TThe woman in Leonardo da Vinci’s life is finally getting what she deserves. The new drama Leonardo, which will premiere on Amazon Prime on April 16, brings Caterina da Cremona out of the shadows. Considered his “muse” and played by Matilda de Angelis of The Undoing, this forgotten Renaissance woman appears in publicity images in an intimate dialogue with Aidan Turner as Leonardo. Looks like they’re about to go full Poldark.
You may have heard rumors that the great man of the Renaissance was gay. That’s not the whole story, says show writer Steve Thompson. “Some of her relationships were with men; those were important relationships, “he told Variety. “But perhaps the most significant relationship in his life was with a friend who was a woman, with whom he was very close, and we unpacked it.” Note that you are claiming a historical basis for the show’s choppy encounters between De Angelis and Turner. Even though Leonardo is framed as a murder mystery, he claims to use this device to get to the reality of who Leonardo was.
But Caterina is fiction, fantasy, sheer nonsense, invented by a 19th-century romantic, and for some reason a modern biographer, Charles Nicholl, gave her lame credit.
If the creators of Leonardo wanted a strong female character, they had many historical options. He clearly got on well with Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of the ruler of Milan, whom he portrayed holding a very phallic pet mink, perhaps to symbolize her power over men. He was also a friend of Isabella d’Este, the ruler of Mantua and an art connoisseur. The most fascinating thing was his meeting with a Lisa, the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. It is said that she got the musicians to play and entertained her with jokes when she posed for the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. What was it that he found so mysterious about her? But there is no solid evidence that he has ever had a romantic relationship with a woman, be it sexual or platonic.
Her reputation for loving men has never been hidden. Giorgio Vasari’s book, The Lives of Artists, first published in 1550, suggests that he was in love with his male assistant Salaì, “who was very attractive in grace and beauty, with fine locks, curled into curls, in which Leonardo was delighted ”. Gossip was solidified in social history when documents were found in the early 1900s showing Leonardo was charged with “sodomy” before Florentine magistrates in 1476.
All the evidence is that the male sex was common in the art workshops of Renaissance Florence. The accusation of sodomy against Leonardo was made against the fantastically named Office of the Night, a unique sex crime agency created in 1432 to counter what was considered a specifically Florentine vice. The records of the Office of the Night, brilliantly analyzed by historian Michael Rocke, reveal that in Leonardo’s time “most local males at least once in their life were officially framed for having homosexual relationships.”
As for Leonardo, he lived with his entourage of handsome assistants and students, dressed them and himself in luxurious clothes including pink and purple stockings, and drew stupendously sensual male nudes.
But for some people that leaves something missing in their life. So his romance with a woman from Cremona was invented in the romantic era. An Italian writer claimed to have seen a mention in his lover’s Leonardo da Vinci notebooks called “La Cremona.” The passage is not in any of Leonardo’s surviving notebooks. And even in the romantic era, it did not catch on.
I’m trying to understand why anyone would be desperate to unearth this short story. However, one of Leonardo’s modern biographers, Charles Nicholl, attempted to resurrect him. Nicholl noticed a single word, “Cremonese”, in a list of names on Leonardo’s papers in the Royal Collection and claimed that it could mean La Cremona. Nicholl then speculates that Leonardo, who was 57 at the time, slept with this northern Italian sex worker. He cannot have painted female nudes without experiencing heterosexual love, he claims. It is as if Leonardo’s homosexuality is incompatible with the universality of his art. Now that will be hammered by streaming television in popular culture.
Instead of being dazzled by Turner and De Angelis, why not go to the National Gallery when it reopens and look at Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks? The most hypnotic figure is an angel whose long curly hair matches Vasari de Salaì’s description and whose pale, tender face is magically androgynous. This angel is the most beautiful and strange painting in Britain. The Leonardo I want to see on screen is the man who painted this.