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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)  
 
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A polymath with an extraordinary range of knowledge, Leonardo da Vinci embodies the notion of the aspiring and inquisitive Renaissance Man. One of the greatest painters in the history of art and an outstanding empirical scientist and inventor of machinery, his life was shadowed both by his illegitimacy and rumors of homosexuality.

The child of middle-class notary Ser Piero da Vinci and a local peasant girl, Leonardo was born out of wedlock in Vinci, a town near Florence, on April 15, 1452. He never escaped the stigma of being a bastard.

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Denied entrance to university or any of the respected professions because of his birth, he was deprived of the humanist education of his day. For all the limitations his lack of an education imposed on him, however, Leonardo more than compensated for the deprivation by devising his empirical approach to natural phenomena.

In his mid-teens, Leonardo was apprenticed in Florence to Andrea del Verrochio, a sculptor and painter affiliated with the powerful Medici family, under whose guidance the boy's artistic talents quickly flowered.

Leonardo's Sexuality

One of the most traumatizing experiences of Leonardo's life occurred in 1476 while he was still living in Verrochio's house. charges were anonymously brought against him and three others for allegedly having sexual relations with a seventeen-year-old male artists' model.

After two hearings the charges were eventually dropped on a technicality. Although he was not convicted, the accusation seems to have haunted Leonardo throughout his life.

Although homosexuality was widespread in Florence, and associated with a number of prominent artists, charges of sodomy could be very serious. In addition, the unfavorable public attention could gravely damage the career of an artist dependent on patronage, including the patronage of the Church.

There is no doubt that one effect of the traumatic experience of the trial was that Leonardo doubled his efforts to keep his life private, even going so far as to use mirror writing to keep his thoughts hidden. Hence, little of his emotional life is known directly.

Nevertheless, there is ample evidence for the conclusion of many historians that the artist's primary erotic interests were directed toward men. Throughout his life, Leonardo surrounded himself with beautiful young men, and his drawings and writings evince a deep appreciation for male beauty. In contrast, there is no evidence that Leonardo was ever intimately involved with a woman or even had a close friendship with one.

Indeed, Leonardo's ignorance of women seems obvious in light of his sketches. Whereas he made many studies of the nude male, often featuring detailed attention to the genitalia, he drew few women below the neck. When he did, the genitals are grossly inaccurate and distorted.

Moreover, Leonardo developed close relationships with his (male) students and many references in his notebooks hint at his love for his male companions. Rumors circulated about the nature of his relationship, lasting for almost twenty years, with a "curly-haired youth" named Gian Giacomo de' Caprotti, nicknamed Salai (lamb of Satan) for his misbehavior.

In the last ten years of Leonardo's life, Francesco Melzi, a young Lombard aristocrat, became his constant companion and ultimately served as the executor of his estate.

In 1910, Sigmund Freud conducted an extensive psychoanalytic study of Leonardo's sexuality, using the artist's notebooks as his sources. Freud traced Leonardo's homosexuality back to his relationship with his mother and absent father. According to Freud, Leonardo sublimated his sexual urges into his work. The psychoanalyst considered the artist's many unfinished projects as a sign of acute sexual frustration.

Freud's analysis is based upon assumptions that have been challenged and that many consider dubious at best. It is also based on an interpretation of one of Leonardo's dreams that is flawed by translation errors. Thus, Freud's study must be approached with caution; nevertheless, the psychoanalyst deserves credit for confronting directly the question of the artist's sexuality at a time when such questions were the stuff only of scandalous gossip.

Leonardo's Scientific Genius

To escape the scandal of the accusation of sodomy, Leonardo traveled to Milan in 1481 or 1482, where he designed military equipment for the duke, Ludovico Sforza. The detailed notebooks he carried everywhere are filled with sketches of hand arms, projectiles, flame-throwers, cannons, and crossbows.

Many of Leonardo's inventions are highly impractical, or at least were impractical at the time, but his meticulous drawings reveal a mechanical genius, despite his lack of formal training. Some of his drawings anticipate such later inventions as the bicycle and the helicopter.

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Top: A sketch of Leonardo da Vinci believed to be a self portrait.
Center: Part of a design for a flying machine by Leonardo.
Above: Mona Lisa, Leonardo's most famous painting.

  
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