dimanche 17 février 2008

Parmigianino's Antea, an androgynous vision?

If you are in New York City between now and April 27 visit the Frick Collection.
Not to see the art treasures amassed by Henry Clay Frick, one of New York's most ruthless robber barons, in his former mansion on Fifth Avenue, in front of Central Park, "a superb assembly of works, and as good a glimpse as you'll find of the sumptuous life enjoyed by New York's early industrialists", according to
The Rough Guide to New York City, the best mainstream guide of the city today.
But to admire Parmigianino's
Antea, one of the most enigmatic portraits of the Renaissance, lent by the Museo di Capodimonti in Naples. The large canvass is displayed on a stand in the Oval Room, facing the central courtyard, from the other side of which you can spot it when you enter the museum. Antea stares at you.
"Christina Neilson, an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow and curator of the exhibition, spent the last year researching the painting, whose subject has puzzled art historians for centuries," wrote Carol Vogel in the
New York Times last October, "The portrait depicts a woman clad in a sumptuous yellow dress, wearing rubies and pearls, with a fur throw over one shoulder. Antea stares directly, almost eerily, at the viewer. Yet no one knows who she is or what the message Parmigianino wanted to convey." This is the topic of Ms Neilson's fascinating catalog for this one-painting temporary exhibition, which reads as a whodunit (Parmigianino's Antea: A Beautiful Artifice, The Frick Collection, 2008):
"Parmigianino depicted his young subject set against a green-brown background, facing frontally, gazing out at the viewer with surprising frankness. Her perfectly oval head rests on an improbably ample body, with wide shoulders and hips and a hint of her left breast. She appears to be around sixteen years old, no longer a child but not yet a woman, and the artist plays with this uncertain state by contrasting her childlike head and womanly body and by creating an ambiguous facial expression, which suggests both naïve curiosity (her eyes are opened so wide that the whites appear beneath her irises) and knowingness. One scholar has interpreted her expression as bearing malice, while another has described it as melancholic. With her bare left hand she fingers a gold chain that hangs around her upper body and points to her heart, while her gloved right hand grasps a chain attached to the marten fur that is draped over her right shoulder.
Antea wears an extravagant yellow dress, probably satin, embellished with horizontal appliquéd passementerie bands in silver and a golden partlet that covers her chest. Her white apron and the cuffs of her underdress, visible at her writs, are decorated with delicate blackwork embroidery. She wears a leather glove on her right hand and holds the other. The marten fur hanging over her shoulder was an accessory believed to possess magical properties that aided fertility. Jewels supplement her luxurious costume: she wears a ruby and pearl head-brooch attached to her braided hair with a black ribbon ending in gold bands, earrings with pendant pearls, a filigree (open-work) chain with contrasting gold and black enamel links, and a ruby ring. All of these were items owned by only the wealthiest women.
Who is the enchanting young woman that Parmigianino depicted in his enigmatic
Antea? For centuries scholars have tried to identify her."
After exploring the traditional hypothesis: Parmigianino's beloved or mistress, the artist daughter (but he had no daughter), a servant, a bride, a niece of Francesco Baiardi his aristocratic protector in Parma, Ms Neilson concludes "that the painter has placed the viewer in the position of lover, with
Antea an idealized invention. She calls the painting 'a beautiful artifice'. We know that the artist read Petrarch, whose poems elevated art above the flesh-and-blood woman, whose absence made her all the more desirable. Antea may be an amalgam of beauty and desire - a visual sonnet," as writes Amy Finnerty in her review for the Wall Street Journal.
Antea's features are shared by an angel in the Madonna of the Long Neck, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, and more extraordinary, by a garzone, or workshop assistant, pictured in a recently discovered pen-and-ink drawing, A Head of a Young Man, both painted in the same period. The similarities of the latter with the Antea "serves to suggest," ads Ms Neilson, "that the artist's aesthetics was androgynous, as was the taste of his patron Baiardi (who owned several works depicting androgynous figures by Parmigianino), and that Parmigianino was interested in creating not only an ideal of female beauty, but of male beauty too. It supports also the theory that the woman in his Antea was an ideal. Her beauty, though possibly derived from a model, was refined in the artist's imagination. The repetition of the figure's features indicates that Parmigianino created a type that could be either male or female and therefore whose identity was of no importance to the appreciation of the work by Renaissance audience."
Maybe. We will never know for sure. In the long last chapter of her monograph,
The Renaissance Economy of Desire, Ms Neilson provides a few leads.
Parmigianino was born in Parma in 1503 and died in Casalmaggiore in 1540 at the age of 37. Not very much of his life is known, and the most extensive account of it is contained in the second edition of Giorgio Vasari's
Lives (1568). At the end of his short life he became obsessed by alchemy, and started neglecting his art. According to Ms Neilson's study Antea was painted between 1531 and 1535 for Francesco Baiardi, as was a picture he undertook "for the Cavaliere Baiardo, a gentleman of Parma, who was one of his intimate friends. This is a Cupid, occupied in preparing himself a bow: at his feet are two boys seated, the one is taking the other by an arm, and laughingly endeavours to make him touch Cupid with his finger; but he who is thus exhorted, refuses and weeps, as one who fears to be scorched by the fires of Love." (Vasari)
I fancy to imagine that the
garzone is not totally invented, and maybe had something to do with the painter...
"But Francesco [Parmigianino], still having his thoughts filled with that alchemy, as happens to all those who have once given themselves to running after its phantoms; and having changed from the delicate, amiable, and elegant person that he was, to a bearded, long-haired, neglected, and almost savage, or wild man, became at length strange and melancholy, thus constantly falling from bad to worse. In this condition he was attacked by a malignant fever, which caused him in a very few days to pass to a better life; and so it was that Francesco found an end to the troubles of this world, which had never been known to him but as a place full of cares and pains." (Vasari)