"Angelo Incarnato" by Leonardo da Vinci

So here we have an erotic drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. It's called "Angelo incarnato" or "Angel incarnate" or angel made flesh.

Luckily, I have a highly qualified friend to comment on it; I'd be in over my head.

Commentary and scholarly references by SUZANNE BRANDIS:

The penis is discolored because somebody tried to erase it at some point!  I run into defacement A LOT with subject matter of this type.  It's even more frustrating when you read a surviving description only of a work of art that was completely destroyed by some righteous soul because of the sexual nature of the material it depicted.

It's called an angel because it's a variant of a sketch, "Angel Annunziante" It's been compared to his St. John and is probably contemporary with it.  Someone described the exposed breast as having "a pronounced female nipple."  The minute, diaphanous suggestion of drapery is surely related to the other treatments of the same subject--but it's not very effective if he's trying to cover himself, it's more like he's holding it up to give us a peek! 

The theory goes the "Angelo incarnato" was stolen from Windsor in the 19th century.

Brian Sewell, Sunday Telegraph, April 5, 1992:

"It was well known that the Royal Collection had once contained a number of pornographic drawings by Leonardo.  I remember being fascinated by the story when I worked for a while in the Royal Library; the whole episode had passed into the mythology of the place.  According to the version I heard, a large man in a Sherlock Holmes cape had arrived one day to have a look at the drawings.  He was reputed to be a very eminent German scholar.  It was not until some time later that the drawings were found to be stolen.... There is no doubt that the drawings were a considerable embarrassment, and I think everyone was very relieved to find that they'd gone."  Sewell adds that both Kenneth Clark and Anthony Blunt deliberately chose not to mention this in their studies of the Queen's collections.

(As quoted by Nicholl, Leonardo da Vinci, 562, n26.)

Charles Nicholl's research led him to conclude "Angelo incarnato" is a late work related to Leonardo's half-figure painting of "St. John":

"... 'St. John' is the final stage of a long process of definition and redefinition.  The earliest recorded stage is a small sketch at Windsor which is on a sheet containing studies for the "Battle of Anghiari" and therefore datable to c. 1504-5...The most extraordinary variant of this figure is a small drawing on blue paper, rediscovered in 1991, having been sequestered for years in the private collection of a 'noble German family'.  In this the 'angel' - in the same pose, but no longer with a wing to identify it as an angel - is shown with a disturbingly ambiguous face, a pronounced female nipple, and, beneath the gauzy veil of the cloth which he holds in his left hand, a large erection.  (An effort was made at some point to erase this last feature, resulting in a grey-brown discoloration around it: this is the original colour of the paper showing through the blue preparation of the surface.)  The drawing is datable to c. 1513-15 - the Roman years - and is probably contemporary with 'St. John'."

(Nicholl, 469.)

Andre Green on the "Angelo incarnato":

"Here one meets all the contradictions, not only between feminine and masculine, but between a certain ecstasy and a sadness tending almost to anguish.  The mouth is too sexy and childish, closed and half-open, dumb and about to speak.  The curling hair is an attribute which may be of either sex.  We feel, in short, uneasy and this is doubtless further provoked by the erection which can be seen behind the veil.  There is perhaps something satanic behind this angelic being, but we cannot say if our anxieties of interpretation reflect our own difficulty in finding an overall coherence in the work, or if they stem from the incompatibility of heavenly aspirations and orgasmic pleasures."

Nicholls quotes here from Green, "Angel or demon?" (1996) in Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo in Casentino (2001). 

In the concluding address at "Renaissance and Antiquity: Vision and Revision: A Psychoanalytical Perspective" (New York, March 23, 1991, where the 'Angelo' was first exhibited) Dr. Laurie Wilson, art therapist, suggested "the perverse ugliness" of the drawing arose from "difficulties in representing or controlling negative feelings" - Nicholl: "...a product, one might gloss, of sexual guilt.  There's a challenge in such ugliness - an invitation to respond to the drawing as a kind of specialist transsexual pornography.  The angel has become an unsavory-looking catamite fished up from the lower reaches of the Roman flesh-market."  (Nicholl, 470.)  Nicholl gives us his take on 16th c. Rome in a passage on page 463, "The city had a population of around 50,000...it was famed for both its antiquities and for its grandiose novelties...It was also notorious for corruption and venality of the papal court.  There were some 7,000 prostitutes in the city, many in brothels licensed by the papal authorities; syphilis was epidemic, and Benvenuto Cellini was not being flippant when he described it as 'a kind of illness very common among priests'.  Something of this air of corruption seeps into a strange drawing known as the 'Angelo incarnato'..." 

So, if that's his imagined context, you can see where it's going to take him in his interpretation.

It seems obvious to me at this point looking at the "Angelo" makes a lot of people pretty uncomfortable, but whether or not it made Leonardo uncomfortable, I can't say.  Was it a joke?  A private fantasy?  An acid comment on the theology of the Immaculate Conception?

"...there had always existed a current of imagery - scurrilous or symbolic, according to how it was presented - referring to the Annunciation as a kind of impregnation of the Virgin by the angel Gabriel, who brings the Holy Spirit which 'quickens' her womb...The erotic interpretation of this is found in...risqué works...which Leonardo knew and quoted from."  Nicholl offers some examples in the text, and continues, "...in the 'Angelo incarnato' the gesture (of the raised right hand) is given the tarnishing overtone of prostitution which is part of 16th-century atheistic lore."  Nicholl also notes the famous quote of Leonardo's, "When I made a Christ-child you put me in prison, and now if I show Him grown up you will do worse to me" which probably refers to Leonardo's run in with the Officers of the Night in 1476, possibly involving a painting or terracotta bust featuring model Jacopo Saltarelli (the notorious boy in the sodomy charge) as the youthful Christ.  "The subtext of this is the troublesome adjacency of homosexuality and spirituality in his depiction of angels and young Christs: the models he used were sexually desirable young men, and a certain homoerotic charge is present in all his angels...and is most luridly incarnated in the full-frontal 'Angelo incarnato'."

(Nicholl, 470-471.)

Points to ponder:

1) Nicholl and others have a tendency to view a lot of Leonardo's work from the perspective that it's autobiographical. But in Leonardo's time artists earned their living working on commissions--giving visual life to a patrons ideas and preferences.  I don't think Leonardo's ability to conceptualize someone else's point of view stopped when he opened his notebooks. He may have been using the device of other people's desires to say something other than the purely personal.

2) I'm not convinced the "Angelo" is an angel at all.  Leonardo left out the wings and any other references to a celestial being as far as I can see.  And there may have been far too much made of that "female nipple". Perhaps the most famous work of Renaissance homoerotic art, Donatello's "David", also displays prepubescent breast buds. The sculpture is clearly a young male; there's no ambiguity about it's identity as the biblical David.  So, maybe this is just a Renaissance homoerotic convention.

3) If we believe the Windsor legend, there was once a collection of Leonardo "pornography", now lost.  While it's okay to compare the "Angelo" to his "St. John" on stylistic grounds, it's still an open question what comparing it to other examples of his pornographic doodling would reveal.  For instance, was all of it a raunchy riff on Christian theology and papal politics?  Or, was it a collection of beautiful, enticing and arousing young men?  Were their women, too?  What sort?  Makes a difference.

4) For that matter, Leonardo wasn't (ever) the only artist producing pornography. This genre would have had an iconography of its own.  Therefore, any borrowing of motifs carries with it its own subtext of meaning.  Somebody should be looking at that to see what common visual currency, if any, Leonardo was employing.