The Art of Parmigianino
Yale University Press/National Gallery of Canada, 289 pp., $60.00; $49.95 (paper)
That Parmigianino ranks among the great draftsmen of the Renaissance is an assessment first made by his contemporaries in the sixteenth century. Giorgio Vasari began his life of the painter with praise for the “gracious virtue of his drawings,” and said he was “consecrated by Nature at birth to drawing.” Another contemporary critic, Lodovico Dolce, wrote that “every design of his preserved on paper astonishes the eyes.” At a time when the market for drawings was still in its infancy, Parmigianino’s designs were collected by artists and connoisseurs alike. Passion for them even inspired crime. During the sack of Rome in 1527, German soldiers forced Parmigianino to ransom his life with drawings; and a few years later in Bologna, a cache of his designs was stolen, an early instance of theft in the modern history of art.
Parmigianino is especially prized for his unearthly and idealized sense of beauty. His pictures, populated with elegant and elongated figures, are now generally considered archetypal images of Mannerism, the period of extreme grace and stylishness in the arts that followed immediately after the High Renaissance. The first modern study of the artist, by Lili Fröhlich-Bum in 1921, was called Parmigianino und der Manierismus, and his most famous painting, the Madonna of the Long Neck, is the opening illustration of John Shearman’s Mannerism, a standard account of the movement.
The year 2003 was the five hundredth anniversary of Parmigianino’s birth, and this event was celebrated by exhibitions in Florence, Parma, and Vienna, as well as by books on all aspects of his art. The superb show now on view at the Frick Collection is the last of these efforts, and certainly one of the best. The works in the show have been beautifully selected, and the catalog, written chiefly by David Franklin, with an essay by David Ekserdjian, is a model of clarity, intelligence, and concision. The show itself is marvelously installed. Two of the three exhibition galleries at the Frick are underground, in rooms with low ceilings and no natural light; sometimes these spaces have seemed airless and unwelcoming. On this occasion, however, one has the experience of descending into a cave or a crypt to see rare and precious treasures. It is a magical effect.
Almost all of the works in the show are intimate in scale. This makes sense not only in view of the small size of the galleries but also with respect to the development of Parmigianino’s reputation. Throughout his life the artist aspired to paint works on a monumental scale, to be displayed in public or semipublic locations. At times he was notably successful in this ambition. But he also specialized in making small and exquisite paintings, drawings, and prints, and these works—not the larger pieces—were the source of much of his fame during the sixteenth century and beyond.
This aspect of his career began in 1524 when, in preparation for moving to Rome from his home town of Parma, the artist …