Leonardo da Vinci: Part 2 – His Sexuality


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was well-loved by his contemporaries. Early biographers described him as a man with great personal appeal, kindness, and generosity. Vasari wrote:

“Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection. He was a sparkling conversationalist… In appearance he was striking and handsome, and his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. He was physically so strong that he could withstand violence and with his right hand, he could bend the ring of an iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead. He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor… Through his birth, Florence received a very great gift, and through his death, it sustained an incalculable loss.”

Leonardo’s sexuality

Speculation about Leonardo’s sexuality began during his lifetime and has continued since then.

Leonardo tried his best to keep his private life secret. Some of his writings are in code. He left hundreds of pages of writing, but little of it is personal. One of the few references Leonardo made to sexuality in his notebooks states:

“The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions.”

Researchers have extrapolated and interpreted the above statement  to ascertain his sexual inclination. Other than this statement, none of his writings indicate that he had any romantic interest or any intimate sexual relationship with any person – female or male. It is true that he surrounded himself with handsome young men throughout his life. Yet, Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century biographer of Renaissance painters, has not made any reference to Leonardo’s sexuality whatsoever.

Like other contemporary Florentine painters, Leonardo often used graceful young men to pose for his paintings. His art reflects an admiration for beauty in males. Some art critics have noted homoerotic elements in his portrait of St. John the Baptist.

The last supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The last supper by Leonardo da Vinci

There is a controversy with Leonardo’s Last Supper: “Is the male apostle seated on the right of Jesus an effeminate youth, or a woman?”

Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (1503–1505 or 1507)—Louvre, Paris, France.
Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (1503–1505 or 1507)—Louvre, Paris, France.

In April 1995, the Scientific American reported that a computer analysis established that the mysterious woman portrayed in Mona Lisa might in fact be a self-portrait of Leonardo himself.

In the 20th century, some biographers made explicit reference to a probability that Leonardo was homosexual. A few others asserted that Leonardo was celibate for much of his life.

The only available historical document on the sexual life of Leonardo is an accusation of sodomy made against him in 1476. At that time he was an apprentice in the workshop of Verrocchio.

In the 15th century, Florence was famous not only for art, but also for its active community of gay men. Homosexuality was widespread and tolerated. In fact, the word Florenzer (Florentine) was a slang for a homosexual in Germany. Sodomy was then a serious offence, carrying the death penalty, but difficult to prove. So, the punishment for the offence was seldom imposed. The usual penalty for the first offence was a small fine.

At that time, it was a common practice to denounce a person in an anonymous letter. In 1432, the Podesta (chief magistrate) set up the Office of the Night to eradicate “the abominable sin of homosexuality.” The Office of the Night installed wooden boxes called tamburos in the courtyards of the Palazzo della Signoria, the town hall of Florence. Accusations of misdeeds and crimes such as theft, the practice of magic, exploitation and stealing, etc., ended up in the tamburos along with vilifications due to jealousy, resentment and revenge put in them. The officials then sorted them out. During its 70 years of persecution, the Office of the Night officially charged over 15,000 men for sodomy.

Jacopo d’Andrea Saltarelli, born 1459, was an apprentice goldsmith and a male prostitute. He is sometimes described in modern literature as an artist’s model. According to the court records there were several charges of male prostitution against him.

In April 1476, an unknown person placed a letter in a tamburo at Palazzo della Signoria, accusing 17-year-old Saltarelli of male prostitution. Of the four men listed, as patronizing him, one was Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci.

On April 9, 1476, Leonardo, along with four other defendants, appeared before the officials of the Office of the Night. The accuser’s letter reads:

“I hereby inform Your Official Lords that it is a true thing that Jacopo Saltarelli, blood brother of Giovanni Saltarelli… pursues many miseries and keeps company with persons who share in such evil practices… I will hereby list some of them: Bartolomeo di Pasquino, goldsmith, lives at Vacchereccia, Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, stays with Andrea del Verrocchio, Bacino the doublet-maker, lives at Ono San Michele… Leonardo Tornabuoni, known as Teri, dresses in black.”

After the hearing, the court dismissed the charges against them cum conditione ut retamburentur, that is, subject to being re-examined.

Then on June 7, 1476, Leonardo was once again the arrested and jailed for the same accusation. His father refused his pleas for help. The  charges were again dismissed because the accusations did not meet the legal requirement for prosecution. Such accusations could be made secretly, but not anonymously. All accusations of sodomy had to be signed, but in this case it was not. Also, the family of Leonardo Tornabuoni, associated with Lorenzo de‘ Medici, exerted its influence to secure the dismissal. After serving two months in prison, the authorities released Leonardo.

Though declared not guilty, Leonardo felt no gladness, only desolation. From that date until 1478 there is no record of his work or even of his whereabouts. In 1478, Leonardo left Verrocchio’s studio. He left behind him the companionship of his fellow apprentices. He Wanted to get away from certain persons and from the city.

Leonardo went to Vinci, where his father had bought a farm some years before. Leonardo’s curiosity about natural life became a need to observe the phenomena of nature. He started studying nature which he declared was essential for a good painter. He resumed his study of landscapes. He analysed the objects of his study in detail, breaking down reality into the tiniest details.

Study of horses (1490) by Leonardo da Vinci
Study of horses (1490) by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s curiosity about natural life became a need to observe the phenomena of nature. He started studying nature which he declared was essential for a good painter. He resumed his study of landscapes. He made detailed analysis, breaking down reality into the tiniest details.

Two months later, after the sentence of not guilty became definitive, Leonardo wrote:

When I made God a cherub, you put me in prison. Now, if I make him a grown man, you will do me even worse“.

It is a significant testimony to Leonardo’s resentment at being misunderstood.

Leonardo never married.

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Next → Leonardo da Vinci: Part 3 – His Pupils

← Previous – Leonardo da Vinci: Part 1 – The Archetype Renaissance Man

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