The Mystery of Leonardo's Self-portraits

Benjamin Binstock

Cooper Union

This essay reconsiders the mystery of Leonardo's self-portraits by re-examining older theories on the topic in relation to the faces and inscriptions in his Uffizi drawing no. 446E (3).

Leonardo da Vinci's famous red chalk sketch of an old man in Turin (fig. 1) was long identified as a self-portrait, corresponding to Raphael's contemporaneous image in his School of Athens of Leonardo in the guise of Plato (Clark 255, Gombrich 71, Pedretti 1990, 81). This traditional identification of Leonardo's drawing has recently been disputed because of its slightly exaggerated features (Kemp 44). Ernst Gombrich long ago provided a means to resolve the debate in his pioneering study of Leonardo's grotesque heads.

Kenneth Clark already identified two facial types that appear repeatedly in Leonardo's drawings—as well as his "doodles" at the margins of his written manuscripts—as "the two hieroglyphs of Leonardo's unconscious mind": an older man with a "formidable frown, nut-cracker nose and chin, who appears sometimes in the form of caricature, but more often as an ideal" (fig. 2), whose "features seem to have typified for Leonardo vigor and resolution," and an "epicene [i.e. androgynous] youth" (fig. 3) (Clark 121). Several authors saw examples of the former type as self-portraits of Leonardo, including the (usually hairless) heads of his numerous anatomical studies as well as his "Vitruvian man." Gombrich agreed, with the caveat that Leonardo exaggerated the features in a grotesque manner, to varying degrees (fig. 2). He also identified the second type cited by Clark, the feminine youth, as a self-portrait, at least in Leonardo's earliest drawings (fig. 3). The young Leonardo was reported to be extraordinarily handsome, yet he acknowledged the danger implicit in the proverbial notion that "every painter depicts himself," which could result in repetition and monotony. Gombrich proposed that the first "nut-cracker" type with its grotesque exaggerations ("the traditional Roman profile") involve humorous, self-deprecating attempts to counter the narcissistic and repetitive tendency evident in the second type of the beautiful (Greek) youth. He placed the Turin drawing (fig. 1) at the center of this spectrum from idealized beauty to grotesque caricature (Gombrich 65-75).

Potential confirmation of Gombrich's account lies in an example that both he and Clark cited, Uffizi drawing 446E, without addressing this specifically as a self-portrait (fig. 4). The drawing juxtaposes two heads, framed above and below by inscriptions in calligraphic notarial script. Leonardo later added mechanical devices on the verso and to the right on the recto, one large gear overlapping the back of the right head. The meanings of the heads and the inscriptions have never been fully explained. Together, I propose, they constitute one of the most revealing documents we have concerning Leonardo's life and art, particularly his caricature self-portraits.

The complex face of the older man on the left is highly detailed. He stares straight ahead with a noble yet grim and weathered visage, and what Kenneth Clark called a "nutcracker" face with over-hanging nose and upward-thrusting jaw (fig. 4a). He appears to be dressed, with the top of some clothing visible around his neck (fig. 4). The youth on the right was quickly rendered in outline in slightly smaller scale, his shoulders bare, chin thrust forward, head craned sideways, gazing wistfully into the older man's eyes.

Carlo Pedretti transcribed the top inscription as "Fieravantj di Domenicho in Firenze e chompar/ amantissimo quanto mio…" but was unable to read the last word(s) (fig. 1a). "In dei nom[ine]" is written below, the repetition "amant[issimo] quanto" just above the left head, and partly torn away at the bottom of the sheet "d[icem]bre 1478 jnchominciai le 2 Vergini Marie […] e chompa in Pisstoja" (Pedretti 2003, 55). David Rosand provided English translations: "[Fieravanti di Domenicho in Florence] my most beloved companion as though he were my…," "in the name of god," a notarial formula that Leonardo henceforth often used in his drawings, "most beloved as though," "D[ecem]ber 1478 I began the 2 virgin Marys […] and companion in Pistoia" (Rosand 64).

Leonard Barkan remarked that in Leonardo's drawings "image and text have been conceived as purposefully interrelated" (Barkan 14). Rosand observed that in 446E "the two facing heads, so poignantly juxtaposed, seem either commentary on or illustration of the written confession—although they likely preceded the writing" and proposed that "the ellipsis may be indicative of the emotion, or even anxiety(?), with which it was penned" (Rosand 64). Leonardo used the notarial chancery script seen here solely for noting important events. Several pieces of evidence indicate Leonardo's homoerotic preference; most notably, he was publically accused of sodomy in 1472. Given these factors, the inscriptions on 446E logically refer to the heads and describe their connection: Leonardo and Fieravanti di Domenicho, who are recorded as companions and in love in 1478.

The seemingly self-evident interpretation put forward here has likely not been proposed before because the figure on the left appears to be too old for the then twenty-six year old Leonardo. However, Gombrich's account of Leonardo's caricature self-portraits resolves the matter, particularly when we juxtapose the face's distinctive features with comparable examples. These include another of his drawings in the Uffizi, no 449E, which has not been recognized as a caricature self-portrait, and bears the second type of androgynous youth on the verso (figs. 2a, 4a, 5, 5a, 5b). Gombrich's account also helps to account for the feminine-looking youth on the right as Fieravanti, who assumes Leonardo's former role (figs. 3, 4).

The two heads relate to one another in terms of the conventional dichotomy of active, masculine, older lover and passive, feminine, younger beloved, or eromenos and erastes. The conventional dichotomy is slightly complicated in this case insofar as the younger man appears outwardly to express the greater love, or at least a greater fascination, through his contorted pose and intense gaze. The twenty-six year old Leonardo would thus have humorously and self-deprecatingly caricatured himself as the "older man" in his relationship to Fieravanti, and in Clark's words, as the more vigorous and resolute of the two companions. The rigid expression of the left head does not betray the depth of his feeling. Conversely, what Rosand called Leonardo's "written confession" in the top inscription appears to convey his intense emotion, or even anxiety, perhaps at the two lovers' inevitable parting, or the dangers implicit in such a liason. The lapidary repetition of the phrase "amant[issimo] quanto" just above the left head even suggests a visualization of Leonardo's profound feelings for Fieravanti, like thought or speech bubbles in comic strips. The lone decorative seraph lower down between the two heads also appears to bind them together, like the knots (vinci) on powerful branches pulling apart painted on the ceiling of the Salle della Aste designed by Leonardo.

If the relation of the faces and inscriptions in Leonardo's Uffizi drawing 446E put forward here is correct, the work offers a crucial document of his art and life, including the mystery of his self-portraits.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, Bearded old man (self-portrait?), Turin, Biblioteca Reale, 33.3 x 21.4 cm, inv. no. 15571. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, "Darius" (warrior in profile with armor), 28.5 x 20.7 cm., inv. no. 1895-9-15-474, London, British Museum. 2a. detail: face. (© Trustees of the British Museum).

Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of Madonna and child and faces, c. 1469, Windsor, Royal Collection, RL 12776r, detail: youth.

Fig. 4 Leonardo da Vinci, Two heads with inscriptions in notarial script, studies of mechanical devices, 20.2 x 26.6 cm, inv. no. 446E, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampi degli Uffizi, Florence. Verso: Mechanical devices. 4a. detail: face. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 5a Leonardo da Vinci, Young man in the antique manner, inv. no. 449E, 10.5 x 7.8 cm, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampi degli Uffizi, Florence. Verso: youth. 4a. detail: face. (Reproduced from Carlo Pedretti, 2003, p54).

Details 5c. detail, face; 2a. detail, face (reversed); 4a. detail, face

Suggested reading

Leonard Barkan, Michelangelo: a life on paper (Princeton, 2011).

Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519 (New York, 1993 [1939]).

Ernst Gombrich, "Leonardo da Vinci's Method of Analysis and Permutations: The Grotesque Heads," in The Heritage of Apelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (Ithaca, 1976), 57-75.

Carlo Pedretti, I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci e della sua cerchia nella Biblioteca reale di Torino (Florence, 1990).

Carlo Pedretti, I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci e della sua cerchia nel gabinetto disegni estampe della galleria degli Uffizi a Firenze, catalogo di Gigetta dalli Regoli (Florence, 2003).

David Rosand, Drawing Acts. Studies in graphic expression and representation (Cambridge, 2002).