Hungary Magazine

1485: when Leonardo Da Vinci came to Budapest

the-last-supper-leonardo-da-vinci

Budapest, Hungary – Leonardo Da Vinci is perhaps the most famous artist in history. Leonardo has been associated with several cities and regions: The town of Vinci, of course, where he was born, then part of the province of Florence, and where he spent two periods of his career. There was also the Milan and Rome eras of his life, and the artist eventually died in France in 1519.

But Leonardo travelled extensively, and his trips include a visit to Budapest in 1485. The sojourn was made on the recommendation of his then patron, Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan, and came during what is known as Leonardo’s First Milanese Period (1482-1499).

He was perhaps not quite at the peak of his fame (the Mona Lisa, for example would come in his later years), but he was still looked upon as one of the foremost painters of the Renaissance world. Works like Vitruvian Man and The Virgin of the Rocks were completed in this era.

An enigmatic figure

We know, of course, that Leonardo has a sense of enigmaticness in pop culture. In everything from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to Assassin’s Creed and Playtech’s Da Vinci’s Vault game, there is a sense that there are still secrets from the great artist’s life to uncover today.

Unfortunately, that’s also true for his trip to Budapest – we know precious little about what happened. Although leaving a plethora of details in notes, writings, manuscripts, paintings, he gave very little away about his life. 

What we do know is that Sforza encouraged the trip, and that Da Vinci met with King Matthias I of Hungary, a patron of the arts with many Italian artists and sculptors – Lippi, Mantegna, de Maiano – in his employ. King Matthias was responsible for many major works that can still be seen today in Budapest, including adding new wings to Buda castle and remodelling the palace at Visegrad in the High Renaissance style.

A lost Madonna

We also know that King Matthias I commissioned Da Vinci to create a Madonna. Alas, the painting seems to be lost to history, contrary to many other of his Madonnas which have contributed to the artist’s fame – including the Virgin of the Rocks (also called Madonna of the Rocks), Benois Madonna, and Madonna of the Carnation.

Aside from that, we must rely mostly on conjecture. We know that Da Vinci made the trip in the spring of 1485. Given the distance between Milan and Budapest and means of travel at that time, it would probably have taken a few weeks.

The map of Europe looked very different quite then, but we might assume that Leonardo travelled through the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, and perhaps skirted the Habsburg Crown lands before arriving in the Kingdom of Hungary. But again, this is conjecture. We are not sure how exactly he got there or how long he stayed.

Scraps of information allow us to imagine what went on between the artist and Hungarian king. There is, for example, a mysterious sculpture that may be the head of Leonardo or King Matthias. These types of connections, although tenuous, permit us to fill in the blanks, even if they are only partial.

But isn’t this, in the end, one of the things that draw us to the story of Leonardo Da Vinci: knowing so much about the works of the great man of arts and science, and so little about the man himself? His trip to Hungary in the spring of 1485 is but one of the great mysteries surrounding the artist.

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.