Gian Giacomo Caprotti detto Salaì Head of Christ the Redeemer


Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana




375 x 575 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The small oil on panel painting depicts the bust of Christ the Redeemer in the foreground wearing a red robe with golden embroidery and a blue cloak that covers his left shoulder. It has been generally agreed that the figure with long, wavy reddish hair is Gian Giacomo Caprotti, who portrayed himself as the Redeemer. In fact, the comparison between the portraits that Leonardo made to his young friend and this painting seem to confirm this hypothesis. The painting is strongly influenced by Leonardo, not only by the features of the face but also for the softness of the lines which was typical of Leonardo’s painting, underlined by the famous “sfumato”. The enigmatic gaze as well as that ambiguous and barely visible smile which were defined “so intense they are disquieting” are certainly mysterious and reminiscent of Leonardo’s figures, such as the famous St. John the Baptist at the Louvre in Paris, often identified as a portrait of Caprotti representing the saint. The work was purchased in January 2007 at Sotheby’s auction in New York by a Milanese entrepreneur Bernardo Caprotti, founder of a well-known Italian supermarket chain, who despite the name is not a descendant of the painter. After a careful restoration which was curated by Ezio Buzzegoli of Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Caprotti wanted to donate this work to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan. A certain antique dealer Maurizio Zecchini would even attribute this painting to Leonardo da Vinci, but it is almost unanimously associated with his favorite student, who here seems to have absorbed the main characteristics of the Tuscan genius’s painting. It is also the only signed work by Caprotti known today. In fact, the painting bears the inscription “FE SALAI / 1511 DINO” on the mantle at the lower right part, even though according to the most recent studies the inscription in gold letters could be a dedication, since the face of Christ isn’t precisely that of Salaì. According to Pietro Marani, who is one of the greatest historians of Leonardo da Vinci and his followers, the word “DINO” could stand for “D [IE] I NOV”, the date of the work. The painting fits well Pinacoteca Ambrosiana’s exhibition itinerary which preserves various works by the master Leonardo da Vinci, for which it could be well called “House of Leonardo in Milan”.

Artist Details

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Gian Giacomo Caprotti is better known for his nickname Salaì, from “Saldino”, meaning little devil, which was given to him by Leonardo da Vinci, his teacher.

Gian Giacomo was just ten years old when he came to Leonardo’s workshop in Milan, near the cathedral. This was mentioned by Leonardo in his diary: “Gian Giacomo came to stay with one day of the year 1490 of Our Lady, aged ten years”.
Leonardo took care of him and paid his expenses, even though Caprotti showed his lively character from early age and his tendency to steal money from the master, who described him as “ a thief, liar, stubborn and greedy” and this earned him the nickname Salaì.
Leonardo wrote: “… I made him cut two shirts, a pair of socks and a jacket and when I placed two dinars aside to pay for these things, he stole the money from the pouch and I was never able to make him confess, even though I was certain”.

Caprotti soon became Leonardo’s assistant. He prepared the colors for him and rearranged the workshop, he was his student, model (perhaps also for female portraits) and traveling companion. He followed the master in his various journeys between Venice, Rome, Florence, until Leonardo went to France.

It has been thought that Caprotti might have been Leonardo’s young lover, while according to other theories the two were simply very close. It is certain that when Leonardo’s health worsened, Gian Giacomo went to Cloux to the court of Francis I of France where the painter was staying. He didn’t stay long at the king’s court where he worked as a servant. When Leonardo died, he had already returned to Milan.

Giorgio Vasari remembers him especially as one of Leonardo’s students, even though he was never linked to the other painters considered his followers, such as Bernardino Luini and Marco d’Oggiono.

In Milan Caprotti got married but he died shortly after in January 1524 for an accidental gunshot while he was handling the weapon. According to other sources, he would have been involved in a fight.

Collection Details

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Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.

It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.

In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.

The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.

The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.

Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.

There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).

A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.

After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.

During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.