- Museum number
Design for the decoration of the vaulting of S Maria della Steccata, Parma; square and oval panels with figures and circular decoration
Pen and brown ink, grey and yellow wash
Verso: Studies for S Mario della Steccata; an arcade with panels containing animals and figures
Pen and brown and grey ink, grey wash
- Production date
- 1531 (circa)
Height: 202 millimetres
Width: 300 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Engraved by Francesco Rosaspina, impression in the BM (P&D 1919,0415.236), for details see P 125.
Lit.: A.E. Popham, 'Catalogue of the Drawings of Parmigianino', Cambridge, 1971, no. 228; D. Ekserdjian, 'Parmigianino', New Haven and London, 2006, p. 178, figs. 185-6
Bambach, Chapman, Clayton & Goldner 2000
In May 1531 Parmigianino signed a contract with the Confraternity of Santa Maria della Steccata to fresco the eastern apse of the newly constructed church with a Coronation of the Virgin, and to decorate the vault and underside of the arches of the area between the apse and the central dome. This colossal project, for which he was to receive 400 gold scudi, was originally planned to be finished in an impossibly short period of eighteen months. In the next four years little seems to have been achieved and a new contract was drawn up in September 1535, with Parmigianino agreeing to finish the decorations in two years on pain of return of the advance payment. In February 1538 the Confraternity was persuaded by Francesco Baiardo and the architect Damiano de Pleta, who stood surety for the 200 scudi already advanced to the artist, to put back the completion date once again, this time until August 1539. The authorities finally lost patience with the artist in December 1539, and he was arrested and jailed. Released after a short time on bail, presumably after a promise to pay back the advance, Parmigianino went to the Steccata and defaced part of his work there, and then fled to Casalmaggiore, which lay outside the jurisdiction of Parma. Most of the vault decorations had been completed prior to his flight, but the 'Coronation of the Virgin' had not progressed beyond the planning stage.
Parmigianino's overall design for the vault was to a large degree determined by the fourteen square recessed coffers, divided into two rows of seven, that were already in place when he accepted the commission. There was little scope for Correggesque illusionism, and instead the artist elected to use the coffers as a frame for the boldly projecting gilt-bronze rosettes that he designed for the centre of each panel. In the finished vault, the gilded acanthus leaves of the rosettes are offset by the deep blue colour of the coffers, and by the intense red of the surrounding panels. Further gilding in the smaller rosettes at the centre and sides of the vault, and of the decorations on the lateral arches, reinforces the effect of glittering magnificence. The decorative elements are equally rich, with the frames of the coffers and the narrow strips between them painted with an eclectic and witty mixture of motifs: swags, rams' heads, shells, doves, crayfish, upturned crabs, and nude figures swinging on golden-leafed branches. At either end of the vault Parmigianino placed three gigantic, but supremely elegant maidens whose elongated forms are ingeniously fitted into the narrow space. Early drawings such as Ff,1.86 show that he originally conceived of these figures as merely decorative, but they were later given lamps to identify them as the Wise Virgins, with lamps alight, on the south and the Foolish Virgins, with unlit lamps, on the north. The soffits of the arches on either side of the vault are largely given over to a gilded strap-work decoration, but at either end are four large grisaille figures of Adam, Eve, Moses and Aaron which appear to be placed in shallow oval niches as though sculpted. Despite the ill-fated nature of the Steccata commission, it provided Parmigianino with the only opportunity to display his decorative flair and inventive brilliance on a truly grand scale. The artist's own sense of pride at his achievements there is, perhaps, apparent from a self-portrait drawing of the period (Bambach, Chapman, Clayton & Goldner 2000, cat. 115), which includes in the background two of the vase-bearing women from the vault.
This early study for the vault is one of the most important guides to the artist's initial conception of the design. The central study is related to the vault, and shows three rows of rather plain rosettes projecting from the square coffers, with oval medallions (the central ones slightly larger than those on the outside) held upright by nudes, some of whom are winged, at each corner. Parmigianino envisaged the central row of coffering being differentiated from the rest by larger ovals placed lengthways in the middle, and the base of the arch marked by an oval cut in two at the centre (this arrangement is repeated in the study on the verso). In the contract of 1531 he agreed to design the gilt-bronze rosettes and their surrounding frames, and the main study and that to the left include a variety of ideas for their forms. This study must therefore pre-date 1533 when Parmigianino handed over his final designs for the rosettes to the two craftsmen responsible for their manufacture. Although his ideas for the decorations in 1918,0615.3 generally differ greatly from the final work, it is worth noting that the crabs, which feature so memorably in one of the frame designs in the vault, already occur in the decoration on the right-hand side of the compartment at the top left. On the right-hand side of the sheet are studies for the underside of the lateral arches, and these show that the artist had already decided to place large-scale Old Testament figures at either end. At this stage he planned that the space between would be taken by feigned octagonal bosses, and in two studies for this section he experimented with various designs for the compartments framing them.
Parmigianino made further studies of the vault on the verso, drawn at right angles to an earlier study of an open arcade which appears not to be related to the Steccata. The distinction between the two designs is sometimes difficult to make out, as Parmigianino used the space between the piers of the arcade to make subsidiary studies for the decorative strips between the compartments of the vault, and he also drew over part of the arcade study. The pen drawing of the vault in the lower left corner is substantially the same as that on the verso, except that the idea of a female figure at the base of the vault, whose form is sketched in over the ovals in the centre of the first row of coffering, is introduced. From the drawing it is clear that Parmigianino intended this central figure to be matched by others on the same scale situated at the base of the lateral arches.
The seated prophet drawn at ninety degrees to the main study is related to an alternative idea for the decoration of the underside of the lateral arch, an idea developed more fully in Ff,1.86.
Literature: Popham, BM, no. 125; Popham, Parm., no. 228; Washington and Parma 1984, no. 50.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1879, RA Winter Exhibition, no. 90
1984 Mar-May, Washington, NGA, 'Correggio', No.50
2000-1 Oct-Jan, BM, 'Drawings by Correggio and Parmigianino', No.103
2001 Feb-May, New York, Met Mus of Art, 'Drawings by Correggio and Parmigianino', No.103
2003 Feb-May, Parma, Galleria Nazionale, 'Parmigianino e il manierismo europeo'
2015 1 Oct - 2016 10 Jan, Rome, Musei Capital, Raphael, Parmigianino, Barocci, dialectics of the gaze and metaphors of vision
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Rosaspina's facsmile has a border like those which surround his facsimiles of drawings in the Armano Collection.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number