In his studies from the late 1480s onward, Leonardo would increasingly link his exploration of human physiognomy to that of the "ages of man." While he often portrayed youth as possessing perfectly proportioned features, he would depict old age as marred by caricaturesque deformity. In this fragmentary study from about 1490-94, Leonardo began to draw the grotesque aquiline profile of an old man in charcoal or soft black chalk, as is seen in the underdrawing, but then transformed it by carefully reworking the drawing in pen and ink to portray a younger man. The most dramatic change occurs in the nose, which in the pen-and-ink drawing appears shorter and straighter. The noble mature profile in the finished form evokes the portraits of Roman emperors seen in antique medals, cameos, and coins, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to the profile of Bartolommeo Colleoni (which may not be an actual portrait of the condottiere) in Andrea del Verrocchio's monumental bronze equestrian monument (Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice). Leonardo's master had secured the commission in 1481-83 from the Venetian Republic but had finished only the models at his death in June 1488. The casting of the Colleoni monument in bronze was entrusted to Alessandro Leopardi in 1490 and was finished in the spring of 1496 (all of which falls more or less within the dates of Leonardo's Metropolitan Museum drawing).
The manner of pen-and-ink drawing, with dense, fine, perfectly straight parallel hatching that goes over form into background in unified strokes and achieves great depth of tone, is typical of Leonardo's style from about 1490-95. As is evident here, it may have come to fruition as the result of his involvement with the art of engraving, directly or indirectly through his collaboration with the Milanese printmakers who were beginning to engrave after his designs in the 1490s. The Metropolitan Museum drawing may have been cut from a larger page of Leonardo's notebooks. Irregularly cropped fragments of a similar kind from the Codex Atlanticus exist at the Royal Library in Windsor.
Some scholars have dated the Metropolitan Museum sheet much earlier than is here proposed and have considered it a conscious recollection of the idealized Darius by Verrocchio. Verrocchio's relief, sent by Lorenzo de' Medici "Il Magnifico" to Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, is lost, but the profile is recorded in a terracotta relief by the Della Robbia workshop (Bodemuseum, Berlin). There also is a generic resemblance of physical types between the Metropolitan Museum drawing and the early, highly finished metalpoint study of a warrior (British Museum, London, 1895,0915.474), which seems to have been directly inspired by Verrocchio's original relief. A. E. Popham dated the British Museum warrior to about 1480, though more recent scholars concur that Leonardo executed it in 1472-76. However, Leonardo returned to certain figural and compositional types throughout his career, and thus the physiognomic resemblance in the two drawings is not at all a factor in considering their dates. Underscoring this point, the grotesque conception of the old man's profile in the underdrawing of the Metropolitan sheet resembles the boldly drawn charcoal study of a deformed old man's head in profile (Windsor, RL 12500), a work that is universally recognized to be from Leonardo's late years.
An early, direct copy of the Metropolitan Museum drawing is found among the "Spencer Grotesques" bound in a two-volume edition from 1669 of Rabelais's works (Spencer Collection II.36, New York Public Library. For the series, see: Leonardo da Vinci Master Draftsman 2003). The "Spencer Grotesques" are possibly by a Lombard artist working about 1590-1600; the watermarks suggest that the paper was manufactured in Italy in the late sixteenth century. The copy among the "Spencer Grotesques" already reflects the cropped state of Leonardo's original, as the rendering ends fairly abruptly on the right border. The Spencer copyist also emphasized the man's droopy nose, because he was undoubtedly swayed by the design of the deformed nose in the underdrawing of the original.
Carmen C. Bambach
(entry from 'Leonardo da Vinci Master Draftsman,' New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003)