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Parmigianino (Parma 1503-Casalmaggiore 1540)

Pallas Athena c. 1531-8

Oil on canvas | 64.0 x 45.4 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405765

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The figure is identified by the cameo on her breastplate as Pallas Athene, the warrior, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens. Parmigianino has stylised and distorted the figure of the goddess to create a mannerist ideal of beauty. The subject in this painting is identified by the inscription ATHENE at the lower edge of the cameo set into the breastplate, above which the image of Victory with palm and olive branch is flying over a city, presumably Athens. Pallas Athene was a warrior, usually shown in armour, as well as being the goddess of wisdom and patron of the city that bears her name. The olive branch is here to remind us that she was elected because the Athenians preferred her gift of an olive tree to the horse offered by Poseidon; the Victory is to remind us of the many triumphs brought through her protection. The painting is almost certainly the ‘head and chest of Minerva’ by Parmigianino measuring 16 by 10 oncie (roughly 72 x 45cm) in the 1561 inventory of Francesco Baiardo’s collection. If so, the present canvas is missing 8cm from the height; the engraving by Cornelis Visscher gives more space above Athena’s head and may record the original dimensions. Francesco Baiardo, a poet, was a friend and patron of Parmigianino and probably acquired the artist’s studio property on his death. His sister Elena de Tagliaferri commissioned the famous 'Madonna of the Long Neck' (Uffizi, Florence) of c.1534-9. He owned other secular and mythological paintings by Parmigianino, such as 'Cupid carving his Bow' (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This painting is now unanimously accepted as by Parmigianino and from the final decade of his short career. The highly refined style and exaggerated length of Athene’s neck have been likened to the 'Madonna of the Long Neck'. The sophisticated bravura of the handling of paint to depict jewels and glinting metal ornaments can also be seen in the vessels and paraphernalia surrounding the 'Three Wise Virgins and Three Foolish Virgins' in frescoes painted by Parmigianino in the vault of Santa Maria della Steccata, Parma, in c.1531-9. Athena has the same elegant proportions as the women in these works, and she is a softer version of the half-length Lucretia (perhaps the painting in the Capodimonte, Naples) of c.1535-6. Athena’s folds are less stylised and more textured, and her flesh is more softly realised than the ‘porcelain’ figures of the than work of the artist’s very last years. The ideal of female beauty in Parmigianino’s work has been linked to the poetry of Petrarch. Andrea Baiardo elaborated on Petrarchan descriptive conventions. In the figure of Pallas Athene naturalism is distorted and stylised to create a mannerist ideal of beauty. But like all Renaissance artists Parmigianino looked at antique sources. This figure can be linked to classical sculpted busts such as the Athena from the Grimani collection, now in the Museo Archeologico, Venice. There is a preparatory drawing of the whole figure in the Morgan Library, New York and five studies for the plaque and its supporting figures (formerly Spector collection, New York), in one of which Parmigianino explored the idea of a seated Athena. X-radiography reveals that the eyes of the principal figure were originally painted more open, rather than looking downwards, and with the gaze directed to the left, as they appear in the Morgan Library drawing. Infra-red reflectography also reveals an original design, in the underdrawing, which is closer to the Morgan Library sketch. Inscribed on the plaque: ATHENE Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007