Was Leonardo da Vinci a cat lover?

Was Leonardo da Vinci a cat lover?

Mon 13 May 2019 4:05 PM

Gattaro—“cat man”—was not among the many titles Leonardo collected during his one (known) lifetime. Had he stuck around for nine of them, however, his affinity for felines might be better remembered. Marina Alberghini thinks so, anyway. A Florentine writer who in 2009 received the city’s highest civilian honor, the Fiorino d’Oro, she’s an essayist, painter, biographer, engraver and self-described feline historian; her latest book Gatti e Artisti (Cats and Artists, 2019, Mursia Editore) was published in February and contains a chapter on Vinci’s virtuoso-of-many-trades titled La Gatta Senza Nome—the nameless cat. “That Leonardo loved cats is not a mystery,” Martina writes. “Among the many cats he kept, there was one whose name we don’t know that he studied closely, observing in his notes the contractions of its pupils and the agility of its limbs.” She later quotes a bumper sticker-suited one-liner attributed to Leonardo: Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece of nature.

Vitruvian cat / Illux by Leo Cardini

The book is just the latest example of Marina’s longtime work as president of the Accademia dei Gatti Magici (the Academy of Magical Cats), headquartered in a villino—her home—in the Fiesole woods (tell her you’re arriving on foot and she’ll laughingly urge you, “Take a car, I’m in the forest.”) Founded in 1992 by Marina’s late husband, the Academy is the only known research association of its kind in not just the West, but the whiskered world at large.

The Academy’s jasmine-lined entryway is flanked by two plump, protective tomcat sculptures, standing guard like miniature present-day incarnations of Mesopotamian lamassu. Inside lives Marina with her 15 felines and two tail-wagging dogs, the canines apparently content with their second-class status. Lest you mistake it for an animal shelter in fancy clothing, the Academy has published a host of scholarly texts and regularly holds town hall-backed gatherings in the civic library of Fiesole. Its manifesto exalts both the companionable and cosmic qualities of felines, citing their roles in religion, literature, mythology and art, from the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet to the words of Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke: Life plus a cat…adds up to an incalculable sum.

Marina, her board (there’s a board) and the Academy’s partners—the Municipality of Fiesole among them—are currently preparing for Maggio Felino (“Feline May”), an annual awards ceremony celebrating “promoters of cat culture”, set for May 31 this year. Journalists, veterinarians, scholars, animal rights activists, shelter volunteers and even jewelry designers are among the prize’s past recipients; were he alive today, Leonardo might very likely be one of them.

Monna Gatta / Illux by Leo Cardini

Indeed, if Marina’s thesis holds up, Leonardo reached the apex of puss promotion for his time. The same nameless, dexterous cat Marina describes in the early paragraphs of her Leonardo chapter inspired numerous drawings, notably a series of Virgin and Christ Child with a Cat sketches. Depicting a cat in such dignified (even divine) company was a bold statement, Marina says, “challenging the religious superstition then supported by the Church that cats were vessels of the devil. Here Leonardo proclaims loud and clear that {…} evil could not enter a cat, simply because the animal itself was forged by the Supreme Artist and Architect”. God himself made the gatto good, in other words.

Image via www.artearti.net

Given the prevailing attitudes of the time, the master’s daring move reflected larger elements of his unconventional character, illegitimate origins, and “sorcerous,” sexually deviant reputation, Marina appears to suggest. “We might think that Leonardo saw himself in the animal he loved most, the cat,” she writes. “{Like Leonardo}, the cat was beautiful, solitary, persecuted, proud, intelligent, refined, creative and discreet. Like him, misunderstood.”

If only he’d known his home region would one day have an entire scholarly academy spreading understanding of his kitty kindred.

Lady Cat with an Ermine / Illux by Leo Cardini

Maggio Felino ceremony

May 31, 4pm

Biblioteca Comunale, via Sermei 1, Fiesole


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