Biographies & Memoirs

The Milanese Studio

By the late 1480s Leonardo had established his own studio in Milan. This was essentially a version of the Florentine studio in which he had himself trained – a bottega or workshop turning out commissioned work under the guiding influence of the maestro. Some of its products, like the portrait of Cecilia, were almost entirely his own work. Others would be mostly painted by assistants working under his supervision, with occasional masterly interventions and corrections from him. This is the sort of set-up described by a visitor to Leonardo’s later studio in Florence, where ‘Dui suoi garzoni fano retrati, e lui a le volte in alcuno mette mano’ – ‘Two of his assistants make copies, and he from time to time puts his own hand to them.’80 Sometimes the assistants were working from an original template by Leonardo, whether a painting or cartoon, and sometimes they were working more freely within an overall style or ‘look’ which was the studio’s trademark. As we have seen, some contracts made a financial distinction between the work of the master and that of his assistants. In a note written in about 1492, and thus referable to the Milanese studio, Leonardo criticizes ‘foolish painters’ who complain that they ‘cannot work up to their best standard because they have not been paid enough’: they should have the sense to ‘keep by them’ a range of paintings, ‘so they can say: this is at a high price, and that is more moderately priced, and that is quite cheap’.81 Presumably the work that was ‘quite cheap’ had a lesser contribution from themaestro.

In that imagined dialogue between Leonardo and Phidias in Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s Sogni (which also discusses Leonardo’s fondness for the ‘backside game’ of homosexuality), Leonardo says, ‘My compositions were admired even when they were later painted by my followers’ – the word used is creati, servants: literally those he has ‘created’. This again refers to studio practice: the use of the master’s work as the prototype for later copies – in some cases, as in the Leda, only the copies survive.

Another first-hand account comes from Paolo Giovio. He notes how strict Leonardo was about his pupils learning their craft slowly and thoroughly: he ‘would not permit youngsters under the age of twenty to touch brushes and colours, and would only let them practise with a lead stylus’. Giovio also speaks tellingly of the ‘crowd of young men [adolescentium turba] who contributed so much to the success of his studio’. This sounds like a precise evocation – Leonardo’s unruly young entourage: a gang of adolescents.

We can reconstruct some of the personnel of Leonardo’s first Milanese studio. It would certainly have included Ambrogio de Predis, and perhaps also his brother Evangelista until his early death in 1491. These were his partners on the Virgin of the Rocks, and Ambrogio continues to be linked with Leonardo as collaborator, partner and occasional disputant for another twenty years or so. Two other early assistants were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, both named by Vasari as Leonardo’s ‘pupils’.82

Boltraffio was born in about 1467, the illegitimate offspring of a wealthy, patrician family. His illegitimacy, which gives him an emotional link to Leonardo, did not mar his fortunes: there hangs over him (rightly or wrongly) a reputation of the rich amateur, one of what Shakespeare called the ‘wealthy curlèd darlings’. On his tombstone in San Paolo in Compito it was claimed that he pursued a lifelong dedication to painting ‘inter seria’, again suggesting amateurism, though what his other more ‘serious’ activities were is unrecorded. Vasari calls him a ‘skilful and discerning artist’, which is faint praise. At his best he is a painter of great poetry and subtlety: see his Madonna and Child in the Poldi Pezzoli museum in Milan, and his Narcissus in the Uffizi. The poet Girolamo Casio, whose portrait Boltraffio painted, described him as the ‘unico allievo’ (‘only pupil’) of Leonardo: not literally, of course, but in the sense of ‘the only true disciple’.83 Marco d’Oggiono was the son of a prosperous goldsmith; the family came from Oggiono in the Brianza region north of Milan, but his father, Cristofero, was established in the city by the mid-1460s, and Marco was probably born there. By 1487 he had his own apprentice, Protasio Crivelli (possibly a relative of Lucrezia Crivelli, whose portrait Leonardo later painted). Like Boltraffio, he enters the aegis of Leonardo’s studio as a trained painter of independent means: they are not apprentices but young associates. Both are mentioned in a memorandum of Leonardo’s concerning the misdeeds of the ten-year-old Giacomo Caprotti, or Salai, who joined the household in the summer of 1490:

On 7 September [1490] he stole a pen worth 22 soldi from Marco, who was living with me. This pen was silverpoint and he took it from Marco’s study…

On 2 April [1491], Gian Antonio left a silverpoint pen on top of one of his drawings, and Giacomo stole it from him.84

These are snapshots inside the walls of Leonardo’s studio – the assistant’s little work-room or studiolo; the silverpoint pen lying on top of a drawing; the kid who steals things whenever he can. Boltraffio’s brilliance with silverpoint can be seen in some extant drawings like his Christ (interpreted by some as a Bacchus) in Turin; this was a drawing method little known in Lombardy, and was spread through Leonardo’s influence.

Another early member of Leonardo’s bottega was the enigmatic Francesco Napoletano. Until recently his only certain work was the striking Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist and St Sebastian in the Zurich Kunsthaus, which is signed along the base of the Madonna’s throne. Both the saints show close acquaintance with Leonardo prototypes.85 We now know a little more of Francesco thanks to the archival research of Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi.86 His name was Francesco Galli; he was born in Naples, at an unknown date, and he died in Venice in about 1501. At the time of his death he was living with a cohabitrix or partner named Andreina Rossini, and had two young children by her; one infers that he was not very old when he died. The date of his death shows that the strongly Leonardesco flavour of his output is not just a later imitation; he was active during the 1490s, imbibing the influence of Leonardo at first hand. He is almost certainly the Francesco Galli named as a designer of minting-dies for coinage in a ducal letter of 8 August 1494; another designer mentioned in the same letter is Leonardo’s colleague Ambrogio de Predis. This places Francesco in the milieu of Milanese portraiture. There were close links between the designing of medals and coins and the painting of portraits: the Lombard portrait convention was the full profile known to art-historians as the ‘numismatic model’.

To these names can be added Tommaso Masini or Zoroastro, who is probably the ‘Maestro Tommaso’ mentioned in a note of September 1492; he is described as having ‘returned’ to the studio at that date, and was therefore part of it sometime before. And there is the German called Giulio who was a new arrival in March 1493.87 These two were not painters, however, but metalworkers.

In the draft of a huffy letter to Ludovico complaining about money owed to him (‘It vexes me greatly that having to earn my living…’), Leonardo refers to the financial burden of having supported six dependants for three years: ‘Ho tenuto 6 bocche 36 mesi’ – precisely the language of the catasto, as if this little group of apprentices and assistants were indeed his family.88 The draft, undated, is probably from about 1495. These six bocche, or dependants, he was supporting in the early 1490s might be Boltraffio, Marco d’Oggiono, Francesco Napoletano, Salai, Zoroastro and Giulio the German. (Ambrogio de Predis was a collaborator but not an assistant receiving board and lodging.)

Later lists show a fairly continuous influx of new apprentices during the later 1490s – Galeazzo, Benedetto, Ioditti, Gianmaria, Girardo, Gianpietro, Bartolomeo.89 Only the last two, who appear on a list of c. 1497, are identifiable. Gianpietro is probably Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, known as Giampietrino, who became one of Leonardo’s most brilliant assistants during the second Milanese period; and Bartolomeo may be Bartolomeo Suardi, the follower of Bramante known as Bramantino. There were also many younger Lombard painters who were profoundly influenced by Leonardo and who are called his ‘disciples’, among them Cesare da Sesto, Bernardino Luini, Andrea Solario and Giovanni Bazzi (a.k.a. Il Sodoma), though none of them can be shown to have actually studied under the maestro. These are the ‘Leonardeschi’, whom Kenneth Clark dubbed ‘the smile without the Cheshire cat’. Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo has these later disciples in mind when he has Leonardo say, ‘In the conception and design of religious subjects I was so perfect that many people tried to take the spirit of those figures which I had previously drawn.’90

From Leonardo’s Milanese studio there emanated a series of courtly portraits and religious paintings of a high quality which doubtless commanded high prices. The portrait of Cecilia Gallerani is one. Three other paintings are also considered wholly or largely Leonardo’s.

The Musician (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan) is one of the most vivid of the studio portraits (Plate 13). A small half-length panel-portrait in oils, it shows a handsome young man with long, curling, fairish hair under a bright red berrettino. It is Leonardo’s only known portrait-painting of a man, though there are many portrait-drawings in his sketchbooks. The painting was not listed among the pictures of the Borromeo bequest of 1618 which forms the nucleus of the Ambrosian collection. It is first heard of in the catalogue of 1686, where it is described as a ‘portrait of a Duke of Milan’ and is attributed to Bernardino Luini. In 1905 the painting was cleaned, revealing a musical score in the sitter’s right hand, and from this comes the portrait’s customary title.91

It is often said that the musician portrayed by Leonardo is Franchino Gaffurio, who was choirmaster of Milan cathedral from 1484 until his death nearly forty years later. Compositions by him, for three, four and five voices, are extant in the cathedral archives. He was also a prolific author, one of the first to expound musical theory in vernacular Italian. A note of Leonardo’s about a ‘book of musical instruments’ may refer to Gaffurio’s De harmonia musicorum instrumentorum (1508).92 The musical score in the portrait has mostly disappeared, but a stave can faintly be seen, and the letters ‘Cant. Ang.’. According to Serge Bramly, this refers to a composition by Gaffurio called the Canticum angelicum, but this seems to be a misreading. There was a book of music theory by Gaffurio,Angelicum ac divinum opus musicae, but it was not published until 1508, some twenty years after the probable date of the portrait, and is too tenuous a link to explain the phrase.

Gaffurio was known to Leonardo, and was the kind of high-ranking Milanese figure who might be expected to sit for a studio portrait, but doubts remain. There are other portraits of him – a painting at Lodi, his birthplace, and a woodcut on the title-page of hisDe harmonia – and neither of them particularly resembles the man in the Leonardo portrait. There is also the question of his age. The portrait is conventionally dated to the same period as the portrait of Cecilia, c. 1488–90: Gaffurio was then in his late thirties, which seems too old for the musician in the Ambrosiana.

Another possibility is that the portrait shows a young musician and singer whom Leonardo knew well – his former pupil Atalante Migliorotti.93 In 1490 Atalante performed the title-role of Poliziano’s operetta Orfeo in a performance at Marmirolo, near Mantua, commissioned by Isabella d’Este. It is possible that Leonardo was involved in the production (he later staged a production of Orfeo at Milan), and plausible that he was commissioned to portray the handsome, alert face of its young star. We know he had done so before – that ‘portrait of Atalante raising his face’, probably a drawing, in the list of works of c. 1482. Atalante was about twenty-four in 1490, and seems to me a more likely candidate for Leonardo’s Musician than the cathedral choirmaster and musicologist Gaffurio.

Parts of the Musician – the paintwork of the tunic, for instance – seem perfunctory. The painting is sometimes described as ‘unfinished’, but this may be the result of an artistic decision of Leonardo’s – a deliberate casualness at the periphery which frames the intensely finished face at the centre. There is a similar question about the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani: is the poor formation of her left hand due to later botching (perhaps in the early nineteenth century, when the inscription was added), or was it purposely left like that by Leonardo? Scarcely delineated, the hand merges into the darkness which surrounds the lit central group of the woman and her four-legged friend; more precisely figured it would have altered the shape and emphasis of the composition. Such blurred or squiggled peripheries were extremely common in drawings, but not in painting, where a uniform finish was conventional. X-ray examination reveals a window in the background, similar to the one in the Benois Madonna; this was later covered with the dark paint of the background, perhaps with the same motive of minimizing distractions. This is a feature of the Milan portraits – soothing, velvety backgrounds against which the foreground figures seem spotlit, as if performing in some subtle metaphorical cabaret or show.

The sultry full-face portrait called the Belle Ferronnière (Plate 14), now in the Louvre, probably dates from the mid-1490s. It is less engaging and subtle than the Lady with an Ermine, but may belong with it in a particular sub-group of Leonardo’s output – portraits of Sforza concubines. This beautiful lady with her sensual mouth and her direct challenging gaze – unusually focused on the viewer rather than some patch of ether beyond – is almost certainly a portrait of Lucrezia Crivelli, the successor to Cecilia Gallerani in the Moor’s extramarital affections. There is independent evidence that Leonardo painted her portrait, and of his extant works this is the most likely to be the result.94 As with Cecilia, the young lady’s pregnancy signalled a change in her status and provides an approximate terminus ad quem for the painting. Lucrezia gave birth to a son, Giovanni Paolo, acknowledged as Ludovico’s, in March 1497. In the same year Ludovico’s wife Beatrice died suddenly, and he entered a period of melancholy retreat: she was sparky and popular, and was loved if not always well treated by the Moor. The painting of Lucrezia, and the poet’s casual reference to her as the Moor’s ‘lover’, are more likely to be before these events, perhaps c. 1495–6.

The breast-feeding Madonna, known after its nineteenth-century owner Duke Antonio Litta as the Litta Madonna, is a mysterious painting but in many ways a typical studio production. Her head is closely based on a famous drawing in the Louvre, which is certainly authentic Leonardo, but the painting is generally attributed to a Milanese assistant, perhaps Marco d’Oggiono rather than the more idiosyncratic Boltraffio, though it is possible that both had a hand in it.95 How much of the finished painting is Leonardo’s can only be guessed at. There is a certain cloying sweetness in the big-eyed, full-lipped child which seems inauthentic. Sentiment in Leonardo can hover on the brink of sentimentality – the Madonna of the Yarnwinder is another instance – and this tendency easily becomes a sickliness in Leonardesco works by second-rate followers like Marco d’Oggiono. (His kissing Holy Children at Hampton Court is a glaring example of Leonardesco chocolate-box; one of the children is similar to the child of the Litta Madonna.) The landscape is perfunctory. The goldfinch revealed in the child’s left hand lacks the sprightliness and telling detail which Leonardo would give to it. Only the soft, subtle moulding of the Madonna’s face and neck, and the trademark shimmering of the bambino’s curls, suggests his intervention with the paintbrush. This is a studio piece precisely as observed in that description of Leonardo’s later Florentine studio: ‘Two of his assistants make copies, and he from time to time puts his own hand to them.’

This sequence of paintings represents the lesser peaks of Leonardo’s output as a painter: a series of commercial productions lit with the maestro’s particular touch or aura. Many other paintings can be plausibly described as the products of his studio if not of his brush. There is Ambrogio de Predis’s beautiful profile portrait the Lady with a Pearl Necklace, sometimes identified as Beatrice d’Este, and his equally striking portrait in the National Gallery, London, showing a young man with gingery hair in the Milanese ‘page-boy’ bob and a coat with a leopard-skin collar, and dated 1494.96 There is Boltraffio’s beautiful Madonna and Child (Poldi Pezzoli, Milan), so Leonardesque in its dynamic dramatic pose, and his glittering, effeminate portrait of Girolamo Casio (so effeminate, in fact, that the seventeenth-century connoisseur Inigo Jones thought it was Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci: Jones read the letters woven on the sitter’s jacket as ‘G.B.’, but in fact they are ‘C.B.’ – probably a reference to Casio’s innamorata, Costanza Bentivoglio).97 There is Marco d’Oggiono’s bland but faithful copy of the Virgin of the Rocks. There are the various Milanese versions of a Salvator Mundi (or Christ the Saviour) which probably refer back to an original Leonardo composition.


The Milanese studio. Upper left: Leonardo’s silverpoint study for the Litta Madonna. Upper right: the Litta Madonna, a collaborative studio production of c. 1490. Lower left: Ambrogio de Predis, Lady with a Pearl Necklace, perhaps a portrait of Beatrice d’Este. Lower right: Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Madonna and Child.

In one case we have a documented contract. On 14 June 1491 Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono were commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Milanese church of San Giovanni sul Muro. The clients were the Grifibrothers, who had endowed a chapel there in memory of their father, Leonardo Grifi, Archbishop of Benevento. The painters were contracted to deliver the altarpiece by the November following (in time for the feast-day of St Leonard, to whom the chapel was dedicated), but failed to do so; it was not finished till 1494. The painting is the Resurrection of Christ with Saints Leonard and Lucy, now in Berlin.98 The upper half is attributed to Marco, and the kneeling saints to Boltraffio. The whole work is shot through with Leonardo influences: the pyramidic composition, the spiralling contrapposto of the risen Christ, the rocky striations of the landscape. The contract describes the two painters as compagni or partners. There is no mention of Leonardo in the document, but we know from the Salai memorandum that both artists were part of the Leonardo bottega in 1491. It is an independent commission within the aegis of the studio, much as Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra was an independent commission within the aegis of Verrocchio’s studio. The agreed fee for the Grifialtarpiece was 50 ducats – not a huge sum (compare the 200 ducats offered to Leonardo and the de Predis brothers for the Virgin of the Rocks in 1483).99 This reflects its status: a workshop production entrusted to the secondary rank of artists within the studio. It is, as Leonardo puts it, ‘quite cheap’.

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