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Da Vinci and his hidden passions

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Exhibition: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Date: October 24, 2019 to February 24, 2020

Venue: the Louvre museum

The text below is the excerpt of the book Gay Art, written by James Smalls , published by Parkstone International.

Leonardo has long been considered the epitome of the universal genius for his achievements in the arts and sciences. He is, along with Michelangelo, the most written-about figure of the Italian Renaissance. Many writers and scholars have taken a keen interest in Leonardo’s sexual orientation and its effects on his artistic and scientific works.

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Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, 1808.

Interpreters of Leonardo’s art and life have used fragmentary notebook jottings, his choice of shop assistants, the androgyny of some of the figures he painted, and his reputation among his contemporaries, in evaluating his homosexuality. Leonardo’s attraction to very young males is part of a reputation generally held about most sixteenth-century Florentine men of learning at the time. Twice in 1476, while he was an apprentice in Andrea del Verocchio’s Florentine workshop, Leonardo was accused by the Office of the Night – the special magistracy set up to police homosexual activity – of committing sodomy with a seventeen-year-old apprentice named Jacopo Saltarelli. Leonardo and the two other men were acquitted and the charges were later dismissed. In 1568, Leonardo’s reputation was again compromised when a derisive sonnet, written by the art theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo, appeared on the subject of l’amore masculino. The sonnet referenced Leonardo as boasting of sodomising his beautiful, teenage apprentice “many times”. The assistant in question was Gian Giacomo de’ Caprotti, who possessed blond curly hair and androgynous features and may have served as Leonardo’s model for Saint John the Baptist.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513-1515.
Oil on wood, 69 x 57 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

De’ Caprotti was only ten years old when Leonardo took him on as apprentice in 1490. In his notebooks, Leonardo referred endearingly to de’ Caprotti as “Salai” (little devil) because he was, according to Leonardo, a “thief, liar, pighead, glutton”. Despite the young apprentice’s dubious character, Leonardo kept Salai on as his assistant for twenty-five years and obsessively drew his soft features and blond curls (Saslow, p.89). Leonardo lavished Salai with fine clothes and jewellery and took him on several travels through Europe.

Salai was not the only one. Leonardo took on several young men as apprentices based on their looks rather than on their talents. These included Cesare de Sesto, Boltraffo, and Francesco Melzi. Despite his love of boys, Leonardo was by no means a swashbuckling libertine. His life and aesthetic choices were a painful struggle to achieve reconciliation between his homosexual tendencies and his lofty moral demands ignited by his belief in the ideas of physical beauty and spirituality found in Ficino’s Neo-Platonism. Leonardo’s Saint John the Baptist, Bacchus, and the Mona Lisa, are examples of works that reveal a sublimated homosexuality and passionate search for the androgyne in angels, saints, and images of Christ.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), c. 1503-1506.
Oil on poplar panel, 77 x 53 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The first major psychological work to stress the significance of  Leonardo’s enigmatic sexuality to an understanding of his creativity was Sigmund Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910). Leonardo left nearly two thousand pages of notes and from these Freud argued that the artist was a sublimated homosexual.

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Workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist-Bacchus, 1510-1515.
Oil on wood transferred onto canvas, 177 x 115 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

He attributed the artist’s homosexuality to a mother fixation and retarded development in the Oedipal process. Although Freud never denied that Leonardo had sexual relations with his young shop apprentices, he did believe that Leonardo was in a state of “platonic, solitary, and tragic homosexuality” from which came great things befitting a genius. In Freud’s view, Leonardo’s platonic homosexuality was an obsession that may have been an obstacle to his inability to finish many of his artistic projects (De Beck, p.117). Freud’s interpretation has been much disputed for years ever since its publication. Many view it as a flawed and inconsistent study, whereas others see it as having at least some merit by which to judge Leonardo, his time period, and his works (cf. William B. MacGregor, “Leonardo da Vinci,” in Haggerty, pp.535-6).

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