Pietro Torrigiano, Head of Christ, c.1520
This roundel with the Head of Christ is the work of the Florentine artist Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528), whose fortune was decided in the ill-thought moment he broke the nose of the young Michelangelo.
Described as haughty and violent by Michelangelo’s loyal followers, Benvenuto Cellini and Giorgio Vasari, Torrigiano became known almost exclusively for his bad temper and has been virtually ignored in the history of Italian art.
However, he had a deep understanding of the work of the most prominent Florentine sculptors of the Italian renaissance, drawing inspiration from Donatello, Verrocchio, Pollaiuolo and the Della Robbia. After his brawl with Michelangelo, Torrigiano was forced to leave Florence to escape the wrath of Lorenzo de Medici who had initially sponsored his training. He then worked in Rome, Siena and Avignon and in 1509 was called to England, the first Italian Renaissance artist to work in the country.
The sculpture was executed by Torrigiano in England and is linked to his most prestigious commissions, those for Westminster Abbey. During the Pre-reformation Tudor period Westminster Abbey had strong ties with St Peter’s in Rome and the works carried out in the Henry VII’s chapel and other areas can be considered a reflection of earlier commissions of Popes Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII in the Roman Basilica.
Carved out of two blocks of white marble, the head is set against a black slate background and is framed by a limestone frieze decorated with Tudor roses and foliage. Originally, the head was surrounded by gilt-bronze rays, only two of which now survive, under a layer of black varnish. The head may be compared with other Heads of Christ which the artist executed: a terracotta lunette with a Head of Christ above the monument to Dr John Yonge (London, the former Public Records Office) and a bronze Head of Christ at the Musée Calvet in Avignon. These works seem all to be re-elaborations of a single prototype, influenced by Andrea del Verrocchio. When the roundel was found by Sir Richard Wallace in Sudbourne Hall, Suffolk, in 1871, nothing was known of its original location and destination. In 1978 a 16th-century drawing emerged, showing the roundel in its original context in the chapel dedicated to Abbot John Islip in Westminster. Between the end of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth century, masses dedicated to Jesus Christ were very popular in England. In particular, the figure of the Redeemer, delivering the souls of the repentant from limbo, is linked to the idea of salvation and it is therefore not uncommon in funerary monuments. Documents testify that the chapel was in use by 1523, so the completion of the roundel for Islip’s tomb can be dated to c.1520, before Torrigiano left England for Spain.
Torrigiano’s roundel and the identification of its original destination are further indications of the importance of his role in the diffusion of Italian renaissance art in England.
There will be talks on this sculpture on Friday 14 and Tuesday 25 August at 1pm in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.
A.P. Darr, ‘From Westminster Abbey to the Wallace Collection: Torrigiano’s Head of Christ’, Apollo, November 1982.
© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2009. Text by Leda Cosentino.