Leonardo episode 2 spoilers follow.
Leonardo Da Vinci's relationships with women – like the subject of the Mona Lisa – were, it seems, mostly restricted to his canvas. For centuries, scholars have suggested that Da Vinci was actually gay, and this queer aspect of his identity is now being explored in Amazon's new biopic, simply titled Leonardo.
The series is bizarrely framed as a murder mystery, kicking off with a bearded Aidan Turner being held in prison for killing a woman named Caterina. As the first episode progresses, we learn that the pair were romantically involved, but in real life, it seems likely that this Caterina was actually a "figment" or "fantasy" (via The Guardian).
Instead, it seems that Da Vinci was far more interested in men, and this is something that the second episode of Leonardo briefly delves into.
One evening, a younger man approaches Leonardo and offers to model for him. "It would be an honour to be painted by you." After some hesitation, Aidan's character concedes and the pair end up drinking together in the man's house where Da Vinci is asked if he's ever kissed a man.
Leonardo says no, but the other man clearly wants to crack that Da Vinci code still, so he tries his luck and moves in for a kiss. The pair briefly make out before the camera cuts away from all this passion to the authorities, who are being tipped off about what's going on.
Someone clearly has it in for Leonardo, which results in him being arrested for sodomy. His lover is set free after giving up the names of other men he's slept with, so Da Vinci is left to languish in prison with the other gay "reprobates". Some time passes, and then Leonardo is tried in court for his crimes. Thankfully, a mysterious benefactor steps in and convinces the judge to dismiss these charges.
"He woke feelings in me," Leonardo later recalls. "Feelings I didn't know I had." And then following that conversation, his relationship with Caterina becomes the focus once again.
So far, it's unclear how Leonardo's queerness will continue to be explored in future episodes, but given that the show's framing device revolves around Caterina, it seems likely that this will be swept under the rug moving forward.
Leonardo writer Steve Thompson explained to Variety that Da Vinci's "most significant relationship in his life was with a friend who was a woman." And that's why Caterina is so pivotal to the show, except as we already mentioned, Caterina probably wasn't even real.
It's a curious decision to prioritise Leonardo's relationship with a fictional woman over the men in his life. As far back as the 1560s, artist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo imagined Leonardo and the Greek sculptor Phidias discussing the "'backside game' that Florentines love so much?" and since then, even Freud wrote about Da Vinci's perceived queerness.
Modern historians agree for the most part that Leonardo was indeed gay or queer in some way, and part of this is due to the fact that Da Vinci really was arrested for sodomy.
Leonardo was named as one of four men who practised "such wickedness" with a 17-year old apprentice in 1476, just before Da Vinci's 24th birthday.
Two months later, the case was apparently dismissed due to a lack of corroborating witnesses. If Leonardo had been found guilty, possible punishments would have included large fines, public humiliation, exile, and even burning at the stake.
Despite all this, Leonardo was actually charged for sodomy a second time too, not long after the first. While that might seem surprising, it turns out that gay sex was pretty common in Florence back then.
Historian Michael Rocke analysed records kept by the Office of the Night, a sex-crime agency set up to counter sodomy in Florence. Within, he discovered that "the majority of local males at least once in their lifetimes were officially incriminated for engaging in homosexual relations" (via The Guardian). Homosexuality was so rife there that the word "Florenzer" became slang in Germany for "gay".
Knowing all this, and given that there's no evidence to suggest Leonardo ever had a heterosexual relationship, this makes Thompson's show even more disappointing. Sure, Da Vinci's queerness is acknowledged, but by making Caterina the focus, Leonardo actively erases key aspects of his legacy.
This could have been the ideal opportunity to celebrate a historical queer icon on screen, something we very rarely see still. Instead, we get a scruffy Aidan Turner who occasionally kisses men when he's not fawning over a fictional woman he may or may not have killed. What is this, the 1400s?
New episodes of Leonardo air Fridays on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland.
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