In 1967, scholars identified this Head of a Young Man as a preparatory study for a figure in the fresco The Sacrifice of Zaleucus, which forms part of the decorative cycle painted by Domenico Beccafumi in the Sala del Concistoro of Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The work in question is a portion of the cartoon used by the artist to directly transfer the image onto the plaster; later he added touches of oil and glued the paper onto a canvas, such that it could become an artistic object in its own right. Its connection with the fresco cycle allows us to date it to between 1529 and 1535.
Salvator Rosa, 49.5 x 42.7 x 5.5 cm
Borghese Collection, first cited in the Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 27, no. 23. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.
According to Paola Della Pergola (1959, p. 110, no. 161), the first clear mention of the work in connection with the Borghese Collection is the entry which reads, ‘Portrait of a young man, artist uncertain, 10 inches wide, 1 span high’, found in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario. At the same time, we must note that several references to works with the same subject and similar dimensions, ascribed to Raphael, are present in the 1693 inventory. In any case, the circumstances by which the work in question entered the Collection are unknown.
Over the years, scholars debated the name of the artist of the work. Venturi (1893, p. 208) and Arslan (1928/29, p. 78) proposed Pier Francesco Mola, yet this idea did not persuade Cantalamessa (1912, no. 453). For their part, Longhi (p. 222) and Della Pergola (1959) suggested a painter from among Raphael’s followers in Rome. Della Pergola in particular pointed to connections with fragments of frescoes once in Palazzina Altoviti, proposing that this study could be the work of Perin del Vaga.
It was Sanminiatelli (1967, p. 126, no. 13) who put an end to the debate when he showed that Domenico Beccafumi was responsible for the Head of the Young Man, specifically linking the work with the fresco cycle painted by the artist in the Sala del Concistoro in Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The work is in fact a preparatory study for the figure standing behind the executioner’s arm in the episode depicting The Sacrifice of Zaleucus of Locri; it can therefore be dated to the years of the execution of the cycle, namely between 1529 and 1535.
A restoration operation conducted in 1984 in connection with the display of the work at the exhibition Aspetti dell’arte prima e dopo Raffaello (Palazzo Venezia, Rome) brought to light several elements which contribute to our knowledge of its history. Experts in fact discovered that the study – executed on paper and then glued onto canvas – originally formed part of the preparatory cartoon which Beccafumi made to realise the fresco in Siena. Following a widespread practice, he cut the head from the cartoon, touched it up with oil and then glued it onto canvas, creating a separate work that could be sold on the market. The operation was performed by the artist himself, whose hand is recognisable in the added brushstrokes. The restoration work eliminated the heavy layers of paint which had been applied to make it appear as a proper painting. The operation also removed the canvas onto which the paper support had been glued, revealing that the latter was made up of two sheets of different thicknesses (Barbiellini Amidei, Bernini 1984, pp. 63-65, no. 16).
The circumstances of the work’s origin account for the traces of sanguine in the squaring of the image, used for transferring it onto the fresco. They also explain the higher definition of the study, greater than what is typically found in sketches. At the same time, the draughtsmanship is free and rapid, reflecting a quite modern, spontaneous style, which is in fact reminiscent of the studies of Beccafumi’s stay in Rome as a young man, around 1510. It was here that he was able to observe examples of ancient painting, such as the works in the Domus Aurea, as well as the splendid decorative cycles of school of Raphael, that great interpreter of classical culture (Barbiellini Amidei, Bernini, 1984; Cecchi 1988, p. 14, no. 1, Herrmann Fiore 2011, p. 284, no. 51).
Beccafumi showed great skill in that genre of works at the crossroads of preparatory drawing and finished painting, evident not only in this Head of a Young Man but in other studies connected to the Siena frescoes, including that of a head of a woman (British Museum, London), which has much in common with the Borghese work in terms of type and technique (Cecchi, 1988; Torriti 1998, p. 300, no. D105; Herrmann Fiore, 2011).
In the view of Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2011), Beccafumi also used the Head of a Young Man for the central figure in The Sacrifice of Codrus; in this case, the artist made the man look older by adding a beard, thinning out the hair and intensifying the dramatic impact of his gaze.
Pier Ludovico Puddu