One exhibition, one painting, one woman. In the face of blockbuster exhibitions, the Frick Collection offers a unique visit with an anonymous beauty.
We take a closer look and private scholarly tour with the Frick Collection's curatorial fellow Christine Neilson, to fragment and focus on the arresting details of Parmigianino's Antea. A 16th century painting, presented singularly, opens a myriad of mysteries.
The spell of Antea is not an easy one. Her visual charms, her invitation to intimacy and her complexity have haunted viewers and teased scholars for centuries. If you haven't met her likeness at the Capodimonte museum in Naples or confronted her alone at the Frick Collection's single-piece exhibition, on view through April 27, 2008, we approach her here, by highlighting the rich adornments that complement the unfixed identity in her frank gaze and delicate gestures.
It is a bold but appropriate curatorial choice for the Frick Collection to expose her alone, as it continues the conversation started by a 2004 exhibition of Parmigianino drawings and a previous single-piece exhibition of another beauty, Raphael's Fornarina. Such a singular and engaging presentation, organized by curatorial fellow Christine Neilson, brings into dramatic relief the mysteries that surround Antea. This alluring woman forces the viewer to consider intimacy without identity, idealism with individuality and the paradoxes of desire.
What has been the response to an exhibition of a singular piece?
Audiences have really responded to this exhibition. It's not exhausting; you're able to linger and really think about what you're looking at. The Frick specializes in these kinds of very small, focused exhibitions, which suit the size of our museum but also allow us to undertake scholarly research on a single object – and allow audiences to look very closely at a piece that deserves greater scrutiny.
The speculation is very diverse concerning her identity. Could she be an invented or imagined figure?
Her identity is open to question, still. For centuries writers have been inspired to come up with different theories about who she might be, which testifies to Parmigianino's skill as a painter: he was able to create a woman who seems so compellingly real that we want to identify her. Most scholars over the past thirty years have tended to think that she is a bride, a northern Italian aristocratic lady, or an ideal beauty. It may happen that we will one day be lucky enough to actually find out exactly who this woman was, but if we put this painting in the context of the genre of ideal beauty – a very popular genre during the Renaissance – then it has to be understood as a portrait of a beautiful woman whose identity is not important for the appreciation of the painting.
What about Antea is typical of Renaissance portraiture? What is atypical?
Parmigianino lengthened the view of the body to a degree that wasn't seen before in Renaissance portraits. The body is extended below the knees, and he has shown her with one side of her skirt flaring out as if it's billowing in the wind; it suggests that she's been turning toward the viewer. The painting gives the sense that this woman could step out of the painting and speak to us and engage with us. I think that original viewers would have been expected to fall in love with her.
It should be seen to fit in with the tradition of portraits of beautiful women like Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Raphael's Fornarina. These are beautiful women who seem to be psychologically present, but Parmigianino is really pushing this tradition to its limit. There are aspects of the painting that are intricately detailed, the tiny little paint strokes he uses for the gold chain around her neck but then more impressionistic brush strokes for the gold and silver dress that she's wearing. Even the proportion between the small head and the much larger body, that is unusual in Renaissance portraiture. Parmigianino is known as a Mannerist artist, and they were fascinated with playing with proportion and with canons of beauty. Even though there are aspects about this woman that don't make sense, you still believe that this is a real woman. He is playing with ideas of artifice and naturalism.
What are the five features of this portrait that must be looked at with attention?
Her costume and the jewelry must be put in context, as they are objects commonly given as gifts from lovers to women they loved.
The gold and enamel filagree openwork chain that she's wearing around her neck.
The marten fur. They were extremely expensive accessories, so only the most wealthy women would have owned them. They were a symbol of fertility; that's why they were commonly given to young brides. But they were associated with lustfulness, too. There is an ambiguity in the marten fur because the animal head is baring its teeth, not biting her hand, which is what I actually thought it was doing when I first saw reproductions of the painting. If you see it in real life, it is baring its teeth, but it is also actually resting its chin on her gloved hand. It's resting its paw on her arm, so it's a symbol of aggressiveness, but also sweetness as well.
The ruby ring and the ruby head brooch, with a hanging pearl. Rubies were also associated with marriage. Rubies were the most expensive gems during the Renaissance, and they were commonly given to brides and thought to have magical properties that could aid with fertility.
She has a very complicated costume. All the parts you see that are gold with the silver bands, that is her dress. She's wearing an apron over the top of the dress, and then at the top covering her chest is a sort of scarf that tucks in, then underneath all of that is an under-dress that you can only see at her wrists and is a separate layer from the apron.
Also, her gloves. To show part of the bare breast combined with the bare hand and the other gloved hand would have been interpreted in a very erotic way during the Renaissance. Petrarch, the 14th century poet, was very important in Parma at the time Parmigianino was creating this portrait. Parmigianino knew Petrarch's poetry; he actually copied his sonnets onto some of his drawings. Petrarch dedicates whole sonnets to the bare hand of his beloved. During the Renaissance, the bare hand was actually a symbol of the whole, bare body of the woman. Just seeing that bare hand would have greatly excited Renaissance viewers in a way that today we can't really recognize.
She's touching the chain around her neck; she wearing his gift; she's accepting whatever proposal he has suggested, and then she's pointing to her heart in a gesture of love, and she's gazing out at the lover too. The portrait sets up an idea about desire, and that, to me, is what this portrait is about. It creates a dynamic of desire between the viewer and the woman depicted.
Antea: A Beautiful Artifice, organized for the Frick Collection by Christine Neilson, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, and by the Foundation for Italian Art & Culture.
What is your definition of luxury?
Having the time to do the things I love.
And if luxury were...
My antique engagement ring, which my husband bought by cashing in his life insurance!
Our holiday house on the river north of Sydney, a very simple and rustic place, surrounded by friends and family.
Monica Vitti in L'Avventura; Grace Kelly.
Waking up to a day surrounded by family and friends.