This section is from the book "Leonardo Da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study Of An Infantile Reminiscence", by Sigmund Freud. Also available from Amazon: Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence.
From his earliest childhood Leonardo appears to us as an artist, a painter, and sculptor, thanks to a specific talent which was probably enforced by die early awakening of the impulse for looking in the first years of childhood. We would gladly report in what way the artistic activity depends on the psychic primitive forces were it not diat our material is inadequate just here. We content ourselves by emphasizing the fact, concerning which hardly any doubt still exists, that the productions of the artist also give outlet to his sexual desire, and in die case of Leonardo we can refer to the information imparted by Vasari, namely, that heads of laughing women and pretty boys, or representations of his sexual objects, attracted attention among his first artistic attempts. It seems that during his flourishing youdi Leonardo at first worked in an uninhibited manner. As he took his father as a model for his outer conduct in life, he passed dirough a period of manly creative power and artistic productivity in Milan, where favored by fate he found a substitute for his fadier in the duke Lodovico Moro. But die experience of others was soon confirmed in him, to wit, that the almost complete suppression of the real sexual life does not furnish die most favorable conditions for the activity of die sublimated sexual strivings. The figurativeness of his sexual life asserted itself, and his activity and ability to make quick decisions began to weaken, the tendency to reflection and delay was already noticeable as a disturbance in The Holy Supper, and with die influence of the technique determined the fate of this magnificent work. Slowly a process developed in him which can be put parallel only to the regressions of neurotics. His development at puberty into die artist was outstripped by the early infantile determination to be a sexual investigator. The second sublimation of his erotic impulses regressed to die original one which had been prepared by the first repression. He became an investigator, first in service of his art, later independently and away from his art. With the loss of his patron, the substitute for his father, and with die increasing difficulties in his life, the regressive displacement extended in dimension. He became "impacientissimo al pennello" (most impatient with the brush) as reported by a correspondent of the countess Isabella d'Este who desired to possess at any cost a painting from his hand.8' His infantile past had obtained control over him. The investigation, however, which now took the place of his artistic production, seems to have borne certain traits which betrayed the activity of unconscious impulses; this was seen in his insatiability, his unreflective obstinacy, and in his lack of ability to adjust himself to actual conditions.
At the summit of his life, in the age of the first fifties, at a time when die sex characteristics of die woman have already undergone a regressive change, and when the libido in the man not infrequendy ventures into an energetic advance, a new transformation came over him. Still deeper strata of his psychic content became active again, but this furdier regression was of benefit to his ait which was in a state of deterioration. He met the woman who awakened in him the memory of the happy and sensuously enraptured smile of his mother, and under the influence of this awakening he reacquired die stimulus which guided him in the beginning of his artistic efforts when he formed the smiling women. He painted Monna Lisa, Saint Anne, and a number of mystic pictures which were characterized by die enigmatic smile. With the help of his oldest erotic feelings he triumphed in conquering once more the inhibition in his art. This last development faded away in die obscurity of approaching old age. But before this his intellect achieved the a broad worldview which was far in advance of his time.
In the preceding chapters I have shown what justification one may have for such a representation of Leonardo's course of development, for diis manner of arranging his life and for explaining his wavering between art and science. If after accomplishing these things I should provoke die criticism even from friends and adepts of psychoanalysis, that I have only written a psychoanalytic romance, I should answer diat I certainly did not overestimate the reliability of these results. Like others I succumbed to the attraction emanating from this great and mysterious man, in whose being one seems to feel powerful propelling passions, which after all can only evince themselves so remarkably subdued.
But whatever may be the truth about Leonardo's life we cannot relinquish our effort to investigate it psychoanalytically before we have finished another task. In general we must mark out the limits which are set up for the working capacity of psychoanalysis in biography so that every omitted explanation should not be held up to us as a failure. Psychoanalytic investigation has at its disposal the data of die history of the person's life, which on the one hand consists of accidental events and environmental influences, and on the other hand of die reported reactions of die individual. Based on die knowledge of psychic mechanisms it now seeks to investigate dynamically the character of die individual from his reactions, and to lay bare his earliest psychic motive forces as well as their later transformations and developments. If this succeeds then die reaction of the personality is explained through the cooperation of constitutional and accidental factors or through inner and outer forces. If such an undertaking, as perhaps in die case of Leonardo, does not yield definite results dien the blame for it is not to be laid to the faulty or inadequate psychoanalytic method, but to the vague and fragmentary material left by tradition about this person. It is, therefore, only the author who forced psychoanalysis to furnish an expert opinion on such insufficient material, who is to be held responsible for the failure.
However, even if one had at one's disposal very rich historical material and could manage the psychic mechanism with the greatest certainty, a psychoanalytic investigation could not possibly furnish the definite view, if it concerns two important questions, that the individual could turn out only so and not differently. Concerning Leonardo we had to represent the view diat die accident of his illegitimate birth and the pampering of his mother exerted the most decisive influence on his character formation and his later fate, through die fact that the sexual repression following diis infantile phase caused him to sublimate his libido into a thirst after knowledge, and thus determined his sexual inactivity for his entire later life. The repression, however, which followed die first erotic gratification of childhood did not have to take place; in anodier individual it would perhaps not have taken place or it would have turned out not nearly as profuse. We must recognize here a degree of freedom which can no longer be understood psychoanalytically. One is as little justified in representing the issue of this shift of repression as die only possible issue. It is quite probable diat anodier person would not have succeeded in wididrawing the main part of his libido from the repression dirough sublimation into a desire for knowledge; under the same influences as Leonardo another person might have sustained a permanent injury to his intellectual work or an uncontrollable disposition to compulsion neurosis. The two characteristics of Leonardo which remained unexplained dirough psychoanalytic effort are first, his particular tendency to repress his impulses, and second, his extraordinary ability to sublimate die primitive impulses.
The impulses and dieir transformations are the last things that psychoanalysis can discern. Henceforth it gives way to biological investigation. The tendency to repression, as well as the ability to sublimate, must be traced back to the organic bases of the character, upon which alone the psychic structure springs up. As artistic talent and productive ability are intimately connected with sublimation we have to admit that the nature of artistic attainment is also psychoanalytically inaccessible to us. Biological investigation of our time endeavors to explain the chief traits of the organic constitution of a person dirough the fusion of male and female predispositions in the material sense; Leonardo's physical beauty as well as his left-handedness len some support to diis. However, we do not wish to leave die ground of pure psychological investigation. Our aim remains to demonstrate the connection between outer experiences and reactions of die person over the path of the activity of die impulses. Even if psychoanalysis does not explain to us the fact of Leonardo's artistic accomplishment, it still gives us an understanding of the expressions and limitations of the same. It does seem as if only a man with Leonardo's childhood experiences could have painted Monna Lisa and Saint Anne, could have supplied his works with their sad fate, and could have obtained unprecedented fame as a natural historian. It seems diat the key to all his attainments and failures was hidden in the childhood fantasy of the vulture.
But may one not take offense at die results of an investigation which concede to the accidents of the parental constellation so decisive an influence on the fate of a person, which, for example, subordinates Leonardo's fate to his illegitimate birth and to die sterility of his first step-mother Donna Albiera? I believe diat one has no right to feel so. If one considers accident as unworthy of determining our fate, it is only a relapse to die pious aspect of life, the overcoming of which Leonardo himself prepared when he put down in writing that the sun does not move. We are naturally grieved over die fact that a just God and a kindly providence do not guard us better against such influences in our most defenseless age. We thereby gladly forget that as a matter of fact everything in our life is accident from our very origin dirough the meeting of spermatozoa and ovum, accident, which neverdieless participates in the lawfulness and fatalities of nature, and lacks only die connection to our wishes and illusions. The division of life's determinants into die "fatalities" of our constitution and the "accidents" of our childhood may still be indefinite in individual cases, but taken altogether one can no longer entertain any doubt about die importance of precisely our first years of childhood. We all still show too little respect for nature, which in Leonardo's deep words recalling Hamlet's speech "is full of infinite reasons which never appeared in experience. "Every one of us human beings corresponds to one of the infinite experiments in which these "reasons of nature" force diem-selves into experience.