Great Works: Bust of a Laughing Boy, by Desiderio da Settignano

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

We seldom associate the idea of the marble portrait bust with spontaneity. The material itself seems almost to work against it. To memorialise in marble is not to be engaged in the capturing of something fleetingly natural, but to set up and apart, to commend and cause to survive, qualities of the person that deserve to survive and to be commended for that survival – endurance, nobility and beauty, for example.

In short, the portrait bust has so often been an exploration of the nature of solemnity. What is more, it is unusual to find an early sculpture of a child that appears to be doing nothing but showing off the nature of a child – not just this child but any child – at the age of three or four. When we see children at all in the art of these times, we are more accustomed to looking at them in various supportive or symbolic roles – as cherubs, putti, small-scale angels or other species of sacred image, for example.

And so here is something quite shockingly different. It is a work in marble that appears to exist to show off, with no small degree of indulgent tenderness, the way that a child behaves when he has been caught off guard. Yes, this sculpture looks as if it is an astonishingly pleasing variant upon another that might well have looked much more official, had something not happened to cause the child to be distracted by a look, a gesture, the agitation of a toy, the sudden flight of a bird... We feel on our pulses that it is something exquisitely accidental, a moment caught – that sudden swivel of this child's head to the left, captured, frozen here, quite by accident, on the wing. And yet that simply cannot be true, can it? What child of this age could have been cajoled into posing for a bust such as this one for the length of time that it may have required? Children simply do not do that sort of thing – or do they? Which leaves the mystery of the pose unsolved. We probably have to accept that Desiderio caught this likeness in some way, but how? Even to draw the child, repeatedly, and then to work up something as humanly credible as this from those drawings, must have been so difficult...

It is that swivel that so delights us. To pose face forward is the more customary way. To pose face forward can often indicate steadfastness, dependability, sureness of purpose, the promise to deliver upon one's pledges. It would surely be the favourite pose of an airman, a politician and a football manager – indeed, just the other day, I saw an image of a bronze portrait bust of Arsene Wenger by Etienne Millner. He was looking fiercely ahead. Looking askance in the way that this child looks askance, on the other hand, is to throw off all those suggestions of certitude. Humour, flightiness, the possibility of doubt or changes of mind enter into the picture. And what of this mouth, the way that it is open? Bernini, another great portrait sculptor, once said that to inject a work with that vital sense of animation, you need to ensure that the mouth looks as if it has just been uttering words – or as if it has just uttered words. A slight hint of openness then.

There is much more of a hint of openness here though. And yet this opened mouth has nothing to do with the voluntary act of speech, we feel. It is not even the openness that we would associate with a cry. This hanging open is surely an involuntary gesture, of surprise or delight or amazement, and when the mouth yawns open like this we see those marvellously credible small child's small teeth and more than a hint of a peeking tongue – like a lizard about to emerge from a dark overhang of rock. What is more, letting the mouth fall open in this involuntary gesture of spontaneous delight has caused this prosperous child's cheeks to puff out. The head looks so beautifully compacted, capped by that tadpolish swim of wavy hair.

Why is it that this portrait bust has an unusual degree of human credibility? So many portrait busts do not. They look like ghostly embodiments of the noble mind. The reason is surprisingly simple. It is because the skin of a child, its smoothness, its delicacy, its lack of wear and tear, is much closer to the texture of marble than the skin of a mature human being. And this sense of the truly credible is intensified, made more so, by the way in which the child's garment has been made to fall away to reveal those gleamingly small shoulders.

About the artist: Desiderio da Settignano (c1430-64)

Born into a Florentine family of carvers and stonemasons, Desiderio da Settignano was a sculptor whose work was greatly influenced by Donatello. Scholars have even argued that he may have been Donatello's pupil. Greatly admired by Leonardo, his works, which include a number of portrait busts of women and children, possess an unusual degree of tenderness. One of his finest achievements is the tomb of the humanist scholar Carlo Marsuppini.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect