The Da Vinci Women

The Untold Feminist Power of Leonardo's Art


By Kia Vahland

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This new biographical look at Leonardo da Vinci explores the Renaissance master’s groundbreaking portrayal of women which forever changed the way the female form is depicted.

Leonardo da Vinci was a revolutionary thinker, artist, and inventor who has been written about and celebrated for centuries. Lesser known, however, is his revolutionary and empowering portrayal of the modern female centuries before the first women’s liberation movements.

Before da Vinci, portraits of women in Italy were still, impersonal, and mostly shown in profile. Leonardo pushed the boundaries of female depiction having several of his female subjects, including his Mona Lisa, gaze at the viewer, giving them an authority which was withheld from women at the time.

Art historian and journalist Kia Vahland recounts Leonardo’s entire life from April 15, 1452, as a child born out of wedlock in Vinci up through his death on May 2, 1519, in the French castle of von Cloux. Included throughout are 80 sketches and paintings showcasing Leonardo’s approach to the female form (including anatomical sketches of birth) and other artwork as well as examples from other artists from the 15th and 16th centuries. Vahland explains how artists like Raphael, Giorgione, and the young Titan were influenced by da Vinci’s women while Michelangelo, da Vinci’s main rival, created masculine images of woman that counters Leonardo’s depictions.


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PAINTING IS FEMININE, or at least it is in the case of Leonardo da Vinci. From his early Madonnas (Plates 1 and 2) to the late Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Plate 23), from the first portrait he painted, Ginevra de’ Benci (Plate 9), to the Mona Lisa (Plate 28), the main figures in Leonardo’s paintings are women. Only two men are featured as protagonists in the surviving panel paintings that are definitely by Leonardo. One is Saint Jerome (Plate 14), the unfinished picture of an old man praying in the desert as he struggles to renounce worldly temptations. The other is the John the Baptist (Plate 29), which Leonardo painted at the end of his life, where the youthful subject is both self-assured and sensual. We would have to include all the disciples in the fresco of the Last Supper (Plate 19) and all the figures of the baby Jesus in the images of the Madonna in order to reach anywhere near a balance between the sexes. Even Joseph did not manage to appear in Leonardo’s paintings of the Holy Family; instead, the artist usually assigns his place to Saint Anne, the mother of Mary (Plates 22 and 23). Painted portraits of kings, popes, or princes are lacking altogether, as far as we know; he left us only a sketch for one portrait of a ruler, which also shows a woman: Isabella d’Este, the marchioness of Mantua (Plate 20).

Leonardo da Vinci did more for the visibility of women than any other painter. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries he has been perceived in a different way, however, as a technical pioneer who anticipated the inventions of the modern era with his drawings of flying machines, weapons systems, and lifting devices. Yet this is too one-sided. Leonardo enjoyed designing all kinds of machines on paper, but they were hardly ever built. If these feats of engineering had been the most important thing in his life, he would have been a failure.

Leonardo’s machines make up only a small part of his vast body of drawings. He worked extensively on human anatomy, geological history, and the growth of plants, and constantly returned to his great passion, the movement of winds and water. He drew in order to understand the world, and he sought to understand the world in order to paint it. For him, painting was the greatest of all the sciences and the defining medium of his age. At the easel, man becomes a creator and can feel his kinship with Mother Nature, the great creator. If Leonardo sometimes struggled in the studio, adding brushstrokes very slowly one by one, it was because he was thinking so deeply about what he wanted to paint and how to depict it. He was a philosophical painter, as his amazed contemporaries remarked, a man who worked because he was interested in understanding things and because he had something he wanted to tell people.1

The knowledge at the center of Leonardo’s painting is the knowledge of women. Even in antiquity the painting of a beautiful woman was evidence of a painter’s skill. Her power to seduce was also his. Leonardo once gleefully recounted how viewers rapturously kissed the women in his paintings.2 Up until his time, young ladies in Italian portraits were depicted only in chaste profile. Leonardo was the first to turn his female figures to face the viewer, allowing an intimate dialogue between them. Leonardo’s women have a soul and a strong will; they move in space and time; they are beings in their own right in an age when women had no rights. Leonardo’s belle donne have what the poet Petrarch once found lacking in portraits of women: “voce ed intellecto,” voice and intellect.3 Together with his female models, the artist revealed the independent, self-assured woman, and in his works she became man’s equal.

Leonardo da Vinci was not a feminist; this concept simply did not exist around 1500. He did not fight for equal legal and social rights for women, because there were no such struggles in Renaissance times. However, there was a lively debate about whether women thought in the same way as men, and whether or not they could love. As can be understood from Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, this was the subject of discussion between the enemies and supporters of women.4 Some men with a humanist education despised women and thought of them as objects, while others respected and admired them. In his writings, drawings, and paintings, Leonardo da Vinci positioned himself on the side of women, so his art developed a feminist power centuries before the emancipation of women. For him, women’s ability to feel, think, and make decisions was beyond question. He therefore warned men that they should not be inconsiderate in their attitude toward sex, because women must be able to feel desire during the sexual act so that the child they deliver will be understanding, intelligent, lively, and lovable.5 For Leonardo, women’s ability to give birth was an act of creation. They were creators, and in his opinion, painters are also creators, because they produce something new in their art. That is also why he felt so close to women.

By allying himself with women, Leonardo also emancipated art. It was no longer a wish machine for clients but had an intangible life of its own. His Mary is at peace with herself, not subject to an annunciatory angel, and his paintings were not subject to the wishes of his patrons. Leonardo kept the paintings that really meant something to him in his home until the end of his life. These included the Mona Lisa and the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Both works combine the feminine with the history of nature and the earth, which the artist displayed in background landscapes. In Leonardo’s opinion, an individual woman can stand for the whole of nature, because she shares with nature the gift of giving life. This ability to keep making a fresh start enables the human race constantly to redesign its existence. The bird lover, hill walker, and vegetarian treats uncontrollable nature, with its seas and cliffs, its animals and plants, with deep respect, and Leonardo demanded the same from the viewers of his art.

So the idea that Leonardo’s drawings of armored vehicles and plans for diverting rivers mean that he wanted to subjugate the world is erroneous. Yes, he went to war and accompanied the butcher Cesare Borgia on a campaign of conquest. However, he quite openly condemned what he saw. He referred to war as pazzia bestialissima, a most bestial madness, and used it in his cartoon for a painting of the Battle of Anghiari, which concerned the hopelessness of violent conflicts.6

The distorted image of Leonardo as a “techie” and the ideal model of a virile man goes back to a Leonardo exhibition in Milan, in 1939, at the start of World War II. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who declared himself to be the “greatest living Italian,” wanted this exhibition to celebrate the “greatest Italian of the past.”7 Models of Leonardo’s machines that were never built in his lifetime were exhibited for the first time, and his deeply humanistic nude drawing of the Vitruvian Man (Ill. 21) in a circle and a square was now said to represent the technophile man of the future, who has almost become a machine himself.

The image of Leonardo as the unrelenting rationalist continued to have an effect after the end of the fascist period. In the late twentieth century it was still influencing the pioneers of the computer industry, who discovered Leonardo’s designs when they were on the lookout for a forebear, and subsequently claimed him as their own, although no longer the warrior but Leonardo the engineer and technical visionary (this was probably the reason why, in 1994, Bill Gates bought Leonardo’s scientific manuscript, the Codex Leicester).8 A gap still remained. Leonardo’s women, for whose presence on the stage of art and natural history the artist had done so much, were ignored and overlooked. And one more thing has fallen by the wayside: the realization that, in his old age, Leonardo reinvented the male image, creating figures that were just as sensual, self-willed, and close to nature as his women.

The year 2019 marked the five hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. It is time to look back without prejudice, examine his paintings and drawings, read his texts, and listen to him and the contemporary witnesses who knew him personally.

This biography of the artist does that through detailed study of the sources. As well as Leonardo’s artistic works, there are analyses of his writings on art and nature, unpublished in his lifetime, and his diary-like notes on everyday life. There are also letters and statements from contemporaries, legal documents, tax and court records, and other papers. This wide range of evidence enables us to make a critical examination of later judgments, such as those of the art writer Giorgio Vasari. (Information on the sources, with the original Italian and Latin quotations, as well as references to the status of art history and historical research, can be found in the notes at the end of the book.) In addition to Leonardo’s life and works and the art of his time, the book deals with the sociohistorical and political circumstances during the period when this exceptional artist was active. For instance, the first chapter is about Leonardo’s early Madonnas and also the role of mothers and their infants in the Renaissance, while the fourth chapter shows, on the one hand, how love was celebrated in Florence in richly symbolic spectacles and, on the other hand, how men who loved men were persecuted.

Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a notary and a simple peasant woman. In consequence, he was denied a higher education. As a young man he was once accused of sodomy—homosexual activities. His origins and his desires made him an outsider in society. However, this appears to have proven fortunate. Instead of living in a patriarchal family structure, he lived with his pupils and lovers in a home and work community. He put orthodox opinions to the test. He went his own way, took nothing for granted, drew and painted, researched and wrote whatever came into his head. As a result, he was able to empathize with his figures, both female and male, and also to follow the birth and death of nature. This is not a story of a virile male genius and female victims; it is about a vibrant, creative collaboration. The artist’s enormous inner freedom, his boundless imagination, and his ability to project himself into the minds of others constitute the universality of Leonardo’s creative work.



HE IS THRIVING. He is well fed, alert, and loved. The surprisingly large infant is sitting naked on a comfortable velvet cushion. His mother has such a firm, secure grasp on his back that her fingertips leave an impression in his baby fat (Plate 1).1 No harm can come to him—or so it seems. His left leg is kicking out, as if he wanted to try his strength against an imaginary opponent. But there is nobody there, just the two of them in their dark, almost cave-like, palazzo with round-arched windows that reveal the view of a shimmering blue mountain landscape. Warm light falls on the plump body of the infant, emphasizing his muscular torso and almost hairless head, but more particularly it sculpts the bright face of the young mother and the low neckline of her dress. She is beautiful, with reserved, still-girlish features, a small mouth, and lowered eyelids under high, fair brows. And she has made herself look beautiful. It must have taken hours to braid her hair like this with not a single strand falling over her forehead and carefully controlled blond ringlets tumbling out on either side of her cheeks from under a narrow veil, framing her angelic face. Her deep blue robe is fastened with a transparent, shimmering rock crystal, and below its trimming of gold-embroidered braid, it gathers in wrinkles over her small breasts, which the infant is presumably still suckling.

However, unlike the child, the mother is fully clothed. Under her mantle she wears a high-fastening red gown with gathered sleeves, and she has a patterned silk shawl draped around her shoulders and back and hanging down to her lap. The many lengths of fabric seem slightly antiquated, as if the late fifteenth-century wearer were longing to be back in the ancient world. However, this is of no interest to the little boy. She is his mother and she is there for him. He is happy to join in the game she is proposing. She has the stem of a carnation in her left hand, holding it where he can see it. He stretches out both hands, concentrating and trying to grasp the red flower, without touching it immediately. It seems as if he knows what he is doing; as if he is determined to look at the carnation—his destiny—and take possession of it. He is much too serious for his age. How could it be otherwise? His name is Jesus Christ, and he will not outlive his mother but will die for humankind in less than thirty-three years, before the eyes of the people, crucified with nails that are almost as large and long as the stalk of this carnation. The blood-red flower tells of the love of God, his father, which will eventually lead to the Passion of the son, who is Mary’s only child. Yet, despite everything, the young mother in the painting shows no fear. She is enjoying her intimacy with the vigorous boy, her own beauty, and the peace of the palace. This moment belongs to her and her baby.

But not entirely. However much Leonardo da Vinci imagined himself in the position of his protagonists when painting this little work from Florence, he was also thinking of the people who would look at this painting, both in his own day and at any time in the future. One of the first was Giuliano de’ Medici, the younger, somewhat impetuous brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence. Their family emblem was five red balls and one blue ball on a shield; the inconspicuous glass balls dangling from the boy’s cushion may be a reminder of these. Also, the modern window arches in the painting are similar to those of Giuliano’s Palazzo Medici. In the bottom right of the painting is a delicate vase of flowers—a symbol of Mary’s purity—that particularly appealed to Leonardo’s biographer, the sixteenth-century Renaissance painter and writer Giorgio Vasari. He reported that the painting had come into the possession of Pope Clement VII, an illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici, who had probably ordered it directly from the artist. A commission from the Medici might explain Leonardo’s extravagance: the gold, the fine layers of paint, and the care he took.2

This image of the Madonna is one of the first paintings known to be from Leonardo da Vinci’s own hand. At the time of its creation around 1475, the artist was a young man in his early twenties with long, curly hair and was already a full member of the Florentine painters’ guild. He was still living and working at his master’s studio, either out of loyalty or because he was not receiving enough commissions on his own account in a city teeming with art and artists.

Leonardo’s master, Andrea del Verrocchio, ran a flourishing workshop in the Via Ghibellina, just a short walk away from the city hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. The district was bustling with craftsmen and traders offering their services in the narrow streets. Artists usually worked in a large windowless room on the street; the door would stand open, inviting passersby to look in. For cooking and sleeping, the artists’ families and apprentices would withdraw to the back rooms or the upper floor.

Andrea came from a family of brickmakers, and for him art meant a rise in social status. Before devoting himself first to sculpture and then to painting, he trained as a goldsmith. He was so grateful to an elderly master of this craft that he adopted his surname of Verrocchio. By the time Leonardo arrived, the rich and powerful were regular visitors to Verrocchio’s workshop. Andrea, Leonardo, and the other assistants could turn their hand to anything. They carved in wood and stone, cast bronzes, made armor, painted, and supplied decorations for banquets, theater scenery, and complete interior furnishings for noble palaces. For important commissions Andrea collaborated with masters who joined with him, including the young Sandro Botticelli, who would soon become famous.

The Medici and other noble lords were regular customers of the workshop. In the Via Ghibellina, a bagful of gold could buy you everything you might need for a stylish life and death, from traditional birth plates to marriage chests and gravestones. The only art Verrocchio would not touch was fresco painting, the specialty of Andrea’s rivals, the Pollaiuolo brothers, who were smarter than the sculptor in this area.

Images of the Madonna on poplar wood were part of Andrea del Verrocchio’s standard repertoire, but none of those emanating from his workshop was as refined as the young Leonardo’s Madonna of the Carnation. His model was probably the same girl who sat for Verrocchio, or at least he adopted the latter’s ideal of beauty of a feminine young woman seen face-on, with her hair artistically braided. Like all Andrea’s pupils, Leonardo had spent years copying his master’s drawings of female heads in pencil and ink on paper or with metal styli on cheap wood (see also Ill. 35).3

Yet despite all the elegantly proportioned girlishness, despite all the desire for harmony, Leonardo’s Madonna is different. Her emotions are restrained; she is strikingly pensive, yet she knows precisely what she wants when she gives the boy the carnation. The painting is not a mere snapshot; it illustrates a whole story, an interaction between two beings who are intimately connected yet have independent feelings.

In parts of the painting the artist experimented with oil paints, which dry very slowly, unlike classic tempera pigments bound with egg yolk. This makes it possible to apply a further layer of color on the wet paint, so that the shades merge into one another. This small painting was highly experimental as, although the Florentines already knew about oil paints and occasionally used them, the technique there was nowhere near as well developed as in Flanders.

Leonardo was delighted with the natural effect of paints bound with oil. In this painting of the Madonna, one of the techniques he developed was the art of gentle transitions between light and dark. However, he was not yet certain how much oil he needed to use when mixing the paints. His master, Verrocchio, could not tell him, as he had only just begun painting himself and preferred to keep to the long-established Florentine technique of tempera painting. As a result, Leonardo chose the wrong mixture, and the Madonna soon developed deep furrows that still make the surface of the painting look rough today.4

Leonardo used this soft shadow play to place mother and son in the here and now of the palazzo, freeing them from the sense of remoteness that often envelops older images of the Madonna. They are enclosed in a dark, protective space, yet it is not in any way a prison, as it reveals a view of the distant brightness of God-given mountain peaks, of a kind rarely found in Tuscany, but probably plentiful in the artist’s imagination. Distance and nearness are interdependent, in the same way as light and shade, life and death, nature and art. Leonardo was a young man, not yet worldly wise, but with a conception of the world as a whole that is reflected in the ordinary individual.

Leonardo later wrote, “A good painter is to paint two main things, namely, man and the intention of man’s soul.”5 However, “man” in this context is definitely not always male as far as Leonardo is concerned. Quite the opposite. In the 1470s and 1480s it was mothers on whom he first tested out his fundamental conviction that the emotions of the soul and the spirit are expressed in the movements of the body.

With a few strokes of the pen, the artist committed to paper a youthful mother walking along with her braided hair fluttering as she goes. She has to use her upper body to counterbalance the weight of the sturdy infant in her arms. The child has spotted something on the road in front of them and is looking and pointing down at it. The mother does not want to dampen the child’s curiosity, but she has her own purpose in mind and counteracts gravity as kindly as she can.6 A child wants to move and must do so; it may be small, but it has a mind of its own (Ill. 1).

Illustration 1. Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a Young Woman with a Child, British Museum, London

Illustration 2. Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Virgin and Child with a Cat, British Museum, London

In the Renaissance period and for a long time after that, babies were bound so tightly in swaddling bands that they could no longer move their arms and legs. That was evidently not to Leonardo’s taste. He advised painters to take an affectionate look at the clumsiness of small children: They should paint “[l]ittle children, with lively and contorted movements when sitting, and, when standing still, in shy and timid attitudes.”7 He was fascinated by unbound boys discovering the world from the safety of their mothers’ arms.

In another drawing, the world is a domestic cat, not dangerous, but not easy to control (Ill. 2).8 A boy is trying to hold on to it, but the cat has no intention of being a plaything and has half escaped from his unwelcome curiosity. His smiling mother holds both of them on her lap, which is shaded by strong hatching. She does not intervene; the child must experience things for himself and discover that the world does not always do what one wants. From his mild gaze, it seems that the boy has now realized that he must be as patient with the self-willed cat as his mother is with him.

Only those who experience love can love others. This was not considered a matter of course in Renaissance times. Lively debates about whether women were capable of loving at all were still raging in the sixteenth century. The tendency was to say that they were not. They could only coolly refuse or humbly accept; the full range of emotions was reserved for men. However, as well as the few eloquent female writers who raised their voices later in the High Renaissance, there were always male humanists who contradicted the prevalent view and considered that women were capable of loving.9

In painting there was at least one feminine feeling that could not be questioned: motherly love, which was extolled in an image of the Madonna on the wall of almost every home. Besides its religious meaning, this most beloved of all subjects also had an educational purpose. Boys should model themselves on the boy Jesus and the young John the Baptist, take pleasure in them and emulate them. Girls should learn from Mary’s chastity and bear in mind her future role as a mother, which was a woman’s true purpose in the world of Renaissance thought. Brides were given Jesus dolls at their wedding, in order to practice motherhood.10

In many paintings (and not only in Leonardo’s milieu) the baby Jesus is suckling at his mother’s breast.11 Both priests and humanists avowed that breastfeeding established the bond between mother and child. It was said that the father left his mark on the body and mind of his offspring through his seed, whereas the mother’s contribution was to nourish the child, first in her womb and then, after giving birth, with her milk. According to the beliefs of the time, this was produced from the menstrual blood that had collected in her body during pregnancy; even Leonardo continued to accept this medieval misinformation for a time.

However, the joint responsibility of parents for the child remained largely theoretical. In practice, the role of the mother counted for very little, whereas the father’s contribution was everything in a society where male succession was absolute and women had no rights over their children. The fine words about the “tender emotions” of the Mother of God while breastfeeding and her “delight” at feeding her son (according to a thirteenth-century preacher) went unheeded.12

The majority of prosperous Florentine women did not breastfeed at all. Instead, their husbands made agreements with the spouses of the wet nurses who took over this task. Fathers were concerned that their wives’ milk might be polluted by having sex and, above all, by a new pregnancy. They wished however to become fathers again soon, as having several children increased their chances of having future heirs. It was important for men’s social status to have many legitimate offspring, whereas an intimate mother–child relationship in early years seemed to many of them to be of secondary importance. The rich fathers expected the parents of poorer families to abstain from sexual intercourse and inform them immediately if the wet nurse got pregnant again, which would result in the termination of the agreement.13

In the fifteenth century the custom of handing babies over to a wet nurse soon after they were born, contrary to all good advice, was followed not only by the very rich but also, according to their account books, by lawyers, artists, merchants, and doctors. The only question was what kind of wet nurse they could afford—whether she would live in the family home, as was usual in rich families, or elsewhere, and whether she had just recently given birth (which was considered an advantage) or whether it was a long time previously. The economic pressure on the families of the wet nurses was so great that many of them entrusted their own newborns to an even poorer wet nurse or gave them away to the Foundling Hospital in Florence that was opened in 1445. A merchant’s wife from Prato who arranged wet nurses for the newborns of wealthy families cruelly boasted that she had forced a woman to promise to become wet nurse to a strange child on the very night that her own baby had died.14


On Sale
Feb 25, 2020
Page Count
304 pages

Kia Vahland

About the Author

Kia Vahland is an award-winning art historian and journalist. She is the author of numerous nonfiction books on the Italian Renaissance including Michelangelo & Raphael. She is an editor and a leading art critic at Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest national daily broadsheet paper, and she teaches at Ludwig-Maximilian University and the German School of Journalism, both in Munich.

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