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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

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Leonardo da Vinci: Part 1 – The Archetype Renaissance Man


.
Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

.

A B&W copy of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to the Italian painter Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490-1547) (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
A B&W copy of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to the Italian painter Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490-1547) (National Gallery of Art, Washington).  According to author Maike Vogt-Luerssen, this painting is a self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and the National Gallery of Art has wrongly attributed it to the Italian painter Cariani who was not even born when the maestro created it.

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Leonardo da Vinci, is one of the greatest painters of all time. He is perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. Leonardo was a polymath, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. His genius, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. Leonardo was the archetype of the Renaissance Man.

Title page of the 1568 edition of the Vite (Source: Wikipedia)
Title page of the 1568 edition of the Vite (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1550, the 16th-century Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari published “Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri” (“The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times”). The title is often abridged to the Vite or the Lives. This work is considered perhaps the most famous, and even today the most-read work of the older literature of art. It was the first important book on the history of art.

In his work, Vasari, described Leonardo as having qualities that “transcended nature” and being “marvellously endowed with beauty, grace and talent in abundance”.

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci. It is a Tuscan hill town in the lower valley of the Arno River in the territory of the Medici-ruled Republic of Florence. He was born out-of-wedlock to the wealthy Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine legal notary. His mother Caterina was a peasant. Though she nursed him as a baby, he never knew her because she soon got married to a craftsman in the region. Leonardo’s full birth name was “Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci“, meaning “Leonardo, (son) of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci”. The inclusion of the title “ser” indicates that Leonardo’s father was a gentleman.

Leonardo's childhood home in Anchiano (Source: Lucarelli/Wikimedia)
Leonardo’s childhood home in Anchiano (Source: Lucarelli/Wikimedia)

Not much is known about Leonardo’s early life. He spent his first five years in the hamlet of Anchiano in the home of his mother. Then, from 1457, he lived in the household of his father, in the small town of Vinci. He received an informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics. His lack of formal education, encouraged him to develop the faculties that made him great.

According to Vasari, a local peasant requested young Leonardo to paint his round shield. Leonardo painted a terrifying monster spitting fire. It looked too good and Leonardo sold it to a Florentine art dealer, who in turn sold it to the Duke of Milan. Having made a profit, Leonardo bought a shield decorated with a heart pierced by an arrow and gave it to the peasant.

Leonardo began his artistic life, in 1466, at the age of fourteen. His father, Ser Piero, noticed his son’s extraordinary artistic talents. He showed some of Leonardo’s drawings to his friend, sculptor-painter Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio, whose workshop was “one of the finest in Florence”. Verrocchio accepted Leonardo for apprenticeship. Other famous painters apprenticed or associated with the workshop include Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi.  They were all a bit older than Leonardo.

The artists during the Renaissance period occupied quite a humble status in the social hierarchy. They were just artisans like any other craftsmen such as tailors or saddle makers.  Verrocchio’s employees did most of the work on the paintings in his workshop. The master would paint the main figures in a picture and the apprentices would draw the secondary figures and fill in the details.

The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475) by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).
The Baptism of Christ (1472–1475) by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

According to Vasari, Leonardo collaborated with Verrocchio on his The Baptism of Christ. Botticelli painted the angel with clasped hands. Leonardo painted the other angel holding Jesus’ robe in a manner that was far superior. When Verrocchio saw the figure of the angel that Leonardo had painted he put down his brush and never painted again.

Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying paint medium. It consisted of colour pigments mixed with a water-soluble glutinous binder medium, such as egg yolk or some other size. Egg tempera was the primary method of painting until that time. Afterwards, the invention of oil paint superseded it.

On close examination, the painting reveals the new technique of oil paint has been used to paint or touch-up over the tempera. The landscape, the rocks that can be seen through the brown mountain stream, and much of the figure of Jesus bear witness to the hand of Leonardo.

Leonardo da Vinci as the model for David in Andrea del Verrocchio's "'David and Goliath"
Leonardo da Vinci as the model for David in Andrea del Verrocchio’s “David and Goliath”

The Medici family commissioned Verrocchio to create the statue of “David and Goliath”. According to a popular legend the model for the statue was Leonardo da Vinci, a young artist from Verrocchio’s studio. The placement of Goliath’s head has been the subject of debate. Some historians say that the head should be placed between David’s feet while others claim that it belongs to the right. However, the statue has been exhibited using both placements.

In the 15th century, Italy was a violent place to live in. It was a turbulent age of wars and revolutions with tremendous upheavals in society. Florence was a bustling city of 40,000 inhabitants. It had a boisterous populace where rival merchant dynasties fought each other for power. During his lifetime, Leonardo was valued as an engineer.

A design for a flying machine (an Ornithopter) by Leonardo da Vinci, (c. 1488) Institut de France, Paris
A design for a flying machine (an Ornithopter) by Leonardo da Vinci, (c. 1488) Institut de France, Paris

According to many Renaissance authors Leonardo “may be the most universally recognized left-handed artist of all time”. This fact manifests in most of his drawing and his written works. Some say that he wrote in mirror image in his notebooks because he was left-handed. Some writers have accused him of trying to protect his works, which claim seems to be false. Early Italian art connoisseurs were divided in their opinion as to whether Leonardo also drew with his right hand. More recently, most Anglo-American art historians have discounted the suggestions that Leonardo was ambidextrous.

Giorgio Vasari, in the enlarged edition of “The Lives” (1568), introduced his chapter on Leonardo da Vinci with the following words:

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”

Next → Leonardo da Vinci: Part 2 – His Sexuality

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