Was Leonardo da Vinci a gay pedophile?

Statue of Leonardo da Vinci

Stattue of Leonardo da Vinci outside the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

To include a fun biography of Leonardo da Vinci, my principal detective, I extensively  researched his sexuality for my 99 cent e-book, A Borgia Daughter Dies.

Bottom line: he was either bisexual or heterosexual. For a quick, fun read about the period and da Vinci’s life, you can get A Borgia Daughter Dies here: Purchase at Amazon (.99) .  The controversy over his sexuality is so fascinating that it forms the historical backdrop for my next book, tentatively titled Da Vinci Detects, available through Amazon and maryannphilip.com sometime this summer.

A quick summary of the controversy: the historians who say da Vinci was gay universally accuse him of pedophilia of the worst sort: the only male pointed to as  his sexual partner was eleven years old when he became da Vinci’s apprentice. (Da Vinci was 38.) This was not a story I wanted to believe, much less  tell. But  I wanted my book  to include a story, based on contemporaneous rumors, that Leonardo loved a widowed duchess who some think was the model for the Mona Lisa.  Without solid evidence he was bi or heterosexual, though,  I would have ignored his sexuality completely, to avoid labeling him a pedophile. (He had many young apprentices, including this eleven year old, none of whom ever accused him of anything inappropriate, as far as we know.)

Why is da Vinci portrayed as a homosexual pedophile, if the evidence shows he was either bisexual or heterosexual? Simplified answer: because, with three other men and a juvenile, he was anonymously accused and publicly arrested by the Night Office, the diabolical Florentine institution whose sole function was to persecute and prosecute alleged gays. All five were arrested without evidence (the conclusory accusation gave no facts, nor any explanation of how the accuser knew the intimate secrets of  five males).  All five were released for lack of evidence, a rare thing considering how the Night Office functioned. But the public arrest labeled them for life.

Contrast this with the evidence that he was heterosexual: an admission in his writings that he had sex (he uses the rude term) with at least one woman, a courtesan contemporareously rumored to be his mistress, who is recorded as a member of his household for a period of time.

About the Office of the Night:  during da Vinci’s lifetime, over half of Florentine men were accused of homosexuality; two thirds by the time they were forty. (These statistics come from a scholar who computerized the records of the Night Office and compared them with a thorough Florentine census from Leonardo’s time.)  The procedures of the Night Office–perfectly normal at the time–included at least twelve violations of current American constitutional norms. Among the most basic: they investigated people after they arrested them, and sometimes resorted to torture.

More facts:  Da Vinci was undoubtedly close to the eleven year old, who is a character in both my books.  The question historians debate is whether the child was his “boy toy” or his adopted son.  Abundant circumstancial evidence, as I see it, points to the boy as an adopted child.

And finally: the first man to accuse da Vinci of abusing this boy was almost assuredly a pedophile himself, with obvious ulterior motives for his accusation, made long after da Vinci died.  Yet because his accuser belongs to the next generation of painters, art historians have tended to accept his accusation, though  he never knew da Vinci or anyone who did. (They seem to view a few decades difference as nothing. I am a lawyer and ex-litigator, When someone is accused of a crime like pedophilia, I want  to see admissions by the accused or testimony from a victim or witnesses. In da Vinci’s case, none exists that I have found.)

After I bring out Da Vinci Detects, I will do a podcast that discusses the controversy surrounding his sexuality  and incudes some interesting pornography, some of which da Vinci drew and some he didn’t.  Look for it this summer at maryannphilip.com.

Given that he is accused of  pedophilia–universally a crime even today–shouldn’t we give da Vinci the benefit of the doubt?


4 thoughts on “Was Leonardo da Vinci a gay pedophile?

  1. Maryann,

    Thank you for this intriguing article. I am very interested in this controversial aspect of Da Vinci’s life. I had a few specific questions regarding one paragraph since I had not heard about this before and cannot find any information about it from other sources apart from this blog:

    “Contrast this with the evidence that he was heterosexual: an admission in his writings that he had sex (he uses the rude term) with at least one woman, a courtesan contemporareously rumored to be his mistress, who is recorded as a member of his household for a period of time.”

    What source is this from? His notebooks or personal writings or elsewhere?

    Thank you!

    • Thank you Ian! Watch for my next book which agaom jas da Vinci as my principle detective and deals extensively with the Office of the Night and the way homosexuals and heterosexuals alike were misused by it, in ways that are unconstitutional (because unfair) under current American standards. I am finalizing it now–hopefully it will be out in early July.

      The source of the above statement is the best bio I have found on da Vinci, by Charles Nicholl, at p. 442. Nicholl thinks da Vinci was a pedophile and made the best case for it he could (a very poor case in my mind) but at least he was honest about the evidence on the other side. Many of his predecessor biographers were not.

  2. When he was twenty-four years old, Leonardo was arrested, along with several young companions, on the charge of sodomy. No witnesses appeared against them and eventually the charges were dropped. It must be said that often anonymous charges like this were brought against people just for a nuisance. Renaissance Florentines didn’t make the distinctions we make about sexuality today and apparently it was common for young men to get into sexual relationships; in fact, the word “Florenzer” was German slang for “homosexual”. Leonardo had no relationships with women, never married, had no children, and raised many young protégés, including one nicknamed “Salai” which means “offspring of Satan”, Salai stole things, broke things, lied, and was generally a, well, devil; if he were a mere student or servant he would have been fired. It’s not hard to see how this imp would be attractive to Leonardo. He stayed with Leonardo for over twenty years, and appears many times in Leonardo’s sketchbooks. Why is it so disturbing to you to admit the obvious fact that Leonardo was a homosexual? Many other young lads were hired to be in his company as well. Fortunately, there was not the Oprah Winfrey’esque attitude toward men and post-pubescent boys which, unfortunately pervades this society to such a degree today.

    • Look I’m a lawyer by training and I look at it as a lawyer does. And there is no evidence in the technical sense that Leonardo was a homosexual, much less a pedophile, much less the worst kind of pedophile: someone who would take an 11 year old into his home as his student, then sexually abuse him.

      Neither Salai nor his family every accused Leonardo of anything sexual, nor for that matter did any of Leonardo’s many apprentices. Even though he had numerous young male apprentices, there is NOTHING in writing from Leonardo’s lifetime accusing him of pedophilia, and nothing from his lifetime accusing him of homosexuality except the anonymous accusation against 5 different males that was dismissed for lack of evidence when he was 26 years old. His first accuser, born long after his death-, was an undoubted pedophile who had obvious ulterior motives for the accusation. Later art historians picked this up uncritically. They should not have done so.

      You are wrong about a couple of things. Leonardo did have a documented relationship with at least one woman, a courtesan, and his notebooks contain an admission that he had sex with her. He also sketched many beautiful women; hairstyles indicate that one or more of them were prostitutes. So this was not a man who lived without any association with women. He was just very circumspect about it.

      Bear in mind also, that during Leonardo’s lifetime over 50% of Florentine men were formally accused of homosexuality before the Night Office. Anyone who lived to age 50 had an even higher chance–I forget the exact number but it is something like 60-65%. And the year Leonardo was arrested is the year when the city convicted more people than any other year in the roughly 70 year old history of the Night Office. The procedures of the Night Office violated so many modern due process standards that any data coming out of the office is meaningless.

      Leonardo was not convicted, which is remarkable once you understand how the Night Office worked. From a modern legal perspective, though, the procedural defects mean that convictions don’t prove anything, even when they occurred.

      What historians debate about Salai and the other young man who was important in Leonardo’s life, Francesco Melzi (nicknamed “Cecco”) is whether they were his “boy toys” or his adopted sons. The evidence actually is much more consistent with the idea that they were adopted sons. No one talks about Cecco much any more because they actually found the adoption papers on him. He referred to Leonardo as “father” in a letter to Leonardo’s relatives after his death. At that point Cecco returned to Italy, married and had a huge number of children. (Salai had already returned to Italy and taken over Leonardo’s properties in Milan, which he inherited.) As to Salai: if you are a pedophile, do you keep an 11 year old around for 25 years? Do you rent your real estate to the child’s family? The three of them (Leonardo, Salai and Cecco) lived for awhile with Cecco’s family, which was wealthy, and very proud that Leonardo had taken their son under his wing. (Cecco’s birth family was not giving up any parental rights in allowing Leonardo to “adopt” their son. Leonardo was more like a godfather.)

      It makes sense to me that Leonardo wanted sons without the bother of a wife or babies. Myself, I don’t understand why people are so determined to label Leonardo a homosexual pedophile, based on no evidence. It is an ugly accusation, criminal in any era. There ought to be evidence if people are going to believe it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>