Was Leonardo Da Vinci Gay?

His only passionate involvement with women was oncanvas.

Was Leonardo Da Vinci Gay?

Josh O’Connor

Myper/Getty

His only passionate involvement with women was on canvas.

Is Mona Lisa a composite of a man and a woman? That’s what one prominent art historian said in April, sending everyone into a damn tizzy.

The historian, Silvano Vinceti, claimed that the painting is partly a portrait of a Florentine woman named Lisa and partly a painting of a fellow named Gian Giacomo Caprotti — who some believe was Leonardo da Vinci’s gay lover.

Caprotti went to live with da Vinci (who died in 1519) when he was 10 years old, and stayed for the next 20 years. Da Vinci nicknamed him Salai, or “Little Devil.”

Vinceti said he had studied the da Vinci paintings that Salai had modeled for. These included a portrait of St. John the Baptist that was based on a sketch da Vinci made of Salai with an erection. The sketch is called The Incarnate Angel; Da Vinci left the erection out of the St. John portrait.

Decide for yourself:

The Incarnate Angel, St. John the Baptist and the Mona Lisa. | PD

Vinceti said he had also examined the Mona Lisa using infrared technology to make his determination. One of the leading da Vinci experts, Oxford art professor Martin Kemp wasn’t convinced, however. “The infrared images do nothing to support the idea that da Vinci somehow painted a blend of Lisa Gherardini and Salai,” Kemp told the Telegraph. Kemp says we don’t know what Salai looked like, beyond another artist’s description of him as “a pretty boy with curly hair, but that was a standard type of the era. It featured in da Vinci’s work long before Salai came on the scene.”

“This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy,” Kemp says. But whether Salai was a model for the Mona Lisa or not doesn’t shed light on whether da Vinci was gay.

Da Vinci defies simple description because, well, he was good at everything. The very reason we have the term “Renaissance Man,” he was an inventor, sculptor, painter, musician, mathematician, engineer, writer, anatomist, geologist … and the list goes on. (He even designed a helicopter.) He is also sometimes revered as a gay icon, something armchair historians and bloggers love to debate. So was that the case?

It’s true da Vinci never married, and was not known to have had any romantic relationships with women, according to Oxford University’s Kandice Rawlings.

One reason people believe he was gay is because the world’s most famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, said so in a 1910 essay. The essay, “Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood,” argues that the artist was celibate but secretly gay, and that he sublimated these inclinations through a deep study of human anatomy.

“Freud pointed to a coldly clinical drawing of heterosexual intercourse among da Vinci’s notes, which shows the lovers standing up, like mannequins,” writes art critic Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, who adds that “Leonardo drew many highly detailed studies of the anal sphincter.”

Jones believes da Vinci was “almost certainly gay,” but points out that he was also “passionately involved with women — on canvas, at least.” He says earlier Renaissance artists often gave their depictions of men with deep character but depicted women only in terms of their physical beauty, often with “blank” eyes. Jones says da Vinci’s portraits were downright revolutionary and “showed them to be fully rounded human beings.” While earlier artists depicted female sexuality with timidity or coyness, da Vinci conveyed their sensuality, as evidenced by the Mona Lisa’s flirtatious smile.

Leonardo painted women, like ‘la Belle Ferroniere,’ with great insight. | PD

“He boasts that he once painted a Madonna so beautiful that the man who bought it was haunted by unseemly thoughts,” Jones writes. “Even after it was altered, perhaps with the addition of crosses and saintly symbols, it still gave him an erection when he tried to pray. So in the end he returned the painting to da Vinci, who delighted in this pornographic triumph.”

Proponents of a gay da Vinci also point out that he was arrested on sodomy charges in 1476, though he was later cleared. Do the charges indicate he was gay? Maybe not.

Historian Michael Rocke writes that Florentine men of that era became sexually active in their early teens, but didn’t traditionally marry until about 30. During those middle years, Rocke says it was commonplace for men in their 20s to have sex with men younger than 20 — who weren’t yet considered to have attained masculine maturity—as long as the older man was “on top.” (To reverse that was against the “natural order” and unheard of.)

At least some people didn’t like this, because a court called The Office of the Night was set up to charge and punish men for sodomy. Its copious records illustrate how common it was, but also indicate a high degree of social acceptance.

“[The court] seemed to have been partly window-dressing, as Florence had a reputation abroad as the capital of the sodomites and partly as a means to collect fines. Or call it a tax on sodomy. This court was called the Office of the Night, and in a city of about 40,000 people, Rocke estimates that as many as 17,000 were incriminated at least once, but only 60 were condemned to prison, exile or death.”

— George Armstrong, Los Angeles Times

Most men convicted of sodomy paid a fine or donated some flour to a convent and went on with their lives, marrying women, having children and so forth. Rocke’s research suggests that in 15th-century Florence, being “gay” wasn’t the thing it was today. Consider also that the word “homosexual” didn’t even make it into the dictionary until 1897. Given da Vinci’s great contributions to art and science, a better question to ask is why some people today care so much.

Oxford University’s Rawlings says, “there’s no way of knowing Leonardo’s sexual orientation for sure,” and that “scholars’ opinions on the issue fall along a spectrum between ‘maybe’ and ‘very probably.’”