A rare painting by Leonardo Davinci’s closest disciple, Gian Giacomo Caprotti (also known as Salaì), is coming to auction in Paris this fall. Dated ca. 1515–20, The Penitent Magdalene carries an estimate of €100,000–€150,000 ($117,000–$175,000), and will hit the block during the Paris-based house Artcurial’s old masters and 19th-century art auction on November 18.
Depicted at three-quarter length against a black background, Salaì’s nude Mary Magdalene looks upward with her arms crossed over her chest in a devotional gesture, and her long hair covering her body. Notably, the small painting excludes two key symbols: a halo and ointment vessel, typically seen in depictions of the saint. Traces of the artist’s fingerprints can be seen on the subject’s right cheek, as noted in the work’s condition report. According to Artcurial, it is one of the few known to be attributed to the artist.
Milan-based scholar Cristina Geddo examined the painting and has endorsed the attribution of the work.
“Salaì is one of those painters who is little known to the general public, as was Georges de La Tour at the beginning of the 20th century, Caravaggio until the middle of the 20th century, and Artemisia Gentileschi until the 1980s,” said Matthieu Fournier, auctioneer and associate director at Artcurial.
Salaì began working in Leonardo’s workshop at the age of 10, and later became one of the artist’s key students, serving as a model for several of his paintings; he remained in the workshop as an assistant for three decades. He is also believed to have had a romantic relationship with the Renaissance master. In 1519, at Leonardo’s death, Salaì was a beneficiary of his estate.
“We knew the importance of Salaì as Leonardo’s ‘intimate’ assistant, but current research shows that he had an enormous talent, the only interpreter of Leonardo′s technique, having been his apprentice for many years,” said Fournier.
The last appearance of a Salaì work at auction was in January 2007, when Head of Christ (1511) appeared at Sotheby′s New York. The work, which is said to be a copy of Salvator Mundi, sold for $656,000, against an estimate of $350,000–$450,000. It now resides at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan.
The only other known works by Salaì are two paintings of Saint Jerome, which were last recorded at the San Gerolamo in Milan in the late 16th century. Another painting, Saint John the Baptist, resides in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana and is said to be a replica of Leonardo’s painting of the same subject at the Louvre. A work comparable to the Magdalene by another Leonardo student, Giampietrino, is held in a private collection in Padua.
The work is being sold from a private collection. A representative from Artcurial declined to provide the ownership record of the work due to confidentiality.