Leonardo’s Lover!

So who painted this now famous Prado-owned La Gioconda? Fueled with personalities and possibly sordid details, it’s a fun question to examine.

 da Vinci’s Helicopter drawing
da Vinci’s Helicopter drawing, taken from Wikipedia

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is too large a topic to address for one post. But I’m happy to draw a rough sketch. Though I much prefer the paintings of many of his contemporaries (Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Botticelli all preferable marks, who also apprenticed in Verrocchio’s studio with da Vinci), it can’t be overlooked that the man was a genius. He conceptualized a helicopter in the 16th century, that’s just cool. And Pope Leo X commissioned him to make a mechanical lion that moved forward and whose chest opened to reveal lilies – this as a gift for Leonardo’s last patron, the King of France, François Ier. Leonardo was the bastard son of an aristocratic Notary father and peasant mother, and grew up in Vinci (thus his last name), near Florence. (and is buried in the Chateau d’Amboise, thanks to François Ier)

But this story isn’t about Leonardo – exactly. It’s about whoever it was who stood next to Leonardo and painted the Prado’s La Giaconda as he, Leo, was painting the Louvre’s most famous icon, the Mona Lisa. But to fill in some da Vinci background — as well as to keep your interest because it is, after all, juicy – I feel it necessary to mention that Leonardo’s name was sullied through court records in 1476; At 24 years old, he and three other young men were charged with sodomy with a well-known male prostitute. Lucky for da Vinci, one of the three companions was Lionardo de Tornabuoni — a relative of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who no doubt weighed in his influence on the court to drop the charges. So as of 24 years aged, Leonardo’s sexuality and the sexuality (and sometimes lack thereof) in his art were subjects of interest.

Andrea Salai, one of Leonardo’s two favorite pupils, is believed to be the model for Leonardo’s St John the Baptist (now at the Louvre). This eroticism as well as Leonardo’s Bacchus (another of Salai) give rise to scuttle that they were lovers. Other more erotic drawings reinforce the rumor which has been bouncing around since Giorgio Vasari (the mid-16th Century art historian and author of The Lives – a man who first put down the word ‘Renaissance’ as a description of the era) described Salai of being “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted”. Salai’s nickname “Little Satan” was indicative of his deportment: He started out as a servant / apprentice in Leonardo’s employ at the age of 10 and within the first year was caught five times thieving, lying and cheating. But Leonardo was indulgent — to the point, 30 odd years later, of leaving Salai half of his vineyards as well as some of his paintings. This Last Will and Testament raises an interesting point, to be returned to.

Leonardo’s St John the Baptist, 1513-1516, at the Louvre
Leonardo’s St John the Baptist, 1513-1516, at the Louvre, taken from Wikipedia

Another of Leonardo’s life-long pupil / companions was Francesco Melzi, who was the son of a nobleman and “apprenticed” under Leonardo till the latter’s death in Amboise. In fact Melzi was so close it was he who informed Leonardo’s family of his death (one does wonder if Salai would have known how to write, though it’s clear he was capable with the brush).

Head conservator at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, Bruno Mottin, believes that the most likely painter of the Prado La Gioconda was one of these two students, Leonardo’s favourite pupils. If the Prado replica is eventually attributed to Melzi, it suggests a late date for the original, because Melzi joined Leonardo in 1506.

On the other hand if it’s the hand of Salai, then it’s unlikely that Salai ever inherited the original, as was previously assumed. This would mean the Louvre would have to re-examine the world’s most famous painting’s early history! A tremendous upset for the behemoth of museums – since they don’t even want to have it cleaned for fear of anything going awry (despite her looking twice her age due to the cracks in the painting – just look at the difference between the Prado’s version versus the Louvre’s in the last post).

There are a handful of articles pointing to the Prado’s La Gioconda as being at the hand of Andrea Salai, but nothing’s confirmed. One does have to appreciate this re-discovery was only made a bit over 6 months ago. As the life of either of these paintings is over 500 years I think we can cut the conservationists a bit of slack.

Next post shall wrap this story up with in two subjects – show some dazzling paintings by Leonardo’s contemporaries (listed above) and at least touch on Andrea Salai, whose real name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti, as a third-rate painter (opposed to lingering only on Salai’s salacious existence). Although ‘third-rate’ — who knows, this Prado discovery may just change history’s opinion of Leonardo’s reputed lover!