Progression of Art
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
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
Oil on convex wood panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome (Vision of St Jerome)
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.
Oil on panel - National Gallery, London
Mystic Marriage of St Catherine
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.
Oil on Panel - National Gallery, London
Madonna dal Collo Longo (Madonna with the Long Neck)
According to Gould, this picture "is Parmigianino's most famous [and] also his most characteristic and most extreme". That a single work can be simultaneously his most 'extreme' and his most 'characteristic' hints at the kind of visionary artist Parmigianino was. The elongated figure of the Madonna is a stunning realization of those two words most often associated with Parmigianino: grace and elegance. The assemblage of the various limbs and their angles in relation to one another is as harmonious as it is erotically charged; and as balanced as it is asymmetrical. The painting certainly garnered the consent of E. H. Gombrich who, in The Story of Art, suggested that his goal, and that of other Mannerists, was to create something "more interesting and unusual" than that of the former generation of Italian masters. Gombrich argued moreover that Parmigianino (as part of the Mannerist movement) might even be grouped amongst the first truly "modern" painters because he "sought to create something new and unexpected, even at the expense of 'natural' beauty [as] established by the great masters".
Gombrich agreed with Gould in the suggestion that the artist's goal was to imbue the Madonna with grace and elegance, and in his attempts to do so, Parmigianino painted her in a "strangely capricious way," with "long delicate fingers" and with an elongated neck "like that of a swan." Other compositional innovations stand out too. The twinning of the planted right leg of the angel in the left foreground with the monumental marble pillar collapses the painting's depth into a narrow and immediate aperture. The elongated and stylised infant Christ stretches across the scene, joining interior and exterior; flesh and the ether. The bottom third of the panel meanwhile seems striped in alternate marble-white and deep-blue, symbolising both the innocence and the royalty of the Divine Mother and Child. The figure of St Jerome and the scroll is relegated to an odd and arresting position, the de Chirico-esque architectural landscape, combined with the fact that the figure (added later) is faded and translucent, and also the fact that a disembodied foot (to the left of St. Jerome) remains from an earlier rendering, gives the painting a somewhat surreal edge.
The painting then retains some of the "violent asymmetry" that Gould observes in its preparatory sketches, and though it might be a radical statement at this point in the history of devotional art, just "One step farther in this same direction", argued Freedberg, and "we should fall either into vapidity or hysteria"). Freedberg's point was that, though highly idiosyncratic, Parmigianino's instincts had known when to kerb his creative indulgences. Gombrich summed it up best perhaps when he said of Madonna dal Collo Longo "if this be madness there must be method in it."
Oil on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
A Young Woman ("Antea")
Gould called this "Parmigianino's masterpiece in portraiture", commenting on the "intensity of presence that is almost physical". He also points out that this is undoubtably a portrait of the same sitter who appears as the angel nearest to the Madonna in the "long neck" painting, looking directly at the viewer. Perhaps this echo has something to do with the obsessional detail with which the sitter's expression is picked out, and the refined potency of the painting's atmosphere.
Though better known for his radical, Mannerist approach to Religious art, Parmigianino also made great strides in the field of portraiture. The force of expressive presence and decorative detail give this painting a power that was absent from much of the portraiture at the time. As Ekserdjian observes, "her deep brown eyes are open so wide that the whites are completely visible beneath them". 'Antea' refuses to be simply the "object" of this painting, instead gazing back at the spectator with a calm ferocity that asserts her own authority.
Oil on canvas - Capodimonte Museum, Naples, Italy
Choir Vault at Santa Maria della Steccata, Parma
This detail from Parmigianino's work at the Steccata, showing the 'Wise Virgins' (the 'Foolish Virgins' stand opposite, on the other side of the arch), is evidence of the feverish nature of the artist's practise by this stage in his life. He saw this major commission as an opportunity to challenge the greatness of Correggio, and most critics agree that his obsessive energy got the better of him. The motif of the dove takes off from the exposed bellies of crabs. Swags of foliage sweep down and around the impressive gold rosettes. The Wise Virgins leave their lamps unlit, and glow instead with Parmigianino's trademark "inner light", which appears pure and white, whilst their counterparts fritter away their oil casting a yellow-gold light upon themselves. Flanking the foolish Virgins are Eve and Aaron, condemned figures in the Bible, whilst here with the wise women are images of Moses and Adam.
The golden color of the foolish Virgins, and the presence of Aaron, who provoked God's wrath by making a golden calf, could be an act of self-awareness from the alchemy-obsessed painter, an attempt to purge through his work a pre-occupation which, according to Vasari, so troubled his final years. Though the fresco is widely considered to be wayward and incoherent in its symbolic programme - Gould for instance notes a "striking disregard for theological consistency" while Freedberg calls its methods "laggard in the extreme" - one detail is agreed to be a triumph: the depiction of Moses wielding the tablets. Sir Joshua Reynolds himself didn't know "which to admire most, the correctness of the drawing, or the grandeur of the conception". For Gould however this was perhaps the only time Parmigianino "surpassed his model" in Correggio.
Tempera on fresco - Church of Santa Maria della Steccata, Parma, Italy
Madonna and Child with Saint Stephen, the Baptist, and a Donor (Dresden Altarpiece)
The "mystical, otherworldly, almost trancelike effect" that Gould senses in this painting has much to do with its vertilinear composition. The palm branch on the left of the frame, St Stephen's other arm holding up one of the stones with which he was killed, and the Baptist's cross together form a trinity-scaffold for the more fluid and musical elements of the picture. At certain points in his career, Parmigianino's command of gravity and weight within a painting was perhaps a little underdeveloped and lax. Here, however, the folds of the fabrics adorning the saints, the positioning and weighting of their arms and the attributes they hold, their bodily posture on the steps, are all masterfully observed and executed. St Stephen the protomartyr looks challengingly out towards us, openly brandishing the heavy stone. It is a bluntly emphatic evocation of his martyrdom, and a potent willing towards the achievement of religious divinity through earthly sacrifice.
The visionary power of the Virgin and Child, blessing into the space through a halo of clearing cloud, is hard to overstate. Because the figures are rendered with a slightly shimmering, blurred effect, the vision plays tricks with our perception, seemingly defying our earthly power of sight. We feel literally blinded by divine light. Gould called this the picture's "element of genius; the focal point - the vision itself - is actually out of focus...As a result the vision really is a vision." It is a remarkable achievement, and one that is exclusive to Parmigianino during the Renaissance. Whilst his peers and predecessors sought aesthetic perfection, the "Little One of Parma" wanted to amaze, confound, appal, and transcend. With this picture, he may have achieved his goal.
Oil on panel - Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany