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Leonardo's studies of physiognomy

RCIN 912519

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A delicate profile drawing of the bust of a child, turned in profile to the left and terminating at a clear horizontal line. Melzi's number 3.

This drawing is related to two other studies of the bust of a child, RCIN 912567. The chest of the child terminates at the same horizontal line in all three studies. The obvious context would be a terracotta bust of the Christ Child or Infant Baptist, common during the Renaissance as suitable exemplars in children’s nurseries. While no such bust by Leonardo is known – indeed, no surviving sculpture is generally accepted as being by the artist – the Milanese artist and writer Gian Paolo Lomazzo described in 1584 a terracotta bust of the Christ Child supposedly by Leonardo, in his own collection.

The careful handling of the red chalk in this drawing suggests a date around 1500. The putative terracotta could thus have been executed either during Leonardo’s last years in Sforza Milan – perhaps for the nursery of Ludovico’s sons Massimiliano (b. 1493) and Francesco (b. 1495) – or soon after his return to Florence.

Leonardo's first outline for a treatise on anatomy, drafted around 1490, included a note to study 'which are the members which, after the child is born, grow more than the others, and the measurements of a child of one year.'

Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018