Parmigianino's Antea, a special loan from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, was exhibited in the United States for the first time in more than twenty years. Although it is widely recognized as a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance female portraiture, little is known about the painting: its date is not firmly established, it is unclear why or for whom the portrait was made, and the sitter's identity is a mystery.
Antea was painted in the early 1530s by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, known as Parmigianino (1503–1540). The subject stands, looking out at the viewer with surprising frankness. Her perfect oval face is set on an improbably ample body with wide shoulders and hips. Her gold satin dress is embellished with silver bands, while her apron and the cuffs of her underdress are decorated with delicate blackwork embroidery. Most of the items worn by Antea — including the marten fur, gold chain, head brooch, embroidered apron, and golden sleeves — were gifts commonly presented by lovers, often with the hope of erotic fulfillment. By wearing them, a woman stated her acceptance of her lover’s advances. Parmigianino has depicted Antea interacting with these gifts: she fingers the chain and points with her hand to her heart, implying acceptance of her lover's offer.
While no known evidence definitively links the woman Parmigianino depicted to a specific person, her identity has been the cause of speculation for centuries. She was first identified as “Antea” in 1671 by the artist and writer Giacomo Barri, who claimed she was Parmigianino’s mistress. As Antea was the name of a famous sixteenth-century Roman courtesan, it was assumed that this was the woman to whom Barri referred. She has been identified alternatively as a daughter or servant of the artist; a member of an aristocratic northern Italian family; and a noble bride. It is most likely, however, that Antea represents an ideal beauty, a popular genre of portraiture during the Renaissance. In such portraits, the beauty and virtue of the woman were the primary subjects, while the sitter’s identity — and even her existence — were of secondary importance.
By creating an impossibly beautiful woman who, nonetheless, seems real enough to step out of the picture and speak to us, Parmigianino invites us to dwell on his unrivaled capacity to conjure a transcendent illusion. He challenges the viewer to consider the relationship between desire and art, inspiring emotion both sensual and elevated.