Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  Leonardo da Vinci Poetizes to the Duke in His Own Defence

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Italy: Vols. XI–XIII. 1876–79.


Leonardo da Vinci Poetizes to the Duke in His Own Defence

By William Wetmore Story (1819–1895)

PADRE BANDELLI, then, complains of me

Because, forsooth, I have not drawn a line

Upon the Saviour’s head; perhaps, then, he

Could without trouble paint that head divine.

But think, O Signor Duca, what should be

The pure perfection of our Saviour’s face,—

What sorrowing majesty, what noble grace,

At that dread moment when He brake the bread,

And those submissive words of pathos said,

“By one among you I shall be betrayed,”

And say if ’t is an easy task to find,

Even among the best that walk this earth,

The fitting type of that divinest worth,

That has its image solely in the mind.

Vainly my pencil struggles to express

The sorrowing grandeur of such holiness.

In patient thought, in ever-seeking prayer,

I strive to shape that glorious face within,

But the soul’s mirror, dulled and dimmed by sin,

Reflects not yet the perfect image there.

Can the hand do before the soul has wrought?

Is not our art the servant of our thought?

And Judas, too,—the basest face I see

Will not contain his utter infamy;

Among the dregs and offal of mankind,

Vainly I seek an utter wretch to find.

He who for thirty silver coins would sell

His Lord, must be the Devil’s miracle.

Padre Bandelli thinks it easy is

To find the type of him who with a kiss

Betrayed his Lord. Well, what I can I ’ll do;

And if it please his reverence and you,

For Judas’ face I ’m willing to paint his.


The wilful work built by the conscious brain

Is but the humble handicraft of art:

It has its growth in toil, its birth in pain.

The Imagination, silent and apart

Above the Will, beyond the conscious eye,

Fashions in joyous ease and as in play

Its fine creations,—mixing up alway

The real and the ideal, heaven and earth,

Darkness and sunshine; and then, pushing forth

Sudden upon our world of consciousness

Its world of wonder, leaves to us the stress,

By patient art, to copy its pure grace,

And catch the perfect features of its face.


In facile natures fancies quickly grow,

But such quick fancies have but little root.

Soon the narcissus flowers and dies, but slow

The tree whose blossoms shall mature to fruit.

Grace is a moment’s happy feeling, Power

A life’s slow growth; and we for many an hour

Must strain and toil, and wait and weep, if we

The perfect fruit of all we are would see.

Therefore I wait. Within my earnest thought

For years upon this picture I have wrought,

Yet still it is not ripe; I dare not paint

Till all is ordered and matured within.

Hand-work and head-work have an earthly taint,

But when the soul commands I shall begin.

On themes like these I should not dare to dwell

With our good Prior,—they to him would be

Mere nonsense; he must touch and taste and see;

And facts, he says, are never mystical.

Now, the fact is, our worthy Prior says,

The convent is annoyed by my delays;

Nor can he see why I for hours and days

Should muse and dream and idle here around.

I have not made a face he has not found

Quite good enough before it was half done.

“Don’t bother more,” he says, “let it alone.”

What can one say to such a connoisseur?

How could a Prior and a critic err?

But, not to be more tedious, I confess

I am disturbed to think I so distress

The worthy Prior. Yet ’t were wholly vain

To him an artist’s feelings to explain;

But, Signor Duca, you will understand,

And so I treat on higher themes with you.

The work you order I shall strive to do

With all my soul, not merely with my hand.