This picture—evidently an informal study, or modello—is notable on several counts: its nocturnal treatment of a subject conventionally shown as taking place during the day; the technique of painting directly on a rough panel with a minimum of preparation; and the compositional relationship with an altarpiece by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, the cousin of Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503–1540). The altarpiece, now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples (see Additional Images), was commissioned for the church of Santa Maria Annunciata in the town of Viadana, north of Parma (see The Age of Correggio and the Carracci, exh. cat., New York, 1986, p. 70). Bedoli’s altarpiece was acquired for the Farnese collection in 1713 as the work of Parmigianino and was transferred to Naples in 1734.
A nocturnal Annunciation illuminated by candlelight was something of an innovation in the sixteenth century and depends on no canonical literary source. However, a number of sixteenth-century artists became interested in the painting of nocturnes, foremost among them Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, who painted an Annunciation for the church of San Domenico in Venice in which the Virgin is shown in her dark bedroom dimly illuminated by a hanging lamp (see Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, exh. cat., Brescia and Frankfurt, 1990, p. 104, no. I.4). Like Correggio, Giulio Romano, and—later—Jacopo Bassano, Parmigianino, too, was fascinated by candlelit interiors, as seen in his early Circumcision (Detroit Institute of Arts) of around 1520–21. In the MMA picture the Virgin is shown kneeling in an unusually open pose, with one knee on a dais while her right foot is firmly placed on the floor. Her upper torso is supported by her left arm, which is propped on a cloth-covered table, with the hand raised in salutation to the angel, while her right hand hangs limply over her groin. The pose has been described as erotic (see Turner 2010). Her head, ornamented with an elaborate, jeweled diadem, is bowed, her eyes downcast, her face animated with an enigmatic smile. The scantily clad angel Gabriel flies into the room on diminutive wings, with one hand holding a lily over the Virgin’s head while the other points to the dove that flies along a diagonal trajectory. In front of the Virgin is a bronze lectern in the shape of a winged cherub or putto and on the floor in the foreground is an elaborately carved stool, or sgabello, its supports decorated with classicizing grotesque male figures of singular delicacy. On it is a basket with the Virgin’s sewing while behind the Virgin is her canopied bed, on which a group of cherubs play beneath the red curtain while on the chest surrounding it is a gilt candlestick with a lit candle—the source of light in the picture. It would be difficult to overstate the level of invention in this picture, and for that reason it is worth noting the considerable changes between it and the related altarpiece by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli with which it can be associated. In that work the most singular features of the MMA painting have, curiously, been either modified or changed, resulting in a less provocative work. The Virgin’s gesture, with one hand raised and the other gathering up her cloak, is expressive of modesty; the smile on her face has settled into demureness; the sgabello has lost its classicizing decoration; and the contents of the basket are now described with meticulous care that, like the hourglass behind her, lends the scene a quality of homey domesticity. The bronze putto is now stone, but still suggests the reverse of a Pygmalion-like transformation of a real figure into art. The pavement is squared to create a measured, perspectival space, but the trajectory of the dove and the pattern of the curtain folds actually flatten the spatial effect. So notable are these changes, which have transformed the exquisitely refined character of the MMA painting, that the probability that the two are by the same artist, with the MMA painting having served as Bedoli’s modello for the Capodimonte altarpiece, was questioned by Christiansen (1983). He made a case for ascribing the MMA painting to Parmigianino, working towards the end of his career, after he had fled Parma and taken refuge in Caselmaggiore, conjecturing that Parmigianino created the modello but that the commission was taken up by Bedoli after his death. Although Christiansen’s attribution of the MMA picture to Parmigianino has been rejected by most scholars, his distinction of hands has been embraced by some, who have proposed that the work is a later, very free interpretation of Bedoli’s altarpiece, possibly by a Northern painter (see, in particular, Dacos 1990, Di Giampaolo 1997, and Vaccaro 2002), though informal suggestions have ranged over an even larger field (see departmental files). The most frequent name put forward is the Brussels born Joos van Winghe (1544–1603), who worked in Rome for four years and upon his return to Brussels was employed by Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma and governor of the Lowlands. It must be said, however, that his work looks quite different from the modello and never attains its quality of invention and facture, and Vaccaro, for one, no longer believes him to be a viable candidate (see departmental files; for an overview of Northern painters influenced by Parmigianino, see Konrad Oberhuber, “Parmigianino e gli artisti alla corte di Rodolfo II a Praga”, in Parmigianino e il manierismo europeo, exh. cat., Parma and Vienna, 2003, pp. 135–39, 388–95). Other proposals would see it as a neo-mannerist work of the early seventeenth century. Among the names suggested, sometimes informally, in conversation, are the Bolognese Giovanni Andrea Donducci, known as Mastelletta (1575–1655; see Chiusa 2001) and the Milanese painter Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574–1625), both of whom emulated Parmigianino’s facility and were deeply influenced by his example. Donducci can be categorically excluded: he simply could not paint at this level and his work remains throughout essentially decorative in character. Procaccini, by contrast, was fully capable of a work of this quality. However, what both these alternative attributions overlook is the singular technique of the MMA painting—its informal and rapid character, with evidence of an initial ink drawing made directly on the panel and pervasive adjustments to the composition. Traces of the use of what seems to be a pen to delineate features can be seen with the naked eye: for example, in the feathers of the cherub standing on the Virgin’s bed where it extends beyond the canopy. Or in the left hand of the angel. The brush freely drew in the curling shape of the cloud behind the angel—subsequently abandoned. The extended hand of the cherub lying prone on the bed has been repositioned and the leg and knee of his companion are boldly blocked in. This technique argues strongly that the picture was created as a modello—among the earliest to have survived—and this inevitably brings the discussion back to Bedoli and the altarpiece for Santa Maria Annunciata.
What do we know about the provenance of the MMA picture? No certain record exists prior to 1742, when it is described in a list of pictures in the Spencer collection at Althorp, in Northumberland, as “The Salutation of Parmigianino.” However, according to a letter written by William Hamilton in 1774, it had “cost his Lordship’s father a great sum”; it was, therefore, acquired in Italy by John Spencer (1708–1746) and must at the time have enjoyed a certain prestige. The only indications of its earlier provenance are three unidentified wax seals on the reverse of the unthinned panel (see Additional Images). There are also two related drawings, one in the Uffizi (9178 S) and another in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (1602). In the past, these drawings were usually considered either as studies for or copies after the Annunciation in Naples (see Mostra del Correggio, exh. cat., Parma, 1935, p. 156, no. 50; and Mario Di Giampaolo in Disegni di Girolamo Bedoli, exh. cat., Viadana, 1971, pp. 35–36, under no. 15), but the Uffizi drawing is clearly a copy after the Metropolitan’s picture and is further evidence of the fame it enjoyed, independent of the altarpiece. The drawing bears an enigmatic inscription, "Fran[ces]co Celebrini Piacenza," but who this person might be has not been established.
Concerning Bedoli’s altarpiece, we have it from Vasari that, together with his cousin Parmigianino, Bedoli fled to Viadana to escape the war (1521) and there painted two Annunciations—a small one for the friars at San Francesco and the other for Santa Maria Annunciata (“A Viadana ancora, dove egli si fuggì con Francesco per la guerra, fece in San Francesco, luogo de’Zoccoli, così giovanetto come era, in una tavolina, una bellissima Nunziata; ed un’altra ne fece in Santa Maria ne’Borghi.” [G. Milanesi, ed., 1906, vol. 5, p. 235]). What Vasari refers to as a “tavolina”—or small panel—is usually identified with an altarpiece now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, despite its large size, since it comes from San Francesco. That work cannot be as early as 1521 and is usually dated to the 1530s, thus calling into question the reliability of Vasari’s report. The Annunciation for Santa Maria—the picture now in Naples—is dated by most scholars to the 1550s or even as late as 1560 (see Di Giampaolo 1997). Clearly, then, Vasari would seem to have conflated various facts and works of art—something that occurs elsewhere in the Vite. Curiously, the picture for which the term “tavolina” would be most appropriate is the MMA modello, and in the event that we know nothing about its early history, it may be worth pointing out that one of the wax seals on its reverse shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, though whether this might indicate a possible provenance from the convent of San Francesco cannot be said. If the MMA picture is by Bedoli—and the matter remains highly problematic because of basic stylistic dissimilarities—the most probable date would be in the 1530s, not the 1550s or 1560s. Be that as it may, in considering the various issues surrounding the MMA painting, it must be emphasized that the distinctions between the work of Parmigianino and his cousin—especially in the 1530s—were fluid. There has, indeed, been a recent reconsideration of the attribution of a number of works whose attribution in the past has vacillated between Bedoli and Parmigianino. These include a painting of the Madonna and Child in a landscape formerly in the Barberini collection (now Sudeley Castle), a painting of Lucrezia in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, and a Madonna and Child with Saint Bruno in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, which has been re-ascribed to Parmigianino after having been almost universally attributed to Bedoli (for the first two works, see Vaccaro 2002, p. 8, no. A8, and p. 223, no. A13; for the latter, Reinhold Baumstark et al., Parmigianino: die Madonna in der Alten Pinakothek, exh. cat., Munich, 2007). Opinions on these issues vary widely, but these uncertainties point to an overlap in the production of the two artists characterized by the influence of Parmigianino on Bedoli as well as the borrowing of motifs by the latter, who was able occasionally to emulate the fluent brushwork of his cousin and was adept at incorporating ideas derived from his cousin’s drawings (for drawings by Parmigianino pertinent to the discussion, see Christiansen 1986). The current attribution of the MMA picture to Bedoli recognizes this problematic area of distinction between the two artists and, indeed, among those artists strongly influenced by Parmigianino.
[Keith Christiansen 2014]