Exploring Leonardo

1 St JohnSt John. Androgynous, not really: but with the curly hair all the holy figures of Leonardo seem to have

I’ve always been a bit intimidated by Leonardo from the town of Vinci. How can anyone comprehend someone who is probably the most intelligent man who ever lived, perhaps by a factor of hundreds of times the next candidate? I imagine someone with an IQ of about 2000. Someone as gifted as Galen, Aristotle, Raphael, the Wright Brothers, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton and a score of other people combined, who invented the spheres through which we contemplate and explore existence. Leonardo did all their work, and that of many more, without any help or assistance, purely from the workings of his own mind. He is someone whom you could describe without exaggeration as superhuman.

Little surprise that we can’t understand him. But some of his activities at least can be investigated and explored, with some gain of comprehension of the man.

Leonardo the homosexual
“Of course he was a homosexual” said the academic expert on Renaissance Italy on the series Leonardo (BBC 2004), “he slept with and had sex with men”. “It is now widely accepted that Leonardo was homosexual”, says Charles Nicholl in his biography of Leonardo (Allen Lane London 2004), and therefore deduces that there was substance in what he calls  “The Saltarelli Affair”.

This was an anonymous charge, made in 1476, that a group of young men, which included Leonardo, had practised sodomy. I’d hate to be tried in a court of which Nicholl was judge. “Well of course the prisoner is guilty”, he would tell the jurors, “so don’t examine the evidence too closely: it will just confirm the man’s guilt”. Homosexuals mightn’t like the reference to guilt, but they will recognise the assumptions made about same sex sexuality. ’Homosexual’ in these two references is a brushoff, a smug assumption of behaviours allegedly typical of homosexuals.

2 Feuerbach_symposiumAlkibiades makes a flamboyant entrance to Plato’s Symposium

I found the same references in Robert Payne’s biography  (Doubleday NY 1978), though he was more tentative and on the whole thought Leonardo heterosexual.   Saltarelli is mentioned also by Antonia Vallentin in her biography (Viking Press NY 1938, trans. EW Dickes). Vallentin makes the further point that the charge of sodomy was understood to arise from a group of Florentine humanists’ discovery of Plato. The ancient Greeks, it was ignorantly assumed, indiscriminately indulged themselves in homosexual activity, and Plato celebrated this behaviour in dialogues such as the Symposium. Not many people in Europe read Plato in 1476.

Who was the accuser in the Saltarelli affair? The Florentine state had a system of pillar boxes into which disaffected citizens could drop charges against anyone they disliked, anonymously. The state investigated, on the principle that where there’s smoke there may be fire. But they had to have corroborating evidence before proceeding with legal charges. Saltarelli had been accused, and investigated, before, and the authorities seemed to have realised the charges were made with malice and dismissed them. Nicholl deduces from the geographical details included on the accusing letter that the writer was a local shop owner familiar with the area. Payne thinks he may have been a priest, and points out the writer wasn’t familiar with Leonardo because he gives the wrong address for him, at Verrocchio’s studio, where he no longer lived.

There was no corroborative evidence found this time either, so the charges were dismissed (the more common result of these investigations). All the men charged were set free, but they had had a sticky week or two in prison to remember. In those day of course examination was by way of torture, and had there been any confirmation of charges, the men would have been tortured until they confessed, then exiled, or even burnt at the stake if the state was feeling vindictive. This happened to Savonarola in 1498, only 22 years after the Saltarelli affair. Less than 100 years later, in 1593, another great artist, Christopher Marlowe, was murdered by the English state, playing a double game of espionage, his reputation first blackened by a reputed remark by him advocating the twin evils of tobacco smoking and pederasty. We almost lost Leonardo early in his career, even though the experts are unanimous that Leonardo was not the main object of the accusation, his name and others added to a list to obscure the attack on an aristocrat who was the real target.

3 angelsAngels, or boyfriends?

But what are the evidences of homosexuality alleged against Leonardo. I would summarise them thus:
1. The man’s secrecy. He obviously had something to hide.
2. His bachelor status. Leonardo never married.
3. His close association with young men that scholars at least find attractive.
4. His paintings, which include depictions of young men considered by critics as ‘androgynous’.
5. and the so called ‘Saltarelli affair’.

These five points are not of course evidence in any fair definition of the word. They just provide grounds for gossip.
1. Leonardo was secretive. He was engaged in studies forbidden by the church. He risked being ‘investigated’ by the Inquisition as Galileo later was. But he wasn’t that secretive. No-one could understand his concepts anyway.
2. Leonardo never married. Neither did the Pope. Perhaps the Caterina whose funeral he lavishly paid for in 1495, when he was 43,, assumed to be his mother, was really his mistress? And homosexuals often marry (women).
3. Artists were young men who lived in close proximity with each other and painted from nude models. Their morals have always been suspect. All the Renaissance masters lived with young men they were training.
4. The young men Leonardo painted weren’t androgynous but angels and saints, not ordinary humans. On the other hand Leonardo painted probably the best portraits of females ever made.
5. The Florentine state exonerated Leonardo and others charged from the crime of sodomy. A second charge was dismissed out of hand. No case. No doubts. No questions. Innocent.

In short, there is no evidence for Leonardo’s homosexuality. We don’t know anything about his sexuality, and we want to, so we make assumptions. Unfortunately these assumptions are often presented as facts. We do the same with Shakespeare. Making up stories about Shakespeare is a large publishing industry. I hope this doesn’t happen to Leonardo, as he deserves more serious study.

4 La belle FerroniereA beautiful woman with a jewel on her forehead (ferronière) thought to be Beatrice d’Este

If anything can be deduced about Leonardo’s sexuality it is that he didn’t seem to be very interested in sex. He may have had a low sex drive (he may equally well have had a different woman, or man, every night. There’s just no information). He may have been asexual, though that’s an extreme conclusion. A bit of hidden evidence concerning another polymath has recently come to light. A friend of Richard and Isabel Burton reported, apparently, that the couple had a ‘platonic’ relationship, with no sex involved, and that this was Richard’s desire. Perhaps if you are expert in 20 or 30 fields you have little energy left for sex. Burton was also widely suspected of homosexuality. I suspect these conclusions just reveal the rest of us, in the 2000s, have a preoccupation with sex, nothing more.

On the other hand his Notebooks reveal Leonardo to have been exceptionally affectionate, sensitive and empathic. He understood people very well, pursued his own course all his life without much hindrance (other than the Saltarelli aftair). Perhaps his affection and empathy for others came from the knowledge he could never share ideas with them. A chat with Leonardo would have frightened and confused his contemporaries, and in the things that deeply interested him Leonardo was all his life completely alone. He would have taken a delight in the exploits of his ward Salai as he would at the flight of the birds he released from captivity. Part joy in their being and part examination in what motivated them and how they moved. Those who knew him must have found him very detached, probably what infuriated the seriously disturbed Michelangelo about him.

Inventions of Leonardo
Leonardo had to earn his living throughout his life, and also had a household and a certain status to keep up. Commissions for paintings were not plentiful, not least for his growing reputation for not finishing them. So he often turned to engineering projects, and tried to interest the armies that then marched back and forth across Italy to employ him as a military engineer. He did so with reservations, for he seems to have been a pacifist. His Notebooks are filled with despairing comments about how human beings like to attack and kill one another, and warnings to himself not to let the machines he invented get into the wrong hands. Any hands were the wrong hands, but often Leonardo just needed the money.

5 Da Vinci tankThe British Army recreated Leonardo’s tank

The makers of the 2004 BBC series on Leonardo mentioned above had a good idea while they were filming. Instead of just marvelling at the drawings of models contained in the Notebooks, why not build the actual machines they were plans for, and see if they worked?

They picked four drawings: a parachute, a manned glider or flying machine, a tank, and a wetsuit for underwater sabotage of enemy shipping. And they soon found the machines wouldn’t work. The tank had gears that worked in opposing directions; the glider was erratic, to say the least; the wetsuit had insufficient air supply.

The film makers employed a special unit of the British Army for some of the constructions, and the Unit OIC noticed a peculiar thing about the gears needed to move the tank. They were in opposition to much common knowledge of the time. Surely Leonardo would not make such an elementary mistake? On the supposition that he wouldn’t, they turned one of the gears around 180 degrees, and the machine worked perfectly.

Leonardo had planned a land machine powered by four men turning two geared axles by hand and which ran on rounded wheels able to move over uneven surfaces. The sides were laid at an angle that deflected gunfire and missiles. And at a turret above the drivers sat a navigator, and gunmen at barrels set into the sides of the tank which could be rotated to keep up a continuous fire on one object, or used to fire from several directions at once. The handgun had only recently been introduced in Italy, so Leonardo was working with ‘state of the art’ technology. Even allowing for the slowness at which the tank moved, and the delay in loading powder and ball for the guns once they were discharged, Leonardo had a powerful fighting machine unprecedented for his time. The verdict of the Army team: this would have been a terrifying and demoralising machine to have to meet on a battlefield and would most likely have started a panic in the enemy lines.

It was never constructed. No general could understand it. And the mistake in the drawing? Almost certainly a copyright device, designed to prevent anyone stealing the drawing and making the machine for someone else.

6 Da Vinci wetsuitA diver walked across the Venetian Lagoon wearing Leonardo’s wetsuit

The same procedure was followed for the other devices the team investigated. The glider worked perfectly as soon as a tail piece was added, which gave stability and control. The drawing for the tail piece was on another page of the Notebooks entirely. The glider was very similar to the one constructed by the Wright Brothers. The wetsuit had an additional device which bought an air supply to the diver. It too was on another page of the Notebooks, and had to be sought for. But it was there. This secretiveness on Leonardo’s part probably showed his certainty that the machines would work if they were constructed as he had planned. But they were never constructed. The visionary, SF nature of Leonardo’s devices merely puzzled his contemporaries, most of whom were hard pressed managing an army of foot and cavalry. Even the parachute, made with materials and methods used in Leonardo’s time, was never utilised in his time, and it took a daredevil who risked his life jumping from an aeroplane during the making of the BBC series to show that it worked perfectly.

What the testing of the machines showed was that Leonardo understood the laws of gravity, the power of a fulcrum, the principle of utilising air currents to fly, and water pressure and how to move effectively under it. He had no learned source and antecedent for this. Even if any of these devices had been invented before, Leonardo knew no Greek or Latin to read about them. It was all done by observation, and from reasoning on the results of observation. This suggests that Leonardo’s senses were extraordinarily acute and exact, more perhaps than any other person’s. Maybe they supplied more data to his brain than other people’s senses.

What he lacked most of all was a foundation in mathematics. He was essentially a physicist, and, this should be emphasised, a physicist who was also a painter. How and why things looked as they did was the important question for him, not constructing a theoretical framework in mathematics, the direction modern science has taken since Descartes.

Leonardo’s lack of structure shows through in his Notebooks, where each page has a mixture of caricatures, plans, drawings, lists, book titles, quotations, shopping lists, story ideas (he played with the idea of writing fables at times) and many other subjects. They were, after all, notebooks. Everything he drew was in some way beautiful, the outcome of perfect co-ordination of mind and hand. But after 12,000 pages, 120,000 notes and a number of false starts, Leonardo failed to summon the organising ability to group ideas he was so fertile with into more ordered sequence and publish the books he so much wanted to. Supposing, of course, he could have found a publisher.

7 Da Vinci St AnneSt Anne

Leonardo remained the greatest artist of Renaissance Italy, and the greatest ideas man who ever lived, but the dozens of learned books he intended to write, and had written in rough draft, remained unpublished. It hurt him. He knew his knowledge would die with him. He was said to have mourned in his final year, “So much to do. So much undone”. Even for a superman Leonardo was too ambitious. There was no limit to what he could do. None at all, except time.

So he put it all in one painting, a work that started life as a commissioned portrait never completed. The Mona Lisa really does have it all. The past, geological and personal, the latest of techniques and of Leonardo’s skill. The smile of Caterina when she saw him for the last time before he entered his father’s house. He must have asked her, “When will I see you again” and she would have answered “Soon”. And right from the age of six he would have had to understand why mothers lie to their children.

The Mona Lisa was the painting that showed me that paintings move, as indeed do people, changing all the time while seeming the same. The painting changes according to the way it is framed, what angle it is seen from, what lighting, what else surrounds it. The reproduction changes depending on ink, paper, colour correction software, resolution, type of printing press. There are grey Mona Lisas, green, orange, brown, yellow. There are shadowy ones where she looks a negro, others where she is white as snow. In some you can see every detail of her smile, in others it is hidden in shadow. Experts tell us no woman who would have had her portrait painted in Leonardo’s day would have had her hair down, or dress so plainly.The portrait had to be in the end of someone Leonardo once lived with. Perhaps his mother? But why not guess it was his mistress? Maybe she’s saying in mock reproof, “Oh, Leonardo!” Then again, he must have been painting memories.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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