Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim is a best selling novel – a sort of variation of the myth of the Count of St. Germain – which had been reviewed by Ciriaco in this blog. Findley seems fascinated by Leonardo Da Vinci; well, he is not the first and he’ll be not the last. All is permitted to a novelist but nothing is permitted to an historian, although analyzing the works of a novelist using an historian pair of glasses is somehow unfair. In the case of Leonardo Da Vinci, where very little is known with a good degree of certainty, it is not only unfair to the novelist but also dangerous for the historian. I am going to explain why. A Russian novelist, Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky, one of the founders of symbolism wrote The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci around 1910 (English translation, New York: Putnam, 1912). Which was appreciated but not taken seriously. But recently some of his basic intuitions had been proven right. This novel inspired Sigmund Freud to write a psychoanalytic essay on Leonardo – more a novel itself than pure science – which is still in print in several languages and yet again Freud’s ‘novelist’ side he had been proven right.
Ciriaco, who has read Finley’s book, tells us that this novel is about a man going by the name of Pilgrim, who cannot die, a man who may or may not be immortal.
Having nearly completed a book on the life of Leonardo Da Vinci using recently mined documents, which may or may not change radically our view on him, I am in a position to try to answer his questions.
– Is it true that Leonardo raped Monna Lisa, or Elisabetta Gherardini, Madonna Elisabetta del Giocondo, la Gioconda, to punish her because she wasn’t her twin brother Angelo Gherardini? In fact, Elisabetta and Angelo used to play by exchanging their clothes: Elisabetta acting as a handsome young man and Angelo as a delicate madonna Florentine. And Leonardo was fond of him. Yes, because his passion – according to Findley – were the young boys, not the girls.
There is no trace of a twin brother for Mona Lisa, or Elisabetta. She was never called Elisabetta but always Lisa in the documents. We are not even sure that Leonardo really met Mona Lisa del Giocondo and that he painted her portrait. The only reference is in Giorgio Vasari (who was not born yet) where he wrote of a head not of a portrait of Mona Lisa. Besides this point Mona Lisa at that time was married with Francesco del Giocondo who, I daresay, would have objected to see her wife staging erotic plays with Leonardo…
That Leonardo da Vinci had no sexual interest in women is clear looking at the corpus of his 10.000 pages of notes left in his several Codex, which constitutes only a part of what he left. Half or two third of his sketches and notes have been lost. There the most solid contact with a woman comes from a secondary note (now lost) putting him in connection with a certain lady called Cremona. Courtesans at that time took the name of their city of origin. All other – not explicit hints – point to his direct interest in ‘Greek love.’
– And that one of his lovers was Alfredo Strazzi? And that in 1476 Leonardo was questioned by the Signoria of Florence, the committee of the town, in relation to his preference for young boys? And humiliated, condemned and fined?
This name Alfredo Strazzi seems invented. The note I am reporting below had emerged only in 1896, causing dismay and embarrassment among Leonardo’s fans. An anonymous accusation – it was later repeated again – accusing Leonardo of buggery on a young male prostitute.
I notify you, Signori Officiali, concerning a true thing, namely that Jacopo Saltarelli…dressed in black and is about seventeen years old…has been a party to many wretchedaffairs and concent to please those persons who exact certain evil pleasures from him. And in this way he was….served several dozen people about whom I know a good deal, and here will name a few: Bartholomeo di Pasquini, goldsmith, who lives in Vacchereccia. Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, who lives with Andrea de Verrocchio. Baccino, a tailor who lives by Or San Michele…Leonardo Tornabuoni, called il teri; dressed in black. These committed sodomy with said Jacopo, and this I testify before you.
The fact that also a Tornabuoni was involved carry weight in both his acquittal as well as in the accusation, which might have been politically motivated, because the wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent was a Tornabuoni. Leonardo, then 24 years old, must have been shocked by the fear and the humiliation.
Leonardo had left no real disciples worth of this name. His true disciples were only Durer and Raphael but they were on long distance learning, so to speak, not part of his entourage. Salai, the nickname of Gian Giacomo Caprotti from Oreno, was Leonardo’s favorite disciple. He had entered his bottega when he was 10 and remained with Leonardo – who called him pig-headed, glutton, prone to steal – and in spite of all the troubles he remained part of the team until Leonardo’s death in 1519.
– Is it true that Angelo Gherardini died of the plague?
Possibly, but he never existed. Plague was rife in those years, starting with the Black Death of 1346-57 which ravaged Europe.
– And that Elisabetta, la Gioconda, bore Leonardo’s son, who died aged one year?
Leonardo pre-deceased the husband of Mona Lisa, it is thus impossible that she could have conceived a son with Leonardo who, by the way, was in Florence only until 1482, then from 1502 until 1506. Lisa di Antonio Maria di Noldo Gherardini was born in Florence on 15 June 1479 and married Francesco di Bartolomeo di Lanobi del Giocondo (1460 – 1528) in 1495 – hence her nickname Gioconda – he was a rich member of the guild of the silk weavers and traders, already a widower of Camilla Rucellai who he had married in 1491 and gave him a son, Bartolomeo, born on 24 February 1493. In July 1494 Camilla was dead, then in March 1495 Francesco married Monna Lisa Gherardini. She gave birth to Piero in 1496 and three years later to a daughter, Camilla, then she had two more sons and one more daughter. In 2007 a document was found proving that Mona Lisa had been buried in 1542 in the church of Sant’Orsola in Florence and that she died at 63. She was buried there because she and her husband were strong supporters of the Medici, and had contributed to the maintenance of the church. That Lisa del Giocondo was the Mona Lisa kept at the Louvre is highly questionable, several art critics do not believe it, and incidentally I am one of them.
– Is it true that Leonardo didn’t paint Jesus’s face in his famous The Last Supper, but left it white, scared by Savonarola’s threats?
There is no trace of contacts between Leonardo and Savonarola. Leonardo begun painting the Last Supper in 1495 and it was at an advanced stage by 1497. Savonarola was burnt at the stake on 23 May 1498. Leonardo had an atheist view of the world and he probably had a low opinion of that friar who, by the way, could not harm him in any way since he was in Florence and Leonardo in Milan. It is true that there was a bonfire of the vanities in Florence ordered by Savonarola and there probably several works by Leonardo went up in smoke.
–Leonardo Da Vinci, according to Findley’s book, appears to be a violent and moody man, so different from the usual descriptions I am used to.
The image I have of him is that of a shy, studious man. The only passage in which he seems short-tempered is a copy of a letter written while he travelled to Florence in 1504 from Milan to sign a deed. He was writing back to his young disciple Francesco Melzi – another pretty boy – saying that he had not received from him any news since he had departed Milan and adds, with a fatherly reproach: ‘When I’ll be back you will see what I’ll do to punish you for your negligence.’
I hope to have answered all the questions raised about this wonderful and mysterious man. I wish to remind the readers not to judge Leonardo by our modern standards but with the standards of his age, which tolerated pederasty in certain circles, in spite of the fact that harsh punishments were in store for offenders who were caught.