This terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici is thought to have been made sometime between 1475 and 1478 by Andrea del Verrocchio, the Florentine, goldsmith, sculptor and painter. The bust is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Giuliano is wearing a protective cuirass emblazoned on the front with what first appears to be a depiction of the mythological Medusa. Described as a guardian or protectress, the winged Medusa had snakes coming out of her head instead of hair.
But this motif, in fact, represents the head of an angel – a guardian angel with wings enfolded to signify protection.
I doubt if the National Gallery realises it owns a two-for-the price-of-one work of art, for not only does it depict Giuliano de’ Medici but the breastplate portrait is of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
Giorgio’s Vasari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci reveals that among Leonardo’s early works was a painting of the head of Medusa, although this is doubted by some art historians, and if the painting did ever exist, it is now lost.
However, Verrocchio’s bust of Giuliano de’ Medici also points to a connection between Medusa and Leonardo, as does Botticelli in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. So perhaps Varari’s report on Leonardo’s Medusa may have some merit after all.
A couple of decades later, the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna picked up on this when he painted Parnassus for Isabella d’Este – a pastiche on Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. He depicted Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, as wearing the breastplate and Botticelli as the ‘Medusa’ motif.
More on this in my next post.