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Ehrenwald, J. (1964). Leonardo Da Vinci: Psychoanalytic Notes on the Enigma. By K. R. Eissler. International Universities Press, New York, 1961.. Psychoanal. Rev., 51B(2):161-162.

(1964). Psychoanalytic Review, 51B(2):161-162

Leonardo Da Vinci: Psychoanalytic Notes on the Enigma. By K. R. Eissler. International Universities Press, New York, 1961.

Review by:
Jan Ehrenwald, M.D.

This book is the outgrowth of controversy. In 1956 Professor Meyer Shapiro, the noted art historian, came out with what appeared as a devastating criticism of Freud's celebrated attempt at reconstructing the history of Leonardo da Vinci's psychosexual development. Freud's reconstruction, it will be recalled, is largely based on Leonardo's early childhood recollection of a kite—a nibbio—”that…came, opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me within upon the lips with its tail many times.”

It is this incident recorded in the artist's diary around which Freud built his theory of Leonardo's oral fixation, of his ambivalence towards the phallic mother and, ultimately, of his suspected homosexuality.

An important point in Freud's argument was his reference to the bird as a vulture. Tracing legends and mythical beliefs relating to the vulture back to classical antiquity and to ancient Egypt, he found that the vulture was considered a typical maternal symbol, a mother-bird who was supposed to have no male counterpart but was impregnated by the wind. All this seemed to make a great deal of analytic sense when viewed against the background of Leonardo's illegitimate birth—his confusion about his sexual identity, his identification with the mother figure—and threw new light on his whole artistic output, from the smile of the Mona Lisa to the enigmatic Anna Metterza and his effeminate looking John the Baptist.

Shapiro discovered, however, that the bird in question was not a vulture at all but a kite, a member of the hawk family, and that Freud had in effect fallen victim to a mistranslation (by one of his sources) of the word nibbio. In Shapiro's view the discovery of this Freudian slip knocked out one of the cornerstones from Freud's theories and invalidated his whole interpretation of Leonardo's life history.

Shapiro further noted that the recording of the type of incidents described by Leonardo had been “an established literary pattern” in antiquity and in the Renaissance, thus casting more doubt on the basic premises of Freud's interpretation.

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