There’s a new book by art historian Simon Hewitt due out in October – Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom. The publisher’s blurb on Amazon describes the work as “an in-depth investigation into the art, politics and muderous cynicism of Renaissance Milan and an academic detective story sketched out with erudition and journalistic panache.”
A more sensational approach was adopted by the publisher when informing various media channels. Hence the similar headlines that appeared with the story this week:
“Italians laughed at Leonardo da Vinci, the ginger genius”
“Master’s Misery: Leonardo da Vinci was bullied for being ginger and gay… ”
“Artist Leonardo da Vinci was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan”
“Fellow artists mocked Leonardo da Vinci for his red hair and sexual leanings”
Here’s part of the report behind the headline published by The Guardian:
Far from being admired as an extraordinary genius, Leonardo da Vinci was repeatedly lampooned and teased about his unusual red hair and his unconventional sexuality by other leading artists of his day. Although the work of the great Italian was popular in his time, an extensive new study of the artist to be published this week has outlined evidence that he was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan.
Author Simon Hewitt has unearthed a little-studied image held in Germany, a “comic strip” design made in 1495 to illustrate a poem, that showed how Leonardo was once ridiculed. In one of its colourful images, An Allegory of Justice, a ginger-haired clerk, or court lawyer, is shown seated at a desk, mesmerised by other young men, and represents Leonardo da Vinci. “The identity of Leonardo as the red-headed scribe is totally new,” Hewitt told the Observer ahead of the publication of Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom.
The key passage in Hewitt’s book identifies the painter through a series of clues in the precious illustration. He is shown as a “left-handed clerk … with a wooden lyre at his feet: evidently a caricature of Leonardo da Vinci”. The lyre was Leonardo’s instrument and his father, Ser Piero, who is depicted resting his right arm on his shoulder, “is brandishing a sheet of paper that surely represents the anonymous document denouncing Leonardo for sodomy, deposited in a Florence tamburo in April 1476”.
Close study of the illuminated manuscript copy of Gaspare Visconti’s epic poem Paolo e Daria, revealed to Hewitt that Leonardo da Vinci is also likely to be the object of ridicule because of the absent-minded way he is shown to be drawing on the tablecloth, rather than on his sketch notebooks, and by his apparent fascination with a half-naked young man who is clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”.
“Further evidence of Leonardo’s identity, and homosexual leanings, is provided by the group of eight strapping figures alongside,” argues Hewitt, who has conducted five years of research into Leonardo and his circle in search of the truth about a controversial portrait, La Bella Principessa…”
This is the illustration Simon Hewitt refers to that appears in Gaspare Visconti’s Romanazo e Diana.
I don’t have a problem with Leonardo being identified as the seated figure with his father Piero standing behind him. It’s a good spot by Hewitt. So also the left hand, but is the claim that Leonardo had ginger hair really valid? Compare the colour of his hair with the colour of the hair on the figures on the right. Haven’t they all got ‘ginger’ hair? If so, why has Hewitt placed the emphasis on Leonardo? There are depictions of Leonardo by other artists of his time which would dispute Hewitt’s claim.
But let’s assent to Hewitt’s opinion on the ginger hair and instead consider if there was a sound reason why the illustrator not only portrayed Leonardo with ginger hair – it may even be classed as ‘red’ or ‘golden’ – but also the group of figures on the right of the frame.
For sure this is a painting mostly about Leonardo da Vinci. Hewitt states that it points to Leonardo’s sexuality and the time he was charged with sodomy before he left Florence to work for Ludovicp Sforza, duke of Milan, seen sitting in judgement and conversing with Piero, Leonardo’s father, who was a notary by profession. Hewitt also points out the note in Piero’s right hand, suggesting it is the unsigned report posted to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo and others of sodomy. Yes, it is, and it isn’t. Leonardo was brought to court in Florence, not Milan, but the artist Birago is resurrecting this incident to confirm Leonardo’s identity in the picture.
Hewitt also points out another identifier to Leonardo, the broken lyre on the floor in front of the desk. Leonardo was a notable musician. He even presented a silver lyre in the shape of a horse-head as a gift to the duke when he arrived in Milan. So could the broken lyre be a metaphor for Leonardo’s brokenness – not referring to his sexuality – but to a damaged shoulder, the one on which his father’s right hand rests, as an outward sign of confirmation that not only is Leonardo his son in whom he is well pleased with, but also that the injury would be a cross to bear in life. It may also explain Leonardo’s tendency to write with his left hand. Whether this injury occured early in his life, it cannot be certain, but there are specific references to Leonardo’s shoulder in paintings by his contemporaries.
It is said that Leonardo once built a flying machine and launched himself into flight from the side of a hill. Again, paintings that depict Leonardo suggest the injury occured before he moved to Milan. Could it have been the result of his attempt at flying, a dislocated shoulder or a broken collar-bone,perhaps, as a result of a bumpy and uncontrolled landing?
Simon Hewitt also makes a point in his published comments that Leonardo is apparently fascinated with a half-naked young man who is apparently clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”. In reality the ‘contraption’ is the broken neck and strings of the lyre. It also serves to represent the flying machine Leonardo is said to have taken into the air, now broken in two after crash-landing. Notice the bird shape wings and its long neck – a reference to one of Leonardo’s paintings, Leda and the Swan. Notice also the shape of the split between the two pieces –another pointer to the Leda painting and the broken eggs. But can egg shells ever be repaired and put back together in one piece? Seemingly not by human hands. Just look at the fit between the two halves of the instrument. They don’t match. Divine intervention is required.
And so the illustrator takes us a step towards identifying the “half-naked” young man who Leonardo can’t take his eyes off. He does this by placing a ghostly “Manylion” feature or face of Christ as depicted on what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. It appears just under the neck of the lyre on the thigh of the man in the blue “shroud”.
The figure represents Jesus Christ, – a leader not a Leda – and points to the painting by Andrea Verocchio and which Leonardo had a hand in – The Baptism of Christ. In this work Leonardo is depicted as he kneelng angel in a blue gown, seemngly looking up at Jesus being baptised by John. This could explain why the illustrator has depicted Leonardo seated at his desk looking up at the ‘half-naked’ man. In the Baptism painting, Jesus is shown ‘half-naked”.
The model for the head pf Jesus is possbly Andrea del Verocchio, Leonardo’s tutor and master during his apprenticeship in Florence – an adopted father, after his family sent him to train as an artist in Verocchio’s studio where he remained until he moved to MIlan. See the similarity in the two portraits representing Jesus; the plumpness in the face and the heavy eyes and there is even a suggestion of a light beard in both. See also the highlighted right collar bone and another pointer to Leonardo’s injury.
So now we have three ‘father figures’ in the miniature that Leonardo could relate to: his natural father, Piero, standing in support behind him; Ludovico Sforza, who took Leonardo under his wing in MIlan; and Andrea del Verocchio during his training period in Florence.
As to repairing the broken instrument, Leonardo would have been famliar with Scripture and the words of Jesus – “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And who is the red-haired woman standing next to Jesus? Could it be the woman caught in adultery by the scribes and the Pharisees. They wanted to stone her as the law of Moses provided for, but Jesus responded by writing on the ground with his finger and saying, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8: 7). Observe also the ‘hook’ feature that represents the swan’s head, yet another scripture reference to include both Leonardo and the adulterous woman. It refers to the period shortly after the baptism of Jesus and when he dealt with temptation in the wilderness. On his return to Galilee Jesus saw the brothers Simon and Andrew casting their net in the lake and called out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4: 19).
So this brings the analysis back to Leonardo sitting at the table – scribing, so to speak. Hewitt points out that Leonardo is so distracted by the “half-naked” man that he is absent-mindely drawing on the tablecloth. But this is the illustrator’s method of pointing to Jesus seemingly not paying attention to the scribes and Pharisees by writing on the ground with his finger. It’s also a reference to the Mosaic Law and Moses writing on tablets or tables. Leonardo was considered a ‘Moses’ figure by some, recording the laws of nature in his notebooks and perhaps even for covering up his “crime” as the prophet did when he killed an Egyptian guard and buried him in the sand.
There is other iconography which points to Leonardo, perhaps even issuing a warning to others and recalling the wooden horse of Troy and its associated adage: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Leonardo had writen and informed Ludovico Sforza that he wanted to produce a horse sculpture as a monument to the duke’s father Francesco Sforza. For reasons I won’t go into here it was started but never completed. The table at which Leonardo sits represents the wooden horse and a likely reference to the scaffolding used to construct the initial clay model. It’s head is formed by the upper part of the wooden lyre. The blue cloth serves as a cover for the work in progress. Beneath the table there is an anomaly. Leonardo is depicted with only one leg, a direct reference by the illustrator to Leonardo’s masculinity hidden under the table or inside the horse.
A less obvious narrative in this miniature again points to Leonardo and one of his paintings. Two notebooks are placed on the table both with pronounced markings, spots, in fact. They refer to the phrase that “a LEOpard never changes its spots”, meaning that Leonardo’s sexuality is as it is, but more importantly they connect to the lyre and represent musical notation by the notary’s son Leonardo and the painting attributed to him: Portrait of a Musician. In the painting the musician is seen holding in his right hand a piece of paper with musical notation written on it; the piece of paper that Piero is passing into Leonardo’s right hand, or perhaps taking from it – not just a piece of paper, but also a piece of music. See how the illustrator has matched the ‘ginger’ and curled-fringe look of Leonardo’s hair with that of the Musician. Could it be that the Musician is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? Why else would the illustrator draw attention to the painting in this way? Perhaps also the golden-haired figures grouped at the side of Jesus represent a heavenly choir of angels conducted by Leonardo with a small baton doubling up as a writing tool in his left hand. Leonardo liked his angels.
At this stage it is worth pointing out that the illustration was likely inspired by another source that depicts Leonardo in similar circumstances, where he is accompanied by his father and judgement is passed. It’s one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, and part of a series that illustrates the lives of Moses and Jesus. The particular fresco is titled the Testimony and Death of Moses, part of which shows the prophet passing on the baton to Joshua. The kneeling Joshua is in fact Leonardo sa Vinci. His father Piero, the notary defined by his scrolled hat, stands behind his son, his right hand pointing to Leonardo’s ‘winged’ shoulder. More about this here.
Seated on the judgement seat is Lady Justice with scales and sword. She wears no blindfold, so her impartiality is questionable. The scales of justice are broken as one of the pans is missing. Justice, it seems, will not be applied evenly. Does she favour Leonardo, or not? In his book, Hewitt identifies the woman as Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza. Ludovico, sceptre in hand is the man in the middle, the fulcrum. In his hands is the balance of power – justice according to the duke’s measure. As to the armoured lady, I can’t be certain. She sits alongside Ludovico and therefore possibly his wife Beatrice d’Este who died in childbirth at the age of 21. On the other hand it could be speculated that she represents Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza, heavily disguised in dark armour. Like Beatrice she also died young – just three months earlier when she was only 14 – but in mysterious circumstances. Her peacock-head helmet could be considered symbolic of her resurrection. If it is Beatrice, then she’s there for a reason that connects to Leonardo, possibly because he knew the cause of her death. He hinted at it in the portrait he made of Beatrice which came to light in recent years and was titled La Bella Princepessa by the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp.
As for who Lady Justice might be, try Lucrezia Tornbuoni, mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence at the time of Leonardo’s arrest along with three other men on a charge of sodomy. One of them was named Leonardo Tornabuoni.
UPDATE: February 18, 2022
• Another view on the identities of the four figures in Verrocchio’s painting, The Baptism of Christ, is that the Baptist figure and the kneeling angel both represent Leonardo da Vinci, and the figure of Christ and the second kneeling angel represent Sandro Botticelli who may also have studied at Verrocchio’s workshop as did Leonardo. While the angel Botticelli has his head turned in admiration for the angel Leonardo, who is Leonardo actually looking at, Christ or himself portrayed as John the Baptist?