For all the acreage of frescoes on the walls of the Vatican Palace, it is surely the case that what has been lost over time is more substantial than what we can see now. Much of the fifteenth-century art, let alone that of earlier generations, has been destroyed or covered over by later generations. We can reconstruct some of what was there and we know of particular moments of frenetic activity, the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447 – 55) being one.
Yesterday, I came across a reference to decorations in the Vatican during his pontificate; a quick look in the obvious secondary material provides no mention of this passage or corroboration of it. So, loyal reader, this is for you to consider, to research further or to advise me on where it is discussed.
The brief passage comes from an unpublished humanist text, a commentary on Juvenal by Gaspare da Verona, now better known for his later biography of another pope, more controversial but no less corpulent than Nicholas, that is Paul II. Gaspare’s commentary, which must have been written in 1449, was intended for presentation to Nicholas V, and the author makes no secret of his desire for pecuniary recompense for his efforts. It was a hope that seems to have been little rewarded — or maybe not at all — by the learned pope. However that may be, in the commentary, Gaspare takes a mention of Hercules in Juvenal as reason to outline the mythical hero’s twelve labours. At the end of his discussion, he adds a characteristically contemporary comment:
…quae nisi fallor et ficte sunt ab egregio pictore in palatio longe pulcherrime sancti petri iussu quidem glorissimi et maximi pontificis summique domini nicolae quinti qui ita decora palatium curavit ut iam non teneat italia immo nec ulla transaplina regio magnificentius quantum memini me videre in gallia hispania germania…
So, it is Gaspare’s assertion that in some part of the palace, Nicholas had commissioned, early in his pontificate, a set of frescoes of Hercules’ Labours, from a ‘famous’ artist. Who this was and exactly where they were it seems we do not know. And, indeed, it may be that Gaspare himself was not that certain. He crowds his text with repeated praise of the pope but he also says at one point that he sees him rarely; it is likely that he was equally no habitué of the Vatican Palace. Perhaps, then, he was speaking from hearsay, and gives us a sign of what was talked about in Rome in the late 1440s. Of course, we could go further and say that he might have been mistaken and there was no such fresco — at which point the paintings revealed in prose would disappear again, to be as lost as so many others that once adorned the Vatican. Let us hope that we can stop short of that and that some learned scholar can tell us more about them.
Of all the forms of art, painting has perhaps suffered most from the success of photography. By suffered, I mean that it can seem to have lost its mystery, its need to be seen in situ, as the quality of reproduction has become so precise it appears to evoke the object, or even to improve on it. The clever workings of the camera can now recreate a canvas or a fresco, giving more space or size than when one stands before the original. The photographical art might not be able to mimic the play of light on the tesserae of Byzantine mosaics or the three-dimensional solidity of sculpture but it can transport to you to the presence of a painting, uncompromised by the need to stand a certain distance or to see over the shoulders of others or even to travel to its home in the first place – it can provide an art gallery in your own home. This sapping of painting’s power is even more apparent in the age of the full-colour guide: we have all watched in a museum while others near us hold the glossy volume and look from page to painting and back again, checking that what it is there on the wall before them accords with what the book they own has instructed them to see. But the magic is not entirely drained. Painting can still provide moments when you stand before a picture and are struck insensibly by its immediacy – when all else seems to fade into the background as you are drawn into the image itself. I can witness that those moments happen: they have occurred twice to me in the last week. This is the story of the first time.
I have been brought up a non-believer when it comes to Parmigianino – all those over-extended body parts seemingly to no significant effect. Now I must repent; the Capodimonte of Naples has converted me. I was gazing around yet another of its rooms given over to Italian art of the early sixteenth century, comfortable in my scepticism about its quality and taste. But then Antea caught my eye and I was dumbstruck. She stands not so much dressed so over-dressed the artist has undressed her. All the heavy, rich embroidery and the outsize fur slung over the shoulder – its weight and depth serve to accentuate how small her body is beneath these clothes. Your eye is directed to the inches of naked flesh, the outline of the collar bone, the suggestion of the cleavage (is she not too young to be showing that?). And then you notice the hands, the right gloved and resting beneath the heavy head of her fur, holding the other glove, leaving the left hand bare, with its provocatively thin fingers.
You cannot move away: you are enthralled. And then the miracle performs a disappearing trick. You fix your study on the fingers and you sense that they are preternaturally long. You lose sight of the beauty and look at the artifice but, at that moment, your understanding grows: you realise that Parmigianino’s art is to intimate the possible by a conscious construction of the unreal, an eschewing of the limits of nature in order to show us not what we objectively see but what we might more deeply perceive.
It was with difficulty that I turned away from Antea and looked at another of Parmigianino’s canvases, his Lucretia at the moment of suicide – an image I know well. I had used it in the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance to exemplify one tradition of depicting the Roman tragic heroine, in which the emphasis is on her as monument. But I saw it now with new eyes: like Antea, she too has a fresh rosiness to her cheeks, which both contrasts with the cold colour of her torso and highlights the white of her uplifted eyes. You can feel her anguish, her shame and her pain as an all-too-real knife is determinedly inserted into her own breast. This image is undeniably monumental, but it is also momentary: it is catching the act of suicide as it happens, the life draining from this half-bare woman who cannot bear to live a second longer. Once again, of course, it is an impossible moment – the knife is too clean, the construction too still, too silent – but impossible to a purpose: it is capturing the process of a person becoming a legend. What genius.