Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Sigmund Freud once described his essay on Leonardo da Vinci as the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. In Leonardo da Vinci, of course, he had as his subject not just an ordinary Italian painter, but the prototype of the universal genius, the "Renaissance man," the creator of some of the most beautiful, familiar, yet mysterious paintings of all time. Today, almost a century after its publication in 1910, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood remains a masterpiece of what Freud called "pathography" - ...
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Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Sigmund Freud once described his essay on Leonardo da Vinci as the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. In Leonardo da Vinci, of course, he had as his subject not just an ordinary Italian painter, but the prototype of the universal genius, the "Renaissance man," the creator of some of the most beautiful, familiar, yet mysterious paintings of all time. Today, almost a century after its publication in 1910, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood remains a masterpiece of what Freud called "pathography" - the effort to understand the life and works of a celebrated cultural figure through the investigation of his or her crucial psychological conflicts. A master of German prose style, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize by the City of Frankfurt in 1930 for the literary quality of his voluminous writings on the workings of the human mind.
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Meet the Author


Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 in Freiburg, a small city in Moravia, the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and moved with his parents to Vienna when he was three and a half years old. There he lived, obtained his classical Gymnasium education, graduated from medical school, raised his family, and after a period of laboratory research, undertook the study and treatment of patients with neurological and emotional disorders. It was in that setting that, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, he began to develop the theory and technique of psychoanalysis, publishing, among other things, such major works as The Interpretation of Dreams and Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality. After the German absorption of Austria in 1938, Freud was helped by some of his students and followers to move to London to escape the Nazi's anti-Semitic persecution. The next year, after completing his final book, Moses and Monotheism, he died, widely celebrated as the founder of what had by then become the international psychoanalytic movement.
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Introduction

Sigmund Freud once described his essay on Leonardo da Vinci as the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. Today, almost a century after its publication in 1910, it remains a masterpiece of what he called “pathography” - the effort to understand the life and works of a celebrated cultural figure through the investigation of his or her crucial psychological conflicts. As such, it casts light not only on its subject, Leonardo, but also on its author, the creator of psychoanalysis and a major creative artist in his own right. A master of German prose style, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize by the City of Frankfurt in 1930 for the literary quality of his voluminous writings on the workings of the human mind.

Freud was born in 1856 in Freiburg, a small city in Moravia, the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and moved with his parents to Vienna when he was three and a half years old. There he lived, obtained his classical Gymnasium education, graduated from medical school, raised his family, and after a period of laboratory research, undertook the study and treatment of patients with neurological and emotional disorders. It was in that setting that, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, he began to develop the theory and technique of psychoanalysis, publishing, among other things, such major works as The Interpretation of Dreams, Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, as well as a number of extended case studies that served to illustrate his ideas. Initially he worked alone and with little recognition, but gradually he gathered a group of colleagues and students as his writings, always controversial, gained increasing attention, acclaim, and criticism. Finally, after the German absorption of Austria in 1938, Freud, by then old and ill, was helped by some of his students and followers to move to London to escape the Nazi’s anti-Semitic persecution. The next year, after completing his final book, Moses and Monotheism, he died, widely celebrated as the founder of what had by then become the international psychoanalytic movement.

The Leonardo essay was Freud’s first serious attempt to apply his psychoanalytic tools to the study of a major artistic figure of the past. Like many of his followers, he held strongly to the belief that psychoanalysis could contribute significantly to the illumination of a wide range of issues beyond the therapeutic, in both the humanities and the social sciences. In such later works as Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Civilization and its Discontents he addressed such questions as the nature of religious belief and the origins of human society and culture from both anthropological and psychological standpoints. As a creative person himself, he was fascinated by the creative process, sought in a number of writings to explain it, and was clearly eager to show the value of his method in a particular case.

In Leonardo da Vinci, of course, he had as his subject not just an ordinary Italian painter, but the prototype of the universal genius, the “Renaissance man,” the creator of some of the most beautiful, familiar, yet mysterious paintings of all time. He was also known for his maddening tendency to leave his works unfinished, and for his propensity to shift his attention from artistic to scientific and military interests. Though in Freud’s day (as, indeed, in ours) biographical data on Leonardo were relatively sparse, it was known that he was born in 1452, the product of a liaison between Ser Piero da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant girl whom we know only as “Caterina.” In that same year Ser Piero married one Donna Albiera; how long Leonardo remained with his natural mother is unclear, but by 1457 tax records show that he was then living with his father and stepmother in Florence.

Recognizing Leonardo’s graphic talents, his father placed him as an apprentice at eleven years old with the master painter and sculpture Verocchio, where his life as an artist began and flourished. Leonardo responded over the years to the prevailing political winds, moving about between Florence and Milan as rulers changed and as opportunities presented themselves. It was in Milan that his experimentalist bent reached its apogee with the ill-fated and oft-restored Last Supper and the unexecuted project of a massive equestrian bronze memorial statue of Duke Francesco Sforza, for which the available technology could not cope with Leonardo’s grandiose concept. His last years were spent as the honored guest of King Francis I in Paris, where he died at the royal chateau of Amboise in 1519.

It was widely believed that Leonardo was homosexual, at least in inclination if not in actual practice. At the age of 24 he was indicted, along with three others, for “sodomy”; the case was never proved and, ultimately, the indictment was dropped. These facts, along with that of Leonardo’s birth outside of wedlock and the lifelong pattern of inconsistency in his commitment to his craft, strongly suggested to Freud that significant psychological conflicts underlay the artist’s behavior and contributed to the unique character of his works.

Freud’s attraction to the story of Leonardo grew in part from the soil of his passionate interest in the art of the past. He was a dedicated collector of antiquities; his desk and the shelves in his consultation room were covered with Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other objects systematically and patiently accumulated over many years. (Most of them were moved with him to London, and can still be seen in the Freud Museum there.) An avid student of the art of the Renaissance, he made several vacation trips to Northern Italy, and after overcoming what he described as a neurotic inhibition, to Rome, where he became captivated by the art of Michelangelo, particularly his statue of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli.

But what principally engaged Freud’s interest in Leonardo was the artist’s description in one of his notebooks of a very early childhood memory with particularly dramatic and colorful content. Freud’s clinical work, along with his self-analysis, had led him to the conviction that childhood memories and experiences, especially those with sexual overtones, were of critical importance in determining adult personality, both normal and neurotic; as he put it, “Hysterics suffer from reminiscences.” Indeed, this belief formed one of the fundamental elements in this psychoanalytic system. He soon came to realize, however, that childhood memories - both his own and those he heard from his parents - were not always what they seemed. “It may be questioned,” he wrote, “whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess.” Most such memories were what he called “screen memories” - images at once masked and represented in disguised form wishes and experiences that had undergone repression, condensation or other forms of defensive distortion and that, therefore, required interpretation or what he called “reconstruction” in order to reveal their true meaning. It seemed likely to him, therefore, that analysis of Leonardo’s memory and its integration with what was known - or conjectured - about his actual childhood could provide a key to the unraveling of some of the mysteries that surrounded his adult life (including his sexuality) and his art.

As Freud recounted it, Leonard recalled as one of his earliest memories “that while I was in my cradle a vulture [in Italian, nibbio] came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.” Freud apparently found the translation of Leonardo’s nibbio as vulture in the German version of Dimitri Merejkovski’s fictionalized biography of the artist and, taking it as valid, developed a complex and extended argument, through analogy with the Egyptian vulture-deity Mut, that the bird in the memory was a representation of Leonardo’s birth mother [Mutter, in German], and that the bird’s tail was at once a symbol for his mother’s nipple, a phallus, and his predestined greatness. The mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa, like that of so many of the figures in his paintings, was derived, Freud concluded, from Leonardo’s unconscious recall of that of his nursing mother Caterina, and his homosexuality was determined by an excess erotic fixation on his mother who “smothered him with kisses” (just as the vulture had repeatedly struck his lips with its tail) and by the absence of his father during his early years. He proposed, too, that Leonardo’s fascination with flight and his efforts to invent a flying machine were derived from an identification of the bird in his infantile memory, and that his scientific explorations were largely determined by his unconscious longing to resolve the tangled web of his parental origins.

Despite Freud’s own enthusiasm for the book, it met with much criticism at the time of its publication. Although it received a favorable review in the influential Burlington Magazine, art historians, concerned as they were primarily with issues of attribution and iconography, were generally hostile, considering it to be an unwelcome intrusion by a dilettante outsider, essentially a work of fiction rather than a serious piece of scholarship. But the most substantial critique did not appear until many years later, and it served to generate a barrage of critical literature and controversy that continues to this day. In 1956 the eminent American art historian Meyer Schapiro, drawing on earlier observations by Eric Maclagen as early as 1923 and by Richard Wohl and Harry Trosman in 1955, demonstrated that Freud’s vulture was a mistranslation; that nibbio denoted another bird of prey, the kite, and that, as a result, the elaborate argument based on the vulture theme could not be sustained. Schapiro mustered a battery of art historical evidence to support his refutation, arguing, among other matters, that Freud’s view of the arrangement of the figures in the Louvre’s St. Anne painting as unique and original was unfounded, and that his suggestion that the features of St. Anne and the Virgin in that work and in the cartoon in London’s National Gallery were derived from Leonardo’s memory of his “two mothers” - Caterina and his stepmother Donna Albiera - was fanciful at best. In the end, Schapiro dismissed the book with faint praise as a “jeu d’esprit” on Freud’s part.

Schapiro’s assault continues to reverberate, and he stimulated both psychoanalytic and art-historical responses on all sides (summarized and critically evaluated by Bradley Collins, a psychoanalytically-oriented art historian in his Leonardo, Psychoanalysis and Art History). Collins points out that Schapiro, in his turn, offers no explanation of Leonardo’s character that rivals Freud’s and relies solely on external, rather than psychological, considerations to account for some of the artist’s peculiarities. In a massive rejoinder to Freud’s critics, Kurt Eissler, one of his most devoted disciples, elaborated his own view of Leonardo as the victim of multiple childhood traumas, enlarging his survey of the artist’s work to include consideration of the Last Supper, but addressing himself exclusively to matters of content, rather than considerations of form and style. Collins also considers some later contributions to the continuing discussion by some French psychoanalysts.

Most recently, the American art historian Wayne Anderson has weighed in with a dense, erudite and contentious study, incorporating recently-discovered biographical information and challenging virtually all earlier commentators (especially Schapiro) while suggesting that Freud was not entirely wrong after all. In his view, the identity of the remembered bird hardly matters (he maintains that it was neither a vulture nor a “kite”, but a hawk), and he goes on to offer a wholly different set of interpretations for Leonardo’s presumed homosexuality and his repugnance for the female body. In his construction, the bird’s tail in Leonardo’s mouth did not connote a loving nipple, but a dirty rear end. “To whatever extent the dream of the hawk’s tail can tell us anything significant about Leonardo’s psychology,” he writes, “I propose it was the inverted act of the bird as not pleasant but repugnant … I conclude that Leonardo’s personality as effeminate and sexually inactive evolved from repugnance rather than attraction to sexual encounters while remaining nonetheless a sensual individual in his admiration for beauty.” At the same time, however, Anderson extols Freud’s essay as a work of art in itself.

Thus the controversy continues, ten decades after the essay’s publication. For today’s non-specialist reader, however, it is precisely as a work of art that the book continues to appeal. Freud went on to write less extensive psychoanalytic studies of Dostoevsky and the Moses of Michelangelo - both similarly controversial - but the Leonardo paper remains the most fully developed of his attempts to carry psychoanalysis into the realm of aesthetics. Despite its limitations - the faultiness of some of its premises; the narrowness of its art-historical scholarship - Freud’s Leonardo continues to serve as a model for the extra-clinical applications of psychoanalysis and as an example of Freud’s remarkable literary and rhetorical style. Although both art history and psychoanalysis have moved on in the decades that separate us from his Edwardian (or Habsburgian) world, Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, whether fact of fiction, continues to engage our attention as the prototype of a mode of biographical writing that embraces unconscious conflict and motivation as significant determinants of the subject’s character. Rare indeed is the biography today that does not rely in some measure on the sort of psychological inquiry that Freud pioneered in this volume.
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