Beauty, especially the beauty of women, mattered a great deal in early modern Italy. A highly desirable trait, physical beauty was considered to be the external manifestation of inner virtue. Italian Renaissance artists often recast a woman's individual appearance to conform to a generalised standard of perfection. This representational convention makes it frustrating for us now to define what is or is not a portrait. Did the painter intend to produce a likeness of a real woman, however idealised? Or was the painter's intention to evoke instead a poetic concept of entirely imaginary beauty? Can the sitter be named, and does it matter if she can? Parmigianino's so-called Antea (c. 1535-37; Fig. 1), an enchanting young woman adorned in expensive attire and jewels, epitomises the dilemma. (1) Wide-eyed, and ravishing in intensity, she embodies the affective power for which Parmigianino (1503-40) was celebrated in his day, the ability to imbue his creations with 'a certain loveliness that makes whoever looks at them fall in love'. (2) This essay surveys imagery of beautiful women (belle donne) in terms of the interpretative problem of portraiture and the rhetoric of beauty, before reconsidering Parmigianino's picture in light of new evidence about the name (Antea) traditionally assigned to its subject.
Renaissance material culture makes clear that a preoccupation with female beauty pervaded all levels of society. Dedicatory objects sometimes bore inscriptions to identify women. Colorful spindle whorls, probably given as inexpensive love tokens, were often inscribed with a woman's name, or initials, and the word 'bella'. (3) A category of maiolica portraying women, known as belle donne, similarly includes first names with laudatory epithets such as 'bella' or 'diva'. Presented to ladies from their admirers on the occasion of betrothal, such personalised wares were intended to flatter the recipient by paying tribute to her attractiveness. However stylised, the representations were probably understood to be 'portraits' of the women who are named. The names were demonstrably in use at the time; even seemingly unusual classicising names were popular among the elite, who took pride in literary and classical learning. (4) The identity and purpose of other belle donne, such as the half-length pictures fashionable in 16th-century Venice, is less clear. (5) Wildly divergent interpretations classify these as portraits of brides, mistresses or courtesans.
They might depict, it has also been argued, anonymous beauties meant to elicit the viewer's amorous or erotic response.
Throughout this period, artists strove not to copy but to imitate selectively and perfect upon nature. The Italian word for portrait (ritratto) literally means 'retraced', implying mimetic reliance at odds with such increasingly intellectual aims. Notoriously disdainful of portraiture, Michelangelo is said to have made exception only for persons of infinite beauty, the sitter's likeness approximating the artist's preconceived ideal. On the rare occasion that he undertook a commission involving portraiture, as in the New Sacristy at the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, making a true likeness was not his primary concern. When criticised that his effigies of the Medicean dukes lacked verisimilititude, he famously retorted that nobody would care in 1000 years. (6) Societal expectations and poetic models encouraged artists to idealise their portrayals of women to an even greater extent.
While valued in men, physical beauty was especially prized in women. According to Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528), beauty is more necessary in the lady for 'truly that woman lacks much who lacks beauty'. (7) The concern was hardly limited to the court, as the widespread use of recipe books for female beauty products attests. One manual --I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese, seven editions of which were published between 1561 and 1599--gives tips on how to make, for example, a lotion for hands that will leave them fair and soft, as well as soap that bleaches hair to be as blond as gold. (8) Female portraits, such as the profile imagery popular in late quattrocento Florence, regularly depict sitters with long necks, golden hair, and pearly white skin, a standard of loveliness that the humanist Petrarch had codified during the 14th century. (9)
Petrarch's Canzoniere (Rime sparse) extols his beloved Laura's physical charms and twins her name with the laurel plant (lauro), mirroring Apollo's unattainable love for the nymph Daphne who turned into such a tree, A 'best-seller', the book became an accessory of refinement, as seen in portraits such as Andrea del Sarto's Woman with a 'Petrarchino' (c. 1528). (10) In Pietro Aretino's infamous mid-16th-century dialogue, the courtesan Nanna advises her daughter to pretend to read Petrarch, a copy of which should always be on the table to impress potential clients. (11) More importantly, Petrarch established a canon of female beauty that poets and painters endlessly aspired to emulate, and sometimes lampooned, as when Shakespeare lamented, in sonnet 130, that his mistress' eyes were nothing like the sun. Leonardo quipped that Petrarch loved laurel only because it tasted good with roast meats, but also engaged more seriously in the dialogue. His portrait of Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474/78; Fig. 2) shows her against the spiky evergreen leaves of a juniper bush, a clever pun on her name (ginepro). Juniper appears again on the panel's reverse, along with a banderole (VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT), and a wreath of palm and laurel, plants associated with Petrarch. (12)
'If the poet says that he can inflame men with love,' wrote Leonardo, 'the painter has the power to do the same, and to an even greater degree, in that he can place in front of the lover the true likeness of that which is beloved, often making him kiss and speak to it ... So much greater is the power of a painting over a man's mind that he may be enchanted and enraptured by a painting that does not represent any living woman.' (13) Here, the beloved's portrait reflects a longstanding rivalry (paragone) between painting and poetry. In the 14th century, Petrarch's two sonnets about a (lost) portrait by Simone Martini had laid its groundwork. Although the first of these, sonnet 77, applauds Simone's talent, the following sonnet laments the visual portrait's inability to speak. Petrarch's verbal portrait of Laura prevails, securing his fame (lauro, or laurel crown). Conversely, the figure of woman also functioned as a test by which the painter might surpass the poet. (14) A picture could charm the (male) beholder to such an extent that the sitter's material existence no longer mattered, as when Francesco Maria Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, called a painting on which Titian was at work for him 'that portrait of that lady in the blue dress', evidently interested only in her attractiveness (1536; Fig. 3). (15) Titian's likeness of Isabella d'Este (1534-36; Fig. 4), depicted in the latest fashion, but over 30 years younger than her actual age, nonetheless reminds us that some of the idealised beauties were made for, and refer to, real women. (16)
The earliest known mention of the woman painted by Parmigianino (Fig. 1) is found in a 17th-century guidebook that identifies her as 'the beloved, called Antea, of Parmigianino'. (17) Since a famous courtesan by the name lived in Rome when the artist worked there, it was subsequently assumed that he had fallen under her spell. (18) A love story between (male) artist and (female) model is a well-established convention. Alexander the Great supposedly relinquished his mistress to Apelles after he had painted her well, the sitter literally interchangeable with her portrait. Raphael is said to have loved a baker's daughter to such distraction that his patron Agostino Chigi was obliged to have her installed in one of his villa's rooms so the painter could complete his tasks. (19) Hailed as the new Apelles, he depicted his beloved, wearing little more than an armband emblazoned with his name, and set against a ubiquitous laurel plant. The vivid tale continued to capture the imagination of later generations, notably, the French artist Ingres, whose Raphael and the Fornarina shows the painter more interested in his lover's portrait than in the lover herself (1814; Fig. 5). (20)
In the 16th century, Parmigianino was considered to be 'Raphael reborn', because he, like Raphael, displayed consummate grace in social manners and artistic style. Whether he met the Roman courtesan Antea, much less loved her, or painted her portrait, is far less clear. The costume worn by the young lady in Parmigianino's image accords more with a bride than a courtesan. Her hair brooch and filagree necklace were customary marital gifts, and the marten fur was thought to possess talismanic properties for fertility. (21) On stylistic grounds, moreover, the canvas should be dated to the period after the artist left Rome in 1527 and returned to his native town by way of Bologna. It accords better with his later works, especially the famed altarpiece known as the Madonna of the Long Neck (1534-40; Fig. 6), made for S. Maria dei Servi in Parma. The striking resemblance to one of its youthful attendants has led scholars to speculate that Antea might portray a family member of the altarpiece's patron, while others (including myself) have argued that she represents more of an ideal of loveliness. (22)
The so-called La Schiava Turca (c. 1532; Fig. 7) painted by the artist around the same time, offers a telling parallel. Its title ('The Turkish Slave') is a fanciful accretion due to the later misunderstanding of her highly fashionable clothing. Her turban-like hat is a wicker balzo worn by upper-class women; her chain is attached to an expensive ostrich-feather fan. (23) According to a recent monograph, this is a 'representation of a beauty designed for male delectation, rather a likeness of a particular woman commissioned by her or her family'. (24) An extant related drawing that shows the sitter with less refined features suggests otherwise (Fig. 8). (25) The painted version improves on her looks--heightening her forehead and lifting her eyebrows--without erasing her individuality. Wearing a thin golden band on her left hand, she addresses the viewer with an alert intelligence reminiscent of an actual person rather than an anonymous seductress.
The identification of Antea can be traced to the 17th century. Besides the guidebook, it appears, perhaps more reliably, in an old inventory of the Farnese collection without any romantic link to the artist: 'a portrait of a whole figure to the knee, representing a woman called Antea, with a glove, and a fur to her right, by Parmigianino.' (26) Did anyone besides the Roman courtesan have this name in early modern Italy? Although it belonged to a vengeful queen whose love was spurned by Bellerophon in ancient mythology, the name had presumably gained more positive associations by the time Luigi Pulci's epic poem Morgante was published at the end of the 15th century. Pulci's eponymous heroine is so beautiful and valiant that, had she existed in ancient times, even Apollo would have foresaken his love interest to pursue her: 'And Daphne would not be a laurel tree / Had Phoebus seen Antea on the day / He begged the nymph to wait for him and stay.' (27)
During research on baptismal registers in Parma Cathedral, I discovered that the name Antea appears with surprising frequency. (28) Most girls are predictably named after venerable Christian saints like Caterina or Elena. Nevertheless, as mentioned with regard to belle donne majolica, the elite sometimes adopted more esoteric and classicising appellations for their children. In Parma, between the years 1522 and 1539, 'Antea' (or 'Anthea') was given to no fewer than nine girls, a popularity underscored by the fact that one of these was an orphan (1527) to whom a Christian name would usually have been assigned. (29) The trend may correspond to local interest in Pulci's epic, an edition of which involved a Parmesan publisher. (30) Among the other babies called Antea in the registers, under the year 1539, is the daughter of a certain Giovanni Francesco Cerati, a branch of the family related by marriage to Elena Baiardi, patron of the Madonna of the Long Neck. (31) The entry is suggestive, even if it cannot directly relate to Parmigianino's Antea, painted a few years earlier. It has been assumed that Antea could not be a family portrait, since a 16th-century Baiardi inventory notes a picture of comparable dimensions without specifying the subject's name. (32) Yet the inventory similarly fails to identify other portraits, including those of men, and this information might have been excluded because it was obvious. (33) At all events, the baptismal records of Parma invite us to leave open the possibility that Parmigianino depicted an actual woman called Antea, idealising her likeness into a beauty worthy of Apollo and his laurel crown.
A version of this paper was first presented at the Kimbell Art Museum at the kind invitation o f Nancy Edwards (April 2009). I dedicate this essay to the memory of my mother, beautifully named, Antonietta Rubino Vaccaro.
(1/) Naples, Pinacoteca del Museo Nazionale; see Christina Neilson, Parmigianino's 'Antea': A Beautiful Artifice, exh. cat., Frick Collection, New York, 2008, with bibliography.
(2/) Lodovica Dolce (1557), in Mark Roskill, ed. and trans., Dolce's 'Aretino' and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento, New York, 1968, pp. 182-83.
(3/) Andrea Bayer (ed.), Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, exh. cat, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, pp. 112-13, no. 42 (illustrated; entry by Jacqueline Musacchio).
(4/) Ibid., pp. 76-81, nos, 9-14 (illustrated; entries by Dora Thornton),
(5/) Ibid., especially Luke Syson, 'Belle: Picturing Beautiful Women', pp. 246-54.
(6/) Mary Vaccaro, 'Beauty and identity in Parmigianino's portraits', in Mary Rogers (ed.), Fashioning Identities in Renaissance Art, Aldershot, 2000, especially pp. 110-11 ,with bibliography.
(7/) Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528), trans. Charles Singleton, ed. Daniel Javitch, New York, 2002, p. 154.
(8/) Isabella Cortese, I secreti de la signora Isabella Cortese, 1st ed., Venice, 1561; see Rudolph Bell, How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, Chicago, 1999, pp. 44-45.
(9/) Elizabeth Cropper, 'On Beautiful Women, Parmigianino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style', Art Bulletin, vol. LVIII, no. 3 (September 1976), pp. 374-94.
(10/) Andrea del Sarto, Woman with a 'Petrarchino', Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; see Antonio Natali and Alessandro Cecchi, Andrea del Sarto, Florence, 1989, pp. 120-21.
(11/) Pietro Aretino, The "Ragionamenti' or Dialogues of the Divine Pietro Aretino, 6 vols., trans. Alcide Bonneau, Paris, 1889, vol. W (Fourth Dialogue: The Education of Pippa ), p. 127.
(12/) Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; see David Man Brown (ed.), Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2001, especially pp. 142-47, no. 16 (entry by David Alan Brown).
(13/) Leonardo da Vinci, in Martin Kemp (ed. and trans.), Leonardo on Painting, New Haven and London, 1989, p. 26.
(14/) Elizabeth Cropper, 'The Beauty of Woman: Problems in the Rhetoric of Renaissance Portraiture', in Margaret Ferguson et al. (eds.), Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, Chicago and London, 1987, pp. 175-90.
(15/) Florence, Galleria Palatina; see Marco Ciatti et al. (eds.), Titian's 'La Bella': Woman in a Blue Dress, exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2011, with bibliography.
(16/) Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum; see Sylvia Ferino-Pagden (ed.), 'La Prima Donna del Mondo': Isabella d'Este, Fursten und Mazenatin der Renaissance, exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1994.
(17/) Translated from the Italian. Giacomo Barri, Viaggio pittoresco, Venice, 1671, p. 102.
(18/) For this courtesan, see Neilson, op. cit. in n. 1, p. 25, with bibliography.
(19/) As detailed by Giorgio Vasari in 1568. See Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston deVere, with an introduction by David Ekserdjian, 2 volt., New York and Toronto. vol. I, pp. 737-38.
(20/) Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Museum; see Stephan Walohojian (ed.), A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003, pp. 157-59, no. 53 (entry by Henri Zerner).
(21/) On her costume, see Neilson, op.cit, inn. 1, pp. 27-32.
(22/) For an overview of the varied interpretations (including mine), see Neilson, op. cit. in n. 1, pp, 27-45, with bibliography.
(23/) Parma, Galleria Nazionale; see Mary Vaccaro, Parmigianino: The Paintings, Turin and London, 2002, pp. 204-05, no. 51.
(24/) David Ekserdjian, Parmigianino, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 150.
(25/) Paris, Musee du Louvre; see Achim Gnann, Parmigianino, Die Zeichnungen, 2 vols., Petersberg, 2007, vol. 1, pp, 282, 494, no. 890. A more idealised study of the sitter wearing a balzo has recently come to light: Emmanuelle Brugerolles, Parmesan, Dessins et gravures en clair-obscur, exh. cat., Ecole nationale superieure des beaux-arts, Paris, 2011, pp. 76-78, no. 13 (illustrated). I thank Aimee Ng for calling my attention to the sheet.
(26/) Translated from the Italian. For the inventory (c. 1680) of the Palazzo del Giardino, Parma, see Giuseppe Bertini, La Galleria del Duca di Parma, Storia di una collezione, Bologna, 1987, p.237.
(27/) Luigi Pulci, Morgante: The Epic Adventures of Orlando and His Giant Friend Morgante, trans. Joseph Tusiani with an introduction by. Edoardo Lebano, Bloomington, 1998, p. 296. On Pulci's Antea and the broader panegyric tradition of describing female beauty, see Cropper, op. cit. in n. 9, especially pp. 337-39.
(28/) My survey of the name Antea in the baptismal registers is thus far preliminary. For other research involving the registers, see Mary Vaccaro, 'Artists as godfathers: Parmigianino and Correggio in the baptismal registers of Parma', Renaissance Studies, vol. XXI, no. 3 (June 2007), pp. 366-76.
(29/) Archivio Vescovile, Parma, baptismal register for the years 1521-35 [under February 1527]: 'Anthea, ignotis parentibus, baptizata XXV februarii, commater Antonia ancilla hospitalis.'
(30/) Venice, 1494. On the publisher --variously called Matteo Capocasa, Matteo de Codeca, or Matteo da Parma--see Ireneo Affo, Memorie degli scrittorie letterati parmigiani, 6 vols., Parma, 1789-1833, vol. III (1791), pp.40-43.
(31/) Archivio Vescovile, Parma, baptismal register for the years 1536-45 [under February 1539]: 'Anthea Susana, filia Johann is Francisci de Ceratis et Johanna uxoris, nata 10 et baptizata 12 februarii, compatres Dominus Marcus Marcellus de Lalata et Septes de Viotis et Bartalinus de Aicardis alias de Monchio et Domina Margherita de Mazochis et domina Catherina de Fragnanis et domina Hippolita de Bononiensibus,' Elena Baiardi's daughter Costanza married Giovanni Cerati, and Cerati heirs later laid claim to prevent the sale of the Madonna of the Long Neck: see Mary Vaccaro, 'Precisazioni sulla vendita della celebre 'Madonna dal collo lungo' del Parmigianino', Aurea Parma, vol. LXXX (1996),pp. 162-75. The father (Giovanni Francesco) mentioned in the baptismal notice appears to be from a different branch of the Cerati family.
(32/) Ekserdjian, op. cit. in n. 24, p. 154, and Neilson, op. cit. in n. 1,p.27.
(33/) For example, no, 49, 'un ritratto colorito finito d'un huomo alto o. 4 largo B. 3 di mano dil Parmesanino'. The inventory (reprinted in Vittorio Sgarbi, Parmigianino, Milan, 2003, pp.219-21) lists another female portrait by Parmigianino (no. 19) with dimensions close to those of the Schiava Turca. 15th and early 16th-century family inventories in Parma typically do not identify sitters in portraits: I am indebted to Alessandra Talignani, as always, for generously sharing her expertise.
Mary Vaccaro is Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Arlington, and the author of Parmigianino: The Paintings (Umberto Allemandi & C., 2002).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||FEATURE: PORTRAYING BEAUTY|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Please do touch.|
|Next Article:||Exotic fruit.|