If a biographical study is really intended to arrive at an understanding of its hero’s mental life it must not—as happens in the majority of biographies as a result of discretion or prudishness—silently pass over its subject’s sexual activity or sexual individuality. What is known of Leonardo in this respect is little: but that little is full of significance. In an age which saw a struggle between sensuality without restraint and gloomy asceticism, Leonardo represented the cool repudiation of sexuality—a thing that would scarcely be expected of an artist and portrayer of feminine beauty. Solmi quotes the following sentence of his which is evidence of his frigidity: ‘The act of procreation and everything connected with it is so disgusting that mankind would soon die out if it were not an old-established custom and if there were not pretty faces and sensuous natures.’1 His posthumous writings, which not only deal with the greatest scientific problems but also contain trivialities that strike us as scarcely worthy of so great a mind (an allegorical natural history, animal fables, jokes, prophecies),2 are chaste—one might say even abstinent—to a degree that would cause surprise in a work of belles lettres even to-day. So resolutely do they shun everything sexual that it would seem as if Eros alone, the preserver of all living things, was not worthy material for the investigator in his pursuit of knowledge.3 It is well known how frequently great artists take pleasure in giving vent to their phantasies in erotic and even crudely obscene pictures. In Leonardo’s case on the contrary we have some anatomical sketches of the internal female genitals, the position of the embryo in the womb and so on.4
1Solmi (1908, ).
3An exception to this (though an unimportant one) is perhaps to be found in his collected witticisms—belle facezie—which have not been translated. See Herzfeld (1906, 151).—[This reference to Eros as ‘the preserver of all living things’ seems to anticipate Freud’s introduction of the name ten years later, in almost exactly the same phrase, as general term for the sexual as opposed to the death instincts. See, for instance. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) Standard Ed., 18, 50 and 52.]
4[Footnote added 1919:] Some remarkable errors are visible in a drawing made by Leonardo of the sexual act seen in anatomical sagittal section, which certainly cannot be called obscene [Fig. 1]. They were discovered by Reitler (1917) and discussed by him in the light of the account which I have given here of Leonardo’s character:
‘It is precisely in the process of portraying the act of procreation that this excessive instinct for research has totally failed—obviously only as a result of his even greater sexual repression. The man’s body is drawn in full, the woman’s only in part. If the drawing reproduced in Fig. 1 is shown to an unprejudiced onlooker with the head visible but all the lower parts covered up, it may be safely assumed that the head will be taken to be a woman’s. The wavy locks on the forehead, and the others, which flow down the back approximately to the fourth or fifth dorsal vertebra, mark the head as more of a woman’s than a man’s.
‘The woman’s breast reveals two defects. The first indeed is an artistic one, forts outline gives it the appearance of a breast that is flabby and hangs down unpleasingly. The second defect is anatomical, for Leonardo the researcher had obviously been prevented by his fending off of sexuality from ever making a close examination of a nursing woman’s nipples. Had he done so he would have been bound to notice that the milk flows out a number of separate excretory ducts. Leonardo, however, drew only a single duct extending far down into the abdominal cavity and probably in his view drawing the milk from the cisterna chyli and perhaps also connected in some way with the sex organs. It must of course be taken into consideration that the study of the internal organs of the human body was at that time made extremely difficult, since the dissection of bodies was regarded as desecration of the dead and was most severely punished. Whether Leonardo, who had certainly only very little material for dissection at his disposal, knew anything at all of the existence of a lymph-reservoir in the abdominal cavity is therefore in fact highly questionable, although in his drawing he included a cavity that is no doubt intended to be something of the sort. But from his making the lactiferous duct extend still further downwards till it reaches the internal sex organs we may suspect that he was trying to represent the synchronization of the beginning of the secretion of milk and the end of pregnancy by means of visible anatomical connections as well. However, even if we are ready to excuse the artist’s defective knowledge of anatomy by referring it to the circumstances of his time, the striking fact still remains that it is precisely the female genital that Leonardo has treated so carelessly. The vagina and something that looks like the portio uteri can no doubt be made out, but the lines indicating the uterus itself are completely confused.
‘The male genital on the other hand is depicted by Leonardo much more correctly. Thus, for instance, he was not satisfied with drawing the testis but also put in the epididymis, which he drew with perfect accuracy.
‘What is especially remarkable is the posture in which Leonardo makes coitus take place. Picture and drawings by famous artists exist which depict coitus a tergo, a latere, etc., but when it comes to a drawing of the sexual act being performed standing up, we must surely suppose that there was a sexual repression of quite special strength to have caused it to be represented in this isolated and almost grotesque way. If one wants to enjoy oneself it is usual to make oneself as comfortable as possible: this of course is true for both the primal instincts, hunger and love. Most of the peoples of antiquity took their meals in a lying position and it is normal in coitus to-day to lie down just as comfortably as did our ancestors. Lying down implies more or less a wish to stay in the desired situation for some time.
‘Moreover the features of the man with the feminine head are marked by a resistance that is positively indignant. His brows are wrinkled and his gaze is directed sidways with an expression of repugnance. The lips are pressed together and their corners are then drawn down. In this face can be seen neither the pleasure of love’s blessings nor the happiness of indulgence: it expresses only indignation and aversion.
‘The clumsiest blunder, however, was made by Leonardo in drawing the two lower extremities. The man’s foot should in point of fact have been his right one; for since Leonardo depicted the act of union in an anatomical sagittal section it follows of course that the man’s left foot would be above the plane of the picture. Conversely, and for the same reason, the woman’s foot should have belonged to her left side. But in fact Leonardo has interchanged male and female. The male figure has a left foot and the female one a right foot. This interchange is easiest to grasp if one recalls that the big toes lie on the inner sides of the feet.
‘This anatomical drawing alone would have made it possible to deduce the repression of libido—a repression which threw the great artist and investigator into something approaching confusion.’
[Added 1923:] These remarks of Reitler’s have been criticized, it is true, on the ground that such serious conclusions should not be drawn from a hasty sketch, and that it is not even certain whether the different parts of the drawing really belong together.