The Head of a Young Man

by Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola)

This jewel of a drawing is one of Parmigianino’s finest and most memorable surviving works. Though his absolute control of line, the artist yields an astonishing impression of the intensely close presence of the sitter, as a dramatic light from upper left floods his features. David Ekserdjian (Parmigianino, 2006) has described him as, “an unidentified youth, whose timelessly wide-eyed enigmatic gaze represents arguably the most haunting of all Parmigianino’s representations of his fellow man." The model was probably a garzone (studio assistant) in Parmigianino’s workshop, and the features here are similar to those of Saint Stephen in the artist’s Madonna with Saint Stephen and Saint John the Baptist (Dresden), for which the same model was probably used. Like the drawing, that painting dates to 1539-40, at the end of the artist’s short life, when he was at the peak of his powers.

The gaze of the youth’s eyes and the sense of polish in the drawing show parallels with Roman portrait busts from the 2nd-century CE, such as the Young Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline or the Getty’s own Portrait of a Roman Adolescent. They each possess curling hair that flops over a smooth forehead, and they too gaze up in a mysterious mixture of vacancy and transfixion. The short, curly hair of these ancient youths would have seemed particularly resonant to Parmigianino and his audience, as this hairstyle was in fashion in the 1530s. While living in Rome, Parmigianino studied the antique closely and reflections and quotation from that material occur throughout the artist’s work.

Pen and brown ink (about 1539-1540)

by Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) (Italian, 1503-1540)

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