Self-portrait by Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci

How do we know Leonardo was gay?

When he was twenty-four years old, Leonardo was arrested, along with several young companions, on the charge of sodomy.  No witnesses appeared against them and eventually the charges were dropped. It must be said that often anonymous charges like this were brought against people just for a nuisance. Renaissance Florentines didn't make the distinctions we make about sexuality today and apparently it was common for young men to get into sexual relationships; in fact, the word "Florenzer" was German slang for "homosexual". Leonardo had no relationships with women, never married, had no children, and raised many young protégés, including one nicknamed "Salai" which means "offspring of Satan", a sketch of whom is shown below. Salai stole things, broke things, lied, and was generally a, well, devil; if he were a mere student or servant he would have been fired. It's not hard to see how this imp would be attractive to Leonardo. He stayed with Leonardo for over twenty years, and appears many times in Leonardo's sketchbooks.

SalaiLeonardo's friend Machiavelli, the Florentine statesman who is famous for his advocacy of unscrupulous political opportunism, had a son, Ludovico, who apparently had a boyfriend. Machiavelli wrote to a friend to ask what he should do about it. The friend, who was Florence's ambassador to the Papal Court, replied:
"Since we are verging on old age, we might be severe and overly scrupulous, and we do not remember what we did as adolescents. So Ludovico has a boy with him, with whom he amuses himself, jests, takes walks, growls in his ear, goes to bed together. What then? Even in these things perhaps there is nothing bad."

Nude study from one of Leonardo's notebooks
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), was one of the greatest painters and most versatile geniuses in history. He was one of the key figures of the Renaissance, a great cultural movement that had begun in Italy in the 1300's. His portrait Mona Lisa and his religious scene The Last Supper rank among the most famous pictures ever painted.

Leonardo, as he is almost always called, was trained to be a painter. But his interests and achievements spread into an astonishing variety of fields that are now considered scientific specialties. Leonardo studied anatomy, astronomy, botany, geology, geometry, and optics, and he designed machines and drew plans for hundreds of inventions.

Because Leonardo excelled in such an amazing number of areas of human knowledge, he is often called a universal genius. However, he had little interest in literature, history, or religion. He formulated a few scientific laws, but he never developed his ideas systematically. Leonardo was most of all an excellent observer. He concerned himself with what the eye could see, rather than with purely abstract concepts.

 Little is known about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. He kept copious notebooks, but these contain only sketches and speculations. Much of what we know of him comes from tax records, legal documents, and secondhand sources.

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the town of Vinci. His father was Ser Piero, a notary; his mother, Caterina, came of a peasant family. They were not married. The boy's uncle Francesco may have had more of a hand in his upbringing than by either of his parents. When Leonardo was about 15, he moved to the nearby city of Florence and became an apprentice to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio. He was already a promising talent. 

In 1476, just as Leonardo was becoming a master in his own right, probably functioning as a partner toNotebook sketch Verrocchio, he was suddenly plagued by scandal. Along with three other young men, he was anonymously accused of sodomy, which in Florence was a criminal offense, even though in most cases the authorities looked the other way and the general culture attached little social stigma to homosexuality.

Leonardo was 24 years old at the time. The accusation specifically charged him with a homosexual interaction with one Jacopo Saltarelli, a notorious prostitute. The charges were brought in April, and for a time Leonardo and the other defendants were under the watchful eye of Florence's "Officers of the Night"--a kind of renaissance vice squad.

However, the charges were dismissed in June, due to a lack of witnesses and evidence. It is probable that the Medici family brought had something to do with this outcome, as another of the defendants was Lionardo de Tornabuoni, and Lorenzo de Medici's mother had been a Tornabuoni.

The period immediately following the case was a productive one for Leonardo. Sometime in the mid-1470s, he worked on the Portrait of Ginevra de Benci. In 1478, he received what was probably his first commission: a religious group wanted him to paint an Adoration of the Shepherds. He did a few preliminary sketches but then abandoned the project.Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci

Although Leonardo managed to be fairly productive in Florence, it is not surprising that he left. He was not able to complete either of the major commissions he received, the two "Adorations." He was charged with sodomy. Although many biographers gloss over this issue, quickly stating that the case was dismissed, it is important for two reasons.

First, it was perhaps the start of a lifetime of paranoia on Leonardo's part. He often drew grotesque pictures of gossiping townspeople, and he rated calumny, or malicious gossip, as a serious evil.

The second major implication of the sodomy case is, of course, the question of Leonardo's sexuality. Homosexuality was common in quatrocento Florence, and several things indicate that Leonardo was probably gay. He never married or showed any (recorded) interest in women; indeed, he wrote in his notebooks that male-female intercourse disgusted him. His anatomical drawings naturally include the sexual organs of both genders, but those of the male exhibit much more extensive attention. Finally, Leonardo surrounded himself with beautiful young male assistants, such as Salai and Melzi.

While at the studio, he aided his master with his Baptism of Christ, and eventually painted his own Annunciation. Around the age of 30, Leonardo began his own practice, starting work on the Adoration of the Magi; however, he soon abandoned it and moved to Milan in 1482.

In Milan, Leonardo sought and gained the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, and soon began work on the painting Virgin of the Rocks. After some years, he began work on a giant bronze horse, a monument to Sforza's father. Leonardo's design is grand, but the statue was never completed. Meanwhile, he was keeping scrupulous notebooks on a number of studies, including artistic drawings but also depictions of scientific subjects ranging from anatomy to hydraulics. In 1490, he took a young boy, Salai, into his household, and in 1493 a woman named Caterina (most likely his mother) also came to live with him; she died a few years later. Around 1495, Leonardo began his painting The Last Supper, which achieved immense success but began to deteriorate physically almost immediately upon completion. Around this same time, Fra Luca Pacioli, the famous mathematician, moved to Milan, befriended Leonardo, and taught him higher math. In 1499, when the French conquered Lombard and Milan, the two left the city together, heading for Mantua.

In 1500, Leonardo arrived in Florence, where he painted the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. He was veryNotebook sketch interested in mathematics at this time. In 1502, he went to work as chief military engineer to Cesare Borgia, and also became acquainted with Niccolo Machiavelli. After a year he returned to Florence, where he contributed to the huge engineering project of diverting the course of the River Arno, and also painted a giant war mural, the Battle of Anghiari, which was never completed, largely due to problems with the paints. In 1505 Leonardo probably made his first sketches for the Mona Lisa, but it is not known when he completed the painting.

In 1506, Leonardo traveled to Milan at the summons of Charles d'Amboise, the French governor. He became court painter and engineer to Louis XII and worked on a second version of the Virgin of the Rocks. In 1507, he returned to Florence to engage in a legal battle against his brothers for their uncle Francesco's inheritance. In this same year, he took the young aristocratic Melzi as an assistant, and for the rest of the decade he intensified his studies of anatomy and hydraulics. In 1513, he moved to Rome, where Leo X reigned as pope. There, he worked on mirrors, and probably the above self- portrait. In 1516, he left Italy for France, joining King Francis I in Amboise, whom he served as a wise philosopher for three years before his death in 1519.

Leonardo's importance

Leonardo had one of the greatest scientific minds of the Italian Renaissance. He wanted to know the workings of what he saw in nature. Many of his inventions and scientific ideas were centuries ahead of his time. For example, he was the first person to study the flight of birds scientifically. Leonardo's importance to art was even greater than his importance to science. He had a strong influence on many leading artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo. Leonardo's balanced compositions and idealized figures became standard features of later Renaissance art. Painters also tried to imitate Leonardo's knowledge of perspective and anatomy, and his accurate observations of nature.

What most impresses people today is the wide range of Leonardo's talent and achievements. He turned his attention to many subjects and mastered nearly all. His inventiveness, versatility, and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity have made Leonardo a symbol of the Renaissance spirit. 


Further Reading:

Bramly, Serge. Leonardo: The Artist and the Man. Sian Reynolds, trans. Penguin: New York, 1994.

Costantino, Maria. Leonardo: Artist, Inventor and Scientist. Crescent Books: New York, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood. A. Tyson, trans. W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 1964.

Masters, Roger D. Fortune is a River: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli's Magnificent Dream to Change the Course of Florentine History. The Free Press: New York, 1998.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. A. Phillips, ed. Oxford University Press: London, 1998.

Turner, A. Richard. Inventing Leonardo. Knopf: New York, 1993.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists, Volume 1. George Bull, trans. Penguin: New York, 1965.

Wasserman, Jack. Leonardo. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York, 1984.

Wilde, Oscar. The Critic as Artist. Sun and Moon Press: Los Angeles, 1997