bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Learning to like Parmigianino

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 22 April, 2011

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.

Parmigianino, Antea (Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte)

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.

Parmigianino, Lucretia (Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte)

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.  

Librarians, weep: the abuses of books in art

Posted in Art, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 21 March, 2011

On my travels, my eye has often been caught by the presence of books in art. They are a fashion accessory for many a Virgin Mary surprised in her prayers at the point of the Annunciation, or they can be an accoutrement intended to show off the sitter’s learning in a Renaissance portrait. They are often an ally of or an object for veneration. But I am struck how often this thing to be venerated is made vulnerable to all sorts of damage by the disrespect shown to them in a significant number of depictions. In short, artists use and abuse books in ways which would incite palpitations in the breast of their custodians, the noble profession of librarians.

Funerary Monument to Alessandro de Peruccianis Roma, S Giovanni in Laterano

Even when books are present in a work of art in order to signify intelligence or virtue, they can be presented in a state that could cause them irreparable damage. Take, for instance, the remaining segment of the late-fifteenth-century funerary monument to a canon of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. His name was Alessandro de Peruccianis and he loved books so much, this monument tells us, that he could not be without them, even in death. And so, in this case, the recumbent figure is depicted his head on a pillow, beneath which lies, we can see, a clutter of books. Never mind the fact that it may be uncomfortable for Peruccianis — after all, he is dead — think of the weight that would place upon the bindings.

Monument to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (Roma, S Giovanni in Laterano)

Detail of Monument to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri

We do not have to go far to realise that such abuse was not an affectation of a single Renaissance sculptor. Such misuse has a long and continuing history: in the same church, there is the monument to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, who died in 1934. He was known, in part, for his diplomatic work — he signed the 1929 Lateran Agreement with Mussolini securing the Vatican City’s independence, an Agreement still celebrated each year in Europe’s smallest state — but all the more for his scholarship in canon law. So it is appropriate that he showed be depicted, in death, in association with books, but one wishes they had been shown more care. The scuplted volumes are in a shocking state: stuffed to one side, piled on top of each other, with fragile bindings.

Parmigianino, Cupid (Wien, Kunsthistorische Museum)

And it is not just scupltors who will subject books to indignities. Let us travel to Vienna and take in two paintings. The first is a real insult to the care of books. It is Parmigianino’s image of Cupid carving a bow — carving it on top of a volume. And, as if that was not bad enough, that volume lies on top of another, open book. How its spine must suffer caught eternally in that awkward pose.

You might rationalise this and say that the artist’s moralistic intention was to signify how the passions can crush learning beneath their feet. But even the good can damage books, as does Mary Magdalen in the depiction painted by Orazio Gentileschi. She gazes up to heaven, not caring for the fact her dress has dropped off her breasts — or for the fact that her body reclines on top of a large open volume. Penitent she may be but, in this account, she has very good reason to be.

Orazio Gentileschi, Mary Magdalen (Wien, Kunsthistorische Museum)