First-century plaque or well cover embedded into the wall of the church of ‘Santa Maria in Cosmedin,’ in Rome.
The Buchi Della Verita or ‘the mouths of truth’ were ballot boxes for anonymous accusations during the time of Leonardo da Vinci.
It was one such ‘ballot’ which drove the twenty-four year-old Leonardo into irrecoverable shame that surfaced from time to time all his life. It’s easy to imagine how many jealous apprentices there might have been when a newcomer prodigy entered the scene of a busy art factory such as the one run by Andrea Verrocchio, Leonardo’s first official master teacher. Leonardo became an instant favorite (read most valued assistant) in Verrocchio’s studio, supplanting many older pupils.
The ‘holes of truth’ in Florence were not as glamorous as the one pictured above which is a famous example in Rome. In the fifteenth-century Florentines cast their accusations in plain letter boxes, set throughout the city, nonetheless, they were effective means of causing trouble.
After ten years of stardom, perhaps one demoted competitor was bitter enough to want rid of the special talent that had even upstaged the draftsmanship of their master. So, without names or details, any reputation could be maligned at the drop of a piece of paper.
Leonardo was accused twice, two months apart, of lewd sexual activity linked to a known male prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli, a young goldsmith apprentice who moonlighted as an artist’s model. Two ballots later, mission accomplished, irrevocable damage done. Fortunately, Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, estranged as he may have been from Leonardo at this time, was a lawyer protective of his family’s reputation who argued (and or bribed) both charges to be dropped.
Regardless of acquittal, Leonardo chose to leave Florence in the aftermath of speculation, perhaps to avoid the fallout of general disapproval until the scandal died down or until it was replaced with another forthcoming newsflash of front page gossip (read lies).
It’s impossible to wash a psychic stain from one’s professional resume, but in addition to Leonardo’s humiliation, his position as bastard son and sole heir to the da Vinci name, had just been supplanted by Ser Piero’s first legitimate son.
Leonardo left the city, a twice-defeated young man, to take up a commission passed on to him by his master, Verrocchio, likely to cover his own reputation and that of his business, by association.
The truth is, all Italian Renaissance artists depended on the apprenticeship system, and were accepted themselves as young boys on the lookout for a career connected to the business of art. In due course, they took in young lads to teach and act as assistants and servants. Botticelli, it is documented, ‘kept a boy.’ As ominous as that can sound to some, it meant Sandro had inherited the guardianship of his first master, Fra Filippo Lippi’s ten-year-old son, Filippini Lippi.
Scene from ‘Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
Rather than putting one’s hand on a holy book to pledge the truth, it was believed in ancient times that one placed their hand inside a ‘mouth of truth’ where it would be bitten off in the event of a lie.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning an artist who lived five-hundred years ago is impossible to paint in black and white, but given the vast passages of time, the evolution of ethics, and the latest codes of subjective morality, it behoves us to bestow the same golden rule on Leonardo da Vinci – to be treated as we would wish ourselves to be treated, namely, innocent until proven guilty.