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Parmigianino (Parma 1503-Casalmaggiore 1540)

A study of a figure in an architectural setting c.1531-3

Pen and ink, with wash and white heightening over black chalk | 9.4 x 6.4 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 990550

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A seated winged woman with her feet on part of an octagonal frame, supporting another frame.

In May 1531 Parmigianino signed a contract to fresco the vault of the church of Santa Maria della Steccata in his home town of Parma. His ideas for the decoration had to take account of the huge coffers that dominate the barrel vaults, and he initially planned to place fictive oval medallions at the interstices of the coffers, with decorative figures appearing to support the medallions, as can be seen in a sheet in the British Museum. The four drawings here are developments of figures in that design, and their uniformity of technique suggests that they may all have been cut from a single sheet by an early collector, the fate of many of Parmigianino's small drawings. This design was superseded by a solution in which vase-bearing maidens stand between the coffers, the remainder of the space being occupied with an extravagant array of swags, shells, crabs, birds and so on. Work on the frescoes was slow, and a new contract was agreed in 1535. Three years later the church authorities were persuaded once more to accept a delayed completion date, but in December 1539 their patience ran out and Parmigianino was arrested. Released on bail, he defaced part of his work at the Steccata and fled Parma for the nearby town of Casalmaggiore, where he died a few months later.

The 1727 Kensington list includes three volumes of drawings supposedly by Parmigianino, all presumably acquired by Charles II, and Inventory A of c.1810 lists four such volumes. Following the numbering in Inventory A, Volume I contained copies by an artist (or artists) in the employ of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, after drawings by Parmigianino then in Arundel's collection, with the later price-mark of the dealer William Gibson inside the front cover. Volume II contained a series of metalpoint and scraperboard drawings, unrelated to Parmigianino, by an unidentified Netherlandish artist of the late sixteenth century (this was probably the volume not attributed to Parmigianino in the 1727 list). Volume III contained early copies after drawings by Parmigianino, executed in metalpoint on both sides of sheets of card; that album had been in the collection of the artist Wallerant Vaillant in 1655. Only Volume IV contained drawings by Parmigianino himself, a total of thirty (including the four here) when Inventory A was compiled, of which three have since been dispersed. A number of extant copies and etchings after drawings from that album confirm that they had formerly been in the collection of the Earl of Arundel. The empty bindings of Volumes I, III and IV survive in the Royal Library.

Text adapted from Holbein to Hockney: Drawings from the Royal Collection