GIULIO CESARE PROCACCINI
(Bologna 1574 - Milan 1625)
Head of an Angel
oil on paper laid down on canvas
12 1/4 x 10 1/4 inches
(31.1 x 26 cm)
Procaccini was born in Bologna, but his family moved to Milan when the artist was eleven years old. His artistic education was evidently familial -- from his father Ercole and his elder brothers Camillo and Carlo Antonio, all painters -- but his career began as a sculptor, and at an early age: his first known commission, a sculpted saint for the Duomo of Milan, came when he was only seventeen years old.
Procaccini's earliest documented painting, the Pietà for the Church of Santa Maria presso San Celso in Milan, was completed by 1604. By this time the artist had made the trip to Parma recorded by his biographers, where he studied Correggio, Mazzola Bedoli, and especially Parmigianino; reflections of their work are apparent throughout Procaccini's career.
As Dr. Hugh Brigstocke has recently indicated, the present oil sketch is preparatory for the figure of the angel seen between the heads of the Virgin and St. Charles Borrommeo in Procaccini's altarpiece in the Church of Santa Afra in Brescia (ill. in Il Seicento Lombardo; Catalogo dei dipinti e delle sculture, exh. cat. Milan 1973, no. 98, pl. 113). As such it is the only known oil sketch of Procaccini's that can be directly connected with an extant altarpiece. The finished canvas, The Virgin and Child with Saints Charles Borrommeo and Latino with Angels, remains in the church for which it was painted; it is one of the most significant works of Procaccini's maturity and is generally dated after the artist's trip to Genoa in 1618.
The Head of an Angel is an immediate study, no doubt taken from life, but one stylistically suffused with strong echoes of Correggio and Leonardo. Luigi Lanzi, writing of the completed altarpiece in 1796, specifically commented on Procaccini's indebtedness to Correggio (as well as the expressions of the angels) here: “Di Giulio Cesare, il miglior de' Procaccini, ammiriamo quivi un'opera fra le sue forse la più correggesca. Rappresenta nostra Donna col Bambino dai santi Latino, Carlo Borromeo e da angioli vagheggiati ridenti inverso di lei, che nel forse per servire a certa grazia ha oltrepassato i limiti del decoro; ma l'armonia del colorito, le mosse gradevoli, il certo brio fanno dimenticare il difetto” (Lanzi, Storia, 1796, II, p. 448).
In his important article “L'inizio dell'abbozzo autonomo” (Paragone, 1966) Roberto Longhi drew attention to Procaccini's treatment of oil sketches as autonomous works of art. It is unclear whether the Head of an Angel was so conceived or whether it was intended alone as a preparatory sketch for the finished painting. In any case it is not only a haunting and evocative image, but one that provides a unique insight into the artist's creative process.