An undoubtedly complex category during the Renaissance, it is given even further twists and turns in some recent academic writing about the Renaissance that is, interestingly enough, not primarily about homosexuality, leading to questions not only about its character as social and sexual activity during the early modern period, but also about its instrumentalization as strategic rhetorical device in argumentation in the modern period.
Referencing Freud’s (in)famous interpretation of Leonardo’s presumed homosexuality (and the psychological fixation on the mother figure he believed that to entail) as the locus of the preponderance of female figures in Leonardo’s paintings, Mary Garrard reverses Freud’s terms, arguing instead that “Leonardo’s sexual preference might better be understood as a symptom of an even broader unconventionality in his psychological makeup…his detached curiosity about, and comparatively unbiased observation of, the female sex” (pg. 78-79). Here, of course, Garrard is not proposing a literal psychiatric diagnosis of Leonardo’s deviant sexuality and its symptomatic relation to some other condition, but rather a methodological agenda for how the trope of the now canonical supposition of his homosexuality can be mobilized in expanding the discourse around his paintings to include a feminist perspective. Homosexuality, for the feminist art historian writing on Leonardo, becomes a rhetorical tool, a hermeneutic “symptom” capable of refocusing the debate onto a broader preoccupation about gender and the position of women in Renaissance society which, ironically in Garrard’s case, ultimately skirts any substantive discussions of homosexuality in the Renaissance.
In Rona Goffen’s research constellation, homosexuality is among the topics that can be elucidated through the “primacy of visual evidence.” Arguing against the over-eagerness of historians to corroborate and explain images through textual evidence, Goffen advocates an attention to artworks themselves as the primary sources for statements about their authors’ intentions and desires. Though art historians have harbored frustration at the ambiguity of the love for the young Cavalieri that Michelangelo expressed in writing, the master’s drawings, Goffen argues, provide their own answers to questions about his sexuality, as Michelangelo “not only said more in his drawings, he said it more directly than he dared in his letters and sonnets” (pg. 686). Referring to the theme of Michelangelo’s drawing made for Cavalieri, Goffen asserts that, “even if the theme of Ganymede may be couched with high-minded Neoplatonic raisons-d’être,” its visual form clearly codes it as “an explicit, unabashed, and loving depiction of sexual fulfillment” (pg. 688). Homosexuality, for Goffen, is a fact made “explicit” through visual evidence which it is the art historian’s charge to decode. The apparently “direct” availability of this evidence in the work would seem to suggest a fairly uncomplicated understanding of Michelangelo’s sexuality as similar enough to modern classifications of same-sex desire that a modern viewer (in this case Goffen) can easily identify its manifestation in the work. One wonders whether historical distance, and difference, between how sexuality is understood today, and how it was then, might not complicate the “directness” of this evidence.
For Christopher Pye, homosexuality appears again in relation to Leonardo’s painting, though this time neither as mere biographical fact, nor as argumentative framing device, but as a painterly procedure, a conceptual operation in images that mirrors the aesthetic problems that those same images thematize. According to Pye, the explicit homoerotic overtones in images like the Pedretti St. John “extend beyond its identificatory erotics to a more fundamental level…at which the aesthetic’s structuring and destructing effects become indissociable” (pg. 23). In other words, more than telling us about the sexual identify of Leonardo, or even about how non-heteronormative sexuality worked during the Renaissance (these, we presume, would be mere “identificatory erotics”), the homoeroticism in Leonardo’s paintings adumbrates the philosophical problem of the aesthetic as Pye identifies it specifically in Leonardo’s paintings of hands: the representation of the hand always pointing back to itself as the ground for the autonomy of its own creation, but also as its autonomous creation; an endless, recursive return to the self that mirrors the mirroring effect of self-affection that is homoeroticism. Homosexuality, for Pye, becomes an expedient conceptual figure of this recursive movement, similar to the way in which Narcissus has figured in some modern interpretations of Alberti, an emblem for complex questions about Renaissance concepts of the subject and its reproduction, about the image, about artistic creation, though, oddly, never principally about sexuality as it was practiced and experienced in the Renaissance.