Giacomo Salai



Although some such hypothesis can be made to account for Ambrogio da Predis, the Milanese School during the years of Leonardo's residence remains completely mysterious. We should come nearer to understanding it if we could name the author of a famous picture in the Brera, the socalled Pala Sforzesca of 1495, in which Ludovico Sforza, his wife and children are presented to the Virgin and Child; for there we see the first repercussions of Leonardo's style on the old Lombard manner. But this picture, and practically all the portraits and drawings associated with it, are nameless. On the other hand there are records in Leonardo's notebooks of pupils whose names we cannot associate with a single picture. Only one of these pupils need be mentioned here, not because his work survived or ever had any merit, but because he played an important part in Leonardo's life. This was Giacomo Salai. Vasari tells us that "while in Milan he took for his servant Salai, a Milanese, who was most comely in grace and beauty, having fair locks abundant and curly, in which Leonardo much delighted", and Leonardo himself has recorded in MS. C the precise date of this event. "Giacomo came to live with me on St Mary Magdalene's day (22 July) 1490, aged ten 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 the money (4 lire) out of the purse; and I could never make him confess although I was quite certain of it. The day after I went to sup with Giacomo Andrea, and the said Giacomo supped for two and did mischief for four, for he broke three cruets and spilled the wine." And then in the margin, ladro, bugiardo, ostinato, ghiotto--thief, liar, obstinate, glutton.
There follow many other accounts of Salai's misdemeanours: how he stole silverpoints from Boltraffio and Marco d'Oggiono, stole money from Messer "Gallazzo's" servants, sold a piece of Leonardo's leather to a cobbler and spent the money on sweets flavoured with anis. As he began, so he continued, stealing, stuffing, lying, so that Leonardo had difficulty in keeping him out of prison. From Leonardo's drawings we can see the effect of these activities on Salai's face. The pretty boy with curling ringlets grows fatter and coarser and more complacent. In spite of all this, however, Leonardo never gave him up; on the contrary, arranged a dowry for his sister, and mentioned him in his will. These facts, and the character of the drawings of Salai, inevitably suggest that his relation with his master was of the kind honoured in classical times, and partly tolerated in the Renaissance, in spite of the censure of the Church. There is, in fact, concrete evidence that Leonardo's contemporaries believed him to be homosexual. In 1476 complaints were twice laid before the magistracy in Florence that he and several other young artists had been guilty of misdemeanours with a certain Jacopo Saltarelli, and although the accusation does not seem to have been proved, it cannot be passed over as being no more than a malicious rumour.
To my mind the proof of Leonardo's homosexuality need not depend upon a rather sordid document. It is implicit in a large section of his work, and accounts for his androgynous types and a kind of lassitude of form which any sensitive observer can see and interpret for himself. It also accounts for facts which are otherwise hard to explain, his foppishness in dress combined with his remoteness and secrecy, and the almost total absence, in his voluminous writings, of any mention of a woman. Perhaps we may even say that it explains the element of frustration which even those who are most conscious of his greatness are bound to admit. I would not press too far into a matter which is more the domain of the psychologist than the art-critic, but I cannot omit it from an honest survey of Leonardo as an artist because it colours his outlook in a way that the same characteristic in other great men does not always do. We cannot look at Leonardo's work and seriously maintain that he had the normal man's feelings for women. And those who wish, in the interests of morality, to reduce Leonardo, that inexhaustible source of creative power, to a neutral or sexless agency, have a strange idea of doing service to his reputation.

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