The personal life of Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) has been a subject that has excited interest, enquiry and speculation since within a few years of his death. Leonardo has long been regarded as the archetypal Renaissance Man, described by the Renaissance biographerGiorgio Vasari as having qualities that “transcended nature” and being “marvellously endowed with beauty, grace and talent in abundance”. Interest in and curiosity about Leonardo has continued unabated for five hundred years. Modern descriptions and analysis of Leonardo’s character, personal desires and intimate behavior have been based upon various sources: records concerning him, his biographies, his own written journals, his paintings, his drawings, his associates and commentaries that were made concerning him by contemporaries.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, “at the third hour of the night” in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, in the lower valley of the Arno River in the territory of the Republic of Florence. He was the out-of-wedlock son of the wealthy Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine legal notary, and Caterina, a peasant. His full birth name was “Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci”, meaning “Leonardo, (son) of (Mes)ser Piero from Vinci”. The inclusion of the title “ser” indicated that Leonardo’s father was a gentleman.
Leonardo spent his first five years in the hamlet of Anchiano in the home of his mother, then from 1457 lived in the household of his father, grandparents and uncle, Francesco, in the small town of Vinci. His father had married a sixteen-year-old girl named Albiera, Ser Piero married four times and produced children by his two later marriages. Leonardo’s seven brothers were later to argue with him over the distribution of his father’s estate.
At the age of about fourteen Leonardo was apprenticed by his father to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo was eventually to become a paid employee of Verrocchio’s studio. During his time there, Leonardo met many of the most important artists to work in Florence in the late fifteenth century including Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio andPietro Perugino. Leonardo helped Verrocchio paint The Baptism of Christ, completed around 1475. According to Vasari, Verrocchio, on seeing the beauty of the angel that his young pupil had painted, never painted again.
Florence was at this time a republic, but the city was increasingly under the influence of a single powerful family, the Medici. Lorenzo de’ Medici, who came to be known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”. In 1481 Leonardo commenced an important commission, the painting of a large altarpiece for the church of S. Donato a Scopeto. The work was never completed. Leonardo left Florence and travelled to Milan carrying a gift from Lorenzo to the regent ruler, Ludovico Sforza. He was employed by Ludovico from 1481 to 1499, during which time his most important works were the Virgin of the Rocks, the Last Supper and a huge model of a horse for an equestrian monument which was never completed. Other important events during this time were the arrival in his studio of the boy Salai in 1490, and in 1491 the marriage of Ludovico Sforza to Beatrice d’Este for which he organized the celebrations. When Milan was invaded by the French in 1499, Leonardo left and spent some time in Venice, and possibly Rome and Naples before returning to Florence.
In Florence, Leonardo lived at premises of the Servite Community, and at that time drew the large cartoon for the Madonna and Child and St Anne which attracted a lot of popular attention. He is also reported to have had a job to do for King Louis XII of France. Between 1506 and 1513 Leonardo was once again based mostly in Milan. In 1507 Francesco Melzi joined his household as an apprentice, and remained with him until his death. In 1513 Leonardo left Milan for Rome and was employed by the Medici family. In 1516 he went to France as court painter to King Francis I. The king gave the chateau of Clos Lucé as his home and regarded him with great esteem. It is said that the king held Leonardo’s head as he died. Leonardo is buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert adjacent to the Château d’Amboise in France.
Descriptions and portraits of Leonardo combine to create an image of a man who was tall, athletic and extremely handsome. He was at least 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) tall, the length of his skeleton. Portraits indicate that as an older man, he wore his hair long, at a time when most men wore it cropped short, or reaching to the shoulders. While most men were shaven or wore close-cropped beards, Leonardo’s beard flowed over his chest.
His clothing is described as being unusual in his choice of bright colours, and at a time when most mature men wore long garments, Leonardo’s preferred outfit was the short tunic and hose generally worn by younger men. This image of Leonardo has been recreated in the statue of him that stands outside the Uffizi Gallery.
According to Vasari, “In the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind… Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied were solved with ease. He possessed great strength and dexterity; he was a man of regal spirit and tremendous breadth of mind…”
Portraits and self-portraits
Leonardo’s face is best known from a drawing in red chalk that appears to be a self-portrait. However, there is some controversy over the identity of the subject, because the man represented appears to be of a greater age than the 67 years lived by Leonardo. A solution which has been put forward is that Leonardo deliberately aged himself in the drawing, as a modern forensic artist might do, in order to provide a model for Raphael’s painting of him as Plato in The School of Athens. A profile portrait in the Ambrosiana Gallery in Milan is generally accepted to be a portrait of Leonardo, and also depicts him with flowing beard and long hair. This image was repeated in the woodcut designed for the first edition of Vasari’s Lives.
In a 2008 TED talk, artist Siegfried Woldhek, based on Leonardo’s features in Andrea del Verrocchio‘s bronze statue of David, proposed that Leonardo may have done three self-portraits: Portrait of a Musician, the Vitruvian Man and the aforementioned Portrait of a man in red chalk.
It has been written that Leonardo “may be the most universally recognized left-handed artist of all time”, a fact documented by numerous Renaissance authors, and manifested conspicuously in his drawing and handwriting. In his notebooks, he wrote in mirror image because of his left handedness (it was easier for him), and he was falsely accused of trying to protect his work. Early Italian connoisseurs were divided as to whether Leonardo also drew with his right hand. More recently, Anglo-American art historians have for the most part discounted suggestions ofambidexterity.
In 2006, anthropologist Luigi Carpasso claimed to have reconstructed da Vinci’s left index fingerprint based on photographs of fingerprints on documents handled by da Vinci. Carpasso claimed that distinctive features in the fingerprint suggested the possibility that da Vinci’s mother was of Middle Eastern origin. However, experts point out that determining ethnicity or race by fingerprint is unreliable, as fingerprint features overlap between populations. Carpasso has also acknowledged that fingerprint features are not unique to certain populations.
Earlier in 2002, museum director Alessandro Vezzosi speculated that da Vinci’s mother, Caterina, might have been brought from Constantinople to Tuscany as a slave. Experts were skeptical of his revelations. In 2006, Vezzosi reiterated his claim to coincide with Carpasso’s research, but also warned that his theory cannot be ascertained, as no documents have been found to indicate Caterina being sold as a slave.
Leonardo da Vinci was described by his early biographers as a man with great personal appeal, kindness, and generosity. He was generally well loved by his contemporaries.
According to Vasari, “Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection”. He was “a sparkling conversationalist” who charmed Ludovico il Moro with his wit. Vasari sums him up by saying “In appearance he was striking and handsome, and his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. He was physically so strong that he could withstand violence and with his right hand he could bend the ring of an iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead. He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor…. Through his birth Florence received a very great gift, and through his death it sustained an incalculable loss.”
Some of Leonardo’s philosophies can be found in a series of fables that he wrote. Prevalent themes include the dangers of an inflated sense of self-worth, often as described in opposition to the benefits that one can gain through awareness, humility and endeavour.
Little is known about Leonardo’s intimate relationships from his own writing. Some evidence of Leonardo’s personal relationships emerges both from historic records and from the writings of his many biographers.
Leonardo maintained long-lasting relationships with two pupils who were apprenticed to him as children. These were Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, who entered his household in 1490 at the age of 10, and Count Francesco Melzi, the son of a Milan aristocrat who was apprenticed to Leonardo by his father in 1506, at the age of 14, remaining with him until his death.
Gian Giacomo was nicknamed Salai or il Salaino meaning “the little devil”. Vasari describes him as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair”. The “Little Devil” lived up to his nickname: a year after his entering the household Leonardo made a list of the boy’s misdemeanours, calling him “a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton”. But despite Salai’s thievery and general delinquency — he made off with money and valuables on at least five occasions, spent a fortune on apparel, including twenty-four pairs of shoes, and eventually died in a duel — he remained Leonardo’s servant, and assistant for thirty years. At Leonardo’s death he was bequeathed the Mona Lisa, a valuable piece even then, valued in Salai’s own will at the equivalent of £200,000.
Melzi accompanied Leonardo in his final days in France. On Leonardo’s death he wrote a letter to inform Leonardo’s brothers, describing him as “like an excellent father to me” and goes on to say “Everyone is grieved at the loss of such a man that Nature no longer has it in her power to produce.”  Melzi subsequently played an important role as the guardian of Leonardo’s notebooks, preparing them for publication in the form directed by the master, but was not to see this project realized.
Little is known about Leonardo’s sexuality, as, although he left hundreds of pages of writing, very little of it is personal in nature. He left no letters, poetry or diary that indicate any romantic interest. He never married and it cannot be stated with certainty that he had a sexually intimate relationship with any person, male or female. One of the few references that Leonardo made to sexuality in his notebooks states: “The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions.” This statement has been the subject of various extrapolations and interpretations in attempts to gain a picture of his sexuality.
The only historical document concerning Leonardo’s sexual life is an accusation of sodomy made in 1476, while he was still at the workshop of Verrocchio. Florentine court records show that on April 9, 1476, an anonymous denunciation was left in the tamburo (letter box) in the Palazzo della Signoria (town hall) accusing a young goldsmith and male prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli(sometimes referred to as an artist’s model) of being “party to many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who request such wickedness of him”. The denunciation accused four people of sodomizing Saltarelli: Leonardo da Vinci, a tailor named Baccino, Bartolomeo di Pasquino, and Leonardo Tornabuoni, a member of the aristocratic Tornabuoni family. Saltarelli’s name was known to the authorities because another man had been convicted of sodomy with him earlier the same year. Charges against the five were dismissed on the condition that no further accusations appear in the tamburo. The same accusation did in fact appear on June 7 but charges were again dismissed. The charges were dismissed because the accusations did not meet the legal requirement for prosecution: all accusations of sodomy had to be signed which this one was not. (Such accusations could be made secretly, but not anonymously.) There is speculation that since the family of one of the accused, Leonardo Tornabuoni, was associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, the family exerted its influence to secure the dismissal. Sodomy was theoretically an extremely serious offense, carrying the death penalty, but its very seriousness made it equally difficult to prove. False denunciations were quite common at that time especially via anonymous reports by one’s enemies, and such may have been the case here. Sodomy was also an offence for which punishment was very seldom handed down in contemporary Florence, where homosexuality was sufficiently widespread and tolerated to make the word Florenzer (Florentine) a slangword for homosexual in Germany.
Michael White points out that willingness to discuss aspects of Leonardo’s sexual identity has varied according to contemporary attitudes. His near-contemporary biographer Vasari makes no reference to Leonardo’s sexuality whatsoever. In the 20th century biographers made explicit reference to a probability that Leonardo was homosexual though others concluded that for much of his life he was celibate.
Elizabeth Abbott, in her History of Celibacy, contends that although Leonardo was probably homosexual, the trauma of the sodomy case converted him to celibacy for the rest of his life. A similar view of a homosexually inclined but chaste Leonardo appears in a famous 1910 paper by Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood, which analysed a memory Leonardo described of having been attacked as a baby by a bird of prey that opened his mouth and “stuck me with the tail inside my lips again and again”. Freud claimed the symbolism was clearly phallic, but argued that Leonardo’s homosexuality was latent: that he did not act on his desires. Freud’s work, and other, more recent, attempts to psychoanalyse Leonardo, are discussed at length in Bradley Collins’s book Leonardo, Psychoanalysis and Art History.
Other authors contend that Leonardo was actively homosexual. Serge Bramly states that “the fact that Leonardo warns against lustfulness certainly need not mean that he himself was chaste”. David M. Friedman argues that Leonardo’s notebooks show a preoccupation with men and with sexuality uninterrupted by the trial and agrees with art historian Kenneth Clark that Leonardo never became sexless. Michael White, in Leonardo: The First Scientist, says it is likely that the trial simply made Leonardo cautious and defensive about his personal relationships and sexuality, but did not dissuade him from intimate relationships with men: “there is little doubt that Leonardo remained a practising homosexual”. Other homosexual relationships, with a man named Fioravante di Domenico and a young falconer, Bernardo di Simone, are suggested in Michael White’s biography.
Leonardo’s late painting of John the Baptist is often cited as support of the case that Leonardo was homosexual. There is also an erotic drawing of Salai known as the The Incarnate Angel, perhaps by the hand of Leonardo, which was one of a number of such drawings once among those contained in the British Royal Collection, but later dispersed. The particular drawing, showing an angel with an erect phallus, was rediscovered in a German collection in 1991. It appears to be a humorous take on Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist. The painting of John the Baptist was copied by several of Leonardo’s followers, including Salai. The drawing may also be by one of Leonardo’s pupils, perhaps Salai himself, as it appears to have been drawn by the right, rather than the left hand, and bears strong resemblance to Salai’s copy of the painting.
Patrons, friends and colleagues
Leonardo da Vinci had a number of powerful patrons, including the King of France. He had, over the years, a large number of followers and pupils.
- His patrons included the Medici, Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia, in whose service he spent the years 1502 and 1503, and King Francis I of France.
- He had working relations with two other notable scientists, Luca Pacioli and Marcantonio della Torre, and was a close friend of Niccolò Machiavelli.
- He had a close, long-lasting friendship with Isabella d’Este, a renowned patroness of the arts, whose portrait he drew while on a journey that took him through Mantua.
- The de Predis brothers and collaboration on Virgin of the Rocks.
- Feud with Michelangelo
Giorgio Vasari says of the child Leonardo “He would have been very proficient in his early lessons, if he had not been so volatile and flexible; for he was always setting himself to learn a multitude of things, most of which were shortly abandoned. When he began the study of arithmetic, he made, within a few months, such remarkable progress that he could baffle his master with the questions and problems that he raised… All the time, through all his other enterprises, Leonardo never ceased drawing…”
Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, realising that his son’s talents were extraordinary, took some of his drawings to show his friend, Andrea del Verrocchio, who ran one of the largest artists’ workshops in Florence. Leonardo was accepted for apprenticeship and “soon proved himself a first class geometrician”. Vasari says that during his youth Leonardo made a number of clay heads of smiling women and children from which casts were still being made and sold by the workshop some 80 years later. Among his earliest significant known paintings are an Annunciation in the Uffizi, the angel that he painted as a collaboration with Verrocchio in the Baptism of Christ, and a small predella of the Annunciation to go beneath an altarpiece by Lorenzo di Credi. The little predella picture is probably the earliest.
The diversity of Leonardo’s interests, remarked on by Vasari as apparent in his early childhood, was to express itself in his journals which record his scientific observations of nature, his meticulous dissection of corpses to understand anatomy, his experiments with machines for flying, for generating power from water and for besieging cities, his studies of geometry and his architectural plans, as well as personal memos and creative writing including fables.
Leonardo sent the following letter to Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, in 1482:
Most Illustrious Lord: Having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count themselves masters and inventors in the instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened… to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets. I can construct bridges which are very light and strong and very portable with which to pursue and defeat an enemy… I can also make a kind of cannon, which is light and easy of transport, with which to hurl small stones like hail… I can noiselessly construct to any prescribed point subterranean passages — either straight or winding — passing if necessary under trenches or a river… I can make armored wagons carrying artillery, which can break through the most serried ranks of the enemy. In time of peace, I believe I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in the construction of buildings, both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to another. I can execute sculpture in bronze, marble or clay. Also, in painting, I can do as much as anyone, whoever he may be. If any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impractical to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make a trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.
It appears from Vasari’s description that Leonardo first learned to play the lyre as a child and that he was very talented at improvisation. In about 1479 he created a lyre in the shape of a horse’s head, which was made “mostly of silver”, and of “sonorous and resonant” tone. Lorenzo de’ Medici saw this lyre and wishing to better his relationship with Ludovico Sforza, the usurping Duke of Milan, he sent Leonardo to present this lyre to the Duke as a gift. Leonardo’s musical performances so far surpassed those of Ludovico’s court musicians that the Duke was delighted.
Love of nature
Leonardo always loved nature. One of the reasons was because of his childhood environment. Near his childhood house were mountains, trees, and rivers. There were also many animals. This environment gave him the perfect chance to study the surrounding area; it also may have encouraged him to have interest in painting. Later in life he recalls his exploration of an ominous cavern in the mountains as formative.
Leonardo’s love of animals has been documented both in contemporary accounts as recorded in early biographies, and in his notebooks. Remarkably for the period, he even questioned the morality of eating animals when it was not necessary for health. Statements from his notebook and a comment by a contemporary have led to the widely held view that he was vegetarian.
Edward MacCurdy (one of the two translators and compilers of Leonardo’s notebooks into English) wrote:
…The mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to him. Vasari tells, as an instance of his love of animals, how when in Florence he passed places where birds were sold he would frequently take them from their cages with his own hand, and having paid the sellers the price that was asked would let them fly away in the air, thus giving them back their liberty.
That this horror of inflicting pain was such as to lead him to be a vegetarian is to be inferred from a reference which occurs in a letter sent by Andrea Corsali to Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, in which, after telling him of an Indian race called Gujerats who neither eat anything that contains blood nor permit any injury to any living creature, he adds ‘like our Leonardo da Vinci.’
Leonardo wrote the following in his notebooks, which were not deciphered and made available for reading until the 19th century:
If you are as you have described yourself the king of the animals — it would be better for you to call yourself king of the beasts since you are the greatest of them all! — why do you not help them so that they may presently be able to give you their young in order to gratify your palate, for the sake of which you have tried to make yourself a tomb for all the animals? Even more I might say if to speak the entire truth were permitted me.
Weapons and war
One might question Leonardo’s concern for human life, given his weapon designs. Nothing came of his designs for offensive weapons. It is possible his mention of his capabilities of creating weapons helped him in his quest to find powerful patrons, or perhaps he was fond of drawing them as he was of gargoyles. He did work on fortifications, however. In his own words:
“When besieged by ambitious tyrants I find a means of offence and defense in order to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty; and first I would speak of the position of the walls, and then of how the various peoples can maintain their good and just lords.”
He referred to war as pazzia bestialissima, the most bestial madness.
“And thou, man, who by these labours dost look upon the marvelous works of nature, if thou judgest it to be an atrocious act to destroy the same, reflect that it is an infinitely atrocious act to take away the life of man.