The painting depicts Galeazzo Sanvitale, count of Fontanellato and a member of a noble family from Parma, who was Parmigianino’s client in his early years.
The work is executed in refined manner and it represents a seated, elegantly dressed man. The man is wearing a scarlet red suit with cut sleeves, under which he has a white embroidered shirt, a red hat according to fashion of the time, embellished with beads, a black feather and a decorative cameo with representation of the columns of Hercules. A black jacket covers the figure of Galeazzo, leaving only part of the arms free. The man is looking directly at the viewer, showing a medal engraved with the number 72, holding in his hand covered with a glove. On his other hand he is wearing a ring and he is resting his arm on a Savonarola style chair, which can be hardly seen. The shining hilt of a sword can be seen under Sanvitale’s arm.
The critics have debated a lot about the meaning of the number 72 engraved on the medal. According the traditional interpretation, it would refer to Galeazzo’s marriage to Paola Gonzaga, represented by the conjunction of the sun and moon, corresponding to the numbers 7 and 2 in the hermetic circle. This complex symbology could actually respond well to Parmigianino’s interests, who often depicted complex symbolic details in his early works linked to esotericism, cabalism and alchemy.
Behind Galeazzo Parmigianino painted a shining armor, seen on the left, a glimpse of white wall and on the right trees with thick foliage. The figure of the young nobleman with thick beard and magnetic gaze, whose bright and clear eyes reflect light, had been interpreted as a portrait of Christopher Columbus for the presence of the cameo and the columns of Hercules on it, whose purpose has not yet been fully understood. In the 19th century, a descendant of the Sanvitale family identified the figure based on family documents that were still in his possession.
The elegant portrait is also characterized by something that only seems to be a traditional setting. In fact, the composition is somewhat oblique, with the chair positioned sideways, the bust of the man positioned straight and frontally, and the wall is oblique, suggesting a movement, albeit barely noticeable, of Sanvitale.
The painting is dated and signed on the back “Opus de Mazolla 1524/F.”, which confirms that Parmigianino painted the work in Parma, before traveling to Rome, in the same period in which he had painted the frescoes of the dressing room of Rocca di Fontanello with the Stories of Diana an Actaeon, commissioned by Galeazzo and his wife Paola.
In 1561 the son of Galeazzo, Eucherio, sold part of the family collection to Odoardo Farnese, who acquired the painting on that occasion and wrote it in the inventories of the Farnese house in 1587. In the 18th century the painting passed to the house of Bourbon through Elisabetta Farnese, last descendant of the family. Her son Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples from 1734, moved most of the collection to Naples.
A member of an art family – his father Filippo and his uncles were painters, even if they were not as talented as him – Parmigianino was born in Parma where he had his artistic training.
His first important commission probably dates back to the frescoes of the church of San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma, around 1522, where he worked with Correggio decorating the dome, as well as the chapels with St. Agatha and the Executioner and his two Reading Deacons.
The following year, between 1523 and 1524, Parmigianino was busy decorating the heater, that is, the bathroom of Rocca Sanvitale in Fontanellato, near Parma, with the Stories of Diana and Actaeon, which were already characterized by the elegance of the elongated figures, typical of his work.
Shortly after he traveled to Rome with his uncle, where he studied the works of Raphael and met his students, in particular Perin del Vaga, but also other painters such as Sebastiano del Piombo and Rosso Fiorentino.
The works that date back to the Roman period are the Holy Family with Young St. John (Naples, Capodimonte museum) and the Vision of St. Jerome, where the exaggeratedly long figures with elegant gestures were already an established element of his painting.
The sack of Rome by the Landsknechte in 1527 forced the artist to leave city and go to Bologna. There he stayed between 1527 and 1530 painting the refined Madonna della Rosa, preserved today at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden and Madonna di Santa Margherita (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale) as well as the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple.
In 1530 the artist returned to Parma, to paint the frescoes of Madonna della Steccata, the sanctuary that was built to celebrate the victory over the French in 1521, on which he worked from 1531 to 1539 with some difficulties with the client who had commissioned the work. Here Parmigianino painted the Wise Virgins and the Foolish Virgins, but the commissioners of the fresco complained about his slowness carrying out the work and he spent two months in prison for non-compliance.
Once out of prison he left Parma and the frescoes, which he never finished, as well as some unfinished paintings, among them Madonna with the Long Neck, his masterpiece, which is preserved today at the Uffizi Galleries.
Parmigianino arrived to Casalmaggiore, where he fell ill with malaria, which caused his death in 1540.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.