Published: February 10, 2004
Born in Parma in 1503 and known as Parmigianino after his native city, Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola lived only 37 years, yet the quantity, variety and sheer beauty of the drawings he produced during that brief time came to exemplify the art of draftsmanship. To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Parmigianino, The Frick Collection has mounted an impressive exhibition, “A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino,” organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. On view through April 18, the Frick will be its only stop in the United States.
Fifty-one drawings spanning the artist’s career and illustrating the genius of his achievement are the focal point of the exhibition. The sheets are accompanied by seven jewel-like oil paintings, similar in scale and refinement, that evoke the correspondences between Parmigianino’s fluent handling of oil and the graphic media. Parmigianino was the first Italian painter to experiment with printmaking, and the dozen prints included in the exhibition feature his pioneering etchings that were so highly prized by Renaissance collectors for their inimitable choreography of line.
The exhibition also commemorates Parmigianino’s gifts as a portraitist by presenting swiftly executed sketches and two works in oil, which – like all his portraits – are notable for their acutely observed detail and enigmatic psychology.
Almost 1,000 drawings by this prolific artist survive, and his graphic output represents the range of Renaissance practice in all its forms and media. Less than 20 years after his death, the humanist Ludovico Dolce stated, “Parmigianino endowed his creations with a certain beauty which makes whoever looks at them fall in love with them. So delicate and accurate was his draftsmanship that every drawing of his … astonishes the eyes of the beholder.
Colin B. Bailey, chief curator of The Frick Collection, called the exhibition an “exemplary survey of Parmigianino’s prodigious, but short-lived, career. The conjunction of small paintings with related drawings and prints allows us to gain a profound insight into his working methods, and the selection of drawings amply demonstrates the originality and sheer beauty of his production,” he said.
The exhibition features a remarkable array of loans from international institutions and collections, such as that of Queen Elizabeth II; Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth; The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Musée du Louvre and École des Beaux-Arts, Paris; Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid; Kunsthalle, Hamburg; Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Galleria Nazionale, Parma, and others.
Although the Frick’s presentation is slightly smaller than Gallery of Canada, Ottawa show, it will nonetheless include several exclusive loans, which allows for the artist’s paintings to be viewed with all their related drawings. For example, only in New York will the small-scale oil of the “Circumcision,” on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, be shown with its brilliant pen and ink composition study from the Louvre.
The little-known painting of “Saturn and Philyra” (private collection) will also be shown at the Frick with the full range of its remarkably diverse sequence of preparatory drawings.
Additionally, Parmigianino’s contribution to portraiture will be prominently featured. From The National Gallery in London is the oil portrait of “Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci” that complements the brilliant drawing for the portrait of “Galeazzo Sanvitale.” In New York, such key displays of drawings and paintings will, on their own, make a significant contribution to the current understanding of the art of Parmigianino.
An artistic prodigy, Parmigianino first manifested his gift in drawing. In the Lives of the Artists of 1568, Vasari tells how the boy’s grammar teacher recommended training in the painter’s art, so impressed was he by the inventive vivacity of Parmigianino’s doodles. Early studies, such as “Female Heads,” a “Griffin,” and “Finials,” executed when Parmigianino was around 19, reveal an innately talented draftsman composing a sequence of gracefully superimposed images.
Parmigianino designed the hauntingly beautiful woman’s face for the stucco medusas that supported his first independent commission, a ceiling fresco in the castle of Fontanellato outside Parma. The finials, which crown the medusa like a diadem, are quick pen notations for the room’s corner decorations. The medusa’s dual rendering in full face and profile invokes Leonardo da Vinci’s recommended method for drawing sculpture, while the use of red chalk evinces a precocious mastery of the medium introduced by Leonardo and preferred by Parmigianino’s mentor, Correggio.
In 1524, at age 21, Parmigianino left Parma and traveled south to Rome, attracted, like so many young artists, by the promise of patronage from the newly elected Medici pope, Clement VII. Unlike them, however, Parmigianino armed himself with gifts and presented the Pope with four small paintings. The Pope kept the “Circumcision,” a dramatic night scene that contrasts the divine light emanating from the infant Christ with the silvery luminescence of a cloud-enshrouded moon. As he was to do in so many of his Roman works, Parmigianino united the achievements of central and northern Italian art, attempting to rival, in small scale, the innovative nocturnes of both Raphael and Correggio.
The picture’s pen and ink composition drawing, fluidly brushed with brown washes and highlighted in white, demonstrates how Parmigianino habitually pursued his graphic explorations even up to the moment of painting.
In Rome, Vasari tells us, Parmigianino was celebrated as a Raphael reborn. The “Adoration of the Shepherds,” typical of Parmigianino’s Roman composition drawings, is the result of many separate studies done in emulation of Raphael’s preparatory methods. Yet in this instance, Parmigianino abjured Raphael’s rhetorical grandeur in favor of quicksilver movement, animated by intricately combined techniques and controlled by exquisitely manipulated line. In the mid-Twentieth Century, such works were considered to exemplify Mannerism or the evolution of the Renaissance style into artfully mannered elegance.
Today, Parmigianino is appreciated for more wide-ranging contributions. He was one of the first artists to produce numerous genre drawings, and his habit of capturing scenes from daily life is reflected in the “Adoration” by the delightfully rendered shepherd who struggles with a plump, recalcitrant lamb. Parmigianino’s disciplined assimilation of classical sculpture also has been recently emphasized. Magnificent exercises such as the black and white chalk “Drapery Study for the ‘Vision of Saint Jerome,'” one of numerous studies for the only large-scale picture Parmigianino painted in Rome, have long been associated with drawing after live models.
In 1527, Parmigianino’s Roman sojourn ended abruptly with the imperial attack on the city, and he escaped the sack of Rome by ransoming his life in exchange for his drawings. He fled to Bologna, where his drawings assumed an elegiac lyricism as the grandeur of Rome receded into memory. Typical of them is the beautiful red chalk study of a “Sleeping Man,” whose powerful supine form and flowing locks recall the restful suspension of an antique river god, and whose tilted head, nestled within sheltering arms, echoes the sleep of a classical marble Ariadne.
The unwavering support of one such collector, Francesco Baiardo, eased the difficulties of the last decade of Parmigianino’s life, after he returned to Parma in 1530. For Baiardo and his family Parmigianino created his most profoundly sophisticated paintings, “Cupid Drawing His Bow” (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and the “Madonna of the Long Neck” (Uffizi Galleries, Florence), as well as virtuoso drawings such as “Saint Christopher,” which were intended as finished works of art.
In Parma, Parmigianino was principally engaged with his first monumental public commission: the frescoes decorating the vault and apse of the newly built church of Santa Maria della Steccata. Approximately 100 drawings for the project survive, and their large number underscores Parmigianino’s obsession with perfecting his ideas through protracted drawing campaigns. After eight years he still had not completed the work, and though the Steccata frescoes today rank among the greatest achievements of European architectural painting, the commissioners imprisoned Parmigianino for breach of contract. Baiardo bailed him out, accepting the contents of his studio as security. That pledge was bequeathed with unexpected suddenness when Parmigianino fled and then tragically succumbed to illness.
An illustrated scholarly catalog, published in both English and French editions by the National Gallery of Canada in association with Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibition. Essays by guest curator David Franklin and David Ekserdjian are included. The 289-page catalog is available in softcover for $49.95 through the museum shop of The Frick Collection, the institution’s website, www.frick.org, or by calling 212-288-0700.
A free public lecture will take place on Wednesday, April 14, at 6 pm, presented by Mary Vaccaro and entitled “Parmigianino, Painter of Grace: Reflections on Artistic Process and Style.”
The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue. Hours are 10 am to 6 pm Tuesday through Thursday, Friday 1 to 6 pm, and Saturday from 10 am to 9 pm.
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