The flaws in Freud’s Study of Leonardo da Vinci

by Rudolf e Margot Wittkover

see also: Freud’s method of investigation in figurative art… and his findings as well. The bird of Leonardo and the Moses of Michelangelo

The influence of Freud’s Study

When Freud prepared his study on Leonardo, A Childhood Memory of Leonardo da Vinci (1910), he had to fall back on the documentary and literary material well-known to art historians. He found that Leonardo was an illegitimate child and that he had homosexual inclinations.

The sources are quite explicit on these points, though other students of Leonardo have not paid much attention to them. It did not occur to them to connect Leonardo’s art with his illegitimate birth, nor did their moral taboos allow them to discuss matters which, in Freud’s view, were of prime importance for the understanding of the artist’s character and work.

Starting from some passages in Leonardo’s own writings, Freud proceeded to analyze the artist’s childhood memories.

These, he suggested, explain Leonardo’s homosexuality and solve some of the enigmas in his paintings, especially in his Virgin and Child with St Anne. Since Freud’s study has become a classic, we need not give his arguments and interpretation here.

Neither his Leonardo study nor his later psycho-analytical explorations of art and artists attracted much comment from art historians. Although Freud’s influence and especially his breaking down of the barriers of moral convention is apparent in almost every biography written since, a scholarly investigation of his analysis of Leonardo was not undertaken until forty-six years after its publication.

Meyer Shapiro’s criticism

In 1956, Professor Meyer Schapiro wrote two papers in which he showed that Freud’s assumptions were based on factual errors and, in addition, pointed out some methodological shortcomings of psycho-analytical procedure when used in investigating historical personalities and works of art.28 Schapiro’s studies have recently called forth a spirited but, it seems to us, ill-tempered attack by a doctrinaire psycho-analyst.29 Rather than enter the arena as combatants, we prefer to confine ourselves to discussing some points not sufficiently touched upon by either author.

The identification with Leonardo

In the biography of his great teacher, Ernest Jones says that, in writing his essay on Leonardo, «Freud was expressing conclusions which in all probability had been derived from his self-analysis and are therefore of great importance for the study of his personality».

30 Later Jones expresses ‘the feelings that much of what Freud said when he penetrated into Leonardo’s personality was at the same time a self-description; there was surely an extensive identification between Leonardo and himself». These are illuminating observations. If they are correct — and there is no reason to doubt that they are — they would lend a professional’s authority to our contention that psycho-analytical explications are as dependent on the personal bias of the interpreter as are other methods.

The issue of Loenardo’s illegitimacy

If «much of what Freud said» about Leonardo was «at the same time a self-description», it was surely also descriptive of the emotional responses to family relations and illegitimacy pertaining to Freud’s generation and environment, but not necessarily to Leonardo’s.

There is no evidence that Leonardo suffered from his illegitimate birth or his separation from his mother other than Freud’s own controversial analysis of Leonardo’s childhood dream and of the ‘slips of his pen’ when he recorded his father’s death.

Freud’s bias

Freud’s interpretation was obviously based on the assumption that children born out of wedlock and separated from their mothers at an early age show the same psychological reactions everywhere and at all times.

But the attitude of Italian Renaissance people towards illegitimacy differed so much from that of Victorian society that Freud’s conclusions cannot be accepted.

‘Natural’ children of all classes usually enjoyed the same care and often also the same rights as legitimate ones.

That Leonardo felt entitled to be treated on equal terms with his half-brothers is proved by the fact that, his father having died intestate, he fought for his inheritance through legal action.

In Leonardo’s own day Giulio de’Medici’s illegitimate birth did not prevent his ascension to the papal throne as Clement VII. It is hardly believable that such general indulgence should produce the same emotional response as the intolerance of the nineteenth century.

Leonardo’s relationship with his mother

Moreover, Leonardo was adopted by his father in early childhood and this fact alone militates against any stigma attached to his illegitimate birth. No direct or secondary source tells us anything about Leonardo’s relationship with his mother, a simple peasant woman who married soon after the child’s birth.

Nor is there anything left to indicate what kind of people she and his stepmother were. For all we know the boy may have thoroughly enjoyed the move from the maternal home into the presumably much more comfortable house of his father, a prosperous young notary.

What remains of Freud’s study of Leonardo is, in Professor Schapiro’s words, «at once homage to a great master and an unforgettable rendering of the conflicts within two men of genius».

Source: Rudolf e Margot Wittkover, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, New York, Norton and Company, 1963, pp. 288–290

Rudolf Wittkower (1901–1971), a leading authority on the art and architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, was born in Berlin and received his Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in 1923.
He was a research fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome from 1923 to 1933 and came to London as a member of the Warburg Institute in 1934, where he remained until 1956.
He was Reader and then Professor at the University of London 1945 to 1956 and from 1956 to 1969 Chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, where at the time of his death he was Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities Emeritus.
In 1969–1970 he was Kress Professor in Residence at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., and in 1970–1971 Slade Professor at Cambridge University. He was also a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Professor Wittkower was the author of numerous articles and books, including Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, British Art and the Mediterranean (1948), Lorenzo Bernini (1955), and Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750 (1958).

Laureatosi in storia a Firenze nel 1977, è entrato nell’editoria dopo essersi imbattuto in un computer Mac nel 1984. Pensò: Apple cambierà tutto. Così è stato.

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