Italian Art

Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull

If, when entering the Ashmolean Museum through the main doors, you take to the right and go up the white marble staircase, you will find yourself in the European art section. The first room, small and square, is labelled ‘Early Italian Art’ and contains religious paintings. It also has the most amazing round bench, padded and upholstered with dark-green velvet.

The next room straight ahead, with walls covered in the same olive fabric as in the antechamber, is ‘Italian Renaissance’. There are sculptures and some examples of applied arts here, but the main focus is on the oil paintings. This is where two of the museum favourites are located: The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello (ca. 1470) and The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo (1505). Both are huge oil panoramas and an exercise in the newly-rediscovered skill of presenting perspective. The Hunt in the Forest is a bit of a cultural prop: it was used as a clue in the detective drama Lewis, and a character in John Fowles’s The Collector praised the painting as ‘faultless’. The Forest Fire is neither as famous or elegant, but it has a number of curious, made-up animals.

There is also a drawing attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti (The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist), but this time my visit was dedicated to another piece of art: Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull by Bernardino Licinio.

Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull

Restored in 1956, the painting had been previously interpreted to be a woman’s portrait, due to the delicate features of the sitter and excessive overpainting. That is not an uncommon mistake, since works would often be significantly altered over the course of centuries when new layers of colour were used to revive them. And, of course, as fashion changes, so do our expectations of gender-based looks. As a child I had trouble reconciling with the fact that Caravaggio’s The Lute Player actually depicts a boy.

From the museum label:

Bernardino Licinio (about 1490 – last documented 1549)
Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull
Oil on canvas
Bequeathed by Gaspard. O. Farrer through The Art Fund, 1946

Youth and beauty are contrasted with death and decay in this soulful portrait. It probably dates from about 1510–1515.

Originally from Bergamo, Licinio worked in Venice from about 1510. He was deeply impressed by the poetic paintings of Giorgione and his circle.


A ‘memento mori’ study, the Young Man from the Ashmolean is one of the finest works by Licinio. His legacy largely consists of portraits and religious canvases in the style of High Renaissance. While there is a likeness between them and the works of Giorgione, especially in the use of light and in the contrasts (e.g. luminous skin against dark fabric), Giorgione’s paintings are more tender in colour and often have nature as their subject. Licinio specialised in portraying strong-chined women and men with expressive eyes. His later works were influenced by Titian, another great master of Italian Renaissance, and are remarkable for their composition and symmetry.

Little is known about Licinio personally, with most information about him coming indirectly from the analysis of his paintings. The most detailed biography that I have come across can be found on the unofficial website of the Uffizi Gallery. A double portrait depicting an architect and, possibly, Bernardino Licinio, was painted by the artist between 1520 and 1530, giving us an idea of its author’s looks:

Portrait of an Architect

While the figure on the right might not possess the melancholic beauty of the Young Man, Licinio’s self-portrait proves that, whoever the sitter, the artist was able to convey emotion and make his objects alive. That might be the most interesting notion about Licinio’s paintings. Except, perhaps, for the question whether Dante Gabriel Rossetti had ever seen the Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull — hair like that is never accidental.

Current album: Solange, A Seat at the Table
Current book: Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures
Current TV series: Planet Earth II, Series 1 (2016)

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