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.
Many of Leonardo's later admirers have attempted to wipe off the stain of unsteadiness from his character. They maintained that what is blamed in Leonardo is a general characteristic of great artists. They said that even the energetic Michelangelo who was absorbed in his work left many incompleted works, which was as little due to his fault as to Leonardo's in the same case. Besides some pictures were not as unfinished as he claimed, and what the layman would call a masterpiece may still appeal' to the creator of the work of art as an unsatisfied embodiment of his intentions; he has a faint notion of a perfection which he despairs of reproducing in likeness. Least of all should the artist be held responsible for the fate which befalls his works.
As plausible as some of these excuses may sound they nevertheless do not explain the whole state of affairs which we find in Leonardo. The painful struggle with the work, the final flight from it and the indifference to its future fate may be seen in many other artists, but this behavior is shown in Leonardo to highest degree. Edm. Solmi" cites (p. 12) the expression of one of his pupils: "Pareva, che ad ogni ora tremasse, quando siponeva a dipin-gere, e perd no diede mai fine ad alcuna cosa cominciata, considerando la grandezza dell'arte, tal che egliscorgeva errori in quelle cose, che ad altriparevano rniracoli. "His last pictures, Leda, the Madonna di Saint Onofrio, Bacchus and St. John the Baptist, remained unfinished "come quasiintervenne di tutte le cose sue. "Lomazzo,' who finished a copy of The Holy Supper, refers in a sonnet to the familiar inability of Leonardo to finish his works:
"Protogen che ilpenel di sue pitture Non levava, agguaglio il VinciDivo, Di cui opra non e linita pure. "
The slowness with which Leonardo worked was proverbial. After the most thorough preliminary studies he painted The Holy Supper for three years in die cloister of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. One of his contemporaries, Matteo Bandelli, the writer of novels, who was dien a young monk in the cloister, relates that Leonardo often ascended the scaffold very early in die morning and did not leave the brush out of his hand until twilight, never thinking of eating or drinking. Then days passed without putting his hand on it, sometimes he remained for hours before the painting and derived satisfaction from studying it by himself. At other times he came direcdy to die cloister from die palace of the Milanese Castle where he formed die model of die equestrian statue for Francesco Sforza, in order to add a few strokes with the brush to one of the figures and then stopped immediately.8 According to Vasari he worked for years on the portrait of Monna Lisa, the wife of die Florentine de Gioconda, without being able to bring it to completion. This circumstance may also account for the fact that it was never delivered to die one who ordered it but remained with Leonardo who took it with him to France.9 Having been procured by King Francis I, it now forms one of die greatest-treasures of the Louvre.
When one compares these reports about Leonardo's way of working with the evidence of the extraordinary amount of sketches and studies left by him, one is bound altogether to reject die idea that traits of flightiness and unsteadiness exerted die slightest influence on Leonardo's relation to his art. On die contrary one notices a very extraordinary absorption in work, a richness in possibilities in which a decision could be reached only hestitatingly, claims which could hardly be satisfied, and an inhibition in the execution which could not even be explained by the inevitable backwardness of the artist behind his ideal purpose. The slowness which was striking in Leonardo's works from die very beginning proved to be a symptom of his inhibition, a forerunner of his turning away from painting which manifested itself later.1" It was this slowness which decided the not undeserving fate of The Holy Supper. Leonardo could not take kindly to die art of fresco painting which demands quick work while die background is still moist, it was for this reason that he chose oil colors, the drying of which permitted him to complete the picture according to his mood and leisure. But these colors separated themselves from die background upon which they were painted and which isolated them from die brick wall; the blemishes of this wall and the vicissitudes to which the room was subjected seemingly contributed to die inevitable deterioration of die picture."
The picture of die cavalry battle of An-ghiari, which in competition with Michelangelo he began to paint later on a wall of the Sala de Consiglio in Florence and which he also left in an unfinished state, seemed to have perished through the failure of a similar technical process. It seems here as if a peculiar interest, that of the experimenter, at first reeiiforced the artistic, only later to damage the ait production.
The character of die man Leonardo evinces still some other unusual traits and apparent contradictions. Thus a certain inactivity and indifference seemed very evident in him. At a time when every individual sought to gain the widest latitude for his activity, which could not take place without die development of energetic aggression towards others, he surprised every one through his quiet peacefulness, his shunning of all competition and controversies. He was mild and kind to all, he was said to have rejected a meat diet because he did not consider it just to rob animals of their lives, and one of his special pleasures was to buy caged birds in the market and set diem free.12 He condemned war and bloodshed and designated man not so much as die king of the animal world, but radier as the worst of the wild beasts.13 But this effeminate delicacy of feeling did not prevent him from accompanying condemned criminals on their way to execution in order to study and sketch in his notebook dieir features, distorted by fear, nor did it prevent him from inventing the most cruel offensive weapons, and from entering the service of Cesare Borgia as chief military engineer. Often he seemed to be indifferent to good and evil, or he had to be measured widi a special standard. He held a high position in Cesare's campaign which gained for this most inconsiderate and most faidiless of foes die possession of the Romagna. Not a single line of Leonardo's sketches betrays any criticism of, or sympathy with the events of those days. The comparison widi Goethe during the French campaign cannot here be altogether rejected.