Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sculpture of the Day: “The Laughing Child,” 1498

The Laughing Child
Possibly a bust of Henry VIII
Guido Mazzoni, 1498
Polychrome clay
The Royal Collection
This startlingly realistic polychrome bust of painted clay has been attributed to Italian sculptor Guido Mazzoni who was also known by the name “Paganino.” In the 1490’s, Mazzoni was working on the tomb of French King Charles VIII when he submitted designs for the tomb of English King Henry VII which was to be built in Westminster Abbey. Royal records indicate that the designs of “Master Pageny” were rejected in favor of those of Pietro Torrigiano. However, it’s likely that this bust was commissioned by King Henry VII at that time or was presented to Henry VII as an example of Mazzoni’s life-like work.

The bust is crafted of an extremely thin layer of clay which was pressed into a very detailed mold. The child’s open mouth, nostrils and ears allowed steam to escape while the piece was fired. Removal of Victorian-era overpaint revealed the original painting scheme which was rendered over a layer of foil—giving the piece a natural glow.

The subject of the bust has been a matter of debate for centuries. William III had the sculpture removed from Whitehall Palace and placed in storage during his reign—perhaps it didn’t go with his décor or perhaps he found it unnerving. At that time, the bust was listed in the Royal inventory as “Head of a Laughing Boy.” By 1815, the inventory referred to the bust as “Head of a Laughing Girl.” Later, it was changed to simply, “German Dwarf.” However, historians now suspect that the bust is actually a portrait of a young Henry VIII—aged about seven years. This makes sense. The child does have Henry VIII’s features and the distinctive Tudor coloring. However, his true identity will never be certain. He is, most certainly, not, however, a German dwarf.

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