citizens prayed to the soaring angel for their lives as they clutched and clicked black rosaries.
The heavens had opened to give them a sign, just as they had for the Hebrews at Sinai.
The boy made a tight circle around the gardens and dropped a single fragile shell that exploded on impact, throwing off great streams of fire and shards of shrapnel that cut down and burned trees and grass and shrub. Then he dropped another, which was off mark, and dangerously close to Lorenzo's entourage. A group of people were cut down by the shrapnel, and lay choking and bleeding in the streets. Fire danced across the piazza. Horses stampeded. Soldiers and citizens alike ran in panic. The Medici and Pazzi distanced themselves from the garden, their frightened troops closing around them like Roman phalanxes. Leonardo would certainly not be able to get close to the First Citizen now. He shouted at Niccolo in anger and frustration, for surely these people would die; and Leonardo would be their murderer. He had just killed them with his dreams and drawings. Here was truth. Here was revelation. He had murdered these unfortunate strangers as surely as he had killed Tista. It was as if his invention now had a life of its own, independent of its creator.
As the terrified mob raged around him, Leonardo found refuge in an alcove between two buildings and watched his Great Bird soar in great circles over the city. The sun was setting, and the high, thin cirrus clouds were stained deep red and purple. Leonardo prayed that Niccolo would have sense enough to fly westward, away from the city, where he could hope to land safely on open ground; but the boy was showing off and underestimated the capriciousness of the winds. He suddenly fell, as if dropped, toward the brick and stone below him. He shifted weight and swung his hips, trying desperately to recover. An updraft picked him up like a dust devil, and he soared skyward on heavenly breaths of warm air.
He seemed to be more cautious now, for he flew toward safer grounds to the west...but then he suddenly descended, falling, dropping behind the backshadowed buildings; and Leonardo could well imagine that the warm updraft that had lifted Niccolo had popped like a water bubble.
So did the boy fall through cool air, probably to his death.
Leonardo waited a beat, watching and waiting for the Great Bird to reappear. His heart was itself like a bird beating violently in his throat. Niccolo.... Prayers of supplication formed in his mind, as if of their own volition, as if Leonardo's thoughts were not his own, but belonged to some peasant from Vinci grasping at a rosary for truth and hope and redemption.
Those crowded around Leonardo could not guess that the angel had fallen...just that he had descended from the Empyrean heights to the man-made spires of Florence where the sun was blazing rainbows as it set; and Lorenzo emerged triumphantly. He stood alone on a porch so he could be seen by all and distracted the crowds with a haranguing speech that was certainly directed to the Archbishop.
Florence is invincible.
The greatest and most perfect city in the world.
Florence would conquer all its enemies.
As Lorenzo spoke, Leonardo saw, as if in a lucid dream, dark skies filled with his flying machines. He saw his hempen bombs falling through the air, setting the world below on fire. Indeed, with these machines Lorenzo could conquer the Papal States and Rome itself; could burn the Pope out of the Vatican and become more powerful than any of the Caesars.
An instant later Leonardo was running, navigating the maze of alleys and streets to reach Niccolo. Niccolo was all that mattered. If the boy was dead, certainly Lorenzo would not care. But Sandro...surely Sandro....
There was no time to worry about Sandro's loyalties.
The crowds thinned, and only once was Leonardo waylaid by street arabs who blocked his way. But when they saw that Leonardo was armed and wild and ready to draw blood, they let him pass; and he ran, blade in hand, as if he were being chased by wild beasts.
Empty streets, empty buildings, the distant thunder of the crowds constant as the roaring of the sea. All of Florence was behind Leonardo, who searched for Niccolo in what might have been ancient ruins but for the myriad telltale signs that life still flowed all about here, and soon would again. Alleyways became shadows, and there was a blue tinge to the air. Soon it would be dark. A few windows already glowed tallow yellow in the balconied apartments above him.
He would not easily find Niccolo here. The boy could have fallen anywhere; and in grief and desperation, Leonardo shouted his name. His voice echoed against the high building walls; someone answered in falsetto voce, followed by laughter. But then Leonardo heard horses galloping through the streets, heard men's voices calling to each other. Lorenzo's men? Pazzi? There was a shout, and Leonardo knew they had found what they were looking for. Frantic, he hurried toward the soldiers, but what would he do when he found Niccolo wrapped in the wreckage of the Great Bird? Tell a dying boy that he, Leonardo, couldn't fly his own invention because he was afraid?
I was trying to make it safe, Niccolo.
He found Lorenzo's Companions of the Night in a piazza surrounded by tenements. They carried torches, and at least twenty of the well-armed priests were on horseback. Their horses were fitted out in black, as if both horses and riders had come directly from Hell; one of the horses pulled a cart covered with canvass.
Leonardo could see torn fustian and taffeta and part of the Great Bird's rudder section hanging over the red and blue striped awning of a balcony. And there, on the ground below was the upper wing assembly, intact. Other bits of cloth slid along the ground like foolscap.
Several inquisitore huddled over an unconscious figure.
Beside himself with grief, Leonardo rushed headlong into the piazza; but before he could get halfway across the court, he was intercepted by a dozen Dominican soldiers. "I am Leonardo da Vinci," he shouted, but that seemed to mean nothing to them. These young Wolves of the Church were ready to hack him to pieces for the sheer pleasure of feeling the heft of their swords.
"Do not harm him," shouted a familiar voice.
He was dressed in the thick, black garb of the inquisitore. "What are you doing here, Leonardo? You're a bit late." Anger and sarcasm was evident in his voice.
But Leonardo was concerned only with Niccolo, for two brawny inquisitore were lifting him into the cart. He pushed past Sandro and mindless of consequences pulled one of the soldiers out of the way to see the boy. Leonardo winced as he looked at the boy's smashed skull and bruised body—arms and legs broken, extended at wrong angles—and turned away in relief.
This was not Niccolo; he had never seen this boy before.
"Niccolo is with Lorenzo," Sandro said, standing beside Leonardo. "Lorenzo considered allowing Niccolo to fly your machine, for the boy knows almost as much about it as you."
"Has he flown the Great Bird?"
After a pause, Sandro said, "Yes...but against Lorenzo's wishes. That's probably what saved his life." Sandro gazed at the boy in the cart, who was now covered with the torn wings of the Great Bird, which, in turn, was covered with canvass. "When Lorenzo discovered what Niccolo had done, he would not allow him near any of your flying machines, except to help train this boy, Giorgio, who was in his service. A nice boy, may God take his soul."
"Then Niccolo is safe?" Leonardo asked.
"Yes, the holy fathers are watching over him."
"You mean these cutthroats?"
"Watch how you speak, Leonardo. Lorenzo kept Niccolo safe for you, out of love for you. And how have you repaid him...by being a traitor?"
"Don't ever say that to me, even in jest."
"I'm not jesting, Leonardo. You've failed Lorenzo...and your country, failed them out of fear. Even a child such as Niccolo could see that."
"Is that what you think?"
Sandro didn't reply.
"Is that what Niccolo told you?"
Leonardo would not argue, for the stab of truth unnerved him, even now. "And you, why are you here?"
"Because Lorenzo trusts me. As far as Florence and the Archbishop is concerned, the angel flew and caused fire to rain from Heaven. And is in Heaven now as we speak." He shrugged and nodded to the inquisitore, who mounted their horses.
"So now you command the Companions of the Night instead of the divine power of the painter," Leonardo said, the bitterness evident in his voice. "Perhaps we are on different sides now, Little Bottle."
"I'm on the side of Florence," Sandro said. "And against her enemies. You care only for your inventions."
"And my friends," Leonardo said quietly, pointedly.
"Perhaps for Niccolo, perhaps a little for me; but more for yourself."
"How many of my flying machines does Lorenzo have now?" Leonardo asked, but Sandro turned away from him and rode behind the cart that carried the corpse of the angel and the broken bits of the Great Bird. Once again, Leonardo felt the numbing, rubbery sensation of great fatigue, as if he had turned into an old man, as if all his work, now finished, had come to nothing. He wished only to be rid of it all: his inventions, his pain and guilt. He could not bear even to be in Florence, the place he loved above all others. There was no place for him now.
And his new soaring machine.
He knew what he would do.
Leonardo could be seen as a shadow moving inside his canvass-covered makeshift workshop, which was brightly lit by several water lamps and a small fire. Other shadows passed across the vellum-covered windows of the surrounding buildings like mirages in the Florentine night. Much of the city was dark, for few could afford tallow and oil.
But Leonardo's tented workshop was brighter than most, for he was methodically burning his notes and papers, his diagrams and sketches of his new soaring machine. After the notebooks were curling ash and smoke rising through a single vent in the canvass, he burned his box-shaped models of wood and cloth: kites and flying machines of various design; and then, at the last, he smashed his partially completed soaring machine...smashed the spars and rudder, smashed the box-like wings, tore away the webbing and fustian, which burned like hemp in the crackling fire.
As if Leonardo could burn his ideas from his thoughts.
Yet he could not help but feel that the rising smoke was the very stuff of his ideas and invention. And he was spreading them for all to inhale like poisonous phantasms.
Lorenzo already had Leonardo's flying machines.
More children would die....
He burned his drawings and paintings, his portraits and madonnas and varnished visions of fear, then left makeshift studio like a sleepwalker heading back to his bed; and the glue and fustian and broken spars ignited, glowing like coals, then burst, exploded, shot like fireworks or silent hempen bombs until the canvass was ablaze. Leonardo was far away by then and couldn't hear the shouts of Andrea and Francesco and the apprentices as they rushed to put out the fire.
Niccolo found Leonardo standing upon the same mountain where Tista had fallen to his death. His face and shirt streaked with soot and ash, Leonardo stared down into the misty valley below. There was the Palazzo Vecchio, and the dome of the Duomo reflecting the early morning sun...and beyond, created out of the white dressing of the mist itself, was his memory cathedral. Leonardo gazed at it...into it. He relived once again Tista's flight into death and saw the paintings he had burned; indeed, he looked into Hell, into the future where he glimpsed the dark skies filled with Lorenzo's soaring machines, raining death from the skies, the winged devices that Leonardo would no longer claim as his own. He wished he had never dreamed of the Great Bird. But now it was too late for anything but regret.
What was done could not be undone.
"Maestro!" Niccolo shouted, pulling Leonardo away from the cliff edge, as if he, Leonardo, had been about to launch himself without wings or harness into the fog. As perhaps he was.
"Everyone has been frantic with worry for you," Niccolo said, as if he was out of breath.
"I should not think I would have been missed."
Niccolo snorted, which reminded Leonardo that he was still a child, no matter how grown up he behaved and had come to look. "You nearly set Maestro Verrocchio's bottega on fire."
"Surely my lamps would extinguish themselves when out of oil, and the fire was properly vented. I myself—"
"Neighbors saved the bottega," Niccolo said, as if impatient to get on to other subjects. "They alerted everyone."
"Then there was no damage?" Leonardo asked.
"Just black marks on the walls."
"Good," Leonardo said, and he walked away from Niccolo, who followed after him. Ahead was a thick bank of mist the color of ash, a wall that might have been a sheer drop, but behind which in reality were fields and trees.
"I knew I would find you here," Niccolo said.
"And how did you know that, Nicco?"
The boy shrugged.
"You must go back to the bottega," Leonardo said.
"I'll go back with you, Maestro."
"I'm not going back." The morning mist was all around them; it seemed to be boiling up from the very ground. There would be rain today and heavy skies.
"Where are you going?"
"But you've left everything behind." After a beat, Niccolo said, "I'm going with you."
"No, young ser."
"But what will I do?"
Leonardo smiled. "I would guess that you'll stay with Maestro Verrochio until Lorenzo invites you to be his guest. But you must promise me you'll never fly any of his machines."
Niccolo promised; of course, Leonardo knew that the boy would do as he wished. "I did not believe you were afraid, Maestro."
"Of course not, Nicco."
"I shall walk with you a little way."
Leonardo left Niccolo behind, as if he could leave the past for a new, innocent future. As if he had never invented bombs and machines that could fly. As if, but for his paintings, he had never existed at all.
Niccolo called to him...then his voice faded away, and was gone.
Soon the rain stopped and the fog lifted, and Leonardo looked up at the red tinged sky.
Perhaps in hope.
Perhaps in fear.