Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  Padre Bandelli Proses to the Duke Ludovico Sforza about Leonardo da Vinci

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


Padre Bandelli Proses to the Duke Ludovico Sforza about Leonardo da Vinci

By William Wetmore Story (1819–1895)

TWO steps, your Highness,—let me go before,

And let some light down this dark corridor,—

Ser Leonardo keeps the only key

To the main entrance here so jealously,

That we must creep in at this secret door

If we his great Cenacolo would see.

The work shows talent,—that I must confess;

The heads, too, are expressive, every one;

But, with his idling and fastidiousness,

I fear his picture never will be done.


’T is twenty months since first upon the wall

This Leonardo smoothed his plaster,—then

He spent two months ere he began to scrawl

His figures, which were scarcely outlined, when

Some new fit seized him, and he spoilt them all.

As he began the first month that he came,

So he went on, month after month the same.

At times, when he had worked from morn to night

For weeks and weeks on some apostle’s head,

In one hour, as it were from sudden spite,

He ’d wipe it out. When I remonstrated,

Saying, “Ser Leonardo, you erase

More than you leave,—that ’s not the way to paint;

Before you finish we shall all be dead”;

Smiling he turns (he has a pleasant face,

Though he would try the patience of a saint

With all his wilful ways), and calmly said,

“I wiped it out because it was not right;

I wish it had been, for your sake, no less

Than for this pious convent’s; and indeed,

The simple truth, good Padre, to confess,

I ’ve not the least objection to succeed:

But I must please myself as well as you,

Since I must answer for the work I do.”

There was St. John’s head, that I verily thought

He ’d never finish. Twenty times at least

I thought it done, but still he wrought and wrought,

Defaced, remade, until at last he ceased

To work at all,—went off and locked the door,—

Was gone three days,—then came and sat before

The picture full an hour,—then calmly rose

And scratched out in a trice the mouth and nose.

This is sheer folly, as it seems to me,

Or worse than folly. Does your Highness pay

A certain sum to him for every day?

If so, the reason ’s very clear to see.

No? Then his brain is touched, assuredly.

At last, however, as you see, ’t is done,—

All but our Lord’s head, and the Judas there.

A month ago he finished the St. John,

And has not touched it since, that I ’m aware;

And now he neither seems to think nor care

About the rest, but wanders up and down

The cloistered gallery in his long dark gown,

Picking the black stones out to step upon;

Or through the garden paces listlessly

With eyes fixed on the ground, hour after hour,

While now and then he stoops and picks a flower,

And smells it, as it were, abstractedly.

What he is doing is a plague to me!

Sometimes he stands before yon orange-pot,

His hands behind him just as if he saw

Some curious thing upon its leaves, and then,

With a quick glance, as if a sudden thought

Had struck his mind, there, standing on the spot,

He takes a little tablet out to draw,

Then, muttering to himself, walks on agen.

He is the very oddest man of men!


But, as I was observing, there have passed

Some twenty long and weary months since he

First turned us out of our refectory,

And who knows how much longer this may last?

Yet if our painter worked there steadily,

I could say nothing; but the work stands still,

While he goes idling round the cloisters’ shade.

Pleasant enough for him,—but is he paid

For idle dreaming thoughts, or work and skill?

I crave your pardon; if I speak amiss,

Your Highness will, I hope, allowance make

That I have spoken for your Highness’ sake,

And not that us it inconveniences,

Although it is a scandal to us all

To see this picture half done on the wall.

A word from your most gracious lips, I feel,

Would greatly quicken Ser Leonardo’s zeal,

And we should soon see o’er our daily board,

The Judas finished, and our blessed Lord.