Although a quick look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s oil paintings may make you think that feminine muses would have been a permanent fixture in his 15th Century Florentine studio, most of the evidence regarding the private life of the Renaissance polymath tells a different story. Some of the most famous women ever committed to canvas were done so at Da Vinci’s hand. The Mona Lisa, La Belle Ferroniere, Lady with an Ermine, and Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, not to mention all those Madonnas and virgins, may have some people thinking that Da Vinci was something of a ladies man.

However there are plenty of clues in historical records, and within his artwork, that tell us that nothing could be further from the truth. Court records show that Da Vinci was officially accused of sodomy at least twice when he was a young man, most notably in 1476 when he was 24 years old. This was a serious charge in 15th Century Florence, as a conviction of sodomy carried the death penalty – had Da Vinci been found guilty, the world could have lost one of its greatest creative geniuses all too soon.

While he was member of the workshop of Italian sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, Da Vinci, along with three other men, was charged in connection to incident involving a well-known male prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli. One of the other men accused, Lionardo de Tornabuoni, was a relation of Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici, and it is widely thought he was able to apply pressure on the courts to have the convictions quashed. Others believe that although it was officially illegal, Florentine society was widely tolerant of homosexuality, and that charges of sodomy were rarely taken seriously.

Following this incident, Da Vinci kept his private life out of the courts, but there are plenty of clues among and within his subsequent work to shed light on who may have been inspiring him. His closest relationships in later life seem to have been with two of students, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, also known as Salai, and Francesco Melzi, the son of a Milanese aristocrat. Salai was his companion for 30 years, and a number of Da Vinci’s private erotic drawings featuring Salai still survive to this day. In fact these drawings clearly show that Salai was the model and muse for Da Vinci’s last masterpiece, St. John The Baptist (c1508-1516), and it was to Salai that Da Vinci bequeathed The Mona Lisa when he died.

It was Melzi who was Da Vinci’s companion in his final years in France, being appointed guardian of his precious notebooks, and who later wrote of Da Vinci’s feelings towards his students as a deeply felt and most ardent love. A famous paper published by Sigmund Freud in 1920, Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, delves into some of the psychoanalytical symbolism that can be seen in Da Vinci’s work. According to Freud, phallic symbolism and ‘latent homosexuality’ can be detected in the Renaissance Master’s artwork and writings.

So while we may often think of Da Vinci as the old bearded artist who created some of the most iconic oil paintings and drawings of women from the Italian Renaissance, it’s interesting to think that it may have been Salai or Melzi who were the true inspiration behind many of his most famous works.