Girolamo Francesco Mazzola, called il Parmigianino (Parma 1503-1540 Casal Maggiore) Three studies of a nude female figure unframed

Parmigianino lived hard, died young and produced the most astonishing work – including this newly discovered study for a fresco, says David Ekserdjian. Pity they put him in gaol before he could finish ...

Across the entire Italian Renaissance there are few artists as fascinating as 'il Parmigianino'. Born Francesco Mazzola in 1503, he died in 1540 at the age favoured by most geniuses cut off in their prime: just 37 years old. 'Il Parmigianino' literally means 'the little man from Parma', so you might assume that he acquired the nickname on account of his small stature. Actually, it is more likely to have been a consequence of his extraordinary precocity as an artist. His first altarpiece, a Baptism of Christ, which is now in Berlin, was painted when he was a mere 16 years old; by the time he was 20, he was in Rome and causing a sensation at the papal court, above all thanks to his stunning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, now in Vienna. After being caught up and nearly losing his life in the Sack of Rome in 1527, Parmigianino moved to Bologna. There he remained for three years or so, before returning to Parma until just before the end of the final decade of his brief span, when he fled to a small town nearby called Casalmaggiore.

As with Raphael – born and dying exactly 20 years before Parmigianino, he was another member of the 37 club – Parmigianino's career only lasted a couple of decades, but he and Raphael both packed an extraordinary amount of work into those short years. A brilliant painter, Parmigianino was equally gifted when it came to the production of religious art, mythologies, and portraiture. At the same time, he was a prolific and inspired draughtsman, responsible not only for whole sequences of preparatory drawings for his paintings, but also for often highly finished sheets that were among the first drawings created as works of art in their own right.

As if all this were not enough, he was fully engaged with the burgeoning world of prints, initially providing designs for engravings and chiaroscuro woodcuts to be executed by others, and later making his own etchings.

It is never possible to know how many drawings Renaissance artists produced, for the simple reason that so many have been lost or destroyed over the centuries, not to mention during the artists' lifetimes, when drawings were only just beginning to be valued as works of art. Nevertheless, it is clear that the regard in which Parmigianino's work was held has had the happy result of preserving a corpus of drawings almost without equal for the period. In consequence, the most recent complete catalogue of his drawings, which was published in 2008, runs to just over a thousand individual sheets, while if one counts fronts and backs as separate drawings, the grand total is considerably higher.

One of the paradoxes of the fact that such drawings date from nearly 500 years ago is that they have had plenty of time to get mislaid, but also from time to time re-emerge. Not infrequently, something of their history in the centuries since they were created can be recovered. In the case of the present sheet, offered in London's Old Masters Sale at Bonhams in July, it was remarkably – if at the same time by no means uniquely – reproduced in the form of a print during the 18th century. That print, which is by Francesco Rosaspina (1762-1842), artfully replicates the red chalk of the original and is on the same scale.

It reveals two fascinating aspects of the drawing's fate. The first is that, as recorded in a Latin inscription, it belonged to a Venetian called Giovanni Antonio Armano, who seems to have been more of an art dealer than a collector. In fact, it was one of as many as 90 Parmigianino drawings that he owned, a considerable number of which were made into prints by Rosaspina. Intriguingly, there is good reason to believe that in the 17th century, the entire group belonged to the legendary drawings collector, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. The second revelation – alas – is that the sheet was originally significantly larger, having lost approximately its bottom two-thirds. Happily, what remains are the heads and upper bodies of the figures.

The drawing represents three studies for the same nude female figure, with the one on the right, in effect, a close-up of the one on the left. The fact that the study on the left and the one in the centre both clearly show the women balancing vessels on their heads leaves no doubt as to their purpose: they relate to one of the most celebrated of all Parmigianino's works, namely his frescoes for Santa Maria della Steccata in Parma. On 10 May 1531, he was awarded this commission, which was originally intended to involve the decoration of the apse, as well as the vaulted area between the apse and the dome of the church. In the event, he only painted the vault, where his frescoes show facing trios of Wise and Foolish Virgins, accompanied by fictive sculptural figures of Adam and Eve and Moses and Aaron. He worked on the project for many years, and its various setbacks and delays are extensively documented in the account-books of his long-suffering and ultimately exasperated patrons. In view of the fact that all three studies in the present drawing are lit from the left, they must be preparatory for the central figure of the three Wise Virgins on the vault. In the frescoes, the Virgins are, of course, clothed, but this is not the only nude study for them Parmigianino made, nor was he by any means unusual in having employed this practice.What is truly unique, however, is his touch both with red chalk and white heightening, which magically combines absolute assurance and dreamy delicacy.

Parmigianino was imprisoned for non-completion at the behest of the authorities at the Steccata in the summer of 1539. It was on his release that he fled to Casalmaggiore, where he died the next year, unaware that by then he had been barred from working on the project.

At an earlier date, in 1535, his patron, the Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo – for whom he executed his haunting Cupid Carving his Bow, now in Vienna – had stood surety for him, and it would appear that his reward was to obtain some or all of Parmigianino's studio property. An inventory drawn up in the aftermath of the Cavaliere's death on 30 September 1561 reveals that, among other works of art, he owned an astonishing 22 paintings and 495 drawings by Parmigianino. The former are all listed individually, but so are many of the latter. In those instances, details of their technique, subject matter, and dimensions are also given. They were kept in eight books. No.208, the first drawing in the second book, which is not the only one for the Steccata commission, is described as "A drawing of three Virgins, from the niche of the Madonna della Steccata in red chalk heightened with white lead, two finished and the other almost finished by Parmigianino 4 inches tall." The Parmesan inch measured 4.5cm, so technique, subject matter, and dimensions correspond. True, it is not easy to say which of the three Virgins would best qualify as 'almost finished' as opposed to 'finished', but it is hard to resist wondering if the sheet in July's sale might not be that very drawing.

Professor David Ekserdjian is the author of Parmigianino, published by Yale University Press.

Sale: Old Master Paintings
Wednesday 5 July at 2pm
Enquiries: Andrew McKenzie
+44 (0) 20 7468 8261

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