The Young Leonardo
by Ton Pascal
The majority of the biographies about Leonardo da Vinci were done by academics that had to base their notes on existing documents about this man. I find them flat and missing the three dimensional facets of Leonardo’s human character.
What really bothers me about these biographies however is the common belief that Leonardo had a happy childhood and upbringing, when the fact is that there is no primary source material to verify this fact. The evidence upon which this belief seems to stand is a letter Leonardo wrote to his father’s first wife, calling her ‘most dear mother’. It doesn’t mean he actually cared for or loved this woman, who didn’t like him and he hardly ever saw. It was a proper and civilized way at that time of communicating with someone, especially if that person, in theory, was part of your family.
For four years I researched Leonardo’s known works. I studied over six thousand pages of notes, sketches, his “Notebooks”, ancient and contemporary writings, as well as documents pertaining to Leonardo, his time, his contemporaries and the people related to him.
This is why I decided to write “Leonardo, The Last Years.” My book is not a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Based on my research about a man who breathed, loved, smiled and cried, the book is my interpretation and my feelings on what this man was all about. Covering only the last three years of Leonardo’s life, my book is a work of fiction based on actual documented facts.
Leonardo was born out of wedlock. His mother, Caterina, a maid in an upper class house, had been seduced and impregnated by the master. After his birth, his father, Ser Pierro d’Antonio, to save his regal reputation, kicked the mother out of the house. But he also arranged for Caterina to legally marry a poor peasant, therefore avoiding the legal obligations of providing for and accepting paternity of the child. According to Italian laws at the time, a bastard child had no right to his birth father’s name, inheritance, possession of any property, access to any schooling education, or work in the public service. In the future the boy could only sign his given name, Leonardo, and add the town he was born, in his case Vinci, if he so wanted. The boy had hardly the right to have ownership of his own life.
Even if the real facts about Leonardo’s childhood and youth are scarce, it is known that he spent the first five years of his life living with his mother in a state of utmost poverty and neglect. When he was six year old, his mother, unable to feed and take care of the child, abandoned him at Francesco’s door, Ser Pierro’s brother, and disappeared. His uncle took him in. The rare evidence from this period in Leonardo’s life shows that he was sent from one place to another and none were his home. He was fourteen years old, when his birth father finally got rid of him for good and installed him with the painter Andreas del Verrocchio in Florence as an artist’s apprentice. This was the only professional choice available to him at that time, other than become a priest. Neglect, rejection and the lack of familial support were very much part of Leonardo’s early life. Hi upbringing was a far cry from a happy childhood.
When Leonardo’s uncle Francesco died, he bequeathed him a small farm in Vinci. Legally, he had no right to own a property. He was a bastard. Although Leonardo never saw the siblings his birth father eventually sired, twelve in all, he heard plenty from them when they tried to cash in on his inheritance. The legal litigation on this issue, along with others brought up by his half-brothers, lasted for over twenty-five years.
Leonardo’s birth father often used him for his own gain when, as a painter, he became famous. The Mona Lisa painting is an example. Ser Pierro had commanded Leonardo to do a painting of the wife of his friend, the wealthy Francesco del Giocondo; the twenty-four-year-old Mona Lisa Gherardini. When Ser Pierro died that same year, 1504, there was no love lost, or patron to pay for the painting since del Giocondo was a miser, Leonardo kept the painting.
Evidence of Leonardo’s homosexuality comes to light in his sodomy trial in 1476. In The Da Vinci Code the only reference that is absolutely true regarding Leonardo's reputation is that he was a "flamboyant homosexual." Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a contemporary art critic and theorist of the 16th century, wrote a play called ‘The Male Love’ where the principal protagonist was Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s circles of friends were all homosexual, as were the majority of Florentines at that time. As a matter of fact, in the ‘Renascence’ period, a German slang for homosexuals was ‘Florentine’.
There are still a lot to know about this magnificent genius and great inventions still waiting to be discovered… if we can only find some of his lost papers!
1- Detail of Verrocchio’s sculpture “The Young David and Goliath” commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici. Leonardo was 17 years old
2- Detail of painting – Tobias and the Three Archangels- by Francesco Botticini circa 1470 (1446-1498) hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Leonard, 18 years old had became a famous model. Here he is the Archangel.
3- This farmhouse in Anchiano, three kilometers from Vinci, is accredited as Leonardo’s birthplace, on April 15 1452 at 3 AM.
4- Mona Lisa – Oil on poplar board – 30’ x 21’ started 1503 – 1506 – At the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.