Da Vinci's sex life reveals a complex understanding of male love

Leonardo da Vinci is celebrated for his astonishing genius and inventive mind. Historian Elizabeth Abbott argues that understanding da Vinci’s sex life, or lack thereof, provides a rare glimpse into how sexuality and male love was understood and practised in Renaissance Italy — and what it may mean for looking at his achievements today.

Leonardo da Vinci ‘loved penises,’ but remained celibate argues historian Elizabeth Abbott

Historian Elizabeth Abbott argues that understanding Leonardo da Vinci’s sex life, or lackthereof, provides a rare glimpse into how sexuality and male love was understood and practised in Renaissance Italy. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

* Originally published January 28, 2020.

Leonardo da Vinci is known as a brilliant artist and scientist — a genius who dreamed up flying machines 400 years before the first airplane ever took flight.

He's also known for his exquisite art, and the ways he captured the complexity and nuance of female beauty. In his life, his relationships with women were positive, supportive and kind.

But he was repulsed by female sexuality. 

"He had an almost clinical perception of heterosexual intercourse," said historian Elizabeth Abbott in a lecture she delivered at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"He said, quote: 'the sexual act of coitus and the body parts employed for it are so repulsive, that were it not for the beauty of the faces and the adornment of the actors and the pent-up impulse, nature would lose the human species.'" 

Coition of a Hemisected Man and Woman ⁠— a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. (Wikimedia)

She points to a sketch da Vinci drafted of heterosexual intercourse as a prime example of his revulsion.

"The woman is only represented by her cavities — there is no face, or head, or torso," Abbott observed in conversation with IDEAS host, Nahlah Ayed.

"He referred to [sexual intercourse] as repellent. And certainly this would be a good illustration of that point of view."

Meanwhile, he drew countless beautiful sketches of the phallus and anus.

"He loved penises," said Abbott, who is a senior research associate at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

"In fact, he wrote: 'The penis sometimes displays an intellect of its own. When a man may desire it to be stimulated it remains obstinate and goes its own way, sometimes moving on its own without the permission of its owner. Whether he is awake or sleeping, it does what it desires. Often when the man wishes to use it, it desires otherwise. And often it wishes to be used and the man forbids it. Therefore, it appears that this creature possesses a life and intelligence separate from the men.'"

Humiliated into celibacy

Abbott describes da Vinci as homosexual — a term that would not have been understood in Renaissance Italy, where male love was accepted and celebrated.

"His sort of male sexuality was understood and accepted," said Abbott. "He preferred the company of and the beauty of men…But what was despised [in Renaissance Italy] was sodomy. Why? It was probably because it was considered by the Church to be unnatural.  Sex was supposed to be for procreation only."

A 16th century drawing of Salai in fancy-dress costume by Leonardo da Vinci. (Wikimedia)

In 1476, Leonardo da Vinci was arrested by the Office of the Night under the accusation of sodomy. The Office of the Night was the moral policing unit in Florence. While eventually acquitted, the experience was so humiliating for him that Abbott argues da Vinci vowed himself to live a life of celibacy.

"Celibacy is defined in many different ways. For him it was not a privation," she argues. "I think it's a kind of celibacy that was very satisfying for him."

She points out that he continued to surround himself with beautiful young men, and developed a deep relationship with a young man named Salai, who lived with Leonardo for more than 30 years as his muse and artistic inspiration — despite da Vinci's own observations about how rude and untrustworthy Salai could be.

"Some claimed that [Salai] was his lover," said Abbott. "But I prefer to describe him as the keeper of Leonardo's erotic fantasies. I don't think that ... he actually had sex with him. He dressed him lavishly like a doll often in pink and dandyfied clothes and extravagant stockings and 24 pairs of shoes! It was an awful lot of shoes back in the Renaissance."

She says that the way da Vinci directed his sexuality helps us recognize the fluidity of sexual identity today.

"We are so intent on understanding and defining ourselves," Abbott said. "I think it's fascinating to realize that the concept of homosexuality as we know it didn't even exist then."

And of course, Leonardo's distaste for women's sexuality did not influence his skill and passion for painting them, so long as they were fully clothed.

Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci beside his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. (Wikimedia/Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images)

"He was very pro-women and he had good relations with many of them," said Abbott, pointing out the care and artistry he displays in his painting of the Mona Lisa, and the lesser-known portrait of a young Ginevra.

She argues the beauty and sensitivity of da Vinci's portraits of women would not have been possible if he did not develop a respect and connection with them. 

Elizabeth Abbott has a doctorate from McGill University in 19th century history. (John Loper)

Elizabeth Abbott is an award-winning writer and historian whose books have been translated into 20 languages. She has a special interest in women's issues, social justice, the treatment and lives of animals and the environment. She is a senior research associate at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. 

Her books include the best-selling trilogy, A History of Celibacy, A History of Mistresses and A History of Marriage. She recently finished writing Shaking the Lion's Paw: The Trials of Nelson Hackett, a novel based on the true story about an slave who fled to Canada only to be legally re-enslaved in an egregious miscarriage of justice.

The lecture she delivered at Carleton University in Ottawa is called Spying on Leonardo: The Coerced, Cautious and Zigzaggy Stages Of Leonardo da Vinci's Celibacy.

Special thanks to Carleton University's Leonardo Cinquecento Committee and its chair Angelo MIngarelli for permission to record the presentation.

* This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic


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