We have today about 900 drawings by the artist. Already in his own lifetime, Parmigianino’s main patron, Cavaliere Francesco Baiardo, owned more than 500 of his drawings, as is recorded in the inventory compiled after the collector’s death in 1561. A.E. Popham’s fundamental three-volume catalogue of Parmigianino’s drawings, which the author dedicated to the artist’s native city of Parma, listed 823 autograph sheets. The present work was first published in this monumental 1971 compendium, at which time it was in the renowned Gathorne-Hardy collection at Donnington Priory, then also the home of two further drawings by Parmigianino, both now in private collections elsewhere (St Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of our Lord; and another double sided sheet, Studies of a female head, of a winged lion and of finials (recto), and a Lady and a Gentleman seated with foliage behind (verso)1).
The Barnet drawing is typical of Parmigianino’s habit of combining studies for different projects on the same sheet of paper, reusing it to create a fascinating and spontaneous ensemble. The artist's method of committing his ideas very rapidly to paper is evident here in the pen and ink studies, jotted down on the recto. Parmigianino seems to have started the drawing from the left with a group of seated figures, and finished with the standing nudes, just fitting on the upper part of the sheet, on the right side, though at this point he had to turn the page, which he had initially used horizontally. The musical notes and the fragment of writing seem to come after the drawings, and Parmigianino mostly used the blank space in the upper centre for these annotations.
Popham suggested that the three figures on the left of the recto were shepherds in an Adoration, as one of them holds a shepherd's staff, and a lamb. He also observed that the position of that figure’s head, and his relation to the figure to the left, implied a possible connection with Caraglio's 1526 engraving of the subject, after Parmigianino. The standing male nudes, top right, could, according to Popham, also be studies for shepherds in an Adoration, while the seated nude figure, lower right, similar to a sheet in the British Museum2, could relate to one of the apostles in a composition of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, dated by Popham to the artist’s Roman period (1524-27), and known through two compositional drawings, one in the Frankfurt, the other in Naples.3 Achim Gnann (see Literature) also assigns the present drawing to Parmigianino’s Roman period.
When, however, Carmen Bambach catalogued the Barnet study sheet for the exhibition devoted to the drawings of Correggio and Parmigianino, held at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000-2001, she instead proposed a slightly earlier dating of circa 1523-24, on stylistic grounds, writing: ‘the still abundant use of pronounced curved cross-hatchings in some of the studies on the sheet is a typical pre-Roman feature.’ Bambach also, plausibly, suggested that the drawings on the verso of the sheet may be slightly earlier than those on the recto. Indeed, the lovely image of the two seated putti amidst foliage on the verso is highly reminiscent of similar putti included by Parmigianino in his illusionistic frescoed decoration of the vaulted small room, in the Rocca San Vitale, at Fontanellato, near Parma, the seat of the important Sanvitale family, a work dating from around 1523-24.
We are grateful to David Ekserdjian for informing us that he finds the earlier dating suggested by Bambach stylistically appropriate for the Barnet drawing, and he has also kindly reiterated his opinion, first expressed at the time of the sale of the drawing from the British Rail Pension Fund Collection in 1990, that the musical notes and the fragment of writing, towards the centre on the recto, are indeed in Parmigianino’s own hand.4 Bambach also stressed that the words and musical notes are in the same ink as the thicker outlines in the nude figures, upper right. The artist's interest in music is in fact a matter of record: at the end of Vasari’s account of the life of Parmigianino, in his ‘Vite’, the biographer informs us that the artist enjoyed playing the lute.5
The distinguished early provenance of the Barnet drawing is witness to a very long-standing English interest and fascination for Parmigianino’s drawings, starting with the famous architect Inigo Jones (c.1573-1652), a strong admirer of the Parmese master, who seems to have been particularly instrumental in encouraging Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), with whom he travelled in Italy in 1613, to collect Parmigianino’s works on paper. Arundel, who was listed in the 1902 Gathorne-Hardy Collection catalogue (see Literature) as a previous owner of this sheet, formed an extraordinarily important collection of drawings, in which the work of Parmigianino featured strongly. Arundel did not, however, stamp or inscribe the drawings in his collection to indicate his ownership, so this can be hard to demonstrate with certainty. When he went into exile on the Continent in 1642, he took part but not all of his collection with him. More certain is that fact that the Barnet drawing was owned by a contemporary and adviser of Arundel, very knowledgeable in drawings, the musician and art dealer Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666), who is known to have been an important agent, buying paintings for King Charles I (1600-1649). Lanier could easily have been the intermediary for the acquisition by Arundel of the present sheet. Somewhat later, it was owned by Jonathan Richardson, Senior (1665-1745), who applied his stamp, usually placed on the recto of his drawings, on the side with the Two putti amidst foliage, where it is to be found alongside another unidentified mark, a star stamp similar to the small star (L.2184) that is present on some drawings bequeathed to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1765 by General John Guise.
The very handsome Barnet drawing shows both the versatility and the ambition of the young artist, in the fluent intricacy of the pen work, and his constant experimentation. His instinctive approach to line, rendered with unique calligraphic elegance, demonstrates his talent and distinguishes his œuvre, and the present sheet also bears powerful witness to his skill in working out compositional ideas through multiple and highly graceful preparatory studies.
1 Popham, op. cit., nos. 746 & 748
2 London, British Museum, inv. no. 1905,1110.24
3 Respectively: Frankfurt, Staedelsches Kunstinstitut, inv. no. 4254 and Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, inv. no. 709
4 Oral communication, 11 October 2017
5 G. Vasari, Le Vite de' più eccellenti Pittori Scultori ed Architettori, ed. G. Milanesi, Florence 1880, vol. V, p. 234
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