Jacopo Tintoretto, Head of Vitellius

Artist | Jacopo Tintoretto (ca. 1518-1594)  
TitleHead of Vitellius 
Date | 16th century   
Medium | Black chalk and white heightening on blue paper, with greenish-blue wash
Dimensions | 282 x 230 mm
Institution | Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich (link to online catalogue)
Credit line | © Staatliche Graphische Sammlung München 
Theme | Antiquity, Mythology, and Allegory
Museum number | 2982 Z

Jacopo Robusti (1518/19–1594), better known as Jacopo Tintoretto, ran a prolific workshop in Venice, completing, among others, large-scale commissions for the Venetian scuole. This sheet depicts an ancient sculpture representing the head of a man from the circle of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138). In Tintoretto’s time, this head was wrongly identified as the emperor Vitellius (15–69). Tintoretto owned a plaster cast of this sculpture, which repeatedly served as a model for drawings by himself and members of his workshop. As John Marciari indicates, members of the workshop copied Tintoretto’s drawings of these plaster casts, rather than drawing the sculpture directly, allowing them to learn and thus improve their ability to represent volume, light, and shadow. Indeed, this sheet features a weaker version of the head on the verso, probably by a pupil of Tintoretto, who chose to exactly reproduce the lightening of Tintoretto’s model on the recto, and not of the original sculpture. Although the members of Tintoretto’s workshop seem to have been more autonomous than, for instance, those of Titian’s school, this shows that they still were required to imitate the style of their master.

In this version of the Head of Vitellius, Tintoretto stresses the vitality of the figure by slightly changing the face’s proportions in relation to the original sculpture. This effect is strengthened by the use of blue paper, since visible strokes in white chalk create light effects breathing life into the drawing. It should be noted that the background has been additionally tinted with blue watercolour. It is unclear whether this intervention should be attributed to Tintoretto himself or to a later attempt at increasing the value of the artwork. 


We are grateful to Maria Aresin and Kurt Zeitler for their guidance.