Art is never finished, only abandoned.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519):
Leonardo da Vinci was denied an education and a profession because he was born out of wedlock in 1452. One of the few professions available for the bastard son of a middle-class notary and a peasant girl, was as an artist. Despite the stigma, Leonardo mastered anatomy, architecture, botany, cartography, engineering, mathematics, music, science, sculpture, sketching, and painting.
When he was 24-years-old, Leonardo and three young companions were arrested on the charge of sodomy. No witnesses appeared against them and eventually the charges were dropped, apparently because the other young men who were charged with him came from powerful and wealthy families.
Although he was not convicted, the accusation tormented Leonardo throughout his lifetime. It seems clear to me that Leonardo was queer. He kept his private life very private, but throughout his entire life, Leonardo surrounded himself with attractive men. His relationship with the beautiful curly haired Gian Giacomo de’ Caprotti lasted 20 years. In the last 10 years of Leonardo’s life, his companion was the much younger Francesco Melzi, who would later serve as the executor of Leonardo’s estate.
My Renaissance sources tell me that he loved to surround himself with beautiful young dudes and that his gayness was an open secret around Florence. Leonardo’s own notebooks confirm that he lived openly with a household of sweet young guys led by Salaì, his handsome, thieving apprentice, to whom he left the famed painting that we call Mona Lisa. It is probably the best known, most visited, most written about, most sung about, and most parodied work of art in the history of Western Civilization. The painting is a half-length portrait of a woman thought to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. It is in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel, probably painted between 1503 and 1506. Leonardo may have continued working on it as late as 1517. It was eventually acquired by King François I of France and is now the property of the French people, on permanent display at The Louvre since 1797.
The painting was stolen in 1911. The thief was caught two years later when he attempted to sell it to The Uffizi Museum in Florence. It visited the USA in spring of 1963 and nearly two million people lined up glimpse her for a few seconds. It is currently insured for $882 million, making it by far the most valued painting on the planet.
That impish Salaì was probably responsible for this doodle below found in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, but who knows, it might be the master’s.
Leonardo had a theory about art and sex. Of course he did; he had a theory about everything. In his notebooks he included detailed drawings of lovemaking and he argued that painting is the greatest of all the arts because it can set a picture of your lover in your memory. His writings move close to blasphemy. He boasted that he once painted a Madonna so alluring that the man who bought it got a boner whenever he tried to pray. The man returned the painting to Leonardo, who delighted in this pornographic triumph.
Leonardo’s paintings often contain characters that transcend gender, with fantasies of androgynous liaisons between our world and the beyond. His Virgin Of The Rocks depicts an angel whose gender is impossible to determine. No other Renaissance artist was so preoccupied with androgyny. From his earliest works, including an angel he painted in a work by his teacher Verrocchio, androgyny and ambiguity became Leonardo’s trademarks.
In another late painting that lives at the Louvre, John the Baptist is depicted with an almost feminine grace, particularly in the position of those legs. This prompted an anonymous 17th century artist to paint a wreath on the his head and replace the cross at the end of his staff with a thyrsus (the crown of vine leaves). At the same time, the fur-like cloak was overpainted with the texture of a leopard skin. These changes transformed the painting into a portrait of Dionysus, the very naughty Greek god of wine and pleasure, known as Bacchus in Roman mythology. Today, the painting is commonly identified as Saint John the Baptist with the Attributes of Bacchus.
Leonardo possessed the greatest mind of the Italian Renaissance. He wanted to know the workings of what he saw in nature. His inventions and scientific studies were centuries ahead of his time. He was the first person to scientifically study the flight of birds.
Leonardo’s contribution to art was even greater than his contribution to science. He had a strong influence on other artists, especially Raphael and Michelangelo. Leonardo’s balanced compositions became the standard for later Renaissance art. Painters tried to imitate Leonardo’s perspective, knowledge of anatomy, and observations of nature. His inventiveness, versatility, and intellectual curiosity show Leonardo to be the epitome of the Renaissance spirit. Six centuries later, the world is still in awe.
Of his 23 authenticated paintings, I have seen 10, including his works at The Uffizi in Florence, The Louvre, and the National Gallery in London and in Washington DC. Plus, I have had a long look at some of his manuscripts and drawings at an exhibit in Venice and again when Bill Gates, the owner of Leonardo’s The Codex Leicester shared his treasure with an exhibit in Seattle in the 1990s.
The small number of surviving paintings is due in part to Leonardo’s frequently disastrous experimentation with new techniques, and his chronic procrastination. Nevertheless, the paintings together with his notebooks of drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, comprise a contribution to later generations of artists rivaled only by that of his gay contemporary, Michelangelo.
Throughout his life, Leonardo da Vinci avoided the intrigues of worldly ambitions and vanity. He was a reserved man, not concerned with attention, happy to live off the patronage of the rich and powerful, and yet sure of the value of his talents.
Leonardo left this world at Clos Lucé, France, in spring of 1519. King François I had become his closest friend and held Leonardo’s head in his arms as he died. In accordance to his will, 60 beggars followed his casket to the funeral. Leonardo was 67-years-old when he left this world.
Leonardo da Vinci
While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.