Perfectionist or procrastinator? You make the call. It seems almost certain that one of those descriptions suits Leonardo Da Vinci better than the other. Following his death, Da Vinci left behind many unfinished paintings and notebooks filled with scribbles of inventions he never got around to building. Leonardo prodigious talents have long been a source of consternation for most of the mere mortals who have followed his path, whether in the pursuit of artistic expression or scientific progress. Leonardo seems to have attempted too many different and varied enterprises to do all of them perfectly and as a result he abandoned a significant number of his undertakings. The notebooks that Da Vinci left behind disclose an exceptionally alert and incisive mind swimming with so many fantastical initiatives that it would have taken several lifetimes to bring just the realistic to fruition. As a result of what he did accomplish and the truly breathtaking scope of what he intended to accomplish, for most of his legacy Leonard Da Vinci has been relegated to that airy sphere of the genius, removed from the rabble of consistent mediocrity. For this reason, Da Vinci’s image has tended to withstand contemporary assaults and interpretations through the ages. Safely removed to a period considered among the heights of human achievement, it has always been easier to simply dismiss any realistic examination into the psyche of his mind by explaining him inadequately away as a genius.
The past century, however, has witnessed a revitalization of the image of Da Vinci that has gotten particularly vital in the past few decades. No longer content to explain away artistic prodigy with the lame excuse of genius, the critical investigation into what has made Da Vinci a titanic figure in history has come down to earth through careful examination of all extant material. Da Vinci’s exertions on an assortment of subject matter have made theirs way across the world and now found in museums on nearly every continent. It has even come to light that not everything that is found in the scribbles of those notebooks originated in the mind of Da Vinci himself; he possessed not just a creative mind, but an interpretive mind as well, applying his prodigious intellect to adapting pre-existing ideas and well as coming up with new ones. This new information and the analysis of what had already been known have supplied an enhanced consideration for the process by which Leonardo benefited from the ideas presented by both his peers and predecessors.
In this way, Leonardo Da Vinci has been lowered a little closer to earth, although he still strides over the rest of us like Gulliver standing over the Lilliputians as they journey through his outstretched legs. Without doing anything to reduce his accomplishments, this new portrait of Da Vinci serves to reveal a figure that is more human and vulnerable. Yet, despite an artistic canon that is renowned for a massive fresco depicting the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, as well as countless portraits of the Madonna and baby Jesus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s contemporary idealization is based upon the conception of the artist as a secular figure. Da Vinci, despite his clear talents as a traditional artist of Biblical images, is foremost grounded in the modern consciousness as a scientist who used his art as a device for peering into the clandestine world that lies hidden just behind the veil of knowledge. The great irony of Da Vinci’s life may be that his fame rests greatly upon two of paintings that are considered the ultimate Renaissance accomplishment of bringing to life the mysteries of the human soul despite the fact that as a person Da Vinci was actually rather disinterested in the affairs of men such as religion and politics.
Clearly, Leonardo Da Vinci ranks as one of history’s greatest intellectuals, despite his self-exile from much of the realm of society. Just as obvious from the sheer breadth of his accomplishments and the truly astounding range of his interests, Da Vinci suffered—or perhaps thrived would be more fitting—from conditions related to obsession. Intellectualization is a psychological term used to describe the endeavor of obsessive people to sublimate uncomfortable emotional disorders through the engagement of extreme intellectual activities. In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud bequeaths the first archetype of what would come to be labeled intellectualization as defense mechanism. Freud describes Da Vinci thusly: “His affects were controlled and subjected to the instinct for research; he did not love and hate, but asked himself about the origins and significance of what he was to love or hate”. The sublimation by Da Vinci of emotional instinct into actions produced from intense concentration of the higher intellect produces a psyche that led to the artist’s withdrawal from human contact into a world of external associations where the exploration of the secrets of nature fulfilled not only the lost effects of establishing relationships but even “acting and creating as well”. This may be the first indication that far from belonging to the traditional realm of Renaissance artists Da Vinci should probably be looked at in terms of being a precursor to the doomed artist made popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s; the artist who withdraws into alienation from human contact and externalizes his deepest passions into the creation of art. It is hardly a secret that many of the so-called tortured artists experienced difficult childhoods or were to forced to deal with deep-seated emotional problems, but until Freud began his examination Da Vinci had escaped being drawn into that discussion.
Freud began his revolutionary reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci after claiming to have unearthed psychoanalytic evidence of a traumatic event that took place during Leonardo’s formative years. Freud maintained that Leonardo, who was the bastard son of a lawyer and an underclass young woman, endured a tortured relationship with his often absent father and so turned to his mother for love and approval. Rather than focusing on the Oedipal aspects of Da Vinci’s childhood as it relates to his close bonding with his mother, however, the primary focus of Freud’s analysis lay in the unstable connection he had with a father who by turns abandoned him and then returned to adopt him. What Freud read into this tenuous affiliation was Da Vinci’s later predilection for leaving projects uncompleted and inventions unperfected.
The underlying psychoanalytic assumption at work here is that Da Vinci’s monumental intellectual pursuits stemmed from the unconscious, which imbues Leonardo with a cultural authenticity and immediacy lacking in many pre-modern artists. The convention view of artists among a large segment of the population is that many if not most are homosexuals and that there may be, therefore, some kind of psychological connection between homosexuality and artistic expression. For most of history, Leonardo’s sexuality was regarded as anything but essential to understanding his work; that is also the case for almost all artists before the Freudian revolution in which all art has come to be seen as representations of unresolved psychosexual conflicts within the artist. Freud brought Da Vinci out of the realm of the asexual artist and into the modern world by casting his psychoanalytical eyes upon a recorded account of his childhood directly attributable to Leonardo himself, of a bird alighting in his cradle, where it “opened my mouth with its tail and struck me many times with its tail against my lips” which Freud interpreted as a synthesis of numerous fantasies. Among these are that the bird kissing is symbolic of receiving passionate kisses from his mother, that the bird’s tail is a phallic symbol, and the act of the bird sticking its tail into his mouth being a gateway to understanding his revulsion.
By introducing the element of sexuality into the interpretation of Da Vinci’s work, the result has been a consistent reappraisal of the meaning of his subjects that range from the recent elevation of Da Vinci into the protector of the rights of the sacred feminine in the novels of Dan Brown to the theory that the woman smiling enigmatically in the Mona Lisa is actually a telling self-portrait. This rather unusual and postmodern concept received much support only b virtue of modern technological innovations that allowed the portrait of the Mona Lisa to be scanned into a computer and scientifically compared to what is an acknowledged self-portrait. The juxtaposition of art with science is probably one that Da Vinci would have particularly enjoyed. During the process of comparison, facial features between the Mona Lisa and the self-portrait were found to be in surprisingly close alignment, projecting a mirror image from Da Vinci onto the more famous painting. Supporters have even claimed that this mirror effect is the reason why the eyes of the Mona Lisa don’t carry the normal effect of following the position of an individual as he moves in the space occupied by the painting.
Self-portraiture has been a mainstay of painting for centuries, but really took off during the egoistic ascendance of the artist as a medium for intensely personal expression rather than just a hired hand by egoistic patrons. If it is true that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait, is coincides in a nearly perfect fashion with Freud’s contention that Da Vinci’s obsessive intellectual pursuit of the external stemmed from narcissism. After all, the psychological disorder was named after Narcissus who fell in love with his mirror image. In codifying the concept of narcissism Freud intended to show that such intellectual pursuits as artistic expression involving the representation of one’s own body would be manifestation of sublimating desires that one wished to deny. In theoretical terms, since Da Vinci was sexually confused and sickened by his own homosexuality, but unable to express desire for a woman, he substituted his own body for a female model in the Mona Lisa. The resulting work which has been historically deemed sexually potent, suggests sublimation of unconscious discomfort with his sexuality.
Sexuality and psychological motivations are the hallmark of 20th century artistic expression. The movement from the realm of creating art for the patron who kept you financially afloat began to give away to the art as a form of intensely personal dynamism in the 19th century before exploding in the 1900’s. What was considered the height of artistic expression during the Renaissance would be considered “selling out” now; painting something only because someone else paid you to. It is difficult if not impossible to attach contemporary artistic evaluations to the artists of the past, but if Freud is correct in his psychological analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci, history may just yet judge the artist of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper to be the very first in a long line of tortured artists who realized their profound emotional pain in celebratory works of art. Whether the Mona Lisa really is just a woman with a great smile or an expression of emotional pain remains to be seen. In the meantime, one thing that can be assured is that Da Vinci will continue to be deconstructed to suit whatever sociological milieu is the presiding one for analyzing art at the time.
Adams, Laurie. Art and Psychoanalysis. New York: IconEditions, 1993.
Cohen, Derek. “1 The Politics of Gay Culture.” The Culture of Queers. New York: Routledge, 2002. 15-30.
Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo Da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood. London: Routledge, 1999.
Wallen, Jeffrey. “Reflection and Self-Reflection: Narcissistic or Aesthetic Criticism?” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34.3 (1992): 301-322