Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, green/black, only state
In a clearing in a wood, an elegant, naked youth sits with his back to the viewer. Although his face and action are hidden, some have identified him as Narcissus adoring his own image in a pool of water, and accordingly the figure at lower left as the nymph Echo. Full of sadness, and seemingly melting into the forest floor, she yearns for the young man of legendary beauty who has scorned her love. The image is far from a literal illustration of Ovid's text (Metamorphoses, Book III), which has raised doubts as to its iconography (see, for example, Popham 1969; Trotter 1974; and Ekserdjian 2006, p. 222. However, as Vaccaro has noted Parmigianino often expanded conventional meaning when interpreting literary sources). Yet Parmigianino vividly evokes the story's main themes: a handsome youth absorbed in his own likeness, ignoring his admirers; an unrequited love who looks on with longing, hiding in the woods in shame as she fades away.
Four extant drawings of varied character and in different mediums testify to Parmigianino's careful planning of the composition. One drawing is a focused figure study of the male nude, an exceptional example of a finished life drawing within Parmigianino's oeuvre. Executed in black and white chalks, this study, conserved in Modena, articulates the fall of light across the surface of the man's back with great attentiveness (Ekserdjian 2006, 171. In preparing the chiaroscuro woodcut Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, Parmigianino also executed a drawing in black chalk with touches of white in which he similarly studied the effects of light in conveying the volumetric forms of the gures, Louvre inv. 6419; see R. Serra in Parmigianino. Dessins du Louvre 2015). In a second drawing, this one in pen, Parmigianino developed parts of the forest landscape through a meticulous rendering of dense foliage at the foot of a tree (Popham 1971 and Ekserdjian 2006, 177). Parmigianino ultimately realized a coherent and balanced design, integrating the graceful figure of Narcissus within the verdant landscape that is illuminated from the right. The curious cropping of Echo in the lower corner of the pictorial field, a compositional device Parmigianino frequently deployed, brings the viewer closer to the drama as it quietly unfolds (Franklin 2003).
Vasari described the unsigned print as one of the four that Antonio executed in Parmigianino's Bolognese workshop (see also ALU.0961.1). Neither the attribution of the design nor the cutting has since been questioned. “Only Parmigianino himself,” Pierre Jean Mariette wrote, “could draw with such liveliness, and there can be scarcely any doubt that he himself drew the lines and the hatching that express the dark and the light on the wood before having them cut”. Most scholars have shared the belief that Parmigianino drew directly onto the blocks, or at the very least provided a finished modello for Antonio. An alternate argument, that the blockcutter adapted the figure from the Modena chalk drawing and assembled details from the various studies, seems improbable (as proposed by M. Di Giampaolo in Parmigianino. The drawing 2000). Antonio could hardly have improvised the beautifully varied, calligraphic strokes so characteristic of Parmigianino's fluid and confident draftsmanship. Rather, the refined cutting indicates an extreme fidelity, even sensitivity, to Parmigianino's graceful hand.
In the Harvard and PMA impressions, the clear, even printing of the compositional block (especially in the tight networks of overlapping lines) fluently conveys the artist's taut, lithe line work. The tone block is printed in a thin, even layer of well-formulated ink typical of the Bolognese shop. While the green impression, with its stronger contrasts of white highlights against the rich tone, creates the sense that the figures are set deep in the forest covering, the scene in the light brown impression appears bathed in warm light, its delicate highlights resplendent.
Later impressions of Narcissus bear witness to block wear, including minor losses and wormholes, many of which were incrementally filled before each campaign of reprinting. These late impressions, often in more opaque inks, are characterized by broader lines and a loss of detail in the hatched and crosshatched tone block reserves. In the number of recorded impressions, Narcissus is comparable to Antonio da Trento's Virgin and Child with Saint John, Saint John the Baptist, and Lute Player. However, these four prints survive in fewer numbers than his Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl and Martyrdom of Two Saints. The two groups of prints evidently diverge in their later publishing histories, which may account in part for the number of impressions that were issued. Notably, only the latter two woodcuts were issued by the F on Three Mounts Printer who printed them in substantial numbers. This underscores yet again the critical role of later publishers in determining the prevalence of any given print, thereby shaping our modern knowledge of the chiaroscuro woodcut.
Naoko Takahatake, The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June-September 2018, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, October 2018-January 2019, DelMonico Books/Prestel, Munich-London-New York, 2018, pp.109-111
See the list of known impressions in ALU.0958.2
, "Observations on Parmigianino's designs for Chiaroscuro woodcuts", Miscellanea I. Q. van Regteren Altena
, Amsterdam, 1969, pp. 48-51, p. 49
, Catalogue of the drawings of Parmigianino
, New Haven, 1971, vol. 1, p. 43, n. 2, vol. 2, tav. 134
, Chiaroscuro woodcuts of the circles of Raphael and Parmigianino a study in reproductive graphics
, The Univ. of North Carolina, 1974, p. 187
, "Parmigianino and the poetry of drawing", Parmigianino. The drawing
, Tornino, 2000, pp. 73-73, p. 63
, Parmigianino. The drawing, Tornino, 2000, p. 208, n. 104 (Di Giampaolo M.)
, The art of Parmigianino
, New Haven, 2003, p. 214, n. 61
, Parmigianino. Dessins du Louvre, Parigi/ Milano, 2015, pp. 134–135, n. 46 (Serra R.)