For Leonardo, drawing was his principle means of exploring
the phenomenal world and the boundless possibilities of the imagination.
Leonardo’s studies of heads, in their many forms, are some of his most striking
works. Some were preparatory studies for his paintings and many more were
independent investigations of the human face.

Two grotesque profiles (c.1485-90) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Leonardo was equally interested in understanding the perfect proportions of beauty as he was with the negation of beauty, distorting proportions of the face to create visions of ‘perfect ugliness’. His grotesque heads can be seen as a counterpart to his investigations of ideal human proportions.

R: The busts of a peasants and a nobelwaoman confronted (c. 1485-90) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Leonardo’s earliest grotesques are small pen sketches, exploring the permanent expressionless structure of the face, which he conceived as composed of four zones, the forehead, nose, mouth and chin. Most of Leonardo’s grotesque heads are no more than playful distortions of these four elements.

A caricature of a bald fat man (c.1485-90) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

The more elaborate grotesques mostly date from the early 1480s, the period during which Leonardo was assembling material for his treatise on painting. But Leonardo had no intention of introducing grotesques into his writings or his paintings – they were essentially amusements, for himself and probably for the Sforza court too.

R: A man tricked by Gypsies (c. 1493) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Many of these drawings are satirical. 'A Man Tricked by Gypsies', for example, is a satirical reflection of current affairs. Gypsies had arrived in western Europe around 1420, claiming to be penitent pilgrims from Egypt but soon acquiring a reputation for fortune-telling and theft.

A satire on aged lovers (c.1490) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Leonardo’s grotesques also mocked the vanity of the aged, which Leonardo clearly found more deserving of ridicule than simple deformity.

R: A man tricked by Gypsies (c. 1493) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

In some ways, what Leonardo’s grotesque heads are not is more notable than what they are. They are not studies towards a systematic treatment of human physiognomy, nor are they studies for his paintings. With few exceptions they are not caricatures. Further, they are not studies in pathological deformity.

Beyond a burst of activity around 1490, drawings of the grotesque are scattered throughout Leonardo’s works with little common purpose other than amusement for himself and others.

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