Roman Head (So-Called Head of Emperor Vitellius)
Charcoal, heightened with white chalk, on blue paper faded to brown
13 1/16 x 9 13/16 inches (333 x 249 mm.)
Purchased as the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stern, 1959
This drawing depicts a Roman portrait bust sent to Venice by Cardinal Domenico Grimani and exhibited in the Ducal Palace from 1525 to 1593. Traditionally it was thought to represent the Roman emperor Vitellius, famous for his indolence and gluttony. A plaster cast of this antique sculpture was documented in Tintoretto's studio.
About twenty studies of this bust by Tintoretto and his pupils are known. The present version portrays the head from a low vantage point, emphasizing the massive neck and jowls, with vigorous parallel hatching and sharp highlights making the figure look particularly alive and dramatic.
Innovations in Drawing
Technical and artistic innovations combined to make Renaissance Venice a vital creative center. Late-fifteenth-century artists generally worked in pen and ink and wash to make relatively finished drawings, but new techniques emerged that enabled them to produce more diverse, and often dramatic, effects. Artists such as Vittore Carpaccio perfected a method of applying ink with a brush onto Venetian blue paper (carta azzurra)—a support greatly prized by Albrecht Dürer. Artists of Titian and Bordone's generation, followed by Tintoretto, preferred a soft black chalk that was ideally suited to record tonal subtleties and create impressions of movement. Jacopo Bassano's innovative use of colored chalks made him a precursor to the pastel tradition. Tintoretto's younger contemporary, Veronese, developed entire compositions with rapid pen sketches while retaining a typically Venetian preoccupation with light.