Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood

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This monograph on Leonardo da Vinci was the first of this kind written by Freud, and he had great reservations about it. There were precedents, however: Isidor Sadger had written several histories of artists with pathologies (Conrad-Ferdinand Meyer, Nikolas Lenau, Heinrich von Kleist). For years Freud had been interested in Leonardo da Vinci (see his letter to Wilhelm Fliess of October 9, 1898) and identified with Leonardo's passion for investigation and the nature of his research, which created a scandal at the time. Leonardo da Vinci and his ilk—Francis Bacon, Nicolas Copernicus, Bernard Palissy—are heroes of scientific research, men who have "troubled the world's sleep" (Friedrich Hebbel).

The first of the book's six chapters discusses the passion for investigation, its infantile origins, and its drawbacks from the point of view of love, social relations, and other activities. Leonardo is a good example of such behavior because he allows Freud to contrast the inhibition (the slowness of execution) characteristic of his painting with his excessive investment in research. Freud defines the three outcomes of infantile sexual investigation: inhibition, obsession, sublimation. "[L]ibido evades the fate of repression by being sublimated at the very beginning into curiosity" (p. 79).

The second chapter is devoted to Leonardo's memory of his childhood. Freud interprets the memory as a fantasy and compares it with mythological information. Unfortunately, Freud's discussion is not pertinent, because a translation error leads him to talk about a vulture instead of a kite.

The third chapter provides a description, based on the fantasy of fellatio expressed in the memory, of a particular type of homosexuality. In this type of homosexuality, the subject identifies with his mother so he can experience self-love through other young men, objects of his homosexual choice. This discussion considers narcissistic choice long before Freud introduced the concept of narcissism.

In chapter 4 Freud continues his discussion of the memory of Leonardo's mother in his analysis of Mona Lisa's smile. Chapter 5 describes Leonardo's antagonism toward his father. Freud saw in this antagonism the origin of Leonardo's courage as an investigator, primarily in the face of religious authority. Chapter 6, which contains an important discussion of the role of chance, presents Freud's methodological conclusion on creativity.

Freud's essay on Leonardo is one of his best known works. Though Freud quotes several biographies of artists, he transforms the art form by investigating the obsessive investment associated with sublimated activity.


See also: Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Eissler, Kurt Robert; History and psychoanalysis; Homosexuality; Identification; Intellectualization; Knowledge or research, instinct for; Literary and artistic creation; Memory; "On Narcissism: An Introduction"; Phallic mother; Phallic woman; Visual arts and psychoanalysis; Psychobiography; Psychohistory; Repetition; Sublimation; Thought. Source Citation

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1910c). Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci. Leipzig: F. Deuticke; G.W., vol. 8, pp. 127-211. Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.