Anonymous Leonardesque Painter

(XVI Century)

St. Jerome, c. 1520

olin on panel. transferred on canvas, 143 x 100 cm (56.30 x 39.37 inches)

Required Fields*

According to the privacy protection principles stated by Italian law n° 196/2003, I give my consent to your company to handle my personal details for the designated purpose. For no reason shall the data be given to third parties for any use other than the strictly necessary for the normal execution of sales between Salamon Gallery and myself.

I also give my consent to the handling of my personal data by means of automated and computerized procedures under the conditions stipulated by Italian and EEC regulations.

Anonymous Leonardesque Painter

(XVI Century)

St. Jerome, c. 1520

olin on panel. transferred on canvas, 143 x 100 cm (56.30 x 39.37 inches)

Re: 856

Provenance: Fassati collection


W. Suida, Leonardo da Vinci und seine Schule in Mailand, in “Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft”, XIII, 1920, p. 46

G. Agosti, J. Stoppa, Tenere botta, in Il Rinascimento nelle terre ticinesi 2018 cit., p. XVII

A. Morandotti, An anonymous Leonardesque painter and the Fassati St. Jerome , Milan, 2024


The Fototeca Zeri photographic library lists this painting as being by the hand of an anonymous Lombard artist of the 16th century, the great art connoisseur Federico Zeri’s notes adding that in his day it was in the collection of “the Marquis Fassati, Milan” [1]. The claim can certainly be confirmed, as Matteo Salamon suggests, yet it raises numerous questions regarding the picture’s provenance prior to its ownership by the Marquis.

A first-hand inspection of the work, originally on wood but subsequently transferred onto canvas at an unspecified date
[2], offers little additional information regarding its history because, among other reasons, the original support – the back of which will have borne any indication of its provenance that may have existed – is irretrievably lost. According to the Fototeca Zeri’s on-line catalogue, the photograph, which can be dated to some time between 1950 and 1980, was taken by the laboratory of the then Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città Metropolitana di Milano[3], and it was only through that particular iconographical document that Zeri knew the painting.

The Fassati collection
[4] was the product of a series of successive bequests from families whose roots lay between Brescia and Milan and possibly also through direct purchases, although identifying and reconstructing the amount of such purchases is an arduous task. The collection began to attract scholars’ attention around the turn of the 19th century, thanks chiefly to the fact that it included a celebrated masterpiece by Moretto da Brescia known as the Portrait of a Man with an Hourglass, formerly in the Maffei Collection in Brescia, then in the Fenaroli (and subsequently, by inheritance, Fassati) Collections and, since 1928, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [5]. The Fassati also owned a picture attributed to Bernardino Campi and recorded under the name of that native of Cremona in late 19th century, but it has disappeared from art historical research since then[6], while, albeit amid recorded dispersals [7], a lovely sketch by Giulio Cesare Procaccini depicting a Deposition of Christ from the Cross was still being shown under the Fassati family label at an exhibition organised by Giovanni Testori in Turin at the time of Vittorio Viale in 1955. Thanks to a study by Paolo Boifava, the small Procaccini sketch has recently been identified as one of the works formerly in the Maffei Collection in Brescia, a picture gallery much celebrated in the 18th century[8].

This meagre information can be supplemented by two further references, one of them thanks to the Fototeca Zeri where the Fassati Collection is cited as the erstwhile home of an intense Portrait of a Young Man which Zeri attributed to a rare painter named Lazzaro Grimaldi working in Ferrara at the time of Duke Ercole I d’Este
[9]; while we must look to the Po Valley again, albeit in a context of surreptitious infatuation with Leonardo, for a painting of the same provenance recently sold by the Ponte auction house in Milan[10]

The Subject 

St. Jerome, ensconced in a spectacular landscape setting, is portrayed as though from life, kneeling in prayer, his nakedness covered only by a straggly plant serving as a loincloth. The foreshortened view of the figure in a three-quarter pose enhances the sculptural quality of the anatomy with its alabaster-like translucence and pronounced areas of shadow. The descriptive relief of his muscles and veins is paralleled by the meticulous attention devoted to the furrows defining the lines on his neck and forehead and to the short, regular locks of his greying hair and beard. It is these details, executed with rapid dabs of colour like those defining his eyebrows, akin to bristly feathers, that remind us that the saint is of a ripe old age despite his youthful, athletic build – in his torso, at least, if not in his legs where we can detect the onset of old age. The saint stares at a crucifix solidly planted in the ground almost in the centre of the picture between his prayer books and a skull, the sole companions of his meditation along with the stylised “heraldic” lion painted without any particular verve behind him. One is also struck by the quality of the modelling of Christ on the cross, meticulously rendered in every detail with a sculptural sensitivity that it would not be misplaced to call Michelangelesque. 

The subject is interpreted in keeping with a Renaissance tradition that is also echoed by the bloodied stone held in the figure’s hand in the foreground as he prepares to strike his chest with it again, the drops of blood visible in the shadow by his heart making it clear to us that he has already done so before. The surprising thing in this controlled and rather conventional composition, however, is the artist’s obsession with detail in his illustration of plant species – identified here thanks to the generous assistance of an expert of the calibre of Enrico Banfi – which he has studied from life and built into the rocky landscape and clear water of the stream flowing over smooth pebbles in this sheltered clearing. Camouflaged by their natural surroundings, we can see frogs with their bright yellow eyes, beached shells and snails crawling on the rough terrain, all of them apparitions in an enchanted, fairy-tale landscape set in a wooded frame that clads the cave, opening out onto a distant landscape with a mill and, further towards the horizon, a walled city looming over a river and rising into the foothills of mountains shown in profile and easily perceived in the diaphanous light played out in different shades of blue. 

Historical and Critical Appraisal

The painting’s Lombard origin, mentioned by Zeri in an autograph note on the back of the photograph he owned, is unquestionable and is accepted in the handful of more or less recent bibliographical references to it. Wilhelm Suida, at the beginning of last century one of the greatest students of Leonardo’s circle in the Lombard region, rapidly catalogued it as a work by the Pseudo-Boltraffio in an article he wrote in 1920 [11], yet he neither confirms nor denies that hypothesis in his important work of 1929, in which the painting is not mentioned at all despite the fact that he continues to dwell on the anonymous painter midway between Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono whom he christens the “Pseudo-Boltraffio”. His attribution was sparked by a generic comparison, particularly in terms of its landscape, with a panel in the Pinacoteca di Brera (reg. cron. 320) variously attributed to Suida’s Pseudo-Boltraffio and to Marco d’Oggiono while having also slipped on occasion into the catalogue of the mysterious Salaì [12], and with another, smaller St. Jerome then in the collection “des verstorbenen Conte Cesare Del Mayno in Mailand” [13]. I have been unable to identify the latter painting, despite its having belonged to a celebrated collection often discussed at the turn of the 19th century (in connection with pictures by Boltraffio and Giovanni Agostino da Lodi). More recently, and solely on the basis of the Fototeca Zeri reproduction, an admittedly cautious case has been made for attributing the Fassati St. Jerome to the newly reappraised Francesco De Tatti[14], a painter who trained in the style of Bramantino and Zenale, a far cry from the creative verve in the style of Leonardo displayed in our St. Jerome and played out in what had by now become a Mannerist vein. On the same grounds, we cannot accept the idea proposed to the painting’s owners that we may be looking at a work by a rare painter called Nicola Moietta (fig. 2), whose work is closely bound to the style of Bernardo Zenale and by whom there exists a painting depicting the same subject, signed and dated 1523[15], which is unquestionably more archaic in feel. 

The figure’s pronounced sculptural quality and the enamelled quality of the palette, both of which can still be appreciated despite the trauma of the painting’s transfer onto canvas, point to the tail end of the season dominated by the style of Leonardo, in other words the season linked to his second stay in Milan (1506–13) and to the arrival in that city of the master’s drawings, cartoons and paintings inherited on his death in 1519 by Francesco Melzi and Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì.  Upstream of this artistic invention, the numerous experiments in this subject matter in Leonardo’s circle either known or recorded in the archives[16] should undoubtedly include a painting by Cesare da Sesto now in the National Museum in Stockholm depicting an agile St. Jerome, known to have enjoyed considerable popularity in the past[17], portrayed with very similar foreshortening and a very similar composition. The Fassati painting is a hyperbole of that composition by virtue of the contortion of the anatomical silhouette and the magnificent invention of an open hand emerging from the shadow; a Mannerist revisitation that almost seems to point to the creative genius of a northern European painter working in Rome such as Maerten van Heemskerck, interested here not so much in taking his customary measure of Raphael and Michelangelo but of those artists working in the style of Leonardo. Northern Europe is often cited also in connection with the exuberant botanical and landscape settings of numerous pictures in the style of Leonardo from the Milan region whose details may be compared with the Fassati St. Jerome, with particular reference to the Baptism of Christ in the Gallarati Scotti Collection[18],  although that statement may need to be revisited in part at some stage. The “enchanted” wood in which St. Jerome is ensconced in the Fassati painting, so different from the stark, inhospitable landscapes hosting so many of his “brothers” from the Veneto and the Po Valley areas painted at the turn of the 15th century, reveals a similarity with the landscapes painted by Leonardo’s Milanese followers of the second generation. The obsession with plants found in pictures of that school painted in Milan between the 1510s and the 1530s is well described by Francesco Frangi in reference to a painting in the Brera long attributed to the mysterious Salaì and worth mentioning here as a yardstick for comparing the landscape.

Discussing the Brera picture, which he considers to be one of the key works of the newly reassessed “Master of Ercole and Gerolamo Visconti” (active in Milan in the second quarter of the 16th century), Frangi tells us: «while it is true that the plants breathing life into the overall setting in which the scene is being played out […] find their primary source in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, it is equally clear that in their ‘cataloguing’ nature, which can be perceived chiefly in the meticulous description of the various floral species growing at the figures’ feet, they tend, rather, to reflect that propensity for ‘microcosmic’ naturalism, almost worthy of a botanical repertoire, which spread like a fully-fledged fashion in mature Leonardesque circles (from Marco d’Oggiono to Francesco Melzi, and obviously including the Gallarati Scotti Baptism of Christ) and which represents the simplified and, when all is said and done, the less challenging manner in which Leonardo’s followers interpreted their master’s feverish interest in scrutinising the natural world»
[19]. Frangi’s detailed analysis offers no clue as to the origin of this new sensitivity, but I would venture to argue that the taste for the direct observation of nature was the product of an internal development[20] based on Leonardo’s work in that area (as recorded in his paintings and in his numerous experimental drawings of the natural world) but, at the same time, on a sensitivity clearly shared by the school as a whole. The Lombard legacy of Giovannino de’ Grassi and Michelino da Besozzo merges with the exploration of the natural world of Leonardesque origin shared by a group of artists who frequently depict the same species, though from life rather than by turning back to workshop models. It may well be that this ended up producing fully-fledged experts in the genre, and the Gallarati Scotti painting, which is clearly by two different hands whether or not Bernazzano is responsible for the incredible landscape setting[21], is typical of what was going on c. 1520. I have to admit that I was briefly tempted to toy with the idea that we are looking here at a work by the master who painted the Gallarati Scotti landscape, yet who in this instance would also have been responsible for the figure, but a painstaking comparison of the two paintings, allows us to argue that while they unquestionably reflect a shared sensitivity, the Earthly Paradise in which St. Jerome is meditating is an interpretation of the landscape setting of far lesser quality than the Garden of Eden depicted in the Baptism. The transparency, the variety of the hues defining the plants, pebbles and animals in the Gallarati Scotti painting are resolved in a far more schematic, monotone fashion in the Fassati St. Jerome. The frog swimming nimbly in the crystalline waters in the Baptism has a structural consistency that makes her two “sisters” in the Fassati picture, timidly engaging in far from spectacular activity, look almost naive. Nature herself is considerably less sumptuous, yet far more “Lombard” if we look, for example, at the view in the distance, which calls to mind similar solutions adopted by Cesare Magni in his paintings. In this instance too, the suffused landscape in the Gallarati Scotti Baptism continues in terms of sheer quality to be beyond the reach of the artist who painted the St. Jerome. Thus it is impossible to associate a definite name with this painting, which may possibly be a little naive but which is certainly spectacular, but be that as it may, there can be no doubt that in terms of its collecting history and stylistic kinship, the Fassati St. Jerome is a fascinating question yet to be resolved, among the many still open for anyone studying the world of Leonardo’s followers in Lombardy. 




My gratitude to the friends and colleagues with whom I have debated the painting’s attribution: Stefania Buganza, Federico Cavalieri, Francesco Frangi and Mauro Natale. I am also grateful to Lorenzo Colombo and Piergiorgio Picozzi for information kindly supplied. 

[1] Fototeca Zeri, Bologna, factsheet no. 33394 (

[2] The painting (oil on wood transferred onto canvas) measures 142 x 98.8 cm. and is in reasonably good condition. The numerous paint drops, discussed in Carlotta Beccaria’s restoration report in the Galleria Salomon archive, have been made good using the imitative techique.  


[5] For the painting, its history and importance in Moretto’s artistic career , see Alessandro Ballarin’s entry for the catalogue of an exhibition in Paris entitled Le siècle de Titien (1993), now reprinted in A. Ballarin, La Salomé del Romanino ed altri studi sulla pittura bresciana del Cinquecento, ed. B. M. Savy, 2 vols, Cittadella 2006, I, pp. 276-285. 

[6] “In Milan, in the home of Marquis Fassati, there is another picture by Bernardino Campi in which a slender allegorical female figure reclines on a vase, while two naked putti play with a vase” (E. Schweitzer, La scuola pittorica cremonese, in “L’Arte”, III, 1900, p. 67).

[7] The Fassati family must also have owned (the picture is mentioned in passing as having once been part of the collection by S. Zamboni, s.v. Campi, Giulio, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Rome, XVII, 1974, p. ) a very fine relatively youthful portrait by Giulio Campi, also mentioned by Schweitzer 1900 op. cit., p. 60 (“Another youthful work is a fine portrait of a Woman with a Flower, owned by Marquis Fassati in Milan, which could almost be by the hand of Pordenone”), known from a historical photograph taken by the Luigi Dubray Studio in Milan and now in the Fototeca Zeri in Bologna: factsheet no. 31705

[8] H. Brigstocke-O. D’Albo, Giulio Cesare Procaccini. Life and Work. With a Catalogue of His Paintings, Turin 2020, p. 305, n. 20.  

[9] Fototeca Zeri, Bologna, factsheet no. 40324

[10] The remarkable painting depicting St. John the Baptist in a landscape, sold as an anonymous work from the circle of Leonardo and without any specific indication of provenance, is included in the sale catalogue for Arredi e Dipinti Antichi, Il Ponte Casa d’Aste, 12-14 April 2022, lot 115. 

[11] W. Suida, Leonardo da Vinci und seine Schule in Mailand, in “Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft”, XIII, 1920, p. 46.

[12] J. Shell, Gian Giacomo Caprotti, detto Salaì, in I Leonardeschi. L’eredità di Leonardo in Lombardia, Milan 1998, pp. 404-405, fig. 289. For the tangled history of that painting, see A. Allegri, in Il Rinascimento nelle terre ticinesi 2. Dal territorio al museo, exhibition catalogue (Rancate, Pinacoteca cantonale Giovanni Züst, 28 October 2018 – 17 February 2019) ed. G. Agosti and J. Stoppa, Bellinzona 2018, pp. 114-119. 

[13] Suida 1920 op. cit.

[14] G. Agosti, J. Stoppa, Tenere botta, in Il Rinascimento nelle terre ticinesi 2018 op. cit., p. XVII. 

[15] La Collezione Gallino. Dipinti antichi e del XIX secolo, auction catalogue, Wannenes, Genoa, 1 June 2016, lot no. 573. 

[16] Something on the popularity of these designs may be gleaned in P. Marani, in Disegni e dipinti leonardeschi dalle collezioni milanesi, exhibition catalogue (Milan, Palazzo Reale 27 November 1987 – 31 January 1988) ed. G. Bora, L. Cogliati Arano, M.T. Fiorio, P.C. Marani 1987, pp. 66-67, n. 15; Idem, Il problema della “bottega” di Leonardo: la “praticha” e la trasmissione delle idee di Leonardo sull’arte e la pittura, in I leonardeschi 1998 op. cit., p. 17; impossible to identify, on the other hand, are Leonardo’s mentions of “certain St. Jeromes” which he mooted bringing with him to Lombardy and which may also relate to the execution of his St. Jerome now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, or the mention of a “Picture with a large Saint Hieronymus” (by Leonardo’s own hand?) recorded in Salaì’s posthumous inventory (Shell 1998, p. 402). 

[17] M. Carminati, Cesare da Sesto (1477-1523), Milan-Rome 1994, pp. 180-182, n. 11; for the drawings associated with this composition by Cesare da Sesto, see ibid., p. 303, D85, 308, D92. 

[18] Ibid., pp. 170-174, n. 9.

[19] F. Frangi, La “resistenza” leonardesca a Milano: il Maestro di Ercole e Gerolamo Visconti, in Brera mai vista. All’ombra di Leonardo. La pala di Sant’Andrea alla Pusterla e il suo maestro, exhibition catalogue (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera, September – November 2003), p. 24.

[20] One can deduce as much, albeit indirectly, from Frangi’s intervention.

[21] G. Romano, Documenti e monumenti: il caso del Bernazzano (2002), now in Idem, Rinascimento in Lombardia. Foppa, Zenale, Leonardo, Bramantino, Milan 2011, pp. 185-196. The admirable reconstruction of the first definite works by this painter, with a potential impact on his recorded relations with Cesare da Sesto, does not invalidate the possibility that Bernazzano may be responsible for the landscape in the Gallarati Scotti Baptism, formerly identified as the product of a collaboration between the two artists (the hypothesis was mooted for the first time by Giovan Paolo Lomazzo in his Trattato published in 1584)