Research Magazine 2006

Art detective

Professor draws national recognition for rediscovering missing treasures

Discovering, or in some cases rediscovering, a long-lost friend usually results in a joyous reunion—even when one of the friends lived in the 16th century and the other lives in the 21st.

After rediscovering several works by Italian Renaissance artists, art history Associate Professor Mary Vaccaro has made a name for herself as a specialist on the authenticity of works from the era of da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. And she delights in finding and recognizing her “old friends.”

drawing  by Parmigianino

Art history Associate Professor Mary Vaccaro rediscovered this drawing by Parmigianino while working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

George Goldner, head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls Dr. Vaccaro “one the best scholars of Italian 16th-century drawings” and perhaps the leading authority on works by Emilian artists of the period. “She has a fine eye and is both thorough and completely honest-minded as a scholar.”

Vaccaro is considered one of the world’s leading experts on Parmigianino, an artist from Parma who lived from 1503 to 1540. He was a prolific draftsman who left more drawings than any other Renaissance artist except Leonardo da Vinci. Parmigianino and Vaccaro’s “friendship” began in the late 20th century, when she held a fellowship in Florence and spent more than a year combing through the vast drawings collection of the city’s Uffizi Gallery. There she taught herself what she calls “the skill of connoisseurship,” or the ability to recognize an artist’s work based on a scrutiny of details.

“What really struck me about Parmigianino is that he made so many drawings,” she says. “They show the development of his work over time. He kind of obsesses and sometimes doesn’t get around to doing the paintings.”

And though she focused much attention on Parmigianino, Vaccaro also examined the works of his contemporaries.

“Drawings are fantastic! They’re like rough drafts in written work.”

“I began to distinguish the styles of respective artists. I paid closer attention to a drawing’s physical properties: its paper, medium and other technical aspects. These are the kinds of things that cannot be fully discerned by simply consulting a photograph or digital reproduction. That’s why actually being there, holding the drawings, is so important.

I love getting my hands on the actual works.”

Vaccaro has published one book examining Parmigianino’s paintings and another cataloging his finest drawings. She recognizes his work even when it is buried in a box of drawings by Allegrini, a Rome-based artist. It was in that box, at the Met, that Vaccaro rediscovered her friend from northern Italy.

“I was going through boxes of works by a 17th-century artist and I found a Parmigianino,” she says. “You become so familiar with the artist’s work that you can recognize it whenever and wherever you see it.”

The drawing had been in the museum’s collection since 1880 but had never been published. The director at the Met was so excited that he had Dr. Goldner announce the discovery at a museum acquisitions meeting.

Vaccaro was carefully examining the Met’s collection of drawings as part of a yearlong fellowship she recently completed with the museum. While there, she viewed thousands of drawings.

On another occasion, she was able to authenticate a study of a man that she recognized as a preparatory sketch for a known portrait by Parmigianino’s cousin, Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli. Another unknown—and unpublished—work, another old friend rediscovered and properly recognized.

“Drawings are fantastic!” she says. “They’re like rough drafts in written work. Each artist has a kind of handwriting, and this past year at the Met I’ve worked to broaden my knowledge of them.”

Parmigianino was a frugal man, like many artists, and often drew on both sides of a paper. Since the 16th century, many of his drawings have been mounted with only one side in view. Vaccaro has learned to lift each sheet to the light, often detecting “new” works hidden for centuries.

Such meticulous sleuthing has brought notoriety to the art historian and made her a frequent flyer to various European destinations. At the Louvre in Paris she was able to reattribute nearly a dozen Italian Renaissance paintings to various artists.

Everywhere and always, she’s looking for those long-lost friends.

- Sherry Neaves