Pietro Maria Rossi, Count of San Secondo1535 - 1538. Oil on panel, 133 x 98 cm.
Educated as a young man in France and Florence, in 1527 Pier Maria Rossi (1504-1547), Seventh Count of San Secondo, was in the service of Clement VII but that same year entered the employment of Charles V. Vasari recounts that Parmigianino (to whom this work has been unanimously attributed following its restoration) escaped from Parma to San Secondo in around 1538 in order to avoid problems relating to the commission for the Steccata.The present portrait must have been painted between 1535 and 1538, when the Count returned home. Depicted as totally abstracted, his gaze lost in the middle distance, the imposing figure of the Count is firmly outlined against a costly brocade.The use of notably delicate shadowing brilliantly avoids the effect of a silhouette often found in figures set against backgrounds of this type.This is the only portrait by Parmigianino to use a gold background and its presence seems deliberate given that this device had fallen out of use in painting since the mid-15th century. The parapet emphasises the wealth and distinction of this aristocratic sitter, but it also has medieval connotations as Pier Maria Rossi was both a Renaissance and feudal lord, ready to place his sword at the service of the pope, emperor or king of France in order to maintain the independence of his domain and to augment the prestige of his own line.This is indicated by the motto on his medal which reads:‘AUT TE CAPIA[M] AUT MORIAR’, in which he is shown running and in armour, on the point of seizing Fortuna’s long hair. The Count’s military status is referred to by the sword and statue.The latter has traditionally been identified as Mars, god of war. It is clear, however, that the Count was more than a fighting figure, as otherwise he would be depicted in armour or at least accompanied by armour, as we see with another portrait of a feudal figure by Parmigiano, namely the Count of Fontanellato. Pier Maria III is presented as a gentleman who cultivated arms, as well perhaps as letters, as the books in the unusual lateral opening indicate. In the known copies of the painting, one of the books has the word ‘IMPERIO’ written on it, in a clear reference to Charles V, whom the Count served at the time this portrait was executed. In 1539 Charles confirmed the Count’s privileges to his domains over the claims by the city of Parma. Strangely, the inscription on the book is not to be seen in the Prado painting, from which the copies derive. The statue, which faces the Count and which, like him, holds the hilt of its sword, seemingly about to unsheathe it, has also been identified with Minerva in relation to two drawings of that goddess by Parmigianino. The figure’s anatomy, however, clearly indicates that it is a slender young man who cannot easily be identified as Mars, who is generally depicted with a beard and cuirass. He may be the cunning Perseus, recognisable by his cape and scimitar (the sword seems slightly curved), and by the Corinthian helmet of Pallas Athene, which made the wearer invisible and which the goddess gave to the young Perseus, according to some versions. Below the statue is a relief of Hercules, grandson of Perseus through both the male and female line, and who also used a scimitar to kill the Lernaean Hydra with the help of Iolaus (possibly the young man who accompanies him). Hercules symbolised the use of force controlled by intelligence, a quality that would be appropriate for the Count and which, aside from any association of Hercules with Charles V, would explain his presence in the portrait. (Redín, G. en: El retrato del Renacimiento, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2008, p. 475)