Leonardo da Vinci, “Testa caricata e busto di profilo d’uomo verso sinistra” (c. 1490), at the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca-Milano (© Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Mondadadori Portfolio/G. Cigolini)

VENICE — Monstrous Faces and Caricatures: From Leonardo da Vinci to Bacon, an exhibition of the art of the grotesque at the Palazzo Loredan, invites viewers to confront ugliness and the questions it raises about how we relate to it. 

The exhibition’s star attractions are drawings of deformed characters by Leonardo da Vinci and Tiepolo. It begins with faces by Leonardo and progresses chronologically through his early Milanese period, all the way to his grotesque faces’ “triumphant reappearance in Venice,” along with Tiepolo and Anton Maria Zanetti, in the words of curator Pietro Marani in the catalogue.

We may say that caricature — which comes from the verb “caricare,” in the sense of exaggerating (in this case, physical traits) — was started by Leonardo, with his studies of the grotesque. Yet Leonardo’s caricatures focused on general characters and did not target specific personalities to highlight personality traits, as does caricature (which is distinct from the grotesque because of its comic intent). Neither does Tiepolo’s work qualify as caricature, nor is it necessarily monstrous. That arrives in Venice via Zanetti’s late 18th-century album of caricatures. 

In Leonardo’s “Four grotesque heads” (c. 1495–1505), for example, the busts are drawn with a rapid yet confident hand. And even though animal features can be surmised, they have retained their humanity. 

As critic Enrico Lucchese writes in his catalogue essay, “Caricature and Caricaturists in Eighteenth-Century Venice,” Tiepolo’s, too, have “no satirical intent” but are an exercise in “violence of the deformation” to exalt “the superiority of art over nature also in relation to the hideous.” Zanetti and Tiepolo, Lucchese adds, “mark the two extremes” of what is considered caricature. Zanetti’s profile of singer Giovanni Battista Ruberti, with his protruding chin and prominent, drooped nose, is a fine drawing with an intended comical effect that probably has not passed the test of time. Without context, today’s average viewer would miss the pungency of this depiction.

The exhibition’s final work at Palazzo Loredan is Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne” (1965). The triptych, which alternates white skin with the reds of raw meat, contrasts a seemingly bludgeoned face with a head slightly tilted upward to convey a sense of redemption. Yet violence pervades the composition by an artist who, in his last interview, said, “My painting is not violent; it is life that is violent.”

While Leonardo may have prompted the birth of caricature in the modern sense of the word, we see compassion in the exquisite treatment of his subjects, as Umberto Eco posits in his book On Ugliness (2011): “Ill-favored faces were depicted not to mock the unfortunate or to represent evil, but to show disease or the mortal work of time.”

Monstrous Faces and Caricatures presents a range of what is broadly considered “the grotesque,” from Zanetti’s caricatures, satirizing long-forgotten figures and events, all the way to the disturbing forcefulness of Bacon. In between, Leonardo and Tiepolo still breathe life into their strange characters. It takes only a few brush strokes to impress satirical, tragic, or compassionate intent upon the viewer, among the ample emotions that these figures, who challenge our notions of beauty, elicit.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Caricatura d’uomo a mezzo busto” (c. 1500) and “Caricatura di donna a mezzo busto con coroncina di foglie” (c. 1490) at the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca-Milano (© Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Mondadadori Portfolio/G. Cigolini)
Drawings by Anton Maria Zanetti (© Fondazione Giorgio Cini)
Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne” (1965)at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich (© The Estate of Francis Bacon, All rights reserved, DACS/ SIAE /Artimage 2022; photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)
Leonardo da Vinci, attributed, “Testa grottesca di donna in profilo verso sinistra” (c. 1490–1500)at the Collezione Ligabue, Venezia (© Matteo De Fina)

Monstrous Faces and Caricatures: From Leonardo da Vinci to Bacon continues at the Palazzo Loredan (2945 San Marco, Venice, Italy) through April 27. The exhibition was curated by Pietro C. Marani.

Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His work as a correspondent has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet...