Children in the Sculpture of Desiderio da Settignano

Desiderio da Settignano was a Renaissance artist best known for his sculpted portrait busts of young boys.  His portrayal of children was very distinct compared to the way children had been portrayed prior to the Renaissance.  In the Middle Ages, images of children had resembled miniature adults, devoid of the typical characteristics we associate with children and childhood today, such as liveliness, plump faces and bodies, and smiles. In Desiderio’s work, he embraces and celebrates these traits, rather than suppresses them. 

Renaissance portrait busts of young boys have been described as, “one of the most beloved, but least investigated artistic productions of the early Renaissance”[3]. They were only created for a short period, between 1450 and 1500. These busts, meant to be displayed in the owner’s home, often depicted the young boys as biblical figures such as John the Baptist and even Christ[4]. Infusing religious iconography into the likenesses of children was thought to provide a positive moral influence over the children.  Their purpose was to set an example of good character and offer children an image for reflection[5].



This relief depicts the familiar image of the Madonna and Child. A haloed Mary holds Christ, who stands on her lap, swaddled in a gauzy material.  Desiderio's characteristic naturalism is present in this relief.  The infant Christ’s loose, curly hair, chubby body, round cheeks, and chin indicate his age. The two figures are so lifelike and detailed that they seem to be emerging forward from the marble.  Mary’s right hand is partially freed from the marble, but three of her fingers seem to be sinking into the stone.  The only signs of Christ’s divinity are his halo, and right hand raised slightly in a gesture of blessing.



Antique Roman portrait busts of children typically commemorated death and can be described as “oppressive” and “somber”[6].  In the Renaissance, we begin to see a change in the portrayal of children.  In this bust, Desiderio moves toward capturing a naturalistic representation of a child.  Desiderio communicated the child’s energetic demeanor by calling attention to, rather than stifling, his child-like characteristics.  The exuberant smile, round cheeks, and tousled hair captivate the viewer in a way that the stoic busts that came before could rarely do.  This bust celebrates the traits of children.



A Little Boy further demonstrates Desiderio’s commitment to portraying children in a lifelike and naturalistic way.  The sensitivity in the child’s face is conveyed through his round cheeks and knowing eyes.  Small indentations at the corners of his mouth seem to indicate the hint of a smile.  The bust is believed to be of Christ because of a hole drilled in the back to hold the stem of a halo[7].  The reserved expression on this child’s face may convey a sense of Christ’s authority, while still acknowledging him as an innocent child. 



Portrait busts like this one would have been displayed in a home.  The thoughtful and sweet expression was meant to influence the young children that saw it.  The idea was that children would see this bust as a model of character and emulate the personality traits they saw in it[8].  The features of this particular young boy are kind, sensitive, and contemplative.  Young boys were particularly important to families because they would eventually carry on the family name and inherit land or businesses.  Parents would have provided an idealized representation of a child in the hopes that their own child would grow to embody these valuable traits. 

[3]  Arnold Victor Coonin, "Portrait busts of children in quattrocento Florence,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 30 (1995) 61.

[4] Coonin, "Portrait busts", 61.

[5] Coonin, "Portrait busts", 64.

[6] Coonin, "Portrait busts", 61.

[7] National Gallery of Art, “A Little Boy,”, Accessed 11/20/17,

[8] Coonin, "Portrait busts", 61.

Children in the Sculpture of Desiderio da Settignano