leonardo da vinci and the mischievous salai -- 3/20/18

Today's selection -- from Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King. The immortal artist Leonardo da Vinci had a mischievous assistant who was named Giacomo Caprotti, but was nicknamed "Salai," or demon:

"One important piece of advice that Leonardo intended to pass along in his proposed treatise on painting was the necessity of young painters keeping good company. He was adamant that painters needed to avoid the 'chatter' of others and give a wide berth to companions who might be 'highly mis­chievous.' Yet Leonardo himself had a highly mischievous companion: a young boy named Giacomo.

"Child labor was common in Renaissance Italy, with virtually all boys working in one capacity or another by their early teens, if not earlier. Painters, like other artisans such as carpenters or stonemasons, often em­ployed an errand boy -- known as a fattorino -- to perform various menial tasks about the house or shop in return for room and board. Some of them, such as Pietro Perugino, who began his career as a fattorino for a painter in Perugia, went on to become artists themselves.

Drawing thought to be Salaì

"Leonardo took one such fattorino into his studio in the summer of 1490. 'Giacomo came to live with me on the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, 1490, aged 10 years,' he recorded. Giacomo's full name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, but his unruly behavior in Leonardo's studio quickly earned him a nickname: Leonardo began calling him Salai, Tuscan slang for demon or devil. Things went wrong very quickly. 'The second day I had two shirts cut out for him,' Leonardo wrote in a long letter of complaint to the boy's father, 'a pair of hose, and a jerkin, and when I put aside some money to pay for these things he stole 4 lire, the money out of the purse; and I could never make him confess, though I was quite certain of the fact.' The boy's transgressions did not end there. On the following evening, Leonardo went to dinner with a friend, a distinguished architect, and Gia­como, invited to the table, made a memorable impression: 'Giacomo supped for two and did mischief for four, for he broke three cruets and spilled the wine.' Leonardo vented his fury at the boy's behavior in the margin of the letter: 'ladro, bugiardo, ostinato, ghiotto' -- thief, liar, obstinate, glutton.

"More was to come. Some weeks later, one of Leonardo's assistants, Marco, discovered that a silverpoint drawing had gone missing along with some silver coins. Conducting a search of the premises, he found the money 'hid­den in the said Giacomo's box.' No one was safe from Giacomo's light­-fingered predations. A few months on, early in 1491, Leonardo designed costumes of 'wild men' for a pageant in honor of Lodovico Sforza's wed­ding. Giacomo, who accompanied Leonardo to the costume fitting, spotted his chance as the men undressed to try on their outfits: 'Giacomo went to the purse of one of them which lay on the bed with other clothes ... and took out such money as was in it.' Shortly thereafter, another silverpoint went missing.

"What did Giacomo do with his ill-gotten gains? Like any other ten-year­old, he took himself off to the sweet shop. This we know from Leonardo's aggrieved account of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a Turkish hide for which Leonardo had paid two lire, and from which he was hoping to have a pair of boots made for himself. 'Giacomo stole it of me within a month,' he wrote, 'and sold it to a cobbler for 20 soldi, with which money, by his own confession, he bought aniseed candies.'

"We might expect Leonardo to have announced, at the end of this grave catalog of crimes, that young Giacomo had been shown the door. But in fact he was not. While most of Leonardo's apprentices and assistants came and went at regular intervals, Giacomo remained with him for many years. This was not necessarily due to any reformation of character on Giacomo's part. He seems always to have been wayward, fractious, and demanding. In the pages of one of the notebooks is the statement -- not, apparently, writ­ten in Leonardo's hand -- that reads 'Salai, I want to make peace with you, not war. No longer war, because I surrender.' If Leonardo did not write these weary lines, then they must have been penned by one of Leonardo's other apprentices. The tone suggests, as does the brazen theft of Marco's money, that Giacomo was a cause of considerable friction among the others in the studio.

"Not only was Giacomo allowed to remain in the studio; the larcenous fattorino was clearly treated by Leonardo as a favorite. Indeed, Leonardo lav­ished gifts on him from the outset, making sure he was dressed, like his master, in beautiful clothing. In the first year alone, Giacomo's wardrobe cost Leonardo twenty-six lire and thirteen soldi, the annual wage of a do­mestic servant. These articles included an astonishing twenty-four pairs of shoes, as well as four pairs of hose, a cap, six shirts, and three jerkins. Undated notes written sometime later recount how Leonardo bought Gia­como a chain and gave him money to purchase a sword and have his fortune told. 'I paid to Salai 3 gold ducats,' reads another, 'which he said he wanted for a pair of rose-coloured hose with their trimming.' Giacomo, like his master, evidently favored pink tights. A week or two later, more purchases: 'I gave Salai 21 braccia of cloth to make a shirt, at 10 soldi the braccio.' Thus, the material alone cost 10 soldi, or more than 10 lire -- half the annual wage of a domestic servant.

"Why this sticky-fingered little clotheshorse managed to keep his place in the Corte dell'Arengo is fairly simple. Giacomo held a great physical attrac­tion for Leonardo, who was bewitched by the boy's appearance, especially his curly hair. According to Vasari, Salai was 'a very attractive youth of unusual grace and looks, with very beautiful hair which he wore curled in ringlets and which delighted his master.' Giacomo seems to have served as a model for Leonardo. No definitive image of him exists, but art historians refer to a distinctive face that appears repeatedly in his drawings -- that of a beautiful youth with a Greek nose, a mass of curls and a dreamy pout -- as a 'Salai­-type profile.'

"Leonardo's relationship with Giacomo seems to have drawn little com­ment in his own lifetime. However, decades later, in about 1560, a painter named Gian Paolo Lomazzo, who turned to writing when he went blind, composed (but did not publish) a treatise called Gli sogni, e ragionammti (Dreams and Arguments). This work imagined a conversation between Leonardo and the Greek sculptor Phidias. Lomazzo was born in 1538, almost two decades after Leonardo's death, so he had no actual knowledge about the relation­ship between Leonardo and Salai, apart from hearsay and speculation (he claimed to have spoken with some of Leonardo's former servants).

"In the dialogue, Leonardo is seduced by Phidias into self-revelation, con­fessing that he loved Salai 'more than all the others.' This disclosure prompts Phidias to inquire if the relationship was physical: 'Did you perhaps play with him that backside game that Florentines love so much?' Leonardo en­thusiastically confesses that he did: 'And how many times! Have in mind that he was a most beautiful young man, especially at about fifteen.' According to Lomazzo's account, Leonardo's passion for the beautiful Salai therefore reached its peak at about the time work began on The Last Supper in Santa Ma­ria delle Grazie.

"In the fifteenth century, Florentines were so well-known for homosexu­ality that the German word for sodomite was Florenzer. By 1415 the sexual behavior of young Florentine men had caused the city fathers such concern that 'desiring to eliminate a worse evil by means of a lesser one' they li­censed two more public brothels to go with the one they had opened with similar aspirations a dozen years earlier. When these establishments failed to produce the desired results, and still 'desiring to extirpate that vice of Sodom and Gomorrah, so contrary to nature,' the city fathers took further action. In 1432, a special authority, the Ufficiali di Notte e Conservatori dei Monasteri, or Officers of the Night and Preservers of Morality in the Monasteries, was formed to catch and prosecute sodomites. Over the next seven decades, more than ten thousand men were apprehended by this night watch. Although burning at the stake was the official punishment for sod­omites, most offenders were let off with a fine. Repeat offenders might find themselves in the gogna, the stocks on the outer wall of the local prison.

"One of the men apprehended by the Officers of the Night, in 1476, was Leonardo. At several locations around Florence, such as on the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio, the city fathers installed receptacles known as tamburi (drums) or buchi della vtrità (holes of truth). Into these openings Florentines could deposit anonymous accusations concerning crimes of any sort. Floren­tines who fell foul of this system of denunciation were the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti (accused in 1443 of being illegitimate), Filippo Lippi (accused in 1461 of fathering a child with a nun), and Niccolò Machiavelli (accused in 1510 of sodomizing a prostitute named La Riccia). In April 1476, Leonardo's name turned up in one of these holes of truth. Along with three other young men, he was accused of having sexual relations with a seventeen-year-old named Jacopo Saltarelli. The denunciation explained that Saltarelli 'has been a party to many deplorable affairs and consents to please those people who re­quest such wickedness of him.' The anonymous accuser provided the name of 'Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, who stays with Andrea de [sic] Verroc­chio,' as one of four men who 'committed sodomy with me said Jacopo.'

"The charge was repeated two months later -- this time in elegant Latin­ --but Leonardo was never charged because the anonymous accuser failed to come forward, and no other witnesses corroborated the story. The charges were eventually dropped and the case was dismissed. Most biographers and art historians are quick to convict. A husband-and-wife team, authors of a widely used textbook, claimed the accusation 'was almost certainly true' be­fore adding -- bizarrely -- that Leonardo's homosexuality explained 'his proneness to abandon things half done.' Questions of procrastination aside, Leonardo was almost certainly homosexual by the standards of later centu­ries. Freud was no doubt correct when he stated that it was doubtful whether Leonardo ever embraced a woman in passion. Two years after the Saltarelli affair, Leonardo wrote a partially legible declaration in his notebook: 'Fiora­vante di Domenico at Florence is my most beloved friend, as though he were my ...' A nineteenth-century editor of Leonardo's writings hopefully filled in 'brother,' but the relationship may well have been more intimate."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Ross King


Leonardo and the Last Supper


Bloomsbury USA


Copyright Ross King, 2012


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