That the image of the wolf can have inspired Leonardo is also substantiated by the aversion the Western world felt for the animal, in an age imbued with superstitions leading to downright mass hysteria. Dominican clergyman Heinrick Kramer’s treatise Malleus Maleficarum and the recording of hundreds of death sentences for lycanthropy inflicted to innocents of both sexes bear witness to this.
The geographical discoveries of the period played a role in igniting tempers, bringing to the fore the profile of the wild man, inhabitant of the New World, described in the accounts of the explorers as lacking rational capability, addicted to human sacrifices, cannibalism, distant from civilization, basically overlapping the wildness of the wolf.
Juan Gines de Sepulveda, chronicler for King Charles V, disputing with Bartolomé de Las Casas, goes so far as to affirm that precisely in consideration of their devilish and inhuman character, wild people deserve to be submitted (by Europeans), backing his view with a quote from the Proverbs “And the foolish will be a servant to the wise-hearted”. It was clearly a dialectic scheme to justify the European colonization through violence and force.
Leonardo was undoubtedly influenced by this cultural climate when he introduced the demonic element in the portrait, where a projection of the author can be also read, captured in a feeling of rage and disappointment. As a matter of fact, before accepting the invitation to France by Francis I, he had experienced the exclusion from the Roman workshop of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the straining of his relationship with the House of Medici (Pope Leo X forbade him to keep dissecting corpses for anatomical studies, an exercise that also got him a charge of witchcraft). The artist vented in one of his many notes, affirming that the Medici, just as they had created him, were determining his destruction.
The genius from Vinci was able to draw upon the world of icons (mirror image of the Platonic world of ideas) and extract a character of the collective subconscious out of it. Its horrifying moderness and its vitality outshine the cinematic representation efforts of Golden Age Hollywood. Leonardo da Vinci’s Werewolf was long lost just as Henry Mac Rae’s silent film The Werewolf (1913), clouded from our subconscious and still pulsing in our right temple, actualization of a Freudian Craniopagus parasiticus. Not even 1941 The Wolf Man could match its perfect contemporaneity, notwithstanding the unending similarities. Is the wolf man eternal? What iconographic junctures bring today’s special effects creators to know Leonardo’s Werewolf without actually knowing it? It can be questioned if the fantastic accomplishment of Turin self-portrait has ever been reached or surpassed yet, for instance with The Howling by Joe Dante, or with An American Werewolf in London by John Landis. Leonardo could virtually be crowned as the undisputed king of B-movie, too.
Ultimately it is only approaching Leonardo’s painting with the awareness that it is “the most philosophical of arts” – and that using perspective it can overcome limits in space and time, showing us reality in all its facets and nuances (“tutte e’ parti porta seco” – “it takes along all parts”) that we can heal from the aphasia that has been plaguing us for centuries, and fully enjoy his incomparable genius.