Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

By Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins | Go to book overview

Dutiful Widows: Female Patronage and
Two Marian Altarpieces by Parmigianino

Mary Vaccaro

Throughout his career Francesco Mazzola, better known as il Parmigianino, worked for female patrons, secular as well as religious, on projects large and small. He painted a room with mythological scenes for a local noblewoman, a baby crib for another Parmese lady, and an altarpiece for Bolognese nuns.1 Two of his best-known altarpieces were made for secular female patrons. Such a statement is hardly surprising, since sixteenth-century historical sources refer, albeit briefly, to these women. According to Giorgio Vasari, for example, Parmigianino made for a certain "madonna Maria Bufolina da Città di Castello" a painting that corresponds in description to the so-called Vision of Saint Jerome, now in the National Gallery in London (fig. 1).2 Vasari also indicates that Parmigianino later created for the "sorella del Cavalier Baiardo" the altarpiece known today as the Madonna of the Long Neck, now in the Uffizi in Florence (fig. 2). A document for the latter painting, published in the midnineteenth century, identifies the patron as the Parmese noblewoman Elena Baiardi.3

Despite the early mentions of these patrons, little effort has been made to consider them more fully. In this chapter I will focus on the two secular women for whom Parmigianino painted Marian altarpieces. Who were Maria Bufalini and Elena Baiardi, and what was the nature of their commissions? Related archival and biographical information should help elucidate our inquiry. Documents reveal that both Maria and Elena were decorating their husbands' funerary chapels. Each altarpiece should, therefore, serve as an index to uxorial duty— that is, a widow's commemoration of her deceased spouse. But to what extent is each painting an expression of the patron herself? I intend to look first at the specific circumstances of each project, and then I will attempt to discern any patterns that might potentially be significant for the study of secular female patronage in the Renaissance. In particular, both altarpieces invite questions about the relationship of widows to the Virgin Mary and Saint Jerome.


The Vision of Saint Jerome

The so-called Vision of Saint Jerome is a large altarpiece painted by Parmigianino during his sojourn in Rome between 1524 and 1527. Vasari tells us that during the Sack of Rome in 1527, when imperial troops charged into Parmigianino's studio and found him at work on this painting, they were so impressed by its quality that they left the artist unharmed to continue his business. Even if this story is a topos derived from Pliny, Vasari's account remains important for the factual details it provides about the commission, for he also records that the painting was made for Maria Bufalini to be placed in a chapel in the Roman church of San Salvatore in Lauro.4

Two recently discovered documents—the contract for the painting and Maria's last testament—confirm and expand the information given by Vasari.5 In 1526 Maria Bufalini

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