Italian Painter, Draughtsman, and Printmaker
Summary of Parmigianino
With the possible exception of his nemesis Correggio, Parmigianino was the leading painter of Palma; an eccentric, but technically adept virtuoso who also worked in Rome and Bologna. He ranks as one of the most compelling artists, showing a true artistic daring in a readiness to confront the orthodoxies of the day and a leading exponent of the exaggerated Mannerist style. Defying the naturalistic approach of the great masters of the High Renaissance (namely Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael) some have viewed the rhythmic sensuality of his figures as an effort to translate the feeling of spiritual uncertainty that was a by-product of this most turbulent period of Italian history. His was, however, a short career (Parmigianino died in his thirties) but in that time he produced a substantial body of work featuring drawings and paintings of the profane and the sacred, often tinged with a feel for ethereal and the erotic.
- Seen as a brilliant exponent of the Mannerist style, Parmigianino's works was notable for the freedom of his brushstrokes, his elegant decorative schemes, and a subtle rendering of spatial incongruity and elongated human figures. He was drawn to the idea of the super-natural, rather than the natural, but his art managed the fine balancing act between expressive splendor and technical control.
- The perception of Parmigianino as an eccentric is based on his pursuit, in his later life especially, of magic and alchemy. This translates to his paintings which are often lit from uncertain sources, giving the impression that the paintings themselves carry a golden glowing light that emits from somewhere within the subject. Moreover, his chiaroscuro and innovations in drawing reveal his fascination with transfigurations from one form of matter into another. However, his creativity was born of a mysterious, restless mind that meant that any full realization of his vision would always elude him.
- While other Mannerists tried to exaggerate the idea of beauty as presented by Raphael and the other masters of the High Renaissance, many of Parmigianino's paintings contain formal ambiguities that seem to verge on a sense of distortion. He would often apply a vivid use of color to create an impression of tension within the picture frame, while his figures, both portraits, and characters within religious scenes, are often imbued with a rather daring sensuality.
- Part of Parmigianino's legacy was his incursion into the field of printmaking. The feature of graceful elegance in his painting transferred in fact to Parmigianino's drawings. Indeed, he was one of the first Italian painters to venture into etching, using the etching needle with the same (if not more) freedom he used with his pen. He would use etchings to reproduce earlier drawings creating high demand for his graphic work both domestically and abroad.
Biography of Parmigianino
Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola was born in Parma somewhere towards the beginning of 1503. It was only retrospectively, once he had gained his substantial reputation during the middle-period of the Italian Renaissance in fact, did he become known as Parmigianino - "little one of Parma". He was born the fourth child to Donatella Abbati and the painter Filippo Mazzola. Before his second birthday, his father succumbed to the plague and died, aged 45, leaving the young Parmigianino to be raised by his mother and his two uncles, Pier and Michele Ilario, themselves artisanal painters. Indeed, painting was the family business and Filippo had been well-known in his provincial sphere. Sadly, so far as the family business was concerned, Filippo's brothers' abilities were considered somewhat modest by comparison.
Important Art by Parmigianino
Parmigianino's earliest self-portrait - casually (but unjustly) dismissed by Renaissance historian Cecil Gould as "a witty visual conceit, typical of its century" - was a meticulous and radical composition using a curved mirror from a barber's studio; the painter carefully copying everything visible in the glass onto a convex panel of poplar wood he made specifically for the purpose.
In their attempt to step out from the long shadow cast by the masters of the High Renaissance, the Mannerists challenge the idea of compositional harmony and were intent rather on exploring different perspectives and unusual spatial relations within the frame. Here, for instance, the drawing hand swings and flexes through the foreground of the globed composition, making it appear large and domineering, whilst the angelic delicacy of the boy-artist's face is allowed to recede into a kind of calm power in the mid-ground. Parmigianino's meticulous eye is evident at this early stage in details like the wood-panelling in the roof, the diamond-hatch leading of the window design, the frost or dust on the pane, and the play of light on the boy's ring (betraying an early glimmer, perhaps, of his later obsession with gold and alchemy). The entire picture is lit by daylight originating from the window in the back-left, but then reflected from the mirror-surface back onto the boy's hand and face. In this sense, the painter seems to be lit supernaturally, or from within. Or, equally, the effect is as though he is lit by something beyond the frame, on the spectator's side of the frame. The boards and panels and doorways of the artist's home in Parma are visible in the background even as they seem to shy away in the distorted frame (the Renaissance painters, incidentally, had used mirrors as a tool for eradicating distortions), giving them a demur, intimate feel.
The historian Sydney J. Freedberg calls the picture a "bizarria", albeit one achieved through meticulous "realism". For him, the "gentleness and unaffected grace" of the painter's expression is a necessary offset for the "capricious and bizarre" method of composition, so that the whole harmonizes in a way that is strangely true to High Renaissance ideals even whilst totally rejecting them in a Mannerist trompe-l'oeil.
The painting's fame was endorsed by the American poet John Ashbery whose long poem, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror was the title poem for a collection that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a National Book Critic's Circle Award in 1976. The poem, considered by many to be Ashbery's best, and from which the following excerpt is taken, is a mediation on Parmigianino's painting:
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through our eyes
This is the only altarpiece, for the Caccialupi family chapel Parmigianino was commissioned to make whilst in Rome. One of Parmigianino's most accomplished religious works, it shows John the Baptist gesturing towards a vision of the Madonna as Apocalyptic Woman, cresting from tumbling clouds on a crescent of light. The Christ Child is oddly mature in years, large in size, and knowing in aspect. He, like the Baptist, looks directly at the viewer. He also appears to be selecting the passage from the Book of Revelations in which this scene takes place; an interesting detail of self-reference. The picture mixes different temporal perspectives, the same way it plays with spatial relations between figures: the size of the divine figures are for instance much larger than their distance into the background would suggest.
Parmigianino takes his cue from later ideas of Michelangelo's by sacrificing bodily realism for expressive effect: the contorted pose of the Baptist is physically impossible, designed to enhance the musculature of his shoulders and arms and the elongation of his gesturing finger. His usual attribution of a long cruciform is here simplified to split reeds threaded together. Both Christ and the Virgin take a definitive step forward onto a slab of stone, emphasising their position as bridge between the earthly and the divine. The composition is framed and balanced beautifully, on the left by the Baptist's firmly planted foot and leg, up through his slender cross, and then along the gracefully elongated arm of the Virgin. The right-hand side of the frame is closed nicely by the parallel lines traversed by the Baptist's pointing-arm and the elbow of Jerome. Jerome's red robe balances the palette, gently echoed by the Virgin's loose, translucent slip. Freedberg commented that though "the design may have a quality of drama, the temper of the picture remains controlled and suave." Critics have tended to agree that this painting has sharper acuity and greater precision than much of Parmigianino's later work.
The "sheer beauty of the execution" of this painting is highlighted by modern critic David Ekserdjian, showing that its power to enthral has remained consistent over centuries - Vasari himself called it a "picture of extraordinary loveliness". It is the second painting that Parmigianino produced during his Bologna period and is therefore executed with an attitude of refreshed self-belief. Indeed, he was considered the chief talent in the city during his residence there.
St Catherine appears with the spiked-wheel that was used during her martyrdom, and here receives a ring from the Christ Child, symbolising her "marriage" to Christ and therefore her chastity. The child gazes into the face of his mother, who is turned with easy grace away from the viewer, her arm lying in postured elegance down by her side. The arm is echoed in the shapely sliver of foot visible beneath her robe, which in turn rhymes with the composition of Joseph's haloed profile in the bottom left. In the centre-background, meanwhile, a rustic doorway frames two shadowy figures.
Gould comments that the Virgin, "looked at through half-shut eyes, seems to resemble a root vegetable", perhaps hoping to suggest something organic about her pictorial composition. It seems much more likely, however, that Parmigianino would not have expected his audience to view his work in this way. The elongated neck seems to have been conceived of rather in the spirit of grace and elegance (or, perhaps, in a mood of mischief if one reads into it a hint of sacred eroticism). Gould proceeds by saying that "the picture hangs together so perfectly that the eye may not immediately perceive subtleties such as the way the green curtain, curving downward, and Saint Catherine's yellow draperies, curving upward, accentuate her alert and intelligent beauty, or how the doorway in the centre of the background frames both the mysterious figures in front of it, and also the central event of the picture - the exchange of the ring." This ring in fact echoes the one in the convex self-portrait, continuing Parmigianino's motif of bejewelling the focal points of his pictures.
Of perhaps most importance is this painting's feeling of liberty and freedom in its brushstrokes, broader and quicker and more impressionistic than High-Renaissance tastes would allow in a Raphael or a Leonardo. Parmigianino, in his confident mature-phase, manages great pictorial harmony whilst also exploring the radical flourishes of the Mannerist sensibility.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Parmigianino
- ParmigianinoBy Cecil Gould (1994) / Definitive critical and chronological biography including analysis and reproduction of all known works, including drawings and etchings
- Parmigianino: His Works in PaintingBy Sydney J. Freedberg (1971) / Long considered the authority on the painter. Critical history of the paintings.
- ParmigianinoBy David Ekserdjian (2006) / Exhaustive catalogue of the history and influences behind all of the painter's works, including the most in-depth and thorough analysis available of Madonna of the Long Neck
- ParmigianinoVarious contributors, edited by Dominique Cordellier (2015) / Latest collection of critical essays on Parmigianino
- Self Portrait in a Convex MirrorBy John Ashbery (1974) / Pulitzer and National Book Award winning collection of poems by the great American poet, John Ashbery, inspired by Parmigianino's famous self-portrait, including the title-poem which responds directly to the painting
- The Story of ArtBy E. H. Gombrich (London Phaidon Press, 1995)
- The Poetry of Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca"Guest Curator at the Frick Collection, Aimee Ng, discusses Parmigianino's portrait A Turkish Slave
- Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long NeckSmarthistory video from the Khan Academy discussing Parmigianino's masterpiece, with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steve Zucker
- Parmigianino, Self Portrait in a Convex MirrorSmarthistory video from the Khan Academy focussing on the convex-mirror self-portrait, again with Drs. Harris and Zucker
- Self Portrait in a Convex MirrorJohn Ashbery reads his own poem after Parmigianino's self-portrait