PARMIGIANINO'S "ANTEA"

MESMERISING, ENIGMATIC AND UNATTAINABLE | February 1st 2008

Antea

"Antea" (c.1531-1534), Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Ariel Ramchandani visits the Parmigianino portrait and becomes transfixed. She falls in love with the mysterious beauty, and asks the question of so many before her: who the hell is she? ... 

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

She's lovely of course, Parmigianino's "Antea." Standing alone in the centre of the Oval Room at the Frick, surrounded by portraits that somehow pale in comparison. She has turned to regard you, almost at eye level, still and composed. She is, as the show is appropriately called, "A Beautiful Artifice": a tiny youthful head, a sharply defined face, eyes so wide the whites show below. The yellow of her dress seems to slip down over her impossibly wide, stooped shoulders. Her hands, one covered and the other strikingly, almost erotically, bare, do not fit her body or each other at all. Although improbable in many ways, she commands the room with a physical presence and the illusion of a discerning mind.

Like the Mona Lisa, "Antea" is enigmatic and unattainable. And similarly, she has the potential to elicit an unlawful reaction: "Antea" is the type of painting you want to take home and be alone with. You want to steal her from the collection. I can actually attest to feeling jealous when I had to share her with my editor the other day, on a second visit. As mentioned in The Economist last week, "Antea", in postcard form, sells out on a regular basis at her home, the Museo di Capodimonte. It seems everyone wants to send her to a loved one, or display her face on the frigorifero with a magnet.

Parmigianino has created a moment so intimate that nothing dare interrupt. As the curator, Christina Neilson, writes in the catalogue, "the artist created a woman with whom the viewer could fall in love."

This relationship makes the Frick a very good place to see this painting. The room is intimate, the museum domestic--it feels as though it is still a home, albeit one more lavish than mine. Her original setting is approximated as closely as possible. The two peculiar things about the exhibition are that she stands alone--without drawings, reproductions of the artist's studio or very much explanatory text--and that she is mounted in the centre of the room, on a wall with ornate columns on either side.

These design choices remind that "Antea" is not a simple girl. She may not even be a specific likeness at all. And so she isn't really alone--the portrait is not without Parmigianino's rigorous and strange interpretation of beauty. He is there, in the mis-shapen angles of her body, the careful wrapping of her bare hand around the filigree necklace, the high varnish of the surface. We even learn that her perfectly austere face repeats itself in two other works by him--one an angel and one a drawing of a young man.

Her display on a central, temporary wall also undermines the illusion of her reality, which disappears the moment you walk behind the canvas. Although she is the appropriate height to "step out of the painting" she never really could. You could perhaps say this about most life-like works of art, but Parmigianino's originality comes in part from his exploration of the tension between reality and artifice--capturing moments where it switches imperceptibly back and forth. I am reminded of the famous John Ashbery poem, "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror", about a Parmigianino portrait of the same name:

The soul establishes itself.

...the soul is a captive...
unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture...

... your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what's there
And nothing can exist except what's there.

This poem captures why we continue to speculate on who "Antea" really was, why the search for her identity can be magnetic and desperate. Because we are curious and enjoy mysteries unsolved--but also because we love her, and don't want to think that everything is only surface and illusion. This makes her a great work for further study, both academic and personal. With "Antea" we are always right on the moment of discovery, she is always about to tell us what we long to know. As Ashbery writes:

The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.

(Ariel Ramchandani is a contributing editor to More Intelligent Life)