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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)  
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By the end of his life, Leonardo had compiled a vast collection of notebooks (over 5,000 manuscript pages), detailing his research on optics, acoustics, mechanics, hydraulics, flight, astronomy, weaponry, and anatomy. During his lifetime, he kept his scientific findings hidden for fear his ideas would be stolen.

After his death, many of Leonardo's papers were lost to the world; some were never recovered. Many believe that had they been shared or published, they might have changed the course of scientific discovery because his observations prefigured the work of Newton, Galileo, and Kepler.

Leonardo's Paintings

Although Leonardo produced only a small number of paintings, his revolutionary technique and style made him one of the most influential artists of the Renaissance. One measure of the visceral emotion that his works continue to inspire is that they are the most vandalized paintings in the world.

One of Leonardo's first commissions was to paint a mural of The Last Supper (1495-1498) in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Depicting the final meal of Jesus with his disciples, The Last Supper is celebrated for its ingenious composition and use of perspective, as well as for its psychological depth. Unlike previous artists, Leonardo skillfully uses shadow to reveal the betrayer Judas' character with subtlety.

Unfortunately, Leonardo executed the image in an experimental fresco technique, and it had deteriorated within fifty years of its completion; yet even in its severely compromised condition it has had a profound influence on the history of art.

Leonardo returned to Florence in 1500 and in 1501 began work on an altarpiece for a community of Servite monks titled Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. He left the painting unfinished in 1502 to accept a position as military engineer to the ruthlessly ambitious Cesare Borgia. During this time he became friends with the most celebrated political writer of his day, Niccolo Machiavelli.

Disgusted by Borgia's vicious tactics, Leonardo left Borgia's service after only nine months. However, he did not return to Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the painting remains incomplete.

Leonardo's mature years are filled with some of his most recognizable works. It is impossible to date these with any certainty, but many believe Mona Lisa was painted first, followed by Leda, and then his final painting, Saint John the Baptist.

Mona Lisa (or La Gioconda as it is known in Italy), now in the Louvre in Paris, is Leonardo's most famous and most ambiguous painting. Although the painting purports to be a portrait of the wife of a merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, some scholars have speculated that it is an idealized version of the artist's mother or even a self-portrait en travesti.

The identity of the woman remains uncertain, but her enigmatic smile, hinting at a secret joke or private knowledge, has haunted viewers since it was first shown. The painting was never completed or delivered to its owner, and Leonardo carried it with him throughout the last years of his life.

Although only sketches remain of Leonardo's Leda, it remains one of the most perplexing works in his oeuvre. His only female nude and his only picture inspired by classical mythology, Leda depicts the union of Zeus, disguised as a swan, with Leda, Queen of Lacedaemon.

The result of this union was two sets of twins hatched from eggs: the divine Castor and Pollux and the mortals Helen and Cytemnestra. This myth inspired countless artists, but Leonardo's vision is unique in that it highlights the grotesqueness of the rape.

He imbues the image with terror rather than eroticism, yet he also makes the encounter tantalizing and memorable. Fascinated by the natural world and committed to pushing its boundaries, Leonardo was no doubt intrigued by this aberration of the natural order.

In 1507, Leonardo entered the service of King François I of France, first in Milan and then later in France itself. Most of his last years were spent in intellectual and scientific pursuits at the court of the king. However, he did complete one major painting during this period, the St. John the Baptist. The model for St. John in this beautiful yet curiously disturbing painting may have been the "lamb of Satan" himself, Gian Giacomo de' Caprotti.

The artist died in Cloux on May 2, 1519.

Julia Pastore

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Bramley, Serge. Leonardo: The Artist and the Man. New York: Penguin 1994.

Dynes, Wayne R. "Leonardo da Vinci." Gay and Lesbian Biography. Michael J. Tyrkus, ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997. 284-287.

Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. Alan Tyson, trans. New York: Norton, 1964.

Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships : Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Saslow, James M. Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pastore, Julia  
    Entry Title: Leonardo da Vinci  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 31, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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