Biographies & Memoirs

‘My First Memory …’

Leonardo’s earliest memory was not ostensibly of his mother, or his father, or anyone else. It was of a bird. Many decades later, in his early fifties, he was writing some notes on the flight of birds – his famous perennial theme – and in particular on the flight-patterns of the fork-tailed red kite, Milvus vulgaris, when something triggered in his memory, and at the top of the sheet he wrote the following brief note:

Writing like this so particularly about the kite seems to be my destiny, since the first memory of my childhood is that it seemed to me, when I was in my cradle, that a kite came to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.21

It has long been debated whether this strange little vignette is truly a memory, a ricordazione as Leonardo calls it, or whether it is a fantasy. And, if it is a fantasy, there is further debate – at least down in the psychiatric wing of Leonardo studies – as to where it properly belongs in his life. Is it truly from childhood: an early dream or nightmare so vivid that it now seems an actual memory? Or is it an adult fantasy which has been ‘projected’ back on to his childhood, but which is actually more pertinent to the writer of the note – the middle-aged Leonardo of c. 1505 – than to the infant in his cradle?

Kites were a common sight riding the updrafts of the Mont’Albano above Vinci. You can see one today if you are lucky. They are unmistakable – the long forked tail, the wide, elegantly cambered wing-span, the soft yet intense russet colouring through which, at the wing-ends and the tail-feathers, the light of the sky glows. The bird’s outline and wheeling flight are transferred in English to the man-made kind of kite, though in Italy this is called an eagle (aquilone). Kites are of all the raptors the most adapted to human society: they are scavengers and camp-followers. Their presence in Elizabethan London is attested by Shakespeare, and they can be seen today in towns and villages all over the Third World. Among British troops in India they were known as ‘shite hawks’. According to the British falconer Jemimah Parry-Jones, kites ‘take advantage of easy pickings whenever possible’, and are ‘renowned for their habit of stooping down and stealing food from plates’.22 As this last comment shows, it is entirely possible that there was an actual experience behind this memory of Leonardo’s. A hungry kite had ‘stooped’ or swooped down in search of some morsel, and had frightened the baby in his cradle. However, the strange and memorable part of the account – that the bird pushed its tail into his mouth, and struck or drummed his lips with it (percuotesse in Leonardo’s archaic spelling: the root idea is of percussion) – is much less likely to have happened, and is therefore a component of fantasy, an unconscious elaboration of the memory.

Leonardo’s own wording encourages the idea that fantasy is present. Though he calls the incident a memory, it has a sort of blurred quality which expresses that uncertainty one has about early memories and the extent to which they are constructions rather than genuine recollections. His earliest memory was that ‘it seemed’ to him that a kite came down. There is a tentativeness. He is grasping back at something which is potent in his mind but not quite clear to his reason. He thinks it happened, but maybe it did not. He has already used the word ‘seems’ earlier in the sentence: it ‘seems to be my destiny’ to study kites. The word ‘destiny’ is also interesting, because in this context it suggests what we would call a compulsion or fixation. He is saying that something impels him to keep returning to this bird, to keep writing about it so ‘particularly’. ‘Destiny’ conveys that this is something other than conscious volition, that some hidden process is at work.

In one sense, Leonardo’s thing about kites is precisely connected to his renewed interest in human flight in the years around 1505. The small codex ‘On the Flight of Birds’, now in Turin, was composed at this time. It includes a famous pronouncement: ‘The big bird will take its first flight above the back of the Great Cecero, filling the universe with amazement, filling all the chronicles with its fame, and bringing eternal glory to the nest where it was born.’23 This is generally taken to mean that Leonardo was planning a trial flight of his flying-machine or ‘big bird’ from the summit of Monte Ceceri, near Fiesole, just north of Florence. A jotting on the same folio of the codex shows his presence near Fiesole in March 1505.24 Thus the memory of the kite comes to mind at a time when he is intensely preoccupied with the possibility of human flight, and becomes a kind of personalized source for that preoccupation. The kite flew down to him and showed him his ‘destiny’ while he was still in his cradle.

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Birds in flight, from the Turin Codex of c. 1505.

The first psychological study of Leonardo’s kite fantasy was by Freud: Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci (‘A Childhood Memory of Leonardo da Vinci’), published in 1910. Freud essentially analyses the story as if it were a dream, with unconscious meanings and memories coded within it. The key to it, he thinks, is the infant Leonardo’s relationship with his mother. Some of what he says on this score is untenable because he argues connections with the mother based on symbolic associations of the vulture (he was using a faulty German translation of Leonardo’s note, which incorrectly rendered the bird as Geier, a vulture).25 His learned excursus into Egyptian vulture-symbolism must be discarded, along with much else that seems to the biographer too specifically or elaborately ‘Freudian’. But the basic perception – that this dream or fantasy of Leonardo’s, specifically placed in his cradle, is connected with his feelings about his mother – seems a valuable psychoanalytical insight.

According to Freud, the kite putting its tail in the infant’s mouth is a buried memory of being breast-fed: ‘What the fantasy conceals is merely a reminiscence of sucking – or being suckled – at his mother’s breast, a scene of human beauty that he, like so many artists, undertook to depict with his brush.’ (Freud is referring here to the Litta Madonna, painted in Milan in the late 1480s.) Being breast-fed is ‘the first source of pleasure in our life’, and the impression of it remains ‘indelibly printed on us’.26 But this idea that the kite’s tail represents the mother’s nipple can take us only so far, because the fantasy is not just, or even primarily, an image of infantile security. The feel of it is quite different. The bird’s action seems to become threatening, intrusive, percussive. This might be taken to mean that Leonardo’s feelings about his mother were themselves ambivalent, that a fear of her rejection or hostility is expressed in this more oppressive overtone. One recalls the birth of Caterina’s first daughter in 1454, when Leonardo was two: an age at which a child is prone to feel the advent of a new baby as a disaster of removed maternal affection. Alternatively – and this is more Freud’s line – the disturbing aspect of the kite’s tail is phallic, representing the threatening competition of the father.

Freud applied these perceptions to what he knew of Leonardo’s upbringing, which in 1910 was not as much as we know today, though the outline of it was clear enough from Antonio da Vinci’s informative catasto declarations, which had been published a few years earlier. The fantasy ‘seems to tell us’, Freud says, that Leonardo ‘spent the critical first years of his life not by the side of his father and stepmother but with his poor, forsaken, real mother’. In this critical phase of infancy, ‘certain impressions become fixed and ways of reacting to the outside world are established,’ and what here became established was precisely the father’s extraneousness. Ser Piero was absent from the home, outside the intense circle of the mother–child relationship, but was also a threat to it, a potential disruption. Thus the kite fantasy suggests an early tension between the comfort of the mother and the threat of the father, setting the scene for later tensions: ‘No one who as a child desires his mother can escape wanting to put himself in his father’s place, can fail to identify himself with him in his imagination, and later to make it his task in life to gain ascendancy over him.’27 That Leonardo’s father had died in 1504 – close enough to the approximate date of the note about the kite – may be significant. Critics of Freud’s analysis say that this is piling highly speculative psychology on top of highly speculative history, and they are right, but it has a coherence to it. In the matter of Leonardo’s childhood we have only nuances of knowledge, and the speculations of Dr Freud seem to me to be worth listening to.

There is another piece of writing by Leonardo about kites, not apparently known to Freud, which leads into the same sort of terrain. In this, Leonardo cites a folkloric association of the kite with invidia – envy or jealousy: ‘One reads of the kite that when it sees its offspring in the nest becoming too fat, out of envy it pecks at their ribs and refuses to feed them.’28 This is from his ‘bestiary’, a collection of emblematic sayings and stories about animals, inscribed in a small notebook he was using in Milan in the mid-1490s. It is therefore some years earlier than the writing down of the kite ‘memory’. It echoes a passage from a popular miscellany, the Fiore di virtù, by the thirteenth-century friar Tommaso Gozzadini – a book Leonardo is known to have owned. While it does not have the weight of personal association which freights the more famous memory, it seems to link interestingly with it. Here too we have a relationship between a kite and a baby (in this case its own chicks). The keynote of the vignette is the withdrawal of parental love. What should be a comforting and sustaining figure – the bird on the nest feeding its young – becomes an image of disturbing hostility: the kite ‘pecks’ the child with its beak, as in the memory it ‘strikes’ the child with its tail. Again one could take this either as a fear of the mother turning from feeder to destroyer (‘quod me nutrit me destruit’ in the old emblematic tag) or as a fear of the father as a hostile rival for his mother’s affections. Again the kite leads to an area of childhood fears and tensions.29

Another passage that would certainly have interested Freud occurs in one of Leonardo’s collections of profezie – those riddles and word-games humorously cast into prophetic mode. One of the fascinations of these is their tendency to communicate unexpected meanings beyond the answer to the riddle. An example is the prophecy which says, ‘Feathers will raise men, as they do birds, towards heaven.’ The stated answer is ‘quills’, which write uplifting words; but the covert answer would seem to be ‘human flight’. Similarly, ‘Flying creatures will support men with their very feathers’ (answer: ‘feather beds’).30 The most compelling of these is the profezia whose answer is simply ‘dreaming’, and which is surely nothing less than an account of Leonardo’s own troubled dreams:

It will seem to men that they see unknown destructions in the sky. It will seem that they are flying up into the sky, and then they are fleeing in terror from the flames that pour down from there. They will hear all kinds of animals speaking in human language. Their bodies will glide in an instant to various parts of the world without moving. In the midst of darkness they will see the most wonderful splendours. O marvel of the human species, what frenzy has led you thus? You will speak with animals of every species and they will speak with you in human language. You will see yourself fall from great heights without harming yourself. Torrents will sweep you along and mingle in their rapid course…

The next line is rendered illegible by a tear in the paper. Visible is ‘Usera[i] car[… ]n madre e sorell [… ]’. Carlo Pedretti conjectures that the sentence read, ‘Userai carnalmente con madre e sorelle’ – ‘You will have sex with your mother and sisters.’ He compares a phrase in the bestiary, on the lustfulness of the camel: ‘Se usasse continuo con la madre e sorelle mai le tocca…’31 Thus these dreams of ‘flying up into the sky’ and ‘speaking with animals’ mingle strangely with a fantasy of incestuous relations with the mother. Once again we are in the kind of terrain mapped out by Freud in his analysis of the kite fantasy.

These psychological undertones are also discernible in one of Leonardo’s most mysterious paintings – his Leda and the Swan (Plate 29). The painting is lost, but can be partly reconstructed from preliminary sketches by Leonardo and from full-size copies by his pupils or followers. The earliest known sketches are dated to 1504–5 – precisely contemporary with the note about the kite. The theme is from classical mythology. Jupiter or Zeus, in love with the Spartan princess Leda, transforms himself into a swan and impregnates her, and from their union are born – or, in the paintings, quite literally hatched – two pairs of twins: Castor and Pollux and Helen and Clytemnestra. This – the bird, the mother, the half-bird children hatching strangely from their shells in the foreground – seems to revisit once more the ambit of the kite fantasy. Like that fantasy, the painting is clearly connected with Leonardo’s preoccupation with flight at this time. ‘Cecero’ – as in Monte Ceceri, from which Leonardo planned to launch his ‘big bird’ or flying-machine in c. 1505 – means ‘swan’ in Florentine dialect.

Another painting, the Louvre Virgin and Child with St Anne, adds a curious footnote to this kite story. The painting is late, c. 1510, but a version was in existence – in the form of a full-scale preparatory cartoon – by 1501, so it too belongs broadly to this period of Leonardo’s early fifties. The painting is patently on a theme of motherhood. St Anne is the mother of Mary, though it is often noted that Leonardo’s depiction of her makes her look much the same age as Mary, and thus seems another reflection of the tangled relations of Leonardo’s childhood, with its trinity of Caterina, Albiera and Lucia – mother, stepmother and grandmother. There the matter might have rested but for the curious discovery by a Freudian follower, Oskar Pfister, of a ‘hidden bird’ lurking in the folds of the Virgin’s gown or mantle. This was in 1913, and Pfister – following the original Freudian slip – calls the bird a vulture, but this is not critical. The ‘bird’ is best obtained by turning the composition on its side. Once pointed out, it certainly seems to be there, but (like those implanted memories of childhood) is it really there? This is what Pfister saw: ‘In the length of blue cloth which is visible around the hip of the woman in front [i.e. Mary], and which extends in the direction of her lap and her right knee, one can see the vulture’s extremely characteristic head, its neck, and the sharp curve where its body begins.’ He discerned the bird’s wing as following the length of the cloth where it runs down to Mary’s foot. Another part of the cloth ‘extends in an upward direction and rests on her shoulder and on the child’, and here Pfister saw the bird’s ‘outspread tail’, complete with ‘radiating lines which resemble the outlines of feathers’. And, strangest of all – ‘exactly as in Leonardo’s fanciful childhood dream’ – the tail ‘leads to the mouth of the child, i.e. to Leonardo himself’.32

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Bird children: a detail from the Uffizi Leda and the Swan.

There are three possible explanations of this ‘picture puzzle’, as Pfister called it. The first is that Leonardo deliberately put a bird there. The second is that he has involuntarily projected the bird’s shape into this meditation on motherhood. The third is that the bird is no more than a chance alignment of lines and shadows, and has no significance other than as a rendition of drapery – a virtuoso painterly skill which Leonardo had been honing for thirty years. The safest answer is the last one – if safety is what one wants.

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The hidden bird discerned by Oskar Pfister in the Louvre Virgin and Child with St Anne.

In these ways this first memory – of a bird which ‘came to’ him in his cradle – echoes to him across the years, intertwined with feelings of maternal love and loss, and with the vaunting ambition of mechanical flight, as if he might thereby meet again that half-remembered, half-imagined visitor from the sky.

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