A Grotesque Couple: Old Woman with an Elaborate Headdress and Old Man with Large Ears and Lacking a Chin

Attributed to Giovanni Francesco Melzi Italian
After Leonardo da Vinci Italian

Not on view

These two grotesque figures in bust-length profile, facing one another, are copies after original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, drawn by his faithful pupil and artistic heir, Giovanni Francesco Melzi. Melzi produced a series of these grotesque couples after Leonardo's original drawings, called the "Pembroke Grotesques" after the Earls of Pembroke who once owned them. In many cases, both the original drawings of grotesques by Leonardo and the close copies by Melzi exist, which provides the opportunity for careful comparisons.

The attribution of the Pembroke Grotesques to Melzi was originally proposed by Carlo Pedretti in 1973, and is now widely accepted by scholars. Melzi not only copied closely the forms in Leonardo's original models, but he also imitated his master's technique of diagonal, parallel-hatching with left-handed strokes: the lines in the hatching appear to go in an upper-left to lower-right direction (as in all of Leonardo's drawings). In looking closely at this hatching under magnification, however, one can see that Melzi worked slowly and timidly, checking every one of his strokes against his master's original, pausing and starting, and also probably continuously turning the paper around as he drew, in order to achieve the appearance of Leonardo's manner of hatching. In comparison, the great master's original drawings are clearly identifiable because the left-handed strokes occur with natural movements of the hand, done fast, and with complete confidence, and the appearance of the hatching is unified in the forms and in the backgrounds. In other words, the hatching is organic. In Melzi's drawing, the lines look instead forced and scratchy, and the patterns of the diagonal, parallel lines seem to change direction from passage to passage. Close-up, the overall appearance of the diagonal, parallel-hatching is disorganized. Moreover, recent scientific imaging with infrared-reflectography has been slowly demonstrating that the dark brown inks in the Melzi copies are materially different from the lighter brown inks of Leonardo's originals.

Melzi arrived to live in Leonardo's household about 1506-8, and was put to learn and exercise the skill of drawing in Leonardo's studio by copying his master's originals. He achieved modest fame as a miniaturist in his later life, after Leonardo's death in 1519. His talent for working in a minute scale is evidenced in this and the other drawings from the series of the Pembroke Grotesques. While in the collection of the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, the drawing was mounted together with eleven other companion sheets of grotesques, all in similar body-size and technique. Since the famous Pembroke sale in 1917, the twelve fragments have been divided among several collections. Three of the fragments are in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; two in the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana, University of California, Los Angeles; two in the Morgan Library and Museum, New York; one in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; one in the Detroit Institute of Arts; one in a New York private collection; and still another sheet recently passed through the art market (Christie's, London, July 7, 1998, lot 59). The woman with the headdress in the present drawing is a copy after an original drawing by Leonardo at Chatsworth. While some of the Pembroke Grotesques show groups of two or three male heads, the majority of these sheets depict couples of facing deformed men and women in profile. Some of the small-scale drawings of grotesques by Leonardo himself portray such couples (for example, Windsor, RL 12453).

Leonardo's original drawings of grotesques became famous and the copies of them begot more copies into the seventeenth century. Several other copies of the individual heads portrayed in the Met's present sheet also survive, including those in the Spencer Grotesques bound in a two-volume edition from 1669 of Rabelais's works (Spencer Collection I.10 and I.15, New York Public Library). The Spencer Grotesques are possibly by a Lombard artist of about 1590-1600; the watermarks suggest that the paper was manufactured in Italy in the late sixteenth century. The two heads in the present drawing appear at the top of the sheet in catalogue number 136. A copy of the male head is also found in the album of the French collector Pierre-Jean Mariette, and thus an etched version was produced for the album of the Count of Caylus, as number 31.

(Carmen C. Bambach; February, 6, 2015)

A Grotesque Couple: Old Woman with an Elaborate Headdress and 
Old Man with Large Ears and Lacking a Chin, Attributed to Giovanni Francesco Melzi (Italian, Milan 1491/93–ca. 1570 Vaprio d'Adda), Pen and brown ink

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