Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud
Leonardo da Vinci
Sigmund Freud
2:39 h History Lvl 6
Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood (German: Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci) is a 1910 essay by Sigmund Freud about Leonardo da Vinci. It consists of a psychoanalytic study of Leonardo's life based on his paintings.

Leonardo Da Vinci

A Psychosexual Study of an
Infantile Reminiscence

by
Dr. Sigmund Freud


Leonardo da Vinci

I

WHEN psychoanalytic investigation, which usually contents itself with frail human material, approaches the great personages of humanity, it is not impelled to it by motives which are often attributed to it by laymen. It does not strive “to blacken the radiant and to drag the sublime into the mire”; it finds no satisfaction in diminishing the distance between the perfection of the great and the inadequacy of the ordinary objects. But it cannot help finding that everything is worthy of understanding that can be perceived through those prototypes, and it also believes that none is so big as to be ashamed of being subject to the laws which control the normal and morbid actions with the same strictness.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was admired even by his contemporaries as one of the greatest men of the Italian Renaissance, still even then he appeared as mysterious to them as he now appears to us. An all-sided genius, “whose form can only be divined but never deeply fathomed,” he exerted the most decisive influence on his time as an artist; and it remained to us to recognize his greatness as a naturalist which was united in him with the artist. Although he left masterpieces of the art of painting, while his scientific discoveries remained unpublished and unused, the investigator in him has never quite left the artist, often it has severely injured the artist and in the end it has perhaps suppressed the artist altogether. According to Vasari, Leonardo reproached himself during the last hour of his life for having insulted God and men because he has not done his duty to his art. And even if Vasari’s story lacks all probability and belongs to those legends which began to be woven about the mystic master while he was still living, it nevertheless retains indisputable value as a testimonial of the judgment of those people and of those times.

What was it that removed the personality of Leonardo from the understanding of his contemporaries? Certainly not the many sidedness of his capacities and knowledge, which allowed him to install himself as a player of the lyre on an instrument invented by himself, in the court of Lodovico Sforza, nicknamed Il Moro, the Duke of Milan, or which allowed him to write to the same person that remarkable letter in which he boasts of his abilities as a civil and military engineer. For the combination of manifold talents in the same person was not unusual in the times of the Renaissance; to be sure Leonardo himself furnished one of the most splendid examples of such persons. Nor did he belong to that type of genial persons who are outwardly poorly endowed by nature, and who on their side place no value on the outer forms of life, and in the painful gloominess of their feelings fly from human relations. On the contrary he was tall and symmetrically built, of consummate beauty of countenance and of unusual physical strength, he was charming in his manner, a master of speech, and jovial and affectionate to everybody. He loved beauty in the objects of his surroundings, he was fond of wearing magnificent garments and appreciated every refinement of conduct. In his treatise on the art of painting he compares in a significant passage the art of painting with its sister arts and thus discusses the difficulties of the sculptor: “Now his face is entirely smeared and powdered with marble dust, so that he looks like a baker, he is covered with small marble splinters, so that it seems as if it snowed on his back, and his house is full of stone splinters, and dust. The case of the painter is quite different from that; for the painter is well dressed and sits with great comfort before his work, he gently and very lightly brushes in the beautiful colors. He wears as decorative clothes as he likes, and his house is filled with beautiful paintings and is spotlessly clean. He often enjoys company, music, or some one may read for him various nice works, and all this can be listened to with great pleasure, undisturbed by any pounding from the hammer and other noises.”

It is quite possible that the conception of a beaming jovial and happy Leonardo was true only for the first and longer period of the master’s life. From now on, when the downfall of the rule of Lodovico Moro forced him to leave Milan, his sphere of action and his assured position, to lead an unsteady and unsuccessful life until his last asylum in France, it is possible that the luster of his disposition became pale and some odd features of his character became more prominent. The turning of his interest from his art to science which increased with age must have also been responsible for widening the gap between himself and his contemporaries. All his efforts with which, according to their opinion, he wasted his time instead of diligently filling orders and becoming rich as perhaps his former classmate Perugino, seemed to his contemporaries as capricious playing, or even caused them to suspect him of being in the service of the “black art.” We who know him from his sketches understand him better. In a time in which the authority of the church began to be substituted by that of antiquity and in which only theoretical investigation existed, he the forerunner, or better the worthy competitor of Bacon and Copernicus, was necessarily isolated. When he dissected cadavers of horses and human beings, and built flying apparatus, or when he studied the nourishment of plants and their behavior towards poisons, he naturally deviated much from the commentators of Aristotle and came nearer the despised alchemists, in whose laboratories the experimental investigations found some refuge during these unfavorable times.

The effect that this had on his paintings was that he disliked to handle the brush, he painted less and what was more often the case, the things he began were mostly left unfinished; he cared less and less for the future fate of his works. It was this mode of working that was held up to him as a reproach from his contemporaries to whom his behavior to his art remained a riddle.

Many of Leonardo’s later admirers have attempted to wipe off the stain of unsteadiness from his character. They maintained that what is blamed in Leonardo is a general characteristic of great artists. They said that even the energetic Michelangelo who was absorbed in his work left many incompleted works, which was as little due to his fault as to Leonardo’s in the same case. Besides some pictures were not as unfinished as he claimed, and what the layman would call a masterpiece may still appear to the creator of the work of art as an unsatisfied embodiment of his intentions; he has a faint notion of a perfection which he despairs of reproducing in likeness. Least of all should the artist be held responsible for the fate which befalls his works.

As plausible as some of these excuses may sound they nevertheless do not explain the whole state of affairs which we find in Leonardo. The painful struggle with the work, the final flight from it and the indifference to its future fate may be seen in many other artists, but this behavior is shown in Leonardo to highest degree. Edm. Solmi cites (p. 12) the expression of one of his pupils: “Pareva, che ad ogni ora tremasse, quando si poneva a dipingere, e però no diede mai fine ad alcuna cosa cominciata, considerando la grandezza dell’arte, tal che egli scorgeva errori in quelle cose, che ad altri parevano miracoli.” His last pictures, Leda, the Madonna di Saint Onofrio, Bacchus and St. John the Baptist, remained unfinished “come quasi intervenne di tutte le cose sue.” Lomazzo, who finished a copy of The Holy Supper, refers in a sonnet to the familiar inability of Leonardo to finish his works:

“Protogen che il penel di sue pitture
Non levava, agguaglio il Vinci Divo,
Di cui opra non è finita pure.”

The slowness with which Leonardo worked was proverbial. After the most thorough preliminary studies he painted The Holy Supper for three years in the cloister of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. One of his contemporaries, Matteo Bandelli, the writer of novels, who was then a young monk in the cloister, relates that Leonardo often ascended the scaffold very early in the morning and did not leave the brush out of his hand until twilight, never thinking of eating or drinking. Then days passed without putting his hand on it, sometimes he remained for hours before the painting and derived satisfaction from studying it by himself. At other times he came directly to the cloister from the palace of the Milanese Castle where he formed the model of the equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza, in order to add a few strokes with the brush to one of the figures and then stopped immediately. According to Vasari he worked for years on the portrait of Monna Lisa, the wife of the Florentine de Gioconda, without being able to bring it to completion. This circumstance may also account for the fact that it was never delivered to the one who ordered it but remained with Leonardo who took it with him to France. Having been procured by King Francis I, it now forms one of the greatest treasures of the Louvre.

When one compares these reports about Leonardo’s way of working with the evidence of the extraordinary amount of sketches and studies left by him, one is bound altogether to reject the idea that traits of flightiness and unsteadiness exerted the slightest influence on Leonardo’s relation to his art. On the contrary one notices a very extraordinary absorption in work, a richness in possibilities in which a decision could be reached only hestitatingly, claims which could hardly be satisfied, and an inhibition in the execution which could not even be explained by the inevitable backwardness of the artist behind his ideal purpose. The slowness which was striking in Leonardo’s works from the very beginning proved to be a symptom of his inhibition, a forerunner of his turning away from painting which manifested itself later. It was this slowness which decided the not undeserving fate of The Holy Supper. Leonardo could not take kindly to the art of fresco painting which demands quick work while the background is still moist, it was for this reason that he chose oil colors, the drying of which permitted him to complete the picture according to his mood and leisure. But these colors separated themselves from the background upon which they were painted and which isolated them from the brick wall; the blemishes of this wall and the vicissitudes to which the room was subjected seemingly contributed to the inevitable deterioration of the picture.

The picture of the cavalry battle of Anghiari, which in competition with Michelangelo he began to paint later on a wall of the Sala de Consiglio in Florence and which he also left in an unfinished state, seemed to have perished through the failure of a similar technical process. It seems here as if a peculiar interest, that of the experimenter, at first reënforced the artistic, only later to damage the art production.

The character of the man Leonardo evinces still some other unusual traits and apparent contradictions. Thus a certain inactivity and indifference seemed very evident in him. At a time when every individual sought to gain the widest latitude for his activity, which could not take place without the development of energetic aggression towards others, he surprised every one through his quiet peacefulness, his shunning of all competition and controversies. He was mild and kind to all, he was said to have rejected a meat diet because he did not consider it just to rob animals of their lives, and one of his special pleasures was to buy caged birds in the market and set them free. He condemned war and bloodshed and designated man not so much as the king of the animal world, but rather as the worst of the wild beasts. But this effeminate delicacy of feeling did not prevent him from accompanying condemned criminals on their way to execution in order to study and sketch in his notebook their features, distorted by fear, nor did it prevent him from inventing the most cruel offensive weapons, and from entering the service of Cesare Borgia as chief military engineer. Often he seemed to be indifferent to good and evil, or he had to be measured with a special standard. He held a high position in Cesare’s campaign which gained for this most inconsiderate and most faithless of foes the possession of the Romagna. Not a single line of Leonardo’s sketches betrays any criticism or sympathy of the events of those days. The comparison with Goethe during the French campaign cannot here be altogether rejected.

If a biographical effort really endeavors to penetrate the understanding of the psychic life of its hero it must not, as happens in most biographies through discretion or prudery, pass over in silence the sexual activity or the sex peculiarity of the one examined. What we know about it in Leonardo is very little but full of significance. In a period where there was a constant struggle between riotous licentiousness and gloomy asceticism, Leonardo presented an example of cool sexual rejection which one would not expect in an artist and a portrayer of feminine beauty. Solmi cites the following sentence from Leonardo showing his frigidity: “The act of procreation and everything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if it were not a traditional custom and if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions.” His posthumous works which not only treat of the greatest scientific problems but also comprise the most guileless objects which to us do not seem worthy of so great a mind (an allegorical natural history, animal fables, witticisms, prophecies), are chaste to a degree — one might say abstinent — that in a work of belle lettres would excite wonder even to-day. They evade everything sexual so thoroughly, as if Eros alone who preserves everything living was no worthy material for the scientific impulse of the investigator. It is known how frequently great artists found pleasure in giving vent to their phantasies in erotic and even grossly obscene representations; in contradistinction to this Leonardo left only some anatomical drawings of the woman’s internal genitals, the position of the child in the womb, etc.

It is doubtful whether Leonardo ever embraced a woman in love, nor is it known that he ever entertained an intimate spiritual relation with a woman as in the case of Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna. While he still lived as an apprentice in the house of his master Verrocchio, he with other young men were accused of forbidden homosexual relations which ended in his acquittal. It seems that he came into this suspicion because he employed as a model a boy of evil repute. When he was a master he surrounded himself with handsome boys and youths whom he took as pupils. The last of these pupils Francesco Melzi, accompanied him to France, remained with him until his death, and was named by him as his heir. Without sharing the certainty of his modern biographers, who naturally reject the possibility of a sexual relation between himself and his pupils as a baseless insult to this great man, it may be thought by far more probable that the affectionate relationships of Leonardo to the young men did not result in sexual activity. Nor should one attribute to him a high measure of sexual activity.

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