This handsome and rare work is part of a group of about twenty-five sketches,1 mostly head studies, executed by Beccafumi in oil on paper, which are directly or loosely connected to the master’s most prestigious commission, received on April 1529: the decorative cycle for the ceiling of the Sala del Concistorio, in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena (c. 1530-35).2 The present vivid head, though not specifically connected to the above decoration, is generally similar in type to more than one head to be found in the fresco cycle, suggesting that it was indeed conceived for one of the figures represented in this series of compositions based on the classical theme of civic virtue (exemplum virtutis), an inconography derived from Cicero’s De officis ('On Duties').
Executed with broad and fluid strokes, with wonderful pinkish and red touches used to highlight some of the facial features, this handsome head of a youth – his gaze to the left – is a masterful example of Beccafumi’s studies of this type.3 The beautifully applied highlights in the present sheet determine the fall of light and construct planes to accentuate volumes. Beccafumi works from dark to light, showing freedom of execution and intensity in this lyrical image, which has the spontaneity and immediacy of an impressionist sketch. Despite their links with his painted compositions, it seems likely that Beccafumi produced these oil studies as finished works of art; it is perhaps no coincidence that his self-portrait, today in the Uffizi, is executed in this same medium.4 Beccafumi's fascination with light and shade must have led him to this type of experimental work, a technique that would be embraced by several artists from the 17th century on, but was almost unprecedented in Beccafumi’s time. Through his great originality and technical accomplishment, Beccafumi succeeded in creating a ‘modern Sienese language’, rooted in the artistic tradition of his native city.
1 The first discussion of these oil sketches was published by Donato Sanminiatelli in The Burlington Magazine in February 1955, an article stimulated by the appearance of nine of these studies in the London sale of H.S. Reitlinger’s collection. D. Sanminiatelli, 'The sketches of Domenico Beccafumi', The Burlington Magazine, vol. XCVII, no. 623, 1955, pp. 35-40, reproduced.
2 P. Torriti, Domenico Beccafumi, Milan 1998, pp. 153-163.
3 In recent years these oil sketches have been studied by Hugo Chapman (see Renaissance Siena. Art for a City, exh. cat., London, National Gallery, 2007, pp. 338-41, under nos 110-11) and by Dominique Cordellier (see Literature).
4 Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, inv. no. 1731; reproduced in Torriti 1998, p. 272, no. D64.
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