Ligozzi, Head of a Woman

While working for the Medici court in Florence, Ligozzi drew a group of fantastical female heads that responded to Michelangelo’s celebrated highly finished drawings of ideal heads made as gifts for his friends in the 1520s. Instead of using the chalk found in Michelangelo’s examples, Ligozzi employed pen and ink to meticulously describe the figure’s delicate features and artful coiffure. The exquisiteness of the drawing reflects a contemporary idea of beauty evolving in the Medici court. Such jewel-like drawings could be exchanged as gifts within this circle.

Sketch of woman's head, profile
Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627) Head of a Woman About 1580-90 Pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk Watermark: lettered ‘CEERRET’ within a long oval cartouche 302x211 mm Samuel Courtauld Trust: Robert Witt Bequest, D.1952.RW.4278

Head of a Woman shows a woman in profile facing right with an elaborate hairstyle of plaits and curls. It is one of a group of drawings showing ideal female heads in profile with fantastic hairstyles executed by Jacopo Ligozzi at the end of the sixteenth century, when he was working in the Medici court in Florence.[1] Each of these is of similar dimensions and employs the medium of pen and ink over a preliminary drawing of black chalk.

This group of idealised heads responds to drawings in black chalk made by Michelangelo in the 1520s.[2] Often shown with elaborate hairstyles and headdresses, his representations of beautiful figures were described by Vasari as ‘divine heads’ (‘teste divine’).[3] They can be seen as continuing a type developed in Florence during the fifteenth century by artists including Andrea Verrocchio (1435-1488) and Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522) in his portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.[4] Vasari notes that Michelangelo gave the Florentine nobleman Gherardo Perini ‘three divine heads in black pencil’ (‘teste a matita nera divine’), and it is likely that all his highly finished drawings of ideal heads were made as gifts.[5] Ligozzi’s ideal heads reflects the legacy of Michelangelo’s work in Florence during the last decades of the sixteenth century. As with Michelangelo, Ligozzi uses this genre to display his skill at invention and execution. In Head of a Woman, his meticulous use of line reflects his training in Verona as a miniaturist. Carefully controlled cross hatching models the delicate features of the sitter, with curling lines describing individual locks of hair in her complicated coiffure as well as jewel crowning her head and her earing.

Ligozzi was summoned to work for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-1587) in Florence in 1577. As a court artist, he was involved in a variety of projects, from producing designs for festivities and painting portraits of court members, to executing botanical illustrations in watercolour for the duke to exchange with the naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605). Ligozzi’s ideal heads were probably also made within the Medici court. A painting in the Uffizi by Ligozzi dated to c.1585 of Virginia de’ Medici (1568-1615) (, illegitimate daughter of Cosimo de’Medici (1519-1574) and his lover and second wife Camilla Martelli (1545-1590), recalls his fantastical heads. There are striking similarities between the presentation of Virginia and Ligozzi’s drawings of ideal heads. Virginia de’ Medici has similar features to the figure in Head of a Woman, including her large eyes, straight nose, small lips and chin, down to her curling hair ornamented with jewels. Like the ideal heads, Virginia wears elaborate dress, here embellished with gold thread and jewels. The similarity in type used by Ligozzi both in this portrait and his drawings suggests that he was responding to an idea of beauty current in the Florentine court.

In his Lives of the Artists Vasari notes that the ‘divine heads’ given by Michelangeo to Gherardo Perini had since passed into the hands of Francesco I de’ Medici, ‘who holds them as the jewels that they are’ (‘che le tiene per gioie, come sono’).[6] The continuing interest in these works is documented by two etchings by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630) in 1613 after Michelangelo drawings of ideal heads. Ligozzi’s drawings adopt this earlier Florentine prototype to develop contemporary ideas of beauty developing in the Medici court. Executed in a style that relies heavily on controlled lines and cross hatching, it is interesting that Ligozzi’s drawings were not translated into print. There are no incised lines on Head of a Woman that would indicate that the drawing had been transferred, and no known prints related to these drawings. The high level of finish of these drawings indicates that they were commissioned, like his watercolour botanical studies, within the court. Ligozzi’s masterly use of line expresses a contemporary idea of beauty evolving in the Medici court whilst creating jewel-like objects that could be made as gifts within such courtly circles.



[1] Briquet, no.12045. There are six drawings from this group at present known to the author.

[2] Chapman, 203-205.

[3] Vasari, 276.

[4] For the Verrocchio drawing see: Chapman and Faietti, 182-185, no. 40; Popham and Pouncey, no.258. For the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Piero di Cosimo see: Boissard and Lavergne-Durey, 118-120, no. 62.

[5] Vasari, 276.

[6] Vasari, 276-7; see also: Hirst, 107.


Boissard, E. de, and V. Lavergne-Durey, Chantilly, musée Condé Peinters de l’Ecole italienne, Paris, 1988.

Briquet, C. M., Les filigranes: dictionnaire historique des marques du papier dès leur apparition vers 1282 jusqu’en 1600, Amsterdam, 1968.

Chapman, H., Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master, London, 2005.

Chapman, H., and M. Faietti, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, London, 2010.

Hirst, Michelangelo and his Drawings, New Haven, 2004.

Popham, A. E.,  and P. Pouncey, Italian Drawings in the department of prints and drawings in the British Museum: fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, London, 1950.

Vasari, Giorgio, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori scultori ed architettori, ed G. Milanesi, Florence, 1906.