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Head of a Woman

Maestro della Pala Sforzesca

Lombardia 1490 - 1520

This drawing was initially ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci, as it was believed to be a preparatory study for the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre. Later, most critics rejected this idea, in favour of a  cautious attribution to the Master of the Pala Sforzesca.

The work is a head-and-shoulders representation of a woman whose gaze is directed downward. Given emphasis by a delicate and refined chiaroscuro, her features recall those of Leonardo’s physiognomies.

Object details

First decade of 16th century
Silverpoint on paper
cm 27 x 17

16th-century frame with carved wave motifs, 49 x 44 x 5.5 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1790 (Inv. 1790, room X, no. 62; Della Pergola 1955); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833. p. 27. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.


  • 1984 Roma, Palazzo Barberini


The provenance of this drawing is unknown. It was first mentioned in connection with the Borghese Collection in the inventory of 1790. While early inventories ascribed the work to Leonardo or his workshop (Inv. 1790; Inv. Fid. 1833), 19th-century critics rejected this idea, proposing a variety of other artists, including Bernardino de’ Conti (Morelli 1897), Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (Loeser 1897; Rosenberg 1898) and the miniaturist Antonio da Monza (A. Venturi 1895). Yet none of these names convinced later scholars. Emil Jacobsen (1910) was the first to suggest the so-called Master of the Pala Sforzesca, an opinion accepted by a good number of his colleagues (Della Pergola 1955, Romano 1978; Vezzosi 1983; Stefani 2000; Herrmann Fiore 2006). Other critics were slightly more cautious, preferring an attribution to an anonymous artist familiar with the realism of Vincenzo Foppa and the physiognomies of Leonardo; yet these scholars agreed that the style of the artist in question was no doubt influenced by the painter of the majestic ‘Sforza Altarpiece’, which was executed for Duke Ludovico il Moro in 1494-95 (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, inv. on. 451; on the so-called Master of the Pala Sforzesca, see, among others, Malaguzzi Valeri 1905; Marani 1998). This painting, rather than the Virgin of the Rocks of the Louvre, seems to be the source of this Head.

The rendering of the eyelids and the delicate chiaroscuro further connect our drawing to a version with a similar subject at the National Gallery in London (inv. no. NG4444). The shape of the face, the highlighting of its contours and the rendering of the hair, finally, recall the Study of a Female Head by Francesco Napoletano of Campania (Uffizi Gallery, inv. no. 426E; Suida 1919, Bora 1992; on this artist see Fiorio 1998); indeed some critics have identified this painter as the mysterious creator of the Brera altarpiece (Jacobsen 1910).

Antonio Iommelli

  • M. Vasi, Itinerario, Roma 1794, p. 396;
  • P. Müller-Walde, Leonardo da Vinci, München 1889, p. 4;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 75;
  • E. Müntz, Studi leonardeschi, in “Archivio Storico dell’Arte”, V, 1892, p, 28;
  • A. Venturi, in Storia dell'arte italiana, X, Milano 1895, p. 220;
  • G. Morelli, Della Pittura Italiana. Studi Storici Critici: Le Gallerie Borghese e Doria Pamphili in Roma, Milano 1897, pp. 174-176;
  • C. Loeser, I disegni italiani della raccolta Malcom, in “Archivio Storico dell’Arte”, III-3, 1897, p. 356;
  • A. Rosenberg, Leonardo da Vinci, Bielefeld 1898;
  • F. Malaguzzi Valeri, Il Maestro della Pala Sforzesca, in "Rassegna d'arte", V, 1905, p. 44;
  • E. Jacobsen, Un quadro e un disegno del Maestro della Pala Sforzesca, in “Rassegna d’Arte”, X, 1910, pp. 53-55;
  • W. Suida, Leonardo da Vinci und seine Schule, in Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft, XII, Mailand 1919, p. 266, fig. 7
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 224;
  • W. Suida, Leonardo und sein Kreis, München 1929, p. 180;
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese, Roma 1948, p. 40;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p. 30;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, pp. 81-82, n. 145;
  • G. Romano, La Pala Sforzesca, in Il Maestro della Pala Sforzesca, in “Quaderni di Brera”, IV, 1978, p. 16;
  • A. Vezzosi, Presenze di Leonardo e del leonardismo a Roma, in Leonardo e il leonardismo a Napoli e a Roma, catalogo della mostra (Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte, 1983; Roma, Palazzo Barberini, 1984), Firenze 1983, p. 206 n. 460;
  • G. Bora, in Leonardo & Venezia, catalogo della mostra, Venezia, Istituto di Cultura di Palazzo Grassi, 1992-93), a cura di P.C. Marani, Giovanna Nepi Scirè, Milano 1992, pp. 370-371;
  • M. T. Fiorio 1998, Francesco Napoletano (e Pseudo Francesco Napoletano), in I leonardeschi. L'eredità di Leonardo in Lombardia, Milano 1998, pp. 199-210;
  • P. C. Marani, Maestro della Pala Sforzesca, in I leonardeschi. L'eredità di Leonardo in Lombardia, Milano 1998, pp. 179-198;
  • C. Stefani in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 278;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 165.