Guido Mazzoni, Head of a Man

Guido Mazzoni, Head of a Man, 1480s, polychrome terracotta, 26 cm high (Galleria Estense, Modena)

Additional resources

This work at the Galleria Estense, Modena.

Read more about expanding our understanding of the renaissance on Smarthistory.

Read more about Italian terracotta sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Read about another famous sculptor, the Florentine Luca della Robbia, who worked in terracotta.

Bruce Boucher, ed. Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

Heather Graham, “Compassionate Lament: Somatic Selfhood and Gendered Affect in Italian Lamentation Imagery,” in Visualizing Sensuous Suffering and Affective Pain in Early Modern Europe and the Spanish Americas, Heather Graham and Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 82–115.

Heather Graham, “Artifice and Interiority: The Image of Grief in the Age of Reform,” in Vanishing Boundaries: Scientific Knowledge and Art Production in the Early Modern Era, ed. A. Victor Coonin and Lilian H. Zirpolo, (Ramsey, NJ: Women Art Patrons and Collectors Conference Organization, 2015), pp. 25–50.

Alison Cole, Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts: Virtue and Magnificence (London: Orion Publishing Group, 1995).

Timothy Verdon, The Art of Guido Mazzoni. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts (New York: Garland Publishing, 1978).

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Heather Graham: [0:05] We just walked into one of the gallery spaces in the Galleria Estense of Modena. I’m immediately struck by this highly naturalistic disembodied head.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:15] This is a head made by the artist Guido Mazzoni in the later 15th century. It’s terracotta or clay that’s been fired and then painted to look like an elderly man might actually appear in real life.

Dr. Graham: [0:30] This head was not always disembodied the way we see it today. He was originally likely created for one of Guido Mazzoni’s large-scale sculpture groups, for which he was the leading artist in the later 15th century.

[0:44] This may have been a figure of a donor created to be part of a group of figures in adoration along the Christ Child or it may have been a donor for one of Mazzoni’s large-scale Lamentation groups.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:57] Mazzoni is one of the premier sculptors of this larger region and it’s easy to see why. We can see what he was able to achieve using the humble material of clay. We see how he has given us the indication of the age of this man.

[1:15] He has not only built up the different facial features, or physiognomy, to give us a very individualized appearance, but we can see how he has modeled the clay and also incised it to give us the impression of wrinkles and a certain agedness.

Dr. Graham: [1:31] This work, unlike the slightly earlier sculpture group we just saw in Ferrara, looks as though the artist was taking an actual life cast for the features of this man’s face. This was a practice that we know Guido Mazzoni did for some of his later groups.

[1:47] Here you have something directly taken from life and then carefully modeled skillfully in the hand of this terracotta artist to create artifice. What is it about this image that makes us read it as a portrait and not merely as a character taken from biblical history?

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:05] I think it goes back to those individualized features. Here in the museum, the head is on a plinth, it’s at my eye level, and it’s more or less human size.

[2:14] I think we have to remember that the paint here is not original, it is later, but it would have been similar to what we could imagine Mazzoni’s creation would have actually looked like. To me, it adds to this lifelike impression.

[2:27] It’s not just what Mazzoni was able to do in terms of adding wrinkles or sagging facial features, or even the supple lips of this man, but in combination with paint, with this range of skin tones, really does give this sense that the clay has been incarnated with the spirit of a living person.

Dr. Graham: [2:45] We’re seeing something so specific, down even to the stippling in his jawline of where his facial hair would be, that it clearly is intended to evoke the features of a particular individual. And that’s interesting because portraiture is an art form that is on the rise at the beginning of the 15th century.

[3:03] The standard idea for a portrait was that it had to be recognizably enough similar to the person’s appearance in life that it could function to identify them, but the assumption was that you would almost look like your ideal public face. We’re pretty familiar with that today the way we see public imagery in social media, carefully modulated to present the most ideal version of reality.

[3:27] But this portrait, and likely because of its context being used as a figure shown in perpetual adoration of Christ, we see a lack of the idealization we might see in something like, for example, Sandro Botticelli’s image of a young man holding a medal.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:44] The reality effects — the wrinkles, the large nose, the mole above the eyebrow, the sagging features that come with age — these call to mind, at least for me, what we see in depictions of, say, ancient Roman senators, where the ideal was to be shown aged.

Dr. Graham: [4:04] We have to remember that for contemporary audiences, this may have been a very important indicator of wisdom and experience. While we may not know the precise identity of this man, we know from the type of hat that he’s wearing, the berrettone, that this was a type of headgear often worn by upper-class men.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:23] We don’t often talk enough about the importance of terracotta sculpture in the Italian Renaissance. We tend to think of marble. We tend to think of bronze. This might not meet most of our expectations of what we think about, and yet it’s such a perfect example to talk about the importance of portraiture and representation and even sculpting in the Italian Renaissance.

[4:46] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Heather Graham and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Guido Mazzoni, Head of a Man," in Smarthistory, November 30, 2022, accessed June 11, 2024,