Leonardo da Vinci’s private relationships: what’s known?

As a new drama starring Aidan Turner portrays the Renaissance polymath’s work and relationships, historian Catherine Fletcher considers what is known about the private, romantic and sexual life of Leonardo da Vinci – from accusations of sodomy to a significant bond with an apprentice…

Drawing of an old and young man, possibly Salai, by Leonardo da Vinci

On 9 April 1476, Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy in an anonymous report to the Florentine authorities. Leonardo, then just short of his 24th birthday, was one of four men said to have had sex with the 17-year-old Jacopo Saltarelli. The denouncer claimed that Saltarelli had been “a party to many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who exact certain evil pleasures from him”. Saltarelli had apparently “served several dozen people”, but just four were named: Leonardo da Vinci, then based at the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio; a goldsmith named Bartholomeo di Pasquino; a tailor named Baccino; and Leonardo Tornabuoni. This last-named man was a member of a prominent Florentine family who were intermarried with the Medici rulers of the city. As an anonymous denunciation, however, the report was not accepted, and less than two months later the group was absolved on condition that they were not reported again.

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Leonardo da Vinci
A suspected self- portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Although sodomy was illegal, it was very common for young men in Renaissance Florence to have sex with other men. In his book Forbidden Friendships, historian Michael Rocke showed that in the later 15th century, an absolute majority of Florentine men appeared on magistrates’ lists of men suspected of the offence. This figure might seem astonishing today, but it reflects a very different set of sexual norms in the historical period. Policing was relatively light. Only about 20 per cent of those accused of sodomy were actually convicted, and fines were not always collected in full. There was certainly religious hostility to sodomy: it was a prominent theme in the preaching of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who rose to power in Florence in the 1490s. Yet alongside that hostility was a degree of acceptance. The list of Renaissance men who had sexual or romantic relationships with other men is a long one and also features Michelangelo and Machiavelli, to name two of the most famous. The former wrote love poems to Tommaso Cavalieri, a young nobleman, while the latter apparently had an ongoing arrangement with a rent-boy called Riccio. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary, speculated that Pope Leo X (r1513-21) had been “exceedingly devoted – and every day with less and less shame – to that kind of pleasure that for honour’s sake may not be named”.

Drawing of an old and young man, possibly Salai, by Leonardo da Vinci
The relationship that has prompted most speculation is that between Leonardo and Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì, thought to be the figured depicted on the right of this drawing by Leonardo. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Was Leonardo da Vinci gay?

So far as Leonardo da Vinci is concerned, the 1476 document is the only specific written evidence from his own lifetime that we have concerning the artist’s sexuality. Even that allegation, of course, may have been speculative or malicious. Historians have disagreed on whether Leonardo had relationships with men, or whether he was celibate. This need not be a binary distinction: he may have been celibate during certain periods of his life and sexually active during others. He may also have been what we would now call asexual. That Leonardo once wrote “intellectual passion drives out sensuality” is not conclusive evidence either way, nor is his documented observation that the genitals were “so ugly” that humanity would die out were it not for “pretty faces, adornment and unrestrained dispositions” on the part of those having sex. There is no evidence at all that Leonardo ever slept with a woman, though that has not prevented people suggesting that he may have done. Renaissance society did not have the concept of firm sexual orientation that exists today and many men were in practice bisexual. (We know less about the women, because prosecutions, the main source of records, generally targeted men.)

Leonardo and Salaì

The relationship that has prompted most speculation is that between Leonardo and Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì, a nickname meaning ‘little devil’. Salaì joined Leonardo’s household in 1490, at the age of 10, as an assistant and went on to train as a painter. Leonardo – who was 28 years his senior – complained that Salaì stole from him and his guests, describing him as “thief, liar, obstinate, glutton”. Despite this inauspicious start, Salaì remained in Leonardo’s household until almost the end of the latter’s life. He was rewarded with a gift of land outside Milan (on which he had already built a house) in Leonardo’s will.

A portrait of a boy suspected to be Salaì by Leonardo da Vinci
A portrait of a boy suspected to be Salaì by Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Described by Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Artists (1550) as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted”, Salaì is thought to have been the model for a number of Leonardo’s works, including the painting of St John the Baptist at the Louvre and an associated drawing, The Angel in the Flesh, that shows a similar nude figure, this time with an erect penis. A 16th-century dialogue by art theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538–92) firmly identified the relationship between Leonardo and Salaì as sexual. While Lomazzo was too young to have encountered either of the pair, he could have met people who had known them. Lomazzo’s fictional interlocutor asks his imaginary Leonardo whether the two have played “the game in the behind that the Florentines love so much”. Leonardo replies: “And how many times! Have in mind that he was a most beautiful young man, especially at about fifteen.”

Monna Vanna, sometimes referred to as a nude version of the Mona Lisa. Painted by Salai
Monna Vanna, sometimes referred to as a nude version of the Mona Lisa. Painted by Salaì while he was a student of Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A sexual relationship between a 43-year-old man and his 15-year-old employee would be considered reprehensible today, all the more so if, as in the case of Leonardo and Salaì, the younger person had joined the elder’s household at the age of 10. This pederastic model was, however, typical of same-sex relationships in Renaissance Florence, with the younger man often aged between 12 and 18. The 17-year-old Saltarelli also fits the pattern. Lomazzo suggested that through such relationships “out of a tender age come, at a manly age, worthier and closer friends”. Renaissance attitudes tended to echo those of the ancient world and, as recent research by historian Rachel Hope Cleves on British author Norman Douglas has shown, tolerance of pederasty persisted in Europe into the 20th century. Age-gaps were not exclusive to same-sex relationships: girls might also be married very young.

Aidan Turner in drama 'Leonardo' on Amazon Prime
New drama ‘Leonardo’ on Amazon Prime, starring Aidan Turner, depicts Leonardo as a gay man. (Image by © Fabio Lovino)

We will never know the truth of Leonardo da Vinci’s relationships: at best we can speculate about what would be more or less likely in his historic context. That context is not one that easily maps on to modern understandings, nor one that will seem comfortable in all its aspects today.

Catherine Fletcher is a historian of Renaissance and early modern Europe. Her latest book is The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Bodley Head, 2020)

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Leonardo is available on Amazon Prime Video from 16 April 2021