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In the Rome of Parmigianino's day, courtesans were beloved by many, many people.

135 years after the artist finished this work, Giacomo Barri gave it the name of one of the most famous courtesans, praised by the author Pietro Aretino and the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, whose name was Antea. What's the difference between a courtesan, an escort, a prostitute, and, as the late Nate Dogg sang in his radio edit of "Area Codes," a "pro"? Nothing at all, it turns out, but the names for the world's oldest job range from the lofty "courtesan," with its close resemblance to "courtier," to the derisive ones we've all heard on your favorite reality show, or a random episode of Maury Povich

I can't totally fault Barri for publishing, in his "Picturesque Journey of Italy," the insinuation that Parmigianino had a lil' thang going with the famous Antea, and that this picture is the woman herself. No doubt, Barri was just trying to pay the bills with some juicy proto-TMZ gossip, and the ploy worked. But his machinations, like the butterfly effect, have far-reaching consequences when people accept the story without researching it, because it reflects inaccurately on the scant biography of the great Parmigianino, whose tragically short career is full of brilliant works. The juiciness of the story is precisely the "red flag" that writers, luckily, notice, in order to introduce the painting with a big old grain of rock salt about the misleading title. I guess we keep the title the same as a lesson about the effects of gossip, but maybe we should change it back to Ritratto di giovane donna (Portrait of a Young Woman). Another sign that this woman is not Antea is that her apron is a noblewoman's, and the presence of jewels and rubies on her hair and hands are talismans meant to protect the fertility of a young aristocratic bride. Recent research has connected this woman to Ottavia Camilla Baiardi, Parmigianino's friend's niece, and she resembles the features of Parmigianino's Madonna with the Long Neck. 

Parmigianino's brilliant techniques of erotic intimacy, such as her bare hand on her jewelry and the slight movement of her clothing to suggest her movement toward you, make this work one of the greatest portraits. It's no surprise that German troops stole this one during WWII, and the National Museum of Capodimonte had to retrieve it when the dust settled. 

Christina Neilson is on point when she writes that all of our centuries of hemming and hawing about the identity of this particular woman are secondary, as far as the artist's intentions are concerned: Parmigianino wanted to show us the captivating soul of an ideal beauty that anyone could fall in love with.


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Here is what Wikipedia says about Antea (Parmigianino)

Antea (also known as Portrait of a Young Woman) is a painting by the Italian Mannerist artist Parmigianino, executed around 1525. The painting is now at the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy.


The work is mentioned in 1671 as part of the Farnese collections in the Palazzo del Giardino. In the late 17th century, the painting was moved to the Ducal Gallery in the Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma. It is in Naples since 1734, apart from a short period in 1816-1817 at Palermo. During World War II it was moved to Montecassino, where it was stolen by the occupying German forces and brought to Berlin, and then to the Austrian salt mines of Altaussee, from where it returned to Italy in 1945

In the description of the Farnese Ducal Gallery (1725) it is listed as Portrait of Antea or the Beloved of Parmigianino, referring to some famous courtesan of Rome and mentioned by both Benvenuto Cellini and Pietro Aretino. This attribution has been later contested, as well as the traditional dating of the work to the period in which Parmigianino was in Rome (1524–1527). Studies of the woman's garments, a mix of luxury and popular elements, led to the hypothesis that she could be either a daughter, a lover or a servant of Parmigianino, if not Pellegrina Rossi di San Secondo or another unknown noblewoman of Parma.

As was common practice among artists during this period, Parmigianino later returned to the piece to borrow elements for re-use in later works. In particular, the face of Antea reappears as one of the angels accompanying the central figure group in the unfinished Madonna of the Long Neck.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Antea (Parmigianino)