Learning to like Parmigianino
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.