Sigmund Freud’s 1910 psychoanalysis of Leonardo da Vinci delves into the nature of the mysterious da Vinci. The pamphlet Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood claims “the key to his nature” is found in this single sentence of da Vinci’s:
“One has no right to love or hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature.”
Freud claims that a person’s character is often determined by the over-development of a single part – in the case of da Vinci, knowledge. “We look for the explanation in a special disposition—though about its determinants scarcely anything is yet known.” Freud then claims (he begins by saying it is “probable,” then states it as fact) that da Vinci’s thirst for knowledge is aroused by the influence of his early childhood and is furthered by the forces of sexual instinct. It is “foolish” to hope for proof of this, however, “when the accounts of his life are so meager and so unreliable,” Freud says, right before he relies on these paltry sources.
In one of his notebooks, da Vinci relates a strange memory from his childhood of a vulture (according to Freud) forcing open his mouth with and then hitting his lips with its tail. Freud believes it is not a memory, but a fantasy transposed to his childhood. He says that while not literal, these memories still represent the reality of the past.
One cause of homosexuality in men, according to Freud, is too great of an attachment to their mother during very early development. A boy represses his love of his mother and loves other boys as a way of rejecting other women, thus remaining faithful to his mother. Freud claims “he loves in the way in which his mother loved him when he was a child.” (Let us hope his mother did not love him this way!) It is a way of substituting figures of himself in childhood – he not only relates to the boys as lovers, but as projections of himself.
Freud concludes that, based almost entirely on this single, distorted memory, da Vinci was a repressed homosexual due to a sexual focus on his mother and that he threw himself into research because “tormented as he was by the great question of where babies come from and what the father has to do with their origin.” Assumptions abound, as well as phrases such as “this seems a slender and yet a somewhat daring conclusion to have emerged from our psychoanalytic efforts, but its significance will increase as we continue our investigation.”
Freud also touches on several accounts of da Vinci’s diary where he lists money spent on a gift to a male pupil and another list of expenses for the funeral of a woman named Caterina. It is known that da Vinci was a bastard child and grew up in his father’s household. There are no mentions of his biological mother other than her name. Freud assumes that because it is not likely that da Vinci exposed accounts of little import, the Caterina here must be his mother. He thus bares da Vinci’s love for his mother and little boys. Great work, Freud.
As David Stannard wrote in his article “Culture Vulture,” Freud “is dazzlingly dismissive of the most elementary canons of evidence, logic, and, most of all, imaginative restraint.” While I concede that the fellatio story likely means something, I cannot imagine that this jotted down thought was the climax of understanding da Vinci’s life or proves much of anything. It is very difficult to retain memories from such a young age and a bird prying little Leonardo’s mouth open with his tail seems quite unlikely. Freud based his entire psychoanalysis thinking that the bird da Vinci mentions is a vulture, an ancient Egyptian symbol relating to motherhood. Rather, the bird has now correctly been translated as a kite. And with that, Freud’s little theory, while amusing, completely flies away.