Udayan Sen

Smashwords Interview

Your new play, "Salai Alas," is about Leonardo da Vinci; why Leonardo, and why a play?
Certainly Leonardo is consistently among the most fascinating of historical figures, has been even since his own youth in fifteenth-century Florence. I think that fascination goes beyond his very obvious talent and genius, and even beyond the amazing range of that genius; those are easy enough to sample from any number of sources.

I started the thinking on this play with a question, one that emerges in the sources on Leonardo almost simultaneously with the recognition of his unique genius: why did he seem to accomplish so little? Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, laments Leonardo's unproductiveness, it is commented upon in Castiglione's Courtier - it becomes a commonplace that he was phenomenally gifted, yet seemed never to follow through on very much. I decided to investigate the problem from the point of view of character, the notion of "character being destiny," and a play seems the most direct way to portray character.
So how does his assistant, Salai, figure into this investigation?
Salai is a somewhat shadowy figure in Leonardo's life. What's known is that he came to stay with Leonardo at a young age, and remained with him until Leonardo finally left Italy for good to go to France, when Salai would have been somewhere around thirty. Neutrally he is described as Leonardo's "assistant," and in fact was a painter in his own right, after his apprenticeship with Leonardo. But he doesn't seem to have been any great talent as a painter; most of his assigned output consists of copies of Leonardo's compositions, which were presumably marketed as products of the "school." He doesn't appear to have had any more than an average talent, intelligence, or character. In fact, many of Leonardo's notebook entries that mention Salai have to do with some mischief or other that he gets into: stealing money, stealing art supplies, cadging money, gobbling sweets, things of that nature.

However, glancing through Leonardo's drawings, we'll notice a certain type of face that appears throughout; pretty and androgynous, with curling hair and soft features. It's become the image of the "Leonardesque" type. And it has been speculated that perhaps the source of this pretty type was Salai, whose beauty captivated Leonardo, and whom Leonardo in a sense needed near him, as a kind of muse.
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