There’s no need to queer Da Vinci. The homoerotic character of his work has been plain to see for over half a millennia, already. Focusing on his celebration of masculine beauty, the National Gallery’s recent Painter at the Court of Milan show made welcome, if somewhat discreet steps, in acknowledging the Italian artist’s sexuality.
Leonardo Da Vinci was tried at a sodomy tribunal in 1476. He painted at least two titillating St Johns: the Louvre’s hermaphroditic St. John the Baptist, stripped to a cascade of curls and some leather, and the coy androgynous Beloved Disciple in Milan’s Last Supper. Alongside the transgender boys, there is the Mona Lisa (which can be Leonardo’s cross-dressing self-portrait, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva sees as revealing of the birth of the self where our inner life begins with the eternal triangle of the loving gazes of… grandma, mum and baby.
Interest in the unsettling images and complex private life of Da Vinci testifies to his greatness, his drive and his genius. Da Vinci’s paintings are no-holds barred experiences which unleash passions, and defy stereotypes. Appropriately, the Renaissance artist was responsible for numerous studies of the male nude. The adolescents in his portraiture are evil flirts. Lascivious in colours, lurid in shapes, lush in gestures, mysterious in his trademark smoky painting (the sfumato, which Sigmund Freud once noted) – his paintings ooze sensuality. Questions are still being asked about Da Vinci today: Are these men or women in his pictures? Is the subject of his work male beauty, or female portraiture? Are his subjects seductresses or tempters? The ambiguity of Da Vinci’s representations of gender remains intensely subversive.
There’s no end to meddling with Da Vinci. Freud attributed a fellatio fantasy to the baby Leo. In his thriller The Da Vinci Code, novelist Dan Brown changed John, the disciple Jesus loved, who languishes next to his Master in the Last Supper, into Mary Magdalene. Now Jonathan Jones says the Renaissance giant was almost certainly gay, but celebrated women in his portraits. It makes sense. We, gay men, worship women! Compare the queer adulation of divas, mothers, and fag hags. There’s no difference. Jones illustrates Da Vinci’s iconophilia of women by making reference to Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, held by the Princess Czartoryski Museum. The Lady constitutes an enigma no less than the overexposed smile of the Mona Lisa.
Today, Poles condemn the picture to a variety of traveling exhibitions (for example, by lending it to the National Gallery.) It could very well be retitled The Wandering Voluptuous Lady with a Stoat. Yes, it’s a stoat in the painting, which happens to be the unfortunate sex toy of closeted Hollywood stars. Why was it meant to represent the ‘Splendor of Poland’ to a foreign audience if it has been in the country since 1800, albeit with a fifty-year break for Paris, and a couple of years for Nazi looting? In Communist Poland, we hung cheap reproductions of the Lady in our prefab flats. Women and hippies modelled their hair after her coiffure.
In Lost Battles, Jonathan Jones tells the story of Da Vinci’s criticisms of Michaelangelo’s David, for its nudity. Was the celibate painter threatened by its openness? The Painter at the Court of Milan‘s focus on Da Vinci’s sexuality creates a new opportunity for reopening such discussions of his carnal and spiritual conflicts. Martin Kemp was quick to note this, stating that the exhibition ‘could mark a turning point for Da Vinci scholars.’ For those of us who are academics, yes. Obviously. However, I would be remiss if I did not add that it was also a turning point for everyone who attended the show. Queer visitors, I’d wager, included.
Photograph courtesy of Ronan_tlv. Published under a Creative Commons license.