The disjointed nonconformity of Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli's Annunciation

Appreciated but also panned by critics, Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli's Annunciation, now at the National Museum of Capodimonte, is nonetheless a very fascinating painting, among the most unique products of the most intellectualistic Mannerism.

The eyes of those who arrive in Room 12 of the National Museum of Capodimonte are typically caught by the mysterious and bewitching gaze of Parmigianino’sAntea , or the fixed and penetrating gaze of Galeazzo Sanvitale hanging beside her, another masterpiece by the imaginative Parmigianino. One then lingers on the other works by the young Mazzola, lingers on those by Correggio, and then scrolls for signature duty to the miniatures by Dosso Dossi and Garofalo hanging on the opposite wall. Some will perhaps be surprised to find that the Rape of Sabina in the center of the room is a small bronze by Giambologna. Who knows how many, on the other hand, will be enchanted by the disheveled and seductive nonconformity of Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli’sAnnunciation , which hangs among five other paintings, and appears when the visitor’s steps are already directed toward the flashes of the enormous Madonna by Annibale and Agostino Carracci, the powerful "d’après Correggio" that closes the room devoted to the great Emilian painting of the Farnese collection. Who knows how many admire its composition so daring and whimsical, how many appreciate the freckled minuteness of certain details, the crystalline beauty of the angel and the Virgin, who knows how many are won over by the spectacular piece of backlighting that stands out as a manifesto of the anticlassical flair of his painting, a challenge against any conventionalism.

It is, indeed, one of the most interesting works in the collection, although it often risks going unnoticed because it is surrounded by masterpieces by the greatest names in art history. As well as by works that are less strong, but certainly more resolved, clearer, more oriented even toward the contemporary viewer’s taste. To think that in 1970 Evelina Borea, in the entry dedicated to Mazzola Bedoli in the Biographical Dictionary of Italians, in classifying theAnnunciation among the masterpieces of the sixteenth-century painter, as well as among “the most significant paintings [...] of the most intellectualist strand of the manner,” lamented the fact that this and other works were neglected by critics. Yet few works better embody his qualities: a great friend of Francesco Mazzola known as the Parmigianino, Girolamo Bedoli had married one of his cousins and become related to him, thus ending up adding the surname Mazzola to his own. He did not achieve the same fame as Parmigianino because, although he was a few years older than his cousin-in-law, throughout his career he looked up to his young colleague and the disruptive revolution that his works had inaugurated. He was then a very discontinuous painter, capable of dazzling flashes as well as of sometimes tired and repetitive work, because he was in high demand by a local, and often out-of-date, clientele that Mazzola Bedoli always tried to satisfy, not always succeeding. At other times he tried instead to overdo it: many have read the CapodimonteAnnunciation in this way, that is, as a work that ends up seeming whimsical and unresolved.

Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, Annunciazione (1555-1560; olio su tela, 228 x 157 cm; Napoli, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte)
Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, Annunciation (1555-1560; oil on canvas, 228 x 157 cm; Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte)

Heinrich Bodmer, one of the first scholars to devote an in-depth study to him, has written that Mazzola Bedoli “resumes the problem of movement, of the distribution of light and shadow, of the proportion of the figures in the space that surrounds them and of psychological vitality at the point where Correggio and Parmigianino had left it decades ago, only to soon beat new paths.” And in this revival, the artist managed to unite (“unthinkingly,” the Swiss scholar was at pains to point out) “old and new, formal visions long since outmoded to ideas that represent great progress, and from these elements, which partly contradict each other, results an art that does not lack originality.” Yet, despite this originality, it could be said that Mazzola Bedoli’s fame has always lived in the shadow of that of Parmigianino. Even Vasari, in his Lives, although he knew Mazzola Bedoli in person, spoke of him only in his cousin’s biography in the 1568 edition. And it is interesting to note that it is in the Lives that we find the first attestation of the NeapolitanAnnunciation : Vasari records how Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli and Francesco Mazzola, both in their early twenties, left their Parma in 1521, where the war between Charles V and Francis I was in danger of approaching, to move to Viadana, a city in which Girolamo “made in San Francesco, luogo de’ Zoccoli, as young as he was, in a little table, a beautiful Nunziata, and another he made in Santa Maria ne’ Borghi.”

TheAnnunciation in “Santa Maria ne’ Borghi” is the one finished in Naples: it was painted by the artist for the church of the Annunziata in Viadana, and remained there until 1713. Then it happened that a duke from Parma, Francesco Farnese, saw it in the church, believing it, moreover, to be a work by Parmigianino, and wanted it for himself: the priests of Viadana probably did not think twice about it and gave the work to the duke, who took it with him to Parma, and since then the altarpiece has followed the vicissitudes of the Farnese collections, thus ending up in Naples at the time when Charles of Bourbon, son of Elisabetta Farnese, brought the rich inherited patrimony to the shores of the gulf.

The subject is one of the most frequented in sacred painting; the way Mazzola Bedoli approaches it, however, is entirely original. The encounter takes place in an interior, in the Virgin’s room: the bed canopy behind her is moved by a few curious angels peering at the scene, a probable suggestion of Correggio’s neo-Paganism in the Camera di San Paolo in Parma. Even the archangel, just hovering in the air, looks almost like Hermes: turned on his back, he has a tiara on his head, wears elegant leather sandals, his robe is held in place by a belt of gold and precious stones, like those that were fashionable among the ladies of the time, and above one of the gems, a goldsmith’s finesse, is the inscription “Ave,” a greeting to the Madonna, to whom he offers a lily, the symbol of her purity, with an unnatural twist of his right hand. She, who until a moment before the arrival of the angel we imagine sitting in her chair, in amazement has fallen down, and with her knee she leans on the ground so as not to get off balance. She has an adolescent face like that of the one who is bringing the announcement to her. The way the drapery is painted, with subtle iridescence, transparencies that give a glimpse of the body’s forms and folds that move in all directions, comes directly from Parmigianino. In front of her, the statue of a putto, the one with the piece of backlighting that is the first element of the painting to be noticed, is actually a lectern, on which rests the book from which the Virgin is reading. In front of her is a very fine still life: the basket with sewing materials, including a beautiful ready-made embroidered handkerchief. Behind, here instead is a small table with an hourglass and, a little further away, a candlestick with a lighted candle, which, however, does not illuminate because the setting is already brightened by the appearance of the angel.

An original, contrived, almost bizarre composition. Improbable, daring poses, at the limits of physics, with the characters in an excessive scale that end up compressing the space. Virtuosities of artificial lighting and contrasts between areas of shadow and areas highlighted by strong lighting that give an almost statuesque evidence to certain elements. A wide, bright, translucent color palette. The careful and scrupulous attention to certain details. The recovery of the modes of Correggio and Parmigianino interpreted according to an entirely personal taste and inclination. Bodmer was not convinced by the CapodimonteAnnunciation : he felt that the hard, precise modeling of the bodies made the contrasts of light too sharp, thus making any delicate atmospheric effect impossible. For Adolfo Venturi even the work is “all ramshackle and disjointed in its lines and light effects.” On the contrary, for Evelina Borea the Viadana altarpiece is a “vivid example” of those “luministic effects of a rare preciousness on the materials pursued in their various accidences” of which Mazzola Bedoli had shown himself capable. There is not too much to go around, in short: either one appreciates the inordinate intellectualism of his Annunciation, or it is a painting one rejects. It is not a painting for half-measures.

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