Friday, February 3, 2012

Da Vinci: The Early Years and Beyond, Part 2


Last week’s brief bio of Leonardo Da Vinci’s early years raised an interesting aspect, that of Leonardo’s sexuality, interesting not because of any finger pointing but in the role, if any, it played in his art.

Some comments:

Not much is known of Leonardo’s sexuality.  Although he left hundreds of pages of writing, very little of it is personal in nature and none indicates any romantic interest. He never married and there is no information that he had a sexually intimate relationship with any person, male or female. 

One of the few references that Leonardo made to sexuality is in one his notebooks, which 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.

In 1476, whilst Leonardo was still at Verrochio’s workshop, he was anonymously accused of sodomy, a serious offence at the time and punishable by death.  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 engaging in sodomy with Saltarelli: Leonardo da Vinci, Baccino, a tailor; 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.  

The charges were dismissed on the condition that there were no more accusations placed in the letter box.  In fact further accusations were lodged but these were also dismissed in that they did not meet the evidentiary requirements for prosecution, namely that whilst accusations could be made secretly, they could not be made anonymously.  This accusation had not been signed.

Although the offence of sodomy was punishable by death, in practice it was seldom punished and was widespread in Florence, so much so that the word Florenzer (Florentine) was a slang word for homosexual in Germany.

Leonardo’s near-contemporary biographer Vasari (1511-1574) makes no reference to Leonardo's sexuality whatsoever. This may be attributable to Leonardo wanting his sexuality to remain private, his livelihood depending on patrons and the Church.  In contrast a number of 20th century biographers have made explicit reference to a probability that Leonardo was homosexual.  Others have concluded that for much of his life he was celibate.  At least one author, Elizabeth Barrett, has postulated that Leonardo was gay but that the sodomy case traumatised him into becoming celibate thereafter.  A different conclusion has been reached by other biographers, who maintain that he continued an active homosexual lifestyle but that he kept it secret after the sodomy charge.  

Even Sigmund Freud had an opinion.  In his 1910 paper Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, Freud 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.

Those who argue that Leonardo was gay, irrespective of whether he practised celibacy or followed his sexuality actively, point to his depiction of young boys in his paintings, his portrayal of an effeminate John in The Last Supper, and the fact that he had several young male proteges and no wife and kids. 

Also advanced as support for such proposition is that Leonardo lived with his apprentice, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed "Salai", for nearly 30 years.  Salai ("The Devil") was a pupil of Leonardo from 1490 to 1518 and was described as one of Leonardo's closest students and companions.  He is the presumed model for Leonardo's paintings St John the Baptist and Bacchus. On Leonardo's death, he inherited the Mona Lisa.

Salai joined Leonardo's household at the age of ten as an assistant. Vasari describes Salaì as "a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted"   Salaì became a capable, although not very impressive, painter, who created several works, including the Monna Vanna, a nude version of the Mona Lisa, which may be based on a lost nude by Leonardo.  It is pictured below.

Discovered amongst Leonardo’s works after his death is a drawing of a male figure with an erect phallus.  The work is known as The Angel Incarnate and it appears to be of Salai as he is depicted in Leonardo’s work John the Baptist.  It may have been drawn by Leonardo, by Salaqi or by someone else entirely.  An edited version is shown below.  To see the full work, google Angel Incarnate and do an image search or click on:

What is of greater interest is that in February 2011, researchers in Italy stated that they had discovered that Salai was the model for the Mona Lisa.  The story can be read at:
According to the above report, quoting comments from Silvano Vinceti, Chairman of the Italian National Committee for Cultural Heritage:

Comparisons between the facial characteristics of figures from several of da Vinci's works - such as Saint John the Baptist and the Angel Incarnate - reveal striking similarities with the Mona Lisa's nose and mouth, he said.
What is more, Mr Vinceti said da Vinci had left clues to the model's identity in tiny letters L and S that he and his team found painted into the eyes of the Mona Lisa.
"Close examination of a high-quality digital copy of the portrait had revealed an L for Leonardo and an S for Salai," he said.

Consider the following:

Portrait of Salai by a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, Circa 1502–3 (or by Leonardo himself?)

St John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, painted 1513-1516

An edited version of The Angel Incarnate

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa with Salai’s head

Derek Blair at has some telling points to make and fascinating depictions that are well worth the time to read and view.  See them at the following website where you can click on the menu for hours of interesting browsing:

According to Blair:

-  Mona Lisa is an anagram of Mon Salai, meaning “My Salai” in French.

-  Leonardo painted the portrait of Salai.

-  The Salai portrait overlays the Mona Lisa perfectly:

-  The St John the Baptist work and the Mona Lisa also align:

Da Vinci’s famous self-portrait aligns with the Salai portrait and the Mona Lisa:

Blair believes that Leonardo’s creation of the Mona Lisa was the artistic creation by Leonardo of a child, a combined depiction of himself and Salai as a third person.

Whatever the answer, it is even more interesting than Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.


  1. Leonardo da Vinci, his Students, Salai and Melzi, and his contemporaries never referred to the famous portrait as the 'Mona Lisa'. This was a title that was attributed many years later by persons unknown. In documents that still exist from that era which listed Leonardo's possessions, the painting is referred to, but not by name. In his estate papers listing his belongings after his death, it is again mentioned. Francesco Melzi inherited them all and sorted them out over the following years. He never referred to it as the 'Mona Lisa' either. The fact that it is anagramatic of 'Mon Salai' is coincidental and not exactly accurate as the Italian version would be M-add-onna Lisa. Using the French 'Mon' to make up an anagram which suits is a stretch of someone's vivid imagination.
    It is an unfortunate facet of human nature that we like to 'tidy' things up and form conclusions that do not exist in reality. We abhor a vacuum and rush to fill it.

  2. "Mona Lisa" was the title given by Vassari Leonardo's first biographer. That is not unknown. Salai inherited the painting "Mona Lisa" and subsequently sold it to the king of france. Also, Leonardo died in the service of the same FRENCH king so it's not a far stretch that Leo would have used french. Salino is another version of Salai's name and is also an anagram for ona lisa - Salai means "little devil" and was a nick name Leo gave to him. The bridge in the background of Mona Lisa is called "The Devils Bridge" The painting St John the Baptist is based off of Salai - and both faces from that painting and the Mona Lisa align perfectly. Coincidence? How many coincidences does it take to be somethingi more than that? has more. Hope you will take another and more opened minded look.


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