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Sculpture by Leonardo da Vinci
Photo © Boggy via CanvaPro
Photo © Boggy via CanvaPro

Leonardo and his loves: the secrets behind his art

What we know about the Renaissance polymath’s personal life

We know a great deal about Leonardo da Vinci’s art, pictorial techniques and genius, but we only know a little about his personal life. Here’s some insight into Leonardo da Vinci in his entirety.

Over the course of history, many scholars have devoted years of study to understand his personality, wishes and love life. In this article, we focus on the latter.

  • 1.
    Leonardo da Vinci: his life according to academia
  • 2.
    Gian Giacomo Caprotti
  • 3.
    Francesco Melzi

Leonardo da Vinci: his life according to academia

The first person to write about Leonardo’s life was Giorgio Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists”, in which he describes Leonardo as “wonderfully endowed with beauty, grace and talent in abundance”. Over time, other writers defined him as a man of great charm, charisma and generosity.

The curiosity to understand fully Leonardo da Vinci has never abated. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud, in his book “Leonardo da Vinci – A Memory of his Childhood”, claimed that Leonardo was a closet homosexual, a theory also advanced by many art historians, including Kenneth Clark.

The only known historical document regarding Leonardo’s sex life is an accusation of sodomy dating to 1476. Leonardo da Vinci was 24 and on 9 April, an anonymous letter was left in the drum of Palazzo della Signoria that accused Jacopo Saltarelli, a boy involved in male prostitution. The accusation was rejected as the legal requirement to begin the criminal trial was invalid. Letters such as these had to be signed. 

According to several scholars, the accusation weighed so heavily on Leonardo that he decided to become celibate. But did Leonardo da Vinci ever love anyone?

We know that Leonardo usually chose his apprentices based on talent, but above all for their beauty. This was also the case for Gian Giacomo Caprotti and Francesco Melzi, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of his life.

Gian Giacomo Caprotti

Portrait of Gian Giacomo Caprotti
Portrait of Gian Giacomo Caprotti - Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gian Giacomo Caprotti, nicknamed “Salaì”, is described by Vasari as an “ambiguous young man of grace and beauty, with beautiful curly hair, which Lionardo liked very much”. His face often appears in Leonardo’s art, especially in his Saint John the Baptist painted in 1513-16. Many say that his face i salso the same as in Saint John in the “Last Supper”, Monna Vanna, and even the Mona Lisa.

Salaì immediately won the artist’s trust and became irreplaceable wherever Leonardo went. He joined him on all his travels and, although the bond seems to have become strained in his later years, Salaì went to France when Leonardo was close to death.

Francesco Melzi

Leda by Francesco Melzi - Galleria degli Uffizi
Leda by Francesco Melzi - Galleria degli Uffizi - Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another key figure in Leonardo’s life was Francesco Melzi. The pair met when Melzi was just 15 and their bond was so strong that the Milanese painter stayed by Leonardo’s side in his dying days. 

Only a few artworks by Francesco Melzi are known, such as “Leda and the Swan”, which can be found in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. It is one of the best copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Leda”, which has been lost.

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