Have you met Da Vinci’s little devil?

“Giacomo came to live with me on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene 1490, aged 10 years”

(from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci)

It was a warm July day when the door creaked open at the Corte Vecchia, the old medieval castle turned art studio. Situated across the street from Milan’s cathedral, it was once home to the notorious Visconti family. Despite its proximity to all things holy, the castle had seen its fair share of insanity. Poisonings and other ruthless murders were practically normal occurrences in that lunatic tribe. What stories could a ten-year-old conjure in his imagination about such a place, with its foreboding towers and moats?

If Giacomo suffered any apprehension, it certainly lifted when he looked into the eyes of the studio’s owner. The maestro, Leonardo da Vinci, was well dressed, handsome, and highly intelligent. Immediately something clicked between the artist-inventor and his new ward. A mischievous smile crossed the boys lips, when the master kindly introduced himself and helped him settle in.  “Oh yeah,” he thought, ” I’m gonna have this guy eating out of my hand.”

All snug and cozy

Indeed, little Giacomo Caprotti did win the lifelong affection of his then nearly 40-year-old teacher. Leonardo found him irresistible. The Renaissance historian Vasari described the boy as “a graceful and beautiful youth, with fine curly hair in which Leonardo  greatly delighted.”

The child was ideal painting material. The effeminate young boy look had been popular in painting for many years, and it was a tradition that Leonardo continued. Remember, the Renaissance brought a rebirth of classical art, and since the Greeks and Romans were the originators of the hermaphrodite style, it was only natural that it was imitated.


sleeping Hermaphrodite
Ancient works such as this Sleeping Hermaphrodite greatly influenced Renaissance art.

The thing that really made Leonardo’s eyes twinkle was that head full of curls. All those lovely ringlets made him wish to be reincarnated as a can of mousse so he could wrap himself around every single one.  What joy, what sweetness this alluring little fella had. But I’ll let Leonardo tell you about him.


Leonardo Da Vinci, coo-coo for curls
These three examples show Leonardo’s mastery at depicting curly hair.


“On the second day I had two shirts cut for him, a pair of stockings, and a jerkin, and when I put the money aside to pay for these things, he stole the money out of my purse and I could never make him confess, though I was quite certain of it. The day after this I went to dinner with Giacomo Andrea, and the aforesaid Giacomo ate for two, and did mischief for four.”

-Leonardo da Vinci


Apparently, looks really can be deceiving.

Thief, Liar, Obstinate, Greedy. All words used to describe this irresistible imp, whose character flaws were smothered over with a charming sweetness. It is the modus operandi of chubby faced children everywhere. A cute little pout, the batting of long lashes over wide eyes, that innocent tilt of the head. We can’t resist it. Oh that cute little devil, we say, and Leonardo obviously said the same thing. He actually changed Giacomo’s name to Salai, meaning little devil. It was a name that would stick with him for life.

Despite his behavior, Salai had the best of everything. Leonardo had a sumptuous cloak made of silver cloth with green velvet trim, he gave him money for rose colored stockings, money for his sisters dowery. Salai was even given a house where he eventually brought his father to live.  Leondard and Salai stayed together for nearly 30 years,  Da Vinci even rememberd him in his will for his “good and kind services.”


You oughta be in pictures

What those good and kind services were, we can only speculate. What we can be sure of is Salai paid his dues in the modeling department. Here are some examples of art a la Salai.


Da Vanci's Salai


Take a good look at those features: nice curly hair, large eyes, greek nose, full chin. We can find these same qualities in several of da VInci’s works.


Here we see Salai as Bacchus.

Salai as Bacchus



Salai possibly modeled for St. Philip and St. Matthew in the Last Supper. The image is fading making it hard to see.


Da Vinci's last supper
Salai as St. Philip – the orange robed figure to the right of Christ. Mathew is standing next to him in blue.


Here we see old age gazing on youth. Salai is obviously the youth, but whose the old guy? Well, Da Vinci of course. Although being in his mid-forties he wasn’t nearly as old as he looks here. Notice how the two merge together in the center? Could this be a commentary on the passage of time, or a more personal note about the relationship between the two men?

Old age and Youth



 A bit of slightly disturbing information

There’s one more thing I should tell you about our little Salai. SOME people think there is ONE other painting modeled off the little devil. You might not want to know about it, because things might never be the same for you. So ye faint of heart turn back, TURN BACK I say! Nightmares are possible beyond this point.

Some say the person in this famous portrait below is none other than Salai.


Mona Lisa
Is Mona a Man?


That’s right folks, a researcher named Silvano Vinceti used his high powered super-sleuth magnifying glass—complete with an ergonomically correct handle—to analyze the painting. According to his findings the Mona is a man. Salai-man, to be precise.

Most art historians believe the Mona Lisa to be Lisa Giocondo, wife of a wealthy silk merchant from Florence. Vinceti believes the picture has elements of both models, the nose, forehead, and smile being graciously donated by Salai.

Vinceti’s idea has met with a lot of resistance. Experts stick with the story we said earlier. The effeminate, androgynous look was the ideal, and Leonardo was a master at it. Check out the angel Uriel from his Virgin of the Rocks.


Male or Female? You decide.


Any resemblance Mona has to Salai, therefore, could be merely coincidental. He just happened to personify the girly-man archetype and that’s why we seem to see his features everywhere.


Lisa and Salai
Mona and Salai


However, it would be just like Giacomo to weasel his way into Mona Lisa’s portrait, that little devil.



Did you know there’s a Da Vinci going to auction next month? Take a look at it here.  There’s nothing official, but If you ask me, it kinda looks like someone we know.






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About The Author

Nicol Valentin

Nicol Valentin is a homeschooling mom of nine who loves history, fiction, and fun.

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  1. Raynna | 13th Oct 17

    Great writing as always Nicol, but I am not loving this possibility of Mona as a man! 😀

    • Nicol Valentin | 15th Oct 17

      Thanks Raynna. It is a bit odd, but it would explain that funny smirk on her face!

  2. Shanisha | 14th Oct 17

    Hello Nicol, I adore your blog!
    You’ve been nominated for the Liebster Blog Award! Head over to my blog http://honestly.me/2017/10/14/liebster-blog-award-2017/ for more information. I look forward to reading your blog! xoxo

    • Nicol Valentin | 21st Oct 17

      Wow, thanks Shanisha! That’s awesome!I’m so happy you like my blog.I’m honored. 🙂

  3. jenniferhesse | 19th Oct 17

    This is thoroughly fascinating! I know nothing about art, but have to admit there appears to be a resemblance between Mona and the cute little devil …

    • Nicol Valentin | 21st Oct 17

      It certainly makes the Mona Lisa more interesting. Frankly, I was never a big fan of that painting. 🙂
      Thanks so much for reading.

  4. modesthouseextraordinaryhome | 23rd Oct 17

    This is really interesting! I love your blog, and I love reading about stuff like this. Thanks for sharing, I can’t wait to see more! I have to admit, I was not impressed with the Mona Lisa when I saw it, it’s so much smaller in person! I don’t get the hype, lol!

    • Nicol Valentin | 23rd Oct 17

      I’m so glad you liked it! Actually the Mona Lisa wasn’t considered anything special until it got stolen in 1911. It took 2 years for them to find it, and it took a whole day before they even realized it was missing! The whole thing was quite an embarrassment. All the attention is what made Mona famous. Thanks so much for reading!! 🙂

  5. bridget4214 | 23rd Oct 17

    This is very well told and interesting! I learned a lot from this post; it’s no wonder so many paintings had resemblance of Salai – with all the years spent together one would probably have to consciously try not to be influenced.

    • Nicol Valentin | 24th Oct 17

      Thanks a good point Bridget. I’m so glad you stopped by. 🙂

  6. Heather | 23rd Oct 17

    This is really fascinating! I love your writing style.

    • Nicol Valentin | 24th Oct 17

      Thanks so much Heather. I try to keep things fun around here. Life’s too short for boring. 🙂

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