In a famous drawing dated December 1478, now at the Uffizi in Florence, Leonardo drew the figure of an old man in profile which appears to be an early example of Leonardo's interest in grotesque heads.
The artist has exaggerated the man's nose and chin to the point that they appear almost to touch one another, a strange and purposeful arrangement. The youth opposite models an ideal and youthful physiognomy. While at least one scholar has suggested that Leonardo had no special interest in the grotesque prior to his work in Milan in the 1480s and 90s, this drawing suggests otherwise. But what makes this drawing of the old man particularly interesting is that it reflects three areas of great interest to Leonardo.
First, the artist juxtaposes the old man and the young. Leonardo invokes the concept of contrapposto, not just as a contrast of movements of the body or flexion of its parts, but as a classical topos of antithesis, of setting opposites against one another to heighten vividness. In considering how a Renaissance artist achieved vividness through opposition, it is worth remembering that classical writers such as Quintilian counseled the use of opposing images in rhetoric, and Leon Battista Alberti translated this topos into visual varietá or variety for painting. Leonardo inherits this tradition when he writes:
I say that in narrative paintings you should closely intermingle direct opposites, because they offer a great contrast to each other, and the more so the more they are adjacent. Thus, have the ugly one next to the beautiful, the large next to the small, the old next to the young (Kemp and Walker, 220, from Cod. Urb. 61r-v).
The flourishes of script above these opposing heads mention a "Fieravantj di Domenicho in Firenze" a fellow countrymen or fellow artist "amantissimo quanto mio..." clearly much beloved by Leonardo. We don't know much about Fieravanti, but Leonardo may have used this opposition of forms to express something of their relationship. Unfortunately, like most personal interjections in the notebooks, it remains too cryptic to offer much concrete information...the personal Leonardo remains buried beside this visualization of opposites.
Second, by placing an attentive youth inclining towards the older man, Leonardo offers a meditation on aging and the passage of time. Leonardo often considers the metamorphosis of all things through age, whether in relation to the earth in the Codex Leicester or the human body in his dissection drawings. From his interest in fossils (Codex Leicester 9v) to his speculations about arterial sclerosis and the death of an old man (RL 19005r) to his philosophical musings on death as an eternal sleep (Codex Atlanticus 207v/76v-a), Leonardo approaches the subject of mortality from many angles. Here, the proximity of wrinkled man and handsome youth creates social piquancy without clearly defining the relationship of the two figures beyond the contrast in physical appearance.
Finally, the facial distortions constitute an ingenious subversion of the Renaissance conventions of portraiture that delight as inventive marvels (meraviglie). Leon Battista Alberti had described portraiture as an art form that overcomes death by preserving the living, but the wrinkled, grotesque heads of Leonardo appear to be a wry subversion of that classical topos. They do not represent the likeness of aged statesmen or elder Romans, but are instead fanciful, eye-catching oddities masquerading as portraits. Leonardo's exaggerated heads, when assembled as a continuous corpus, remain rather static images, almost iconic in their completeness. They are mostly devoid of emotional expression. As much as Leonardo studied transitory facial effects, the grotesque heads were not the vehicles he chose. Neither do Leonardo's exaggerated heads appear to be character types easily related to istorie paintings or narrative conventions. The roughly one hundred grotesque heads, half of which survive in the Royal Collection at Windsor, are too diverse to fit nicely into a few categorical types, but they do share the quality of maintaining portraiture's outward conventions of format while subverting its emphasis on beauty and reverence.
The facial distortion in this Uffizi sheet marks the beginning of a string of similarly grotesque images that appear to become more comic during the artist's Milanese periods. The images may be considered grotesque because they show something never seen in nature, yet something so accurately presented as to simulate a once-living sitter.
The possibility of such drawings actually recording a marvel of nature adds much to their fascinating quality. Presumably most Renaissance viewers knew a repertoire of conventional portraits and canon of beauty against which the exhilarating strangeness of Leonardo's 'heads' was instantly evident. Just after Leonardo's career, audiences and theorists came to celebrate these bizzarities as a sign of ingenuity. In his Idea del tempio della pittura of 1590, the painter and writer Giovan Paolo Lomazzo speaks of a sense of the marvelous (meraviglioso) in Leonardo's works, which he claims is especially evident in his ugly and monstrous creations (figure brutte e monstruose). Leonardo's Uffizi sheet of 1478 survives as an early example of how such visual oddities became a leitmotiv of creativity. Though perhaps borne of a desire to express something about his personal relation with, or distance from, Fieravanti di Domenicho, this drawing engages broader themes of antithesis, aging, and wry invention.
Fig. Leonardo da Vinci, Two heads with inscriptions in notarial script, studies of mechanical devices, 20.2 x 26.6 cm, inv. no. 446E, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampi degli Uffizi, Florence