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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era