On the 26th of January 2022 I’ve received a message regarding a red pencil drawing acquired in a private collection in 2019 called the “Portrait of Lecco” (Fig. 1). I was asked by the owner for my opinion regarding this work.
I am not an art historian, I am a historian. Art historians have goose-bumps, tingling in their stomachs or are overwhelmed by their feelings, when they see a work of one of the Masters of the Renaissance. The famous art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) described his talent to recognize a work of Leonardo da Vinci or of Raphael or of Botticelli etc. as a “sixth sense”: “… it is very largely a question of accumulated experience upon which your spirit sets unconsciously … When I see a picture, in most cases, I recognize it at once as being or not being by the master it is ascribed to; the rest is merely a question of how to fish out the evidence that will make the conviction as plain to others as it is to me.” Sorry, my readers, that sounds like art history is a kind of religion and not a part of science. What happens when these art historians do not get goose bumps etc. when they see a work made by Leonardo da Vinci or they get goose bumps when it is not a work of the latter like in the case of the “Salvator Mundi”?
My approach to the paintings and drawings of the Renaissance as a historian is very different from that of an art historian. The first thing I want to know is: Who is depicted? With the help of the specific symbols of the different dynasties in the Renaissance and the colours of their coat-of-arms and sometimes their use of letters, almost 90% of the persons depicted in the paintings of the second half of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century can be identified. For the correct identification of their members you also have to know the history of the costume – what was in fashion at what time – to correctly date a painting. When you are able to identify the depicted person, then you can give a suggestion who could be the painter. Don’t forget time travel is not possible. None of the art historians of today ever spent a minute in the workshops of the masters of the Renaissance and their assistants and students to watch them painting and drawing.
Drawings are often not decorated with symbols and it is therefore very difficult to identify the depicted. But after identifying the men, women and children in the Renaissance paintings for now almost 20 years, I have to say: Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) is right. He wrote that nobody was able to paint and draw like Leonardo da Vinci. Even Raphael who was able to copy so many of his colleagues was not able to copy him. And you really can see that. Therefore my first impression looking at the drawing which was sent to me was: This is a work of Leonardo da Vinci. But that is not enough for me in contrast to the art historians. I have to identify the depicted. In which relationship did Leonardo stand to the young man depicted?
If this is indeed a work made by Leonardo da Vinci then the young man has to be a family member or a very dear friend of his. Studying the facial features of all the members of the high dynasties in Italy in the Renaissance, I know that the depicted did not belong to these families. When you compare the facial features of this young man (around 25 years old), especially the nose and the eyes, with the facial features of Leonardo’s biological father Ser Piero da Vinci (1429-1504) (Fig. 2) the depicted has to be a son of him, who lived under Leonardo’s care. The depicted is definitely not Leonardo da Vinci himself (Fig. 3). We have so many portraits of him that we can exclude him. Please, have a look at some of the hundreds of portraits of Leonardo da Vinci, which we still possess.
The depicted has to be one of the half-brothers of Leonardo. By the way, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the term “half-brother” was not used. They only used the term “brother”. Leonardo’s “brothers” had the same father like him, Ser Piero da Vinci, but different mothers. Therefore they were half-brothers. We know from contemporary written sources that four of Leonardo’s half-brothers lived under his care and three of them were trained to be painters: Gian Giacomo Caprotti (1480-1524) (another illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci), Bartolomeo (1493-1532/34) (a legitimate son by Ser Piero da Vinci and his fourth wife Lucrezia di Guglielmo Cortigiani), Giovanni (1499-1549) (a legitimate son by Ser Piero da Vinci and his fourth wife Lucrezia di Guglielmo Cortigiani) and Lorenzo (another illegitimate son of Ser Piero da Vinci) (1487/88-1544) (in: Maike Vogt-Lüerssen, Isabella von Aragon und ihr Hofmaler Leonardo da Vinci, Norderstedt 2010, S. 229-230).
Compare the facial features of the depicted young man on the drawing with the facial features of Leonardo’s biological father, Ser Piero da Vinci (Figs. 4 and 4a). The depicted could also not have been Gian Giacomo Caprotti, who went down in history by his nickname ‘Salai’, of whom we also have enough portraits to exclude him (Figs. 5 and 6).
To date the drawing it could not have been made after 1516 because of the stroke or heart attack Leonardo da Vinci suffered in 1516. But then to my great surprise the owner of this drawing sent me a photo of the back of this art piece (Fig. 7). The drawing is telling us everything we have to know. In his last years in France Leonardo da Vinci already decided which of his works Francesco da Melzo and Salai would inherit from him: “FE SALAI 1511 DINO”. Hence on the background of the drawing, dictated by Leonardo da Vinci and written by Francesco da Melzo, we read that Salai should inherit this work of Leonardo. It was made in 1511. And “DINO” has to be the nickname of one of Leonardo’s half-brothers who lived in his household when the portrait drawing of him was made. Gian Giacomo Caprotti, already mentioned, had the nickname “Salaì”. Bartolomeo da Vinci had the nickname “Il Fanfoia” (Fig. 8). Therefore only two of them are left: Giovanni, born in 1499, and Lorenzo, born in 1487 or 1488. The drawing was made in 1511. Hence we can exclude Giovanni. He was too young at that time. The depicted has to be Lorenzo (1487/88-1544). His nickname was ‒ as this historical source tells us: Dino. We do not know why Leonardo chose this nickname for his half-brother Lorenzo. In Italian the meaning of the name Dino is: Little sword. Did he possess a little sword?
But this very important historical source does not tell us the surname of Lorenzo. Had he like Leonardo da Vinci the terrible stigma of being born out of wedlock? Was he born as an illegitimate? Or was Lorenzo’s mother like the mother of Salai married to another man before the birth of her son? This practice was very common in the 15th and 16th century, think for example of the illegitimate children of Pope Alexander VI and the six illegitimate children of the Milanese Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Lorenzo probably did not have the surname “da Vinci” like his famous eldest half-brother. Therefore we still have to look through all the available contemporary written sources to find out more about this half-brother of Leonardo da Vinci, which will probably take some time. In the meantime enjoy to have met another relative of our famous Leonardo da Vinci, his half-brother Lorenzo.
P.S.: Two contemporary historical sources (Fig. 9 and Fig. 10) were already found telling us the surname of Lorenzo. It was "da Vinci". Therefore he was born like his famous eldest half-brother Leonardo da Vinci with the terrible stigma of being an illegitimate child. His mother was not married to another man before his birth. By the way, Ser Piero da Vinci had two sons with the name "Lorenzo". The first "Lorenzo" was born by his third wife Marguerita di Francesco di Jacopo di Guglielmo in 1480. This son died as a young boy in August 1485 and was probably buried together with his mother who died around the same time. Lorenzo, the illegitimate, was born in 1487/88 and belonged to Leonardo's household since 1505 or 1506, when he was 17 years old (in: Maike Vogt-Lüerssen, Isabella von Aragon und ihr Hofmaler Leonardo da Vinci, id., S. 230).