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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519)

The head of a youth c.1510

RCIN 912554

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Same-sex relationships between men were common in Renaissance Florence. These relationships were similar to those found in ancient Greece and Rome, being structured by age and typically occurring between an older unmarried man, in his twenties or thirties, and a teenager.

In 1432, pressured by a growing moral panic, the Florentine government established the ‘Office of the Night’ to prosecute men accused of being involved in same-sex relationships. The wealth of surviving archival evidence from the Office’s investigations provides us with a record of same-sex desire throughout history, as well as its persecution.

In 1476, Leonardo da Vinci was brought in front of the Office of the Night, accused of engaging in sexual acts with Jacopo Saltarelli, a goldsmith’s apprentice. The charge was dropped on the provision that Leonardo was not accused again. There is little other evidence of Leonardo’s sexuality, though we know he never married and lived instead with male companions, most notably his pupils Gian Giacomo Caprotti and Francesco Melzi.

Gian Giacomo Caprotti – nicknamed Salai by Leonardo – is described by the biographer Giorgio Vasari as a ‘beautiful youth with fine curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted’. Leonardo and Salai lived together for twenty-nine years. Drawings of curly haired youths appear through Leonardo’s notebooks; although these drawings are not portraits of Salai in the literal sense, they demonstrate the enduring impact his features had on Leonardo’s ideal of male beauty.

Francesco Melzi was Leonardo’s primary assistant for the last decade of the artist’s life, and was a talented artist in his own right. Melzi cared for Leonardo through his final illness and was his principal heir, inheriting Leonardo’s notebooks and papers. Vasari wrote that Melzi ‘holds them dear, and keeps such papers together as if they were relics, in company with the portrait of Leonardo of happy memory’. In a letter Melzi described Leonardo’s feelings for his pupils as ‘deeply felt and most ardent love’.