Sexuality undoubtedly influences both the creation of art and its posthumous understanding. Here we look at two celebrated classical artists whose queer identity has drastically informed their practice and their celebration.
Leonardo da Vinci’s public entanglement with sexuality came about in 1476, aged 24, when sodomy charges were pressed against him and three other men for engaging in sexual relations with a 17-year old male artist model. Homosexuality was common practice in central and northern Italy in Renaissance times and mainly took on a pederast form. It was associated with a number of prominent artists including Michelangelo, whose poems seem to have been directed at male love and are now included in various gay poetry anthologies. Still, charges of sodomy were very serious and could lead to death penalties; most importantly to our case, they deeply affected the public consideration of an artist, thus gravely damaging his career (it should also be remembered how the Church was one of the main commissioners of artworks).
There is no record of any relationships between Leonardo and women. There is, however, ample evidence that suggests Leonardo greatly enjoyed male friendship and, possibly, companionship. Francesco Melzi, a pupil who joined the da Vinci household in 1506 aged 14, moved to France and remained at Leonardo’s side until the latter’s death in 1519, when he was named administer of the estate.
Attention to Leonardo’s sexuality came in 1910, when psychiatrist Sigmund Freud published his famous article Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood. Freud conducted a psychoanalytic reading of Leonardo’s paintings and notebooks and, despite being proved a distorted portrait of the Italian painter, it attributed celibacy to the master, a view still shared among art historians. Many view the widespread presence of male nudity in his sketches as both evidence of Leonardo’s sexuality and a sublimation of his sexual desire, censored by the sodomy trial. As rightfully highlighted by Freud, there is great attention and depiction of male genitalia and anal sphincters in Leonardo’s sketches, while there is little presence of female genitalia which was inaccurately represented.
If Freud was the first to openly address Leonardo’s homosexuality in academic circles, it was thanks to artist Marcel Duchamp and his moustached Mona Lisa that Leonardo’s sexual orientation would forever be associated with one of the most famous painting of all time. The 1919 ironic take on the Mona Lisa was entitled L.H.O.O.Q., a play on words which reads elle a chaud au cul (meaning “she is hot in the arse”). This is a French way of describing a very sexually-exuberant woman. Nevertheless, not all scholars agree on Leonardo’s celibacy and as early as 1939 Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery in London, pointed out how the lack of record does not imply a lack of activity and, possibly, Leonardo might have merely been more cautious after the sodomy charges.
Knowledge of Leonardo’s sexuality can only deepen our fascination for one of the world’s greatest geniuses, but can only limit the viewer’s appreciation of his oeuvre, as such a loud discourse can irrevocably direct the gaze in specific directions, as famously happened to historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
Winckelmann was openly homosexual and it is accepted by most scholars that his sexuality influenced both his interest and understanding of male nudity. Winckelmann himself declared: “those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art.” As Freud noted Leonardo’s different treatment of male and female genitalia, Winckelmann’s scrutiny of male genitalia in sculpture was also highlighted. This process is what led him to flag the different sizes of testicles, which he just explained as a realistic depiction. The knowledge he gained first-hand in his private life would also help him perceive the nuances in the representation of pubic hair; while this sounds like a kinky anecdote to most, his ability to appreciate the representation of different stages of puberty and adulthood was fundamental in his understanding of what type of male beauty was mostly celebrated in ancient sculpture.
Androgyny, the pinnacle of beauty, was understood by Winckelmann as the ideal combination between the manliness of an adolescent boy and the sinuous lines of feminine youth. However, the Belvedere Torso – one of the artworks central to Winckelmann’s art theory – was the embodiment of virility and masculinity. Winckelmann’s desire brings the inanimate statue to life as his hands and words vigorously grab the marble: “How magnificent is the arching of that chest! It must have been against a chest like this that the giant Antaeus and the three-headed Geryon were crushed. Ask those who know the best in mortal perfection whether they have ever seen a flank that can compare with the left side of this statue.”
What is mostly fascinating about the Belvedere Torso is the uncanny similarity with millions of Grindr profile pictures. While the bust has been the accepted format for sculptural portraits of virility for centuries, the fragmentation of ancient statues also led to the existence of thousands of muscular limbs, exhibited everywhere in the world, which exude masculinity and sensuality. This is possibly a reason of why the ‘beheaded format’ is still popular in social media.
At the end of the day, a great portrait makes us wonder about its inspiration, and knowing the details that aroused such beauty makes the subject portrayed even more universal. Art helped artists sublimate their love gains and losses, and still succeeds in helping viewers sublimate theirs.
Words: Matteo Walsh Augello