A rare surviving painting from Giulio Romano’s late Mantuan period, this beautiful Head of a Saint constitutes an important addition to the artist’s body of work. The painting is a relatively recent discovery, published for the first time by Claudio Strinati and Stefania Pasti on the occasion of its exhibition in San Benedetto Po in 2008 (loc. cit.) and dated by Paul Joannides between the late 1530s to early 1540s (ibid., p. 167, citing his oral opinion).
Clues to the painting's original composition can be found even in its current reduced format. Given the direction of the saint’s gaze and the divine light bathing his face from above left, he must have featured in the lower right section of a large, multifigured composition. The overall concept might perhaps have been similar to Giulio’s Christ in glory with the Madonna and Saints John the Baptist, Paul and Catherine of Alexandria in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Parma (fig. 1). The awe-struck saint gazes upward, with his brow knitted, presumably transfixed by a celestial apparition above. The central holy figure (or figures) appearing to him would likely have hovered upon clouds held aloft by multiple cherubim, like the one upper left, as seen in the Parma altarpiece. The expression of the saint himself instantly recalls those of the stunned witnesses in Raphael’s transformative, largescale Transfiguration altarpiece in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City (fig. 2). The Transfiguration was commissioned from Raphael by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (who would go on to become Pope Clement VII) and he worked on it until his death in 1520. It would become one of the most recognizable and celebrated paintings of the Renaissance and its enduring impact is visible in Giulio’s designs for decades to come.
Giulio’s theatrical use of chiaroscuro and vibrant palette here, enlivened by the saint’s shot silk robe and violet mantle, are reminiscent of those employed in his masterpiece, The Holy Family with Saint Longinus in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 3). The artist’s treatment of the present saint is also comparable to that of Saint Longinus, whose expression is similarly poignant and tinged with suffering. While Saint Longinus is lit from below, his features are illuminated in a similar manner, with bright highlights across his forehead, cheekbone and down the length of his nose. The Louvre painting was commissioned by Federico Gonzaga for the chapel of Isabella Boschetta in the church of Sant’Andrea, Mantua and was painted between 1532 and 1534. Given its affinities with that altarpiece, Strinati and Pasti place this painting's date at circa 1540, within a few years of the Louvre painting, an opinion shared by Joannides who dates it within the same period (loc. cit., p. 166-67).
As Strinati and Pasti note, the scarcity of autograph works dating from this mature moment in Giulio’s career led many to believe the artist himself produced precious few paintings at all. It was assumed instead that he ran a bustling workshop of collaborators and spent his time directing their execution of his drawings and designs. As the two scholars rightly assert, however, in the space of two decades, Giulio must surely have produced paintings himself, if limited in number. A comment by Ercolo Gonzaga is cited as evidence of the dearth of paintings produced by Giulio in this late period, ‘non attende se non a disegni et fabbriche nelle quali è sempre occupatissimo, e nelle cose mie non fa se non i designi’ (Giulio ‘attends to nothing but designs and buildings for which he is always very busy, and for my things he does nothing besides drawings’; loc. cit., citing Brown, 1991, p. 205 and Ferrari, 1992, II, p. 1034). Yet, it was Ercole himself who had requested only drawings and sketches from the artist and this comment was made in 1545, just one year before Giulio’s death, when he was fully engaged in work on the duomo (loc. cit., p. 165). There is nothing to suggest, however, that he had ceased painting works in the twenty years prior. The date of this panel brings it to around the time of Federico Gonzaga’s death on 28 June 1540 and a moment when Giulio was occupied exclusively with religious subject matter, at the instruction of Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga (ibid.). That same year Giulio accepted a commission from the Abbey of San Benedetto, Polirone for six altarpieces. Of the six works, the artist is traditionally thought to have completed only the Salvation of Peter from the storm, however payments suggest he completed at least one more (ibid.). While it is tempting, as Strinati and Pasti suggest, to imagine that the present fragment may belong to one of the Polirone altarpieces, given the date and subject matter, there is no concrete evidence to tie it to the commission (ibid.)