“Parmigianino’s Antea: A Beautiful Artifice” review by Bobbie Leigh
“Who is Sylvia? What is she, that all our swains commend her…” Substitute Sylvia for Antea and you have some idea of the love affair between viewers and the radiant portrait, “Antea,” at the Frick Collection. As the superstar of a single painting exhibition, Antea doesn’t hang on the wall. This enigmatic portrait is set on a pedestal, free-standing in the middle of the Frick’s Oval Room surrounded by portraits of elegant women who pale compared to her. Parmigianino painted Antea as a young woman, perhaps 16, around the 1530s, roughly five or ten years before he died far too young at 37 in 1540. (The painting was mistakenly dubbed “Antea,” the name of a famous Roman courtesan, by Giacomo Barri in his 1671 work, “A Painter’s Voyage Through Italy,” but who or what she was is still in question).
Mystery surrounds this high-maintenance young woman, one of the most important portraits of the Italian Renaissance. For a start, is she the artists’ mistress, the daughter of a servant, a young aristocrat, a noble bride, or perhaps as Barri wrote, a famous Roman courtesan? The clues are misleading. Someone with deep pockets bought her gold satin dress and marton fur ( a symbol of fertility) and her many jewels — rubies, gold, and pearls — from head to hand. So, discard the servant or mistress theories. That leaves aristocrat or courtesan, but as Renaissance scholar and Frick fellow Christina Neilson notes, courtesans and aristocrats often dressed alike, both favoring the color yellow, so her identity is no sure thing.
Neilson cites the strong resemblance between the perfectly oval face of Antea and that of one of the angels in another Parmigianino painting, the 1534, “Madonna of the Long Neck.” This leads her to consider whether Antea with her parted lips and sensuous gaze could be the painter’s idealized image of a Renaissance beauty. Aside from her identity, there are other puzzles. Why is her right shoulder so wide, in fact wider than her left ? And why is her head so small and her almost stocky body so big. Study this painting a long time and you will still have more questions than answers. But there is a huge satisfaction in being able to marvel up close at a painting that some say rivals the Mona Lisa. No wonder the show is called “Parmigianino’s Antea: A Beautiful Artifice.”
On view at The Frick through April 27, 2008.
NOTE: There are only three other Parmigianino paintings are in public collections in the U.S.: “The Circumcision” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts; the so-called ” Scarsdale Madonna” at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; and “The Entombment of Christ” in the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.
Photo: Parmigianino (1503-1540) “Antea” c.1531-1534 .Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples