The large figures of Augustus and the Sybil are here very freely executed in black chalk, handled in a broad and effective manner so as to fill the whole space of the page. The Tiburtine Sybil prophesying to the Emperor the birth of the Christ Child is shown pointing to the sky to the group of the Virgin and Child and angels among clouds. Parmigianino enhances the lighting with great subtlety, both through his use of the grey wash and with delicate strokes of white heightening applied with the point of the brush, which contrast with the blue color of the paper – surely purposely chosen. These pictorial contrasts, as well as the simplified and decisive handling of the chalk, indicate how Parmigianino wanted his figures to be transposed into the woodcut, and could have served as a guide to the woodcutters.
Parmigianino was deeply fascinated by, and involved with, printmaking and must have been intrigued by the different possibilities offered both by engravings and chiaroscuro woodcuts. Following his move to Rome in 1524, he began to design prints, including at least one chiaroscuro for Ugo da Carpi. He continued to work closely with printmakers while living in Bologna after the Sack of Rome, and at some point he also produced a small corpus of etchings.5 The Augustus and the Sybil chiaroscuro is mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in connection with Antonio da Trento, but according to the biographer Vicentino only executed his prints after Parmigianino's death.6 Popham proposed a dating for all the preparatory drawings and the woodcut in the artist’s Bolognese period, circa 1529-1530, and more recent scholars also date them to the same moment.7
Another drawing by Parmigianino for the entire composition, now lost, is known from a crayon-manner reproductive print by Rosaspina.8
1. Bartsch XII, p. 90, 7 & 8
2. A. Gnann, D. Ekserdijan, M. Foster, Chiaroscuro, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2014, p. 87
3. Turin, Biblioteca Reale, inv. no. 16178; A.E. Popham, op. cit., vol. I, p. 184, no. 525, recto reproduced vol. II, pl. 127
4. Paris, Louvre inv. no. 6419; A.E. Popham, op. cit., vol. I, p. 142, no. 398, reproduced vol. II, pl. 126
5. D. Ekserdijan, Parmigianino, New Haven and London 2006, p. 213
6. G. Vasari, Le Opere di Giorgio Vasari con nuove annotazioni e commenti di Gaetano Milanesi, 1878-85, vol. V, p. 423
7. A. Gnann, Parmigianino, Die Zeichnungen, vol. I, p. 190. Gnann rightly mentions that the verso of the sheet in Turin, which includes the twirl of a drapery already identified by Popham as part of the curtain above that Child's head in the Madonna della Rosa in Dresden, dates to the same years.
8. A.E. Popham, op. cit., vol. I, p. 253, no. OR 68, reproduced vol. II, pl. 127
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