The text below is the excerpt of the book Leonardo Da Vinci, written by Eugène Müntz, published by Parkstone International.
Taking into account the scope and variety of his knowledge in the exact sciences, it was natural that the artist should have burned to try his hand at architecture. And, as a fact, problems of construction occupied him as much as problems of aesthetics; hence we find him searching into the causes that produce fissures in walls and niches, inquiring into the nature of arches and so on. The acoustics of church buildings also occupied him a good deal; he tried to discover an architectural combination that would enable the preacher’s voice to reach the most distant corner of the building, and he invented the “teatro da predicare” – a lecture hall in the form of an amphitheatre. Among his designs there is also the plan of a town with a system of streets on two different levels for distinct services.
An opportunity of coming to the front in this new domain soon presented itself. For years, the completion of the Milan cathedral had occupied the attention of all who were interested in gothic architecture. The master builders of Strasburg, as also Bramante, Francesco di Giorgio Martini and many others, had given advice, and worked out plans.
In 1487 Leonardo, too, entered the lists in this great competition that stirred the enthusiasm of the last champions of the Middle Ages; he turned his attention to the cupola that was to crown the transept, the “tiburium”. Everything tends to prove that his design in the Gothic manner was rejected, and henceforth the master’s research was purely platonic. Leonardo eagerly accepted other works, apparently still more humble. On 2 February 1494, when at the Sforzesca, he made a design for a staircase of twenty-five steps, each two-thirds of a “braccia” high and eight “braccia” wide. On 20 March following, he went to Vigevano to examine the vines. It was perhaps on this occasion that he made a study of the staircase of a hundred and thirty steps in the mansion.
Although we cannot positively attribute any existing building to Leonardo, it is easy to divine from his sketches what his designs may or would have been in stone. They would, firstly, have revealed the sense of harmony that characterised this purist par excellence, by the perfect equilibrium of the different parts of the edifice, attached to the central body by an absolutely organic and vital bond. Churches on a concentric plan, that is to say with the lower aisles and chapels grouped as closely as possible round a central cupola which dominates the whole structure, on the system dear to the Byzantines, seem to have been preferred by the master. He sketched a great number in the sheets published by de Geymüller, grouping four, six and even eight cupolas round the central dome.
The pavilion he designed for the Duchess Beatrice d’Este’s garden had also a domed vault. His masterpiece in the domain of circular architecture is a design, no less majestic than simple in conception, for a mausoleum (inspired, perhaps, by that at Halicarnassus, which still existed in part at the beginning of the fifteenth century). According to de Geymüller, this one design would have sufficed to rank Leonardo among the greatest architects of all time. As an architect, says the same authority, Leonardo was the direct descendent of Brunellesco. He recognised this himself by drawing the plan of San Spirito at Florence, sketching a lateral view of the church of San Lorenzo in the same city, and composing a plan almost identical with that of the famous Chapel of the Angels, three of Brunellesco’s masterpieces. In his plans of churches, he was clearly inspired by the dome and lantern of Santa Maria dei Fiori; and finally, it was from Brunellesco he borrowed the principle of double entablatures.
It is possible that the influence of another of his Florentine compatriots, the great Leone Battista Alberti, had little effect upon him until after his arrival in Milan, and that it worked upon him through the intermediary of Bramante, who proved himself in so many respects the successor and exponent of Alberti. But above all others, Bramante, in his classics rather than his Lombard vein, made a deep impression on the master. Leonardo the architect, like Leonardo the sculptor had dreams of colossal, almost chimeric works. The riyal necropolis he planned was to consist, according to de Geymüller’s calculations, of an artificial mountain, 600 metres in diameter at the base, and of a circular temple, the pavement of which was to be on a level with the spires of Cologne Cathedral, while the interior was to be of the same width as the nave of St Peter’s at Rome.
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