Was Macau’s Saint Paul Cathedral drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci?

Saint Paul, Macau
Saint Paul, Macau

The Cathedral of Saint Paul (Sao Paulo) was built by the Jesuits at the very centre of Macau. The construction drawings were originally drawn by the blessed Carlo Spinola s.j. (1564 – 1622) who was later martyrized in Nagasaki, Japan.

Today this church lays in ruin, after a fire had destroyed the main building during the XIX century. The only standing part is the stone façade—intricately carved and completed only between 1620 and 1667 by exiled Japanese and local craftsmen.

It was always tought that Carlo Spinola took his inspiration for the façade from the Chiesa del Gesù in Rome  (opened in 1584) but we are here putting forward a new, rather borderline, idea: Carlo Spinola may have seen a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci kept at Venice’s Academy (Basilica, Venezia, Gallerie dell’Accademia 238 v.) and took inspiration from it.

All the documents now in Venice were acquired in 1822 and were coming from the personal collection of Giuseppe Bossi (1777 – 1815). It is not clear how and where Bossi bought them but they were certainly coming from the Mazenta brothers who had somehow get them from Francesco Melzi (1491/93 – 1568/70) a disciple of Leonardo. Melzi took them back from Amboise, France, around 1520, after Leonardo’s death, as his inheritance. His son Orazio stored them away ‘in a neglected attic’ of his villa in Vaprio d’Adda. So neglected that in April 1587 Lelio Gavardi d’Asola a teacher to the Melzi’s children, stole most or all of them to Pisa. Ambrogio and Guido Mazenta convinced him to return them back to Milan but a few they kept, with Orazio’s permission.  In 1590 Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor working for the Spanish Court, purchased the lot from Orazio Melzi and took them to Madrid – save those which the Mazenta brothers had kept.

Venice indeed possess only few of Leonardo Da Vinci’s works but most of them are famous, one is the celebrated  Vitruvian man, second only to Mona Lisa for popularity, expecially after the planetary success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. In Venice we find also what is perhaps the most mysterious architectural drawning by Leonardo.(1) His sketch of a Basilica.

Basilica, Venice, Accademia, 238 v.
Basilica, Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia, 238 v.

This sketch for a façade was traditionally assigned to the year 1490 but it is today seen as one of his late works: according to Carlo Pedretti it should be assigned to the years 1513 – 1516. The great Leonardist Heyderreicht saw in it: ‘A firmly Gothic construction, only apparently belonging to the Renaissance and very impressive for the plastic-dynamic new style.’ (2) Atkin also underlines its striking Baroque characters. (3) That Leonardo had a composition quality which later will be called Baroque has been spotted earlier.(4) About the inborn Baroque’s taste in Leonardo also Frank Zollner speaking of The Fight for the Standard by Rubens,  wrote(5) that: ‘For more than a century the Louvre version of the Battle of Anghiari has been regarded as a an example of the Flemish Baroque, and therefore one might find it hard to accept that this drawing gives a reliable rendering of an early Cinquecento work of art. However, looking at his [Leonardo’s] drawings for the Trivulzio Monument it becomes clear that at the beginning of the sixteen century, Leonardo achieved a composition quality which much later would be categorized as baroque.”

The similarities between the sketch by Leonardo and the façade of the Church of San Paul of Macau are indeed impressive, but is it possible that Spinola had ever seen this drawing by Leonardo? The answer is yes, it is indeed possible because he studied in Milan and Rome starting from 1584 and, after having been ordained a priest in 1594, in 1596 he departed to China and Japan. What is certain is that from 1521 to 1568 and from 1586 until 1590 all the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci were easily available and visible in Milan, Pisa and Rome, only after 1590, having been taken to Madrid, they were no longer easy to see.

Carlo Spinola, like all Jesuits dispatched to the East had to follow a rigorous and intensive artistic as well as scientific training – he later taught mathematics and astronomy in Kyoto – because Jesuits understood earlier than others that to be accepted in China and Japan meant to be proficient in several disciplines, not only in theology and philosophy.

An article based on this post has been published on the Macanese newspaper Ponto Final, Macau Antigo and lusofonias.



Macau Catedral de São Paulo desenhada por Leonardo Da Vinci?


1. Firpo L. Leonardo Architetto e Urbanista Torino, 1963. On the recto we find notes and drawings about gravity, arms’ movements and falling of weights, which should be dated before the year 1500.

2. Heydenreich L.H. Die Sakralbau-Studien Leonardo da Vinci’s Leipzig, 1929.

3. Arking D. The Ideas of a great architect Rome, 1952. This sketch ‘anticipating a new style’ has been described by several authors. Leonardo is not copying any existing church but he is creating something new. The dating vary greatly: from 1490 until 1514. See also Maltese 1954 p. 358; Brizio, 1964 p. 402; Cogliati Arano, 1966, p. 23-25; Pedretti 1977, p.373; Pedretti 1978 p. 254-255; Cogliati Arano 1980, p. 45-47.

4. On the Baroque qualities of the Battle of Anghiari see M.Lessing ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Pazzia Bestialissima,’ The Burlington Magazine, LXIV, 1934, pp. 219-231.

5.Frank Zollner Rubens Reworks Leonardo ‘The Fight for the Standard’ in Achademia Leonardo Vinci, Vol. VI, Giunti, Florence, 1991.

3 commenti su “Was Macau’s Saint Paul Cathedral drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci?”

  1. Thank you, Tim

    Yes, Cesar is the greatest expert in the world on this church.

    On the Carlo Spinola’s side would be interesting to find out if he had any contact with the people handling Leonardo’s drawings in Milan, like the Mazenta brothers or Orazio Melzi.
    Milan, at that time, was under Spain. The Spinola’s family was one of the most powerful, and they could open any door. A relative of Carlo Spinola, marshal Ambrogio Spinola was the commander in chief of the Spanish Army. There is a famous painting by Velasquez at the Prado Museum showing him in the act of accepting the surrender of Breda. The same we could say of the Melzi’s family, one of their descendant Francesco Melzi d’Eril, with Napoleon I at the head of Cisalpine Republic became one the most influential men in Italy.
    The notebooks of Leonardo were always something impressing – on entering Milan in 1795 a young Napoleon Bonaparte had them delivered to his room and then he dispatched them to Paris, famously claiming that ‘all men of genius are French!’.
    In 1518 when Antonio de Beatis, travelling with the Cardinal D’Aragona, met Leonardo in Amboise, France – we have his diary rediscovered about 150 years ago – he did show to them some of his pages concerning anatomy, telling them that he had dissected several corpses, including women and children. Clearly Leonardo loved to shock his guests!

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