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Leonardo da Vinci’s pupil – Salai

Leonardo da Vinci’s pupil – Salai

“The Little Unclean One”

Article by Dennis Jarsdel

Born in 1480 Vimercate Italy, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salai was a pupil of the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. The nickname Salai meant ‘The Devil’ or ‘The little unclean one’. Although not many people know about him, Salai was an important part of Leonardo da Vincis personal and artistic life.

Leonardo da Vinci's pupil - Salai
The son of Pietro di Giovanni, the tenant of Leonardo da Vinci’s vineyard near Milan, he joined Leonardo’s household and became his assistant at the young age of 10. Although he was taken in as a youth he stayed with Leonardo for the rest of his life, almost 30 years.

At some point it’s safe to say that they became more than pupil and teacher. Leonardo even left half of his vineyard to Salai upon his death.

An account from Leonardo da Vincis journal: “Giacomo came to live with me on St. Mary Magdalen’s (July 22, 1490) aged 10 years. The second day I had two shirts cut out for him, 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. Thief, liar, obstinate, glutton.”

Despite the generosity of commissioning clothes for him, Gian stole the money that Leonardo had set aside to pay for the clothing and refused to confess. This misbehavior eventually caused Leonardo to bestowing the nickname ‘Salai’. He stole from Leonardo at least five times.

Gian and Leonardo were extremely close. When Leonardo traveled to Rome in 1513 and to France in 1516 Gian accompanied him. He was so valuable to him, upon his death Gian inherited not only half of Leonardo’s vineyard, but also The Mona Lisa. Some art historians believe the relation between Gian were of a romantic nature. Erotic drawings of Salai in Leonardo’s sketches support this idea, especially the drawing ‘The Angel Incarnate’, in which Gian appears naked with an erect penis.

Leonardo da Vinci's pupil - Salai

The Angel Incarnate is one of the preliminary drawings Leonardo da Vinci had done before painting John the Babtist. Gian was the model for this painting.

Leonardo da Vinci's pupil - Salai

Another painting in his life long servant Gian modeled for was Bacchus, formerly Saint John the Baptist. However the painting assumed not to be by Leonardo da Vinci but another person, someone from his atelier, an apprentice.

Leonardo da Vinci's pupil - Salai

Some also assume Salai was the model for The Mona Lisa or at least modeled for Leonardo when the actual woman who had commissioned the piece wasn’t available. Some think the facial features resemble each other yet the Louvre has disputed these theories.

Gian replicated many for Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, including a copy of The Mona Lisa, however he never become an appreciated artist on himself.

Gian married Bianca Coldiroli d’Annono on June 14th 1523. A year later, Gian died in a duel as a result of wound received from a crossbow.

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