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Leonardo's studies of physiognomy

RCIN 912502

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A drawing of the head of a clean-shaven man, facing the viewer. He has a down-turned mouth and a mass of curly hair interspersed with leaves (Hedera helix). In the top left corner is some illegible writing, and below, to the right, a lion's head is lightly sketched as if to suggest a skin worn by the man. Melzi's number 38.

Early in his career Leonardo fixed on two standard male types, who recur endlessly in his drawings: an adolescent with refined features, and an older man with aquiline nose, prominent chin and beetling brow. In the last decade of his life he produced a number of independent drawings of such heads, usually in profile – exercises in form and draughtsmanship simply for his own satisfaction.

In this drawing Leonardo turns the head drawn in RCIN 912556 to the front, with a hint of the grotesque as the nose almost meets the clamped mouth, and a wreath of ivy leaves and a lion skin across the shoulder that identify him as a ‘wild man’. Leonardo had designed costumes of wild men for festivities in 1491, though this drawing dates from two decades later; the wild man was an emblem of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Leonardo’s patron around 1510, and it is just possible that the drawing was made in connection with some project for Trivulzio.

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