Parmigianino by David Ekserdjian - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Fatal Perfectionism



Yale University Press 303pp £50

In the last generation, Parmigianino (1503–40) has gradually emerged from comparative neglect and is now seen as one of the greatest Renaissance artists. David Ekserdjian has been looking at the subject for twenty years, publishing widely in specialist journals. He has now treated the general public to a comprehensive monograph. It not only examines the magnificent paintings, many of them enhanced by careful cleaning and restoration, but is equally thorough on the drawings, which are fine and numerous and vital to our understanding of the artist. He also deals exhaustively with the prints, for Parmigianino was an accomplished etcher, and his work in this medium was crucial and was his principal influence on other artists in the sixteenth century. He treats the subject topic by topic, rather than chronologically, though he has a general introductory chapter on the artist’s life and work. This approach enables him to analyse separately the religious art, the portraits, the erotic art (which has never been discussed frankly and in depth before), and the important matter of the frames and the substantial and decorative settings of the paintings and frescoes. The book is almost overpowering in its scholarship and grasp of technical detail, and it includes drawings and paintings never before published, as well as up-to-date reproductions of restored works. It is, in my view, by far the most beautiful art book produced in the last year, and Ekserdjian and Yale are to be warmly congratulated on the care with which Parmigianino is here presented, in all his glorious craftsmanship and imaginative subtlety. In the dark age in which we live, where civilisation is under constant assaults from all directions, it is a real comfort to handle such a volume.

It is well to remember, however, that the sixteenth century was a disturbed time too. Parmigianino’s active life coincided with Luther’s revolt, Henry VIII’s plunder of the English Church, the beginning of religious warfare in Germany and savage invasions of Italy. He himself had terrifying experiences during the Sack of

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