As the idealization of female beauty became a central theme in sixteenth century intellectual circles, artists became interested in its representation. Taking inspiration from Petrarchan poetic ideals, Parmigianino is celebrated for his beautiful rendering of the female form. This is perhaps best represented through the large body of preparatory drawings for his work in Santa Maria della Steccata. He spent nearly a decade designing the vault and soffits of the church, of which over a hundred drawings survive.
This drawing is a composite study for several female figures featured in the vault’s design. The sheet is a double-sided drawing where each side represents the same figure in similar poses, one featuring a woman in ink with one arm extended over her head and the other arm at her side, while the second shows the same woman in red chalk with one identically positioned arm and the other delicately bent upward at the elbow. The pen drawing on the recto of the sheet appears to be more finished with stronger and surer outlines, while the chalk drawing is fleshier, and the stomping of the medium allows for more subtle nuances in the figure’s modelling. The chalk drawing has the appearance of a rapid sketch, with emphasis placed less on contours and more on the figure’s proportions.
It has been suggested that the figure on the verso of the Courtauld sheet was traced through from the recto’s iron gall design with an alternative position given to one of its arms. This hypothesis is supported by the near perfect correspondence of the outline of one figure to the other, although the physical details and the modelling of the figures are different. Furthermore, an ink mark that has seeped through to the chalk side of the drawing appears to correspond exactly to the navels of both the recto and verso figures. In fact, after close examination, there appears to be media resting on top of the iron gall seepage that corresponds directly with the recto figure’s navel. This would mean that the ink figure’s navel was consciously marked as the verso’s as well. Therefore, the red chalk figure was most likely realized last despite its more sketch-like appearance. Red chalk drawings from Parmigianino’s earlier years reveal how the artist used this medium in diverse manners. He exhibits dynamic contours, with hatching that imitates pen drawing and soft shading, and often combines red chalk with pen, brown wash or white heightening.
Both of these figures bear striking similarities to different components of the commission’s final design of the Santa Maria della Steccata ceiling. (figs. 1-2) They are not for the vault’s main characters but rather provide a composite study of the other female figures of the programme: the small decorative nudes flanking the soffits and the seated figure of ‘Eve’. The decorative nudes are represented holding leafy vines, a motif that is repeated in the drawing’s figures and which is especially drawn out in the ink figure’s design. Both the chalk and ink figures are surely preparatory efforts for the small nudes along the soffits. However, certain details, such as the light outline of a sculptural niche featured on both sides of the drawing, and the positioning of the arms of the iron gall figure, suggest that the sheet was also used as a preliminary drawing for the figure of ‘Eve’.
The multi-The multi-functionality of the drawing, as studies for separate elements of the Steccata vault, offers an interesting testament to Parmigianino’s artistic process. The Courtauld drawing reflects the artist’s ability to construct forms abstractly and to produce figures that exist independently as ornaments with little regard for their correct anatomical proportions.
Parmigianino was very much an artist who thought with his hands and the quality of his draughtsmanship succeeds in conveying the beautiful inventions of his mind. Indeed, Parmigianino appears to have spent an extraordinary amount of effort devising and reworking beautiful figural and decorative ideas for the Steccata.