Private collection, France.
This striking and powerful image of Saint Jerome remained unrecorded in the literature until 1999, when it was first published as a newly discovered Parmigianino by Marco Di Giampaolo in an article in Prospettiva (see Literature). Di Giampaolo dated the work to circa 1530, later in the artist's career when he was working in Bologna and connected it to two multi-figured compositions also executed in that city: the small-scale Madonna and Child with Saints Zaccaria, Mary Magdalene and the Young John the Baptist, of 1530-31 (Uffizi, Florence) and the grand Madonna and Child with Saints Margaret, Benedict, Jerome and an Angel of 1529-30 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). Since the publication of that article, there has been much debate over the work's authorship, with many prominent scholars, such as Béguin and Vaccaro, supporting Di Giampaolo's conclusions on the picture and others, such as Chiusa and Ekserdjian, questioning it. Regardless of attribution, the extremely high quality, technical virtuosity and intense emotions of this Saint Jerome single it out as an exceptionally fine example of 16th century northern Italian Mannerism.
The artist of the present work was likely aware of Albrecht Dürer's famous allegorical engraving, Melencolia I, of 1514, which had an immediate impact and enormous influence on the artists and intellectuals of the Renaissance (see fig. 1). The composition of the figure of Saint Jerome is remarkably similar to that of Dürer's winged, female figure with closed fist supporting his head and intense eyes focused on the sky above the cross, almost as if at a vision just beyond our sight. Here, Saint Jerome appears on the left of the panel, almost flush with the picture plane. His powerful, wiry torso is presented bare-chested, with a red cape draped about his waist. A large book is open in front of him and on its pages he sets his left hand, which grasps a carved, wooden crucifix. The saint's white, wispy eyebrows and long, curling white hair and beard add to his appearance of wild intensity. It seems likely that the same model who sat for this painting also served as the inspiration for Parmigianino's Saint Jerome and Saint Zaccaria in the two Bolognese commissions mentioned above: the Saint Jerome from the Pinacoteca panel has the same wiry frame, widow's peak and close-cropped gray hair as the present saint; and in the Uffizi painting, Zaccaria's long, curling white beard and intensely gazing dark eyes, topped with long, feathery white eyebrows recall almost exactly our hermitted Jerome (see fig. 2).
The composition of this Saint Jerome is clearly derived from the small panel (25 by 20 in.) of the same subject by Correggio, now in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, and which was recorded in the 1627 inventory of Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua: "un quadro dipintovi un S. Geronimo che contempla, con una test di morto, mezza figura, opera del Correggio." Dated to circa 1515, Correggio's composition also represents the bare-chested hermit seated close to the picture plane, but here he is contemplating a human skull rather than a crucifix. He rests his head on his right hand while holding the skull in his left. A book is open in front of him, and a large tree and rocks enclose the scene from behind. In contrast to the present painting, Correggio's Jerome appears protected and enclosed by the wilderness around him. Although he seems saddened by his reflection on human frailty, the softness in his downcast eyes is far removed from the fiery passion that glints in the eyes of the man in the present panel, in which the gathering storm clouds and steep, treacherous mountain landscape seem to echo the disquiet of the saint's thoughts. Far from being protected, he is secluded, alone in the vast wilderness separated from both man and God. This intense emotional response is perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic and spiritual aims of Mannerist painting.
The existence of a preparatory study by Parmigianino for Saint Jerome's crucifix provides perhaps the most direct support of his authorship of the present panel. The crucifix can be found on the verso of a sheet of studies now in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (inv. no. 87, GB 9). Viewed from the same vantage point, in three-quarters back profile, the quick, geometric drawing -- although little more than a few lines -- appears to record Parmigianino's first conception of the cross grasped and contemplated with such devotion by the hermit saint. A compulsive draftsman throughout his career, Parmigianino's sheet is also crowded with studies for other works. In fact, the recto of the J. Paul Getty drawing has in the past been connected with a work Parmigianino executed in Rome in 1527 -- The Vision of Saint Jerome (National Gallery, London, see fig. 3); however, drawings on this sheet seem to date to numerous periods of the artist's career. The dog that appears on the verso, just to the right of the crucifix here under discussion, for example, is related to the sumptuous and seductive Fontanellato fresco of Diana and Actaeon of circa 1524, prior to Parmigianino's departure from Parma. The verso, as discussed, seems to be from his Roman period, and the crucifix is related to his work in Bologna. Although the crucifix study cannot be taken as proof positive of Parmigianino's authorship of the present panel, its presence on a sheet teeming with vibrant sketches for other works from various periods, is at least strongly indicative of this connection.
An alternate attribution to Michelangelo Anselmi has been proposed by David Ekserdjian. It should be noted, however, that the noted Anselmi scholar, Elisabetta Fadda, supports an attribution to Parmigianino.
Recently, Davide Gasparotto of the Galleria Nazionale di Parma has examined this painting firsthand and believes this work to be by Parmigianino, dateable to circa 1530. He has pointed out compelling comparisons with the Madonna San Zaccaria in Florence (Galleria degli Uffizi) and the Conversion of Saul in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum).
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