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Playwright Ponders Leonardo’s Sketches and Sex Life

Utahn Matthew Ivan Bennett has come a long way in his relatively short career in the theatre. In the last twelve years, he has performed with the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s educational tour (as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), become the resident playwright at Plan-B Theatre Company and written 11 full-length plays (seven of which have been produced or read before an audience).

And now at just 31 years old, Bennett has achieved a feat that few American playwrights ever see on the right side of the grave: a professional theatre has devoted an entire season to his work.

Three of the four plays in Plan-B’s 2008-2009 are by Bennett: October’s Frankenstein (an adaptation of the classic horror novel as a live radio drama); Block 8, a play about the World War II Japanese internment camp near Delta, Utah; and April’s Di Esperienza, about the life of Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. Bennett will also be one of the playwrights participating in And the Banned Slammed On, an evening of 10 minute plays celebrating the First Amendment.

“I’m very flattered they’re doing a full season of my plays,” said Bennett, adding that the season came together somewhat by chance when he was slated to write the radio play, and producing director Jerry Rapier wanted to do Block 8 “because of increasing political consciousness on the internment issue.”  

To round out the season, Rapier added Di Esperienza (Italian for “Of Experience”), which Plan-B commissioned in 2005. The play, which received a reading in 2008 as part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project, depicts Leonardo at the end of his life asking a question that he wrote throughout many of his famous notebooks: Have I achieved anything? Tormented by thoughts that he has finished nothing, the artist is visited by three of his unfinished works: Judas Iscariot, La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa’s real name), and Isabella d’Este, a noblewoman whose portrait he sketched but refused to complete.

Along with stripping away the mythology around Leonardo to reveal the doubting, all-too-human man beneath, Bennett also said he hopes to explore a long-standing historical question about the Italian master’s personal life.

Was Leonardo gay?

Historians who argue that Leonardo was gay commonly note that the artist never married and surrounded himself with a flock of young, male apprentices.

Perhaps most compellingly, at age 24 Leonardo was arrested along with several other young men on charges of practicing sodomy. Although such accusations were regularly made in Renaissance Florence—fueled, perhaps, by the fact they could be made anonymously — and Leonardo was eventually cleared, historians have long cited the incident as evidence of the artist’s homosexuality.

As Bennett explains it, Leonardo’s earlier 20th century biographers largely skirted the question of his sexual orientation.

“It was difficult to find information about that at all,” he said, noting that one 1920s biography even attempted to whitewash the sodomy accusation.

“The biographer was clearly a Christian and wrote it off by saying, you know, clearly an artist who would paint such a gorgeous Madonna couldn’t be a homosexual,” he said. “It was really sort of disgusting the way they chose to ignore it.”

In his research into Leonardo’s life, Bennett said he turned largely to two sources: Serge Bramley’s Leonardo: The Artist and the Man, and Leonardo’s famous notebooks of sketches, inventions and dissections, which the artist had intended to publish during his lifetime.

“Bramley pointed out what had been pointed out to me before,” said Bennett. “If you look at the notebooks, there are an abundance of drawings of boyish men and the backs and buttocks of men– there are two times as many [sketches] of men as women in notebooks.”

“And it goes beyond that too,” he continued. “There are some very personal sketches.” These, said Bennett, include a drawing of a male anus next to an opening flower, and a few blatantly scatological pictures — drawn, perhaps, by one of Leonardo’s servants, who sometimes contributed to the notebooks. One of these depicts a penis with legs walking towards a dark hole labeled “Salai,” the nickname (meaning “offspring of Satan”) for Leonardo’s favorite — and frequently trouble-making — protégé who appears in many of his drawings.

While Bennett said deals with the issue of Leonardo’ sexuality in Di Esperienza, he does not answer it definitively.

“[Quotes from the notebooks] don’t’ necessarily say yes, Leonardo was a homosexual, but rather confuse the whole issue,” he explained, noting that Leonardo once wrote of copulation as “disgusting” and human genitalia as ugly.

“While he explored homosexuality he might have been asexual,” he said.

Ultimately, Bennett hopes that Di Esperienza will help audiences understand the great Renaissance master as first and foremost a human being.

“As accomplished as he was, he was preoccupied with self-doubt,” said Bennett. To illustrate his point, he then took a folio of the notebooks from his bookshelf and read one of Leonardo’s musings: “As a kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, so a mind divided among different studies is confused and weakened.”

“It’s fascinating that a polymath wrote that,” he said. “He was clearly masterful in so many things, but he must’ve felt it wasn’t good enough. I feel like if people can come to the play and see that Leonardo da Vinci had a little self-doubt, they can feel better about themselves.”

Di Esperienza will run April 3 – 19 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theatre, 138 W 300 S. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling (801) 355-ARTS. At press time, April 3 and 4’s performances have sold out.

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