Leonardo had the misfortune of being born as the illegitimate son of Piero of Vinci in 1452. He was never recognized as a legitimate son of Piero though there relationship was not entirely still-born or unfruitful. His father did help him get commissions once his artistic talents and other skills became apparent. Leonardo never married, never sired any children, but as a 20, 30 and 40 something man and later, he did have a fondness for pretty boys, not merely as his students, but in a more personal way as well, it appears. He was, as a young man, once accused of sodomy but the charges were never proved, and despite his copious writings there is no clear evidence of his engaging in same-sex sexual activity, though it may have happened with young Salai, the first of his pretty boys that were his models, understudies, helpers. There is absolutely no evidence that I know of, or that Isaacson has unearthed, that he had same sex relationships with other consenting adults. But it is possible he was guilty of pederasty, the most prominent form of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world, and in some secretive ways and places in Renaissance Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Here I have to fault Isaacson a little bit for simply assuming Leonardo was ‘gay’ in the modern sense of the term. Even most modern gay persons today repudiate pederasty, not least as it involves an unfair and unequal power relationship in which the young person, student, etc. can hardly say no, especially in the case where that person, like Salai, was an orphan who depended on Leonardo for his very subsistence. It is possible that Leonardo had same sex inclinations but did not consummate them in a physical or sexual way. We shall never know for sure. In any case, we should not allow that possibility to color the way we evaluate everything about Leonardo’s life and life work. After all “we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory”. And this brings up an important point that many Christian ignore.
It is clear that Isaacson has enormous admiration for many things about Leonardo, and rightly so. But he gives him too much of a pass when it came to sucking up to and serving ruthless rulers, and even helping them with military advice and inventions used to slaughter the innocents, just so Leonardo could live a secure life with a decent income from his various patrons. Some of this may be accredited to the general sense of insecurity Leonardo felt about his life since he would not be a legal heir of his father Piero, for the most part, being his father’s illegitimate son. There are many factors that led him to behave as he did. Like Franklin, Leonardo did believe in God, but he was not a pious or church going person. A fair evaluation of the man should not involve ignoring his major flaws and faults and even sins, nor ignoring his many accomplishments and good points. Leonardo was generous, he was kind, he was friendly and many people loved and flocked to him, unlike the case of Michelangelo, his younger contemporary, who was very pious, and very judgmental of Leonardo and others who did not share his ascetical piety. In our next post, we must say some things about Leonardo’s strengths and virtues.