Pen and brown ink over black chalk;
bears letter in brown ink, lower right corner: X
This very refined and beautiful portrait has in the past been considered to be by or close to Marco Zoppo, to the circle of Mantegna, or Paduan.1 Striking in its directness, and much more naturalistic in the description of the facial features when compared with the work of North Italian masters in the circle of Marco Zoppo, it is in fact surely Florentine, and most probably the work of Piero del Pollaiuolo. We are grateful to Alison Wright who, having seen the original, has kindly suggested a dating from the late 1460s to the early 1470s, and confirmed that it is close to the work and style of Piero del Pollaiuolo.
This drawing shows a young man, certainly of high rank, wearing what looks like a felt cap, almost full-face, looking directly at the viewer. It is drawn with very fine and meticulous lines, with great attention to every detail, over a sfumato use of black chalk which creates more depth and shadows. The chalk was first applied, like the ink, in consecutive and narrow lines, as is still visible on the right section of the young man's jacket. The highly finished rendering of this portrait recalls the effect of an etching or of a niello work, a goldsmith's technique fashionable at the time. As Alison Wright writes in her book on the Pollaiuolo brothers: 'Niello work was a prime means for the demonstration of good disegno, consisting as it did in the inscribing of a design, usually figurative, onto a silver plate using a burin. To produce an effect of graphic relief the incisions were filled with a black metal alloy (niello) that was then fired and polished flat.' 2 The Florentine master Maso da Finiguerra, well-known today for his numerous surviving studies dal modello, economically achieved, was also a goldsmith and so admired for his niello work that Cellini claimed that he was the most talented producer of nielli of his age.3 Maso and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, the brother of Piero, collaborated on goldsmith projects from the early 1460s, exchanging stylistic and technical knowledge and drawings, and influencing each other's work. The present portrait shares some similarities with the work of Maso, although it is much more introspective and skilful and far more accurate in its subtle finish. It can be compared with the stylized and much smaller head of a boy, in profile, which is catalogued as Circle of Pollaiuolo by Degenhart and Schmitt.4
Just slightly smaller than life size, this imposing large portrait appears to be conceived as a work of art in its own right, rather than as preparatory for a painting. It can be closely compared with the oil on panel by Piero del Pollaiuolo of an aristocratic youth in a similar pose, formerly in the Merton Collection.5 Alison Wright dates that work to the late 1460s and points out that it shows Piero's awareness of both Andrea del Castagno's painted precedents, such as the Portrait of a Man in the National Gallery, Washington, and of the format of sculpted busts.6 As the majority of portraits of the period were still executed in profile, the presentation of the subject here is extremely innovative. Also, such large drawings are very rare and seem not to have survived. This may be due to their purpose in that, being portraits, they would not have been preserved in an artist's workshop for use in the preparation of other paintings. They may also have been framed and hung, for aesthetic reasons, and were therefore more at risk of being damaged.
Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo ran one of the most famous and successful botteghe of the fifteenth century. Their activity as painters, goldsmiths, sculptors and designers placed them in the forefront of the Renaissance cultural context in which artists were expected to satisfy a variety of commissions from their cultivated and powerful patrons.
Francis Ames-Lewis has given a most interesting explication of the development of portrait drawing in the Renaissance and of how artists were led to study the head, the expressive focus of each figure, in greater detail than before. Cennino Cennini's Libro dell'Arte instructed artists on conventions for facial types, but in 1436 Leon Battista Alberti in Della Pittura advised more specific observation of individuals in order to convey greater expression to figures.7 It is also important to remember the strong influence of Flemish and French portraiture which enjoyed an unrivalled reputation and had an undeniable impact in the Italian courts of the fifteenth century.
1. See Literature, Popham and Pouncey, op. cit., no. 311, reproduced pl. CCLXXIV
2. A. Wright, The Pollaiuolo Brothers, New Haven & London 2005, p. 34
3. Ibid., p. 436, in note 77
4. Rome, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe della Farnesina, inv. no. 130519; B. Degenhart - A. Schmitt, Corpus der Italienischen Zeichnungen, 1300-1450, Berlin 1968, vol. 2, p. 393, reproduced fig. 525 and p. 394, note 5
5. A. Wright, op.cit., p. 520-1, no. 48, reproduced p. 135, fig.103
6. Ibid., p. 133, reproduced fig. 102
7. F. Ames-Lewis and J. Wright, Drawing in the Italian Renaissance Workshop, exhib. cat., Nottingham, University Art Gallery and London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983, p. 284
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