Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood

Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood

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Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood is an essay written by Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 about Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

's childhood. It consists of a psychoanalytic study of da Vinci's life based on his paintings.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Freud provides a psychoanalytical interpretation of da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. According to Freud, the Virgin's garment reveals a vulture when viewed sideways. Freud claimed that this was a manifestation of a "passive homosexual" childhood fantasy that Leonardo wrote about in the Codex Atlanticus
Codex Atlanticus
The Codex Atlanticus is a twelve-volume, bound set of drawings and writings by Leonardo da Vinci, the largest such set; its name indicates its atlas-like breadth. It comprises 1,119 leaves dating from 1478 to 1519, the contents covering a great variety of subjects, from flight to weaponry to...

, in which he recounts being attacked as an infant in his crib by the tail of a vulture. He translated the passage thus:
It seems uranous and rose are the love of my life and that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures — for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.

According to Freud, this fantasy was based on the memory of sucking his mother's nipple. He backed up his claim with the fact that Egyptian hieroglyphs represent the mother as a vulture, because the Egyptians believed that there are no male vultures and that the females of the species are impregnated by the wind.

Unfortunately for Freud, the word 'vulture' was a mistranslation by the German translator of the Codex and the bird that Leonardo imagined was in fact a kite
Kite (bird)
Kites are raptors with long wings and weak legs which spend a great deal of time soaring. Most feed mainly on carrion but some take various amounts of live prey.They are birds of prey which, along with hawks and eagles, are from the family Accipitridae....

, a bird of prey which is occasionally a scavenger
Scavenging is both a carnivorous and herbivorous feeding behavior in which individual scavengers search out dead animal and dead plant biomass on which to feed. The eating of carrion from the same species is referred to as cannibalism. Scavengers play an important role in the ecosystem by...

. This disappointed Freud because, as he confessed to Lou Andreas-Salomé, he regarded Leonardo as 'the only beautiful thing I have ever written'. Some Freudian scholars have, however, made attempts to repair the theory by incorporating the kite
A kite is a tethered aircraft. The necessary lift that makes the kite wing fly is generated when air flows over and under the kite's wing, producing low pressure above the wing and high pressure below it. This deflection also generates horizontal drag along the direction of the wind...


Another theory proposed by Freud attempts to explain Leonardo's fondness of depicting the Virgin Mary with St Anne. Leonardo, who was illegitimate, was raised by his blood mother initially before being 'adopted' by the wife of his father Ser Piero. The idea of depicting the Mother of God with her own mother was therefore particularly close to Leonardo's heart, because he, in a sense, had 'two mothers' himself. It is worth noting that in both versions of the composition (the Louvre painting and the London cartoon) it is hard to discern whether St Anne is a full generation older than Mary.

Further reading

  • Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (Freud, Sigmund, Works.)
  • Andersen, Wayne. "Leonardo Da Vinci and the Slip of Fools". History of European Ideas Vol.18 No.1, pp. 61–78, 1994.