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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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition