The reinvention of Leonardo da Vinci

Why did the painter flee Florence for Milan?

Leonardo da Vinci's art provokes rapture. His paintings from his time in Milan, currently on show at the National Gallery, are sublime. The exhibition closes next week, so if you have not yet seen it, despite the crowds, queue for a ticket. If you don't, you will miss a truly exquisite and cathartic experience. The exhibition leaves you in no doubt of his absolute genius. How could a mere mortal produce works of such beauty?

But this is not the only dilemma we are left with. There are other more mundane questions. For someone of such extraordinary ability, why so few paintings? More troubling, what on earth was Leonardo doing working out of Milan, a powerful state but hardly a powerhouse of the artistic cutting edge? He was a Tuscan. His home was Florence, the undisputed centre of artistic innovation and cultural ideas in Europe. But despite this at the beginning of the 1480s, he left Florence for culturally conservative Milan. There, under the patronage of its ruler, he produced the stunning works which are the story of the National Gallery's exhibition, but the viewer cannot help but ask what more would have been produced had he remained in the hothouse of Florence.

It is known that Leonardo was gay. His emotional and sexual motivation was driven by a desire for male beauty. What we would call homosexuality was a criminal offence in Florence. Conviction could carry the death penalty. What is less well known is that Leonardo was arrested not once, but twice for sodomy. At the time his brilliance was just being recognised. As it happens the prosecutions failed, permitting Leonardo to re-emerge as Europe's greatest artist. Nevertheless, the consequences of his arrest on him and his body of work should not be underestimated.

The scandal unfolded as follows. In the early morning of 9 April 1476 an anonymous informer dropped into the tamburo, a letter box on the wall of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, a paper accusing five men of sodomy. Like some Renaissance vice ring, the writer fingered a 17-year-old apprentice called Jacopo Saltarelli, who "consents to please those persons who request such wickedness of him". Dozens of men are hinted at, but the paper names only four: a goldsmith, a tailor, a young man from one of Florence's most powerful families, Leonardo Tornabuoni, and one Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo would have been 24 years old, still living, according to this scrap of paper, in the workshop of his master Andrea del Verrocchio.

Newspapers, if they'd existed, would have had a field day that morning. Leonardo may have been the son of a respected city notary, but the young Tornabuoni was the real celebrity: a close relative of Florence's de facto rulers, the Medici, he would have been a prime target for political embarrassment. This scandal was too good, and the Medici's enemies might have been expected to make much of it. They might even have been behind the anonymous accusation. The fact that the young and brilliant da Vinci was implicated only gave credence to the story: Jacopo Saltarelli, an attractive youth and goldsmith's apprentice, no doubt acted as a model for artists, posing naked for a gifted painter's pen.

It isn't difficult to imagine what would have been going through these young men's minds. Taken from their beds and summoned under guard to interrogation, it would have been a shifty affair: no one really wanted to know; shame-faced downcast mumbled denials aside, the city's magistrates, Medici hand-picked men, hoped to hush it all up before morning. Finally the five were released on condition that no further charges appeared. But the accusation would have been known by the time Leonardo returned to his master's workshop that day. Many of his sketches show the ugly side of public shame, grotesque men and women whispering, sneering. All he could do now was hope it would blow over.

Then two months later, on 7 June, another anonymous paper repeated the accusation. This had been a condition of the Saltarelli Five's release, it could have led to a more intrusive investigation - thumb screws, dislocated shoulders, Leonardo's father watching from his office in the Chief Magistrate's palace - but as the accuser had not come forward to identify him or herself, the magistrates dismissed the case on this technicality. It was more a matter of not proven rather than acquittal.

Leonardo was deeply troubled by all of this. Thirty years later he would write in his notebook of his fellow Florentines,"when I made God a child you put me in prison, now I have made him grown up you will do worse," - cryptic jottings, but suggestive of some lingering resentment towards the people of his home town. After the Saltarelli affair he disappeared. We then hear of him in Florence again in 1478, now an independent painter of prestigious commissions. However much the charges were behind him officially, he couldn't or wouldn't finish these. Instead he left Florence abruptly and travelled to Milan.

We're told he came north not as a painter at all, but as a musician, and maybe he was looking for a new, more secure life away from the turmoilof Medici Florence. Did memories of the shame of that night in 1476 drive him away? Did he re-invent himself in Milan rather than remain that defendant in a celebrated case of sodomy?

In many ways Leonardo was one of the first high-profile victims of anti-gay laws. Thanks to the shenanigans of the Medici, his genius was saved, but we might have been left with very little from him at all. He could have been a footnote in art history, a young artist who had shown huge talent but was broken and shamed by arbitrary criminal laws, executed even. How close we were to losing him. Leonardo, the convicted sex offender, would not have painted the Mona Lisa.

Kevin Childs is a member of the British Museum/Courtauld Graphic Arts Group

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Pentagramma' recreated in ice. Photo: Getty Images
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Europe’s last Blairite: Can Manuel Valls win the French presidency?

He first made a name for himself protesting against halal supermarkets. Now, he could be the man to take down François Hollande.

The election of François Hollande as the president of France in 2012 coincided with the high-water mark of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. That year, Labour posted its best local election results in 17 years, gaining 823 councillors and winning control of 32 councils in a performance that has not yet been surpassed or equalled.

Gazing across the Channel, the Milibandites were given hope. Hollande showed that a wonkish career politician could triumph over a charismatic centre-right incumbent.

The UK’s shattered Blairites looked to a different star rising in French politics: Manuel Valls. At the time of Hollande’s victory, Valls was the mayor of Évry, a small suburb of Paris, where he made a name for himself by campaigning against halal supermarkets.

His father, Xavier, was a Spanish painter and his mother, Luisangela, was Swiss-Italian. They met and married in Paris, and Valls was born in Barcelona while the couple were on holiday.

In 2009 Valls urged the Parti Socialiste (PS) to drop the adjective “socialist” from its name, and he ran for the presidential nomination two years later on what he described as a Blairiste platform. This included scrapping the 35-hour working week, which hardly applies outside of big business and the public sector but carries symbolic weight for the French left. Valls’s programme found few supporters and he came fifth in a field of six, with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this was enough to earn him the post of interior minister under Hollande. While Valls’s boss quickly fell from favour – within six months Hollande’s approval ratings had dropped to 36 per cent, thanks to a budget that combined tax rises with deep spending cuts – his own popularity soared.

He may have run as an heir to Blair but his popularity in France benefited from a series of remarks that were closer in tone to Ukip’s Nigel Farage. When he said that most Romany gypsies should be sent “back to the borders”, he was condemned by both his activists and Amnesty International. Yet it also boosted his approval ratings.

One of the facets of French politics that reliably confuse outsiders is how anti-Islamic sentiment is common across the left-right divide. Direct comparisons with the ideological terrain of Westminster politics are often unhelpful. For instance, Valls supported the attempt to ban the burkini, saying in August, “Marianne [the French symbol] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”

By the spring of 2014, he was still frequently topping the charts – at least in terms of personal appeal. A survey for French Elle found that 20 per cent of women would like to have “a torrid affair” with the lantern-jawed minister, something that pleased his second wife, Anne Gravoin, who pronounced herself “delighted” with the poll. (She married Valls in 2010. He also has four children by his first wife, Nathalie Soulié.)

Yet it was a chilly time for the French left, which was sharply repudiated in municipal elections, losing 155 towns. Hollande sacked his incumbent prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed Valls in his place. He hoped, perhaps, that some of Valls’s popularity would rub off on to him.

And perhaps Valls, a student of “Third Way” politics, hoped that he could emulate the success of Bill Clinton, who turned sharply to the right following Democratic losses in the US 1994 midterm elections and won a great victory in 1996. Under Valls’s premiership, Hollande’s administration swung right, implementing tough policies on law and order and pursuing supply-side reforms in an attempt to revive the French economy. Neither the economic recovery, nor the great victory, emerged.

With the date of the next presidential election set for 2017, Hollande was in trouble. His approval ratings were terrible and he faced a challenge from his former minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government over its rightward turn in 2014.

Then, on 27 November, Prime Minister Valls suggested in an interview that he would challenge the incumbent president in the PS primary. After this, Hollande knew that his chances of victory were almost non-existent.

On 1 December, Hollande became the first incumbent French president ever to announce that he would not run for a second term, leaving Valls free to announce his bid. He duly stood down as prime minister on 5 December.

Under the French system, unless a single candidate can secure more than half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the top two candidates face a run-off. The current polls rate Marine Le Pen of the Front National as the favourite to win the first round, but she is expected to lose the second.

Few expect a PS candidate to make the run-off. So Hollande’s decision to drop out of his party’s primary turns that contest into an internal struggle for dominance rather than a choice of potential leader for France. The deeper question is: who will rebuild the party from the wreckage?

So although Valls has the highest international profile of the left’s candidates, no one should rule out a repeat of his crushing defeat in 2011.

He once hoped to strike a Blairite bargain with the left: victory in exchange for heresy. Because of the wasting effect of his years in Hollande’s government, however, he now offers only heresy. It would not be a surprise if the Socialists preferred the purity of Arnaud Montebourg. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump