Artists today generally paint what they wish to paint, hoping to make a living by selling their work at exhibitions or through dealers. But early in the Italian Renaissance, painters were regarded still as craftsmen rather than artists. They were ruled by the conventions of their workshops, and for any major painting commission they were at the behest of a client or patron. The patron might sometimes be benign, allowing their painter some independence, but often they were considerably more demanding. Contracts usually outlined in detail exactly what the painter was to show in his work, and imposed clear conditions on the quality of materials to be used, the delivery date and how much the painter would be paid.


Leonardo da Vinci worked at a time when painters were gaining more freedom to exercise their imagination and individual creativity. But early in his career, he was often constrained by the limitations set by painters’ conventional relationships with their patrons. Partly because he kicked against these conventions, he finished relatively few paintings in his lifetime, and left more unfinished than was usual for a painter of his era. For example, his portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to his patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, was still not complete when it was given to Cecilia by the duke.

Leonardo always sought employment with patrons who would allow him the freedom to pursue his extraordinary range of interests

More starkly, Leonardo continued for years to work on and off (more off than on, one guesses) at the portrait commissioned around 1503 by the wealthy Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo of his wife, Lisa Gherardini: the Mona Lisa. Leonardo took it with him as he moved to Milan, then to Rome, and finally in 1516 to France, where he went to work at the court of King Francis I. Perhaps he never felt this portrait was finished: it always possessed artistic problems that needed solving. Alternatively, once he had solved these problems in his mind, he lost interest in completing the painting. Either way, his patron never took delivery of the portrait.

Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Lady with an Ermine
Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Lady with an Ermine. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Leonardo gained commissions from a range of patrons of widely differing social statuses. He worked for Florentine merchants and Milanese dukes; he painted altarpieces for monks and confraternities, and large-scale murals for aristocrats and republicans. He always sought stable employment with patrons who would allow him the freedom to pursue his extraordinary range of artistic and scientific interests.

Moving between cities

Leonardo’s first large-scale independent work was an altarpiece painting of the Adoration of the Magi, commissioned in March 1481 by the monks of the San Donato a Scopeto Monastery, just outside Florence. They stipulated that he must complete it in 24, or at most 30, months, and that he must himself provide all the pigments and gold leaf needed. But at some point the following year he left Florence, leaving the painting unfinished, and entered the service of the Duke of Milan. This was a near ideal relationship. The time he spent at the Duke of Milan’s court was perhaps the most productive phase of his career, both as a painter and as an experi- mental scientist and creative thinker.

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Adoration of the Magi
Leonardo worked on the Adoration of the Magi for the San Donato a Scopeto Monastery in 1481–82, but left it unfinished when he moved to Milan to work for the duke of that city. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This period of freedom for Leonardo to explore the natural world and to exercise his artistic imagination came to a crashing end with the fall of the duchy of Milan to the armies of the King of France in 1499. But during the politically unsettled years around the turn of the century, Leonardo moved fluently between major sources of patronage, striving to settle on the environment that would offer him the greatest license to work at whatever he wished to pursue.

Leonardo fled from Milan to Venice, where he acted briefly as a military consultant for the Venetian Republic, returning to republican Florence by the end of March 1501. Despite these frequent shifts in residence, this was a fertile phase in Leonardo’s creative life as a painter, although he brought no major commissions to completion. The last 15 years of his career were less productive as he moved restlessly back to Milan, to papal Rome, and finally to Amboise in France where, legend has it, he died in the arms of King Francis I.

Meeting an exceptional woman

En route from Milan to Venice at the end of 1499, Leonardo visited Mantua and there encountered the marchioness Isabella d’Este. An exceptional woman, Isabella was the major female art patron of the Renaissance, sometimes demanding but at other times unexpectedly patient and conciliatory. Isabella’s relations as an art patron with Leonardo are unusually well documented, in extensive correspondence held in the Mantuan archive, and tell us a lot about how patronage worked during the Renaissance.

Isabella was determined to be accepted as an equal to her husband in aristocratic authority. This was especially important when she was left in command of Mantua while the marquess was away at war. To this end she undertook traditionally male activities, notably furnishing for herself a private study and forming an important collection of works of art, including a series of small bronze replicas of celebrated classical statues, which she commissioned. Contemporaries such as Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and Isabella’s brother Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, also decorated their private studies with com- missioned paintings. However, Isabella outclassed them in the range and sophistica- tion of her patronage of celebrated artists of her time, and in her determination and acquisitiveness as a collector.

Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna
Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna, 1497, was composed with strict instructions from Isabella d’Este, who is shown as Venus. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The connoisseur in Isabella also led her to relish making comparisons between classical and contemporary artworks. When a marble carving of a slumbering Cupid that Michelangelo had originally sold as classical was unmasked as his own work, she rapidly acquired it so as to be able to compare it with a classical Cupid Sleeping, perhaps by the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles, that was already in her collection. Leonardo assisted with one aspect of her collecting activity when, to guide her choice of purchases, he sent her a series of drawings of classical hard-stone vases previously in the collection of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de’ Medici.

Isabella was also anxious to decorate her study walls with paintings by major artists of her day. These works were to be of excep- tionally complex and elaborate allegorical subjects. The Mantuan court painter Andrea Mantegna completed two paintings in this series, both now in the Louvre, Paris: Parnassus (pictured above) and Triumph of the Virtues. He was presumably given oral instructions on the contents and meaning of these paintings, but conversely the Umbrian painter Pietro Perugino was sent a written ‘poetic invention’ for his Battle Between Love and Chastity. This required him to include numerous extraneous figures and secondary episodes around the main allegorical action. Correspondence about Perugino’s faltering progress, and the finished painting itself, suggest that he had difficulty in formulating a visually pleasing composition. When she finally received the painting, Isabella thanked him but grumbled: “If it had been more carefully finished, it would have been more to your honour and our satisfaction.”

Isabella was anxious to decorate her study walls with paintings by major artists of her day... of complex and elaborate allegorical subjects

Forewarned perhaps by his brother-in-law, Mantegna, the Venetian master Giovanni Bellini in 1501 refused Isabella’s commis- sion for a matching allegorical painting. She was told that “he knows your ladyship will judge it in comparison with the work of Master Andrea [Mantegna]” and that “in the story he cannot devise anything good out of the subject at all”. In 1506, Isabella tried again, only to be told that “he does not like to be given many written details which cramp his style; his way of working, as he says, is always to wander at will in his pictures”.

In March 1501, Isabella wrote to an agent in Florence asking him to “sound [Leonardo] out – as you know how – as to whether he would undertake to paint a picture for my studio. If he should consent, I will leave the invention and the timing to his judgment.”

Unsurprisingly Leonardo, like Bellini, did not respond well to her proposal, but the license she was prepared to allow him contrasts sharply with her peremptory manner in dealing with Perugino. This suggests that she accepted that Leonardo deserved gentler treatment. The letter continued “...if you find him reluctant, endeavour at least to induce him to carry out for me a small picture of the Virgin [Mary], devout and sweet as is his natural style”. Later on, Isabella appealed directly to Leonardo, writing to ask for “a young Christ of about 12 years old, which would have been the age he was when he disputed in the temple, done with that sweetness and gentleness of expression which is the particular excellence of your art”.

Patience and tolerance

Isabella’s subtle judgement on Leonardo’s style shows a sophisticated perception and an unusual skill in putting it into words. But in April 1501, Isabella heard back from her Florentine contact that “Leonardo’s life is changeable and greatly unsettled, because he seems to live from day to day... Since he has been in Florence he has only done one sketch, a cartoon... He gives pride of place to geometry, having entirely lost patience with the paintbrush”. Ten days later he wrote again, reiterating that “his mathematical experiments have so distracted him from painting that he cannot endure his brush”.

An 1828 painting of Francis I at Leonardo da Vinci’s deathbed
This 1828 painting of Francis I at Leonardo’s deathbed is pure fantasy, but it shows the extent to which the artist’s life story became romanticised. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

While briefly in Mantua, however, Leonardo had agreed to paint Isabella’s portrait. He made a full-scale drawing in preparation, and he had this with him when he moved to Venice. But he never painted the portrait, and indeed in 1504, Isabella conceded that now this would be “almost impossible, since you are unable to move here”. Almost miraculously, the finished portrait drawing survives in the Louvre in Paris. Its curious, hybrid composi- tion may be a clue as to why Leonardo failed to make the painted portrait. Courtly decorum required that Isabella’s head should be portrayed in profile, but Leonardo’s artistic instincts led him to draw her torso, arms and hands from the front. The result is an unreconciled contrast between the form and movement of her body and the detached expressionless profile face. It is difficult to imagine that Leonardo can have been content with this awkward compromise, which contrasts uncomfortably with the fluid movement and expression of his Cecilia Gallerani portrait. Isabella seems, however, to have been happy with it, reminding Leonardo in her letter of May 1504 that “when you were in these parts, and did my likeness in charcoal, you promised me you would portray me once more in colours”.

Isabella d’Este’s tolerant treatment of Leonardo is perhaps a signal of how his patrons came to realise that, if they were to receive finished paintings, they needed to provide him with exceptional freedom. Ludovico Sforza seems to have offered him similar license to pursue his scientific investigations alongside his artistic commissions. And King Francis welcomed Leonardo to France perhaps not so much as a famous painter, but as a celebrated personality who could bring lustre to life at his court.

Francis Ames-Lewis is emeritus professor of history of art at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of Isabella and Leonardo: The Artistic Relationship between Isabella d’Este and Leonardo da Vinci (Yale University Press, 2012)

5 other patrons who shaped Leonardo's career

Isabella d’Este was not the only figure who sought out the artist for his talents


Lorenzo de’ Medici

It is often imagined that early in his career, Leonardo da Vinci enjoyed the patronage of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de’ Medici. While he still worked as an assistant of Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo may well have worked on Verrocchio workshop projects commissioned by Lorenzo; and there is good reason to believe that in the mid-1470s Lorenzo invited Leonardo to make studies from the classical statuary in the Medici sculpture garden at San Marco in Florence. Further, a contemporary wrote that Leonardo travelled to Milan in 1482 on a diplomatic mission, bearing with him an unusual lute, shaped like a horse’s skull, for Ludovico Sforza. However, no record survives of any artistic commissions that Lorenzo de’ Medici assigned to Leonardo independently.

A portrait of Lorenzo de Medici
A portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, also known as the Magnificent. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan

In the 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci joined the court of the Duke of Milan. He was able to take on artistic work outside the court, and appears to have had the freedom to pursue interests in scientific fields such as anatomy and military engineering. Leonardo also worked on ephemeral projects such as stage designs for theatrical performances and dynastic marriage celebrations. But Duke Ludovico also commissioned portraits, like that of Cecilia Gallerani, and large-scale artistic projects, notably the Last Supper mural in Santa Maria delle Grazie, and the equestrian monument to his father, Francesco. By the late 1490s, Leonardo had completed the clay model for the monument, but it was destroyed by invading French soldiers who used it for target practice.

Portrait of Ludovico Maria Sforza
Portrait of Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan(Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Cesare Borgia

In 1502, Leonardo worked for the warlord Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, whose ambition was to gain and consolidate territory on his father’s behalf. On 18 August that year, Borgia directed Leonardo to serve as his consultant on military architecture by surveying his fortifications at cities in the Romagna region, such as Pesaro, Cesena and Rimini. As Borgia’s ‘architect and general engineer’, Leonardo had license to inspect all of Borgia’s military installations and to set in train necessary repairs and improvements. This commission included Leonardo’s preparation of a highly accurate, colour-coded map of the strategically important town of Imola. His work for Borgia occupied Leonardo at least until October that year, and possibly for a few months longer.

An accurate map of Imola, made for Cesare Borgia
An accurate map of Imola, made for Cesare Borgia. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception

Soon after reaching Milan in c1482, Leonardo was commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to paint an altarpiece in the Church of San Francesco Grande. The contract, dated 25 April 1483, shows this was an intricate construction incorporating both panel paintings and polychromed sculptures. A list survives specifying the high-quality pigments and gold leaf that the painters had to provide. On the central panel, now at the Louvre, Leonardo and his assistants were to paint “Our Lady with her Son”, but the composition is actually more elaborate.

A few years later, an argument arose between patrons and painters over this panel’s cost. The painters valued it at four times the original estimate, and so another purchaser was found. This may explain why a second painting, started around 1492 to a closely similar composition, was eventually incorporated into the altarpiece.


Republic of Florence

In October 1503, the Republican government of Florence commissioned Leonardo to paint a mural of the battle of Anghiari. This mural was to decorate part of one wall of the main council chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio – the seat of Florentine government – in the Piazza della Signoria. A year later, Michelangelo was commissioned in competition with Leonardo to fresco another section of this room. Payments over the following months show Leonardo’sprogress in preparing the wall for painting. The materials he purchased in April 1505 indicate that he proposed to paint not in the traditional fresco technique, but with oil-based pigments on dry plaster. This was a mistake: on 6 June, torrential rain caused his cartoon to come unstuck, and – perhaps due to defective linseed oil – his paint dripped off the wall after he lit a fire to dry it out.