Parmigianino (a nickname meaning “the little one from Parma”) was born Girolamo Francesco Mazzola on the 11th of January, 1503, 8th child to an artist father.  He was orphaned at age two, and sent to live with his two uncles, who were also established artists in Parma.  Parmigianino has been called “precocious”1 due to his evident talent early in life.  He often helped his uncles with preparatory drawings and local fresco commissions.  Around the time he turned twenty, Parmigianino was working at the Benedictine church of San Giovanni Evangelista, a few years after Antonio da Correggio.  Correggio is considered one of Parmigianino’s strongest influences.  His use of dynamic composition, strange/counterintuitive perspectives, and dramatic foreshortening are all Mannerist characteristics which can be found in Parmigianino’s work as well.2

In 1523 or 1524 (sources vary), Parmigianino travelled to Rome, ostensibly to escape the conflict between French-loyal and Papal-loyal troops near Parma.  He may have stopped by Florence on his way; Florence had fostered the arts throughout the Renaissance, and the Mannerist movement is thought to have started there3.  But Rome was also a cultural hub in those days, and was where Raphael and Michelangelo had found fame.  Hoping for similar levels of recognition and perhaps a papal commission, Parmigianino took several canvases to Pope Clement VII.  Upon seeing his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the pope reportedly called Parmigianino “Raphael reborn”4.

Unfortunately for Parmigianino, his visions of an extended career there were shattered when German troops sacked Rome in 1527.  He had never received the papal commission he’d hoped for, but while in Rome he did complete a commission for The Vision of Saint Jerome as an alterpiece for the San Salvatore chapel.  Following the sack of Rome, he fled to Bologna, where he had a very prolific few years; he painted his Madonna and Child with Saints, probably his second most famous Madonna, and Cupid Carving His Bow, a painting famous for its androgynous, erotic Cupid figure5.  When Parmigianino finally returned to Parma in 1530, he was hailed as a local hero and showered with commissions6.  He began work on several frescoes at the Basilica di Santa Maria della Steccata, and in 1534 or 1535, he started one of his most recognizable works, Madonna with the Long Neck.

Parmigianino had always been eccentric; in these later years his many peculiarities seemed to catch up with him, however.  He never finished the Madonna, nor the frescoes he was commissioned for7.  As a result, in 1537 he was sentenced to prison for breaching his contract (he had been paid up front for the frescoes).  After posting bail and promising to finish, Parmigianino escaped to Casal Maggiore.  He lived out the remainder of his life there in disgrace; it is said that in his later years he concentrated more on etching8.  Etching was a new art form in Italy, having only recently been developed as such in Germany.  Parmigianino, though known to have created no more than 15 etchings in his lifetime9, is credited with discovering the medium’s capacity for capturing the fluidity and brushlike strokes of a sketch10.  Parmigianino died of a fever in Casal Maggiore in the year 1540.

Parmigianino’s Madonna dal collo lungo is a landmark work.  It was commissioned in 1534 by Elena Bairdi Tagliaferri for her husband’s funerary chapel.  Parmigianino worked on it up until his death in 1540.  It depicts the classic subject of Virgin and Child, angels and saints, but with Parmigianino’s more modern Mannerist style.  This piece, therefore, results from both the 150 years of exploration of the human figure before its creation, and the 30 years of Parmigianino’s career leading up to it, during which the artist developed his own personal style.

Madonna with the Long Neck 1534-40 Oil on panel, 216 x 132 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Madonna with the Long Neck
1534-40
Oil on panel, 216 x 132 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

A towering Madonna figure dominates the canvas, from her elaborately styled golden hair hovering at the top to her disproportionately small toes resting on the tiles at the very bottom.  Her right knee, swathed in a luxurious blue cloth, points off the lefts side of the painting, while a generous fold of the same cloth billows off of her left elbow into the shadow at the right edge of the painting.  She occupies the rhombus-shaped middle portion of the painting, forcing the rest of the space into four smaller corner-portions.

Splayed across her enormous, blue-draped lap is the pale, apparently sleeping baby Jesus.  Like his mother, he is bafflingly large and elongated of limb.  One arm reaches up limply, as if he had perhaps been clutching at the folds of Mary’s robes before falling asleep.  The other arm falls unchecked from her lap, gesturing at the ground.

The rest of the painting’s players are not nearly as commanding as these two central figures.  Crowded in the corner above the Madonna’s right shoulder, the flock of angels is little more than a confusion of gazes; one bare shoulder, a revealed leg, and a single pair of grey wings are all that distinguish themselves from five, possibly six (the painting remains unfinished) faces, eagerly shoving around one another, feasibly to catch a glimpse of the baby.  However, only one or two seem to be actually looking in his direction.  Several look up at Mary’s calm face.  Others seem to be looking behind her or off the edges of the painting.  The foremost angel carries a large ornamental vase, perhaps an urn, which has a physically improbable shape mimicking the curve of both the angel’s thigh below and wing above.  Despite their rambunctious attitudes, the Madonna towers over them, seemingly unaware of their presence.

Meanwhile, wedged into the bottom right corner of the painting, beneath the Madonna’s swooping folds of cloth, an impossibly tiny Saint Jerome unfurls a scroll.  He looks directly away from its contents, off the right edge of the painting.  There is, to the right of his feet, a disembodied ankle; perhaps, as this painting was left unfinished, Saint Jerome was meant to be glancing at an equally diminutive companion.  His strange size is partly an effect of Parmigianino’s propensity for distortion – the artist painted Saint Jerome too close to the Madonna, in terms of depth, to warrant her dwarfing the saint so completely.

By contrast, the backdrop of the painting seems too far away to be so large.  A colossal stone pillar looms behind both Saint Jerome and the Madonna, stretching upwards into the top right corner towards an unfinished temple roof.  Behind it follows a line of seven identical column bases whose top halves were never painted in.  These, like the Madonna and Saint Jerome, don’t seem to follow the normal patterns for creating illusory depth; they are painting very close behind one another.  In the far distance, (or perhaps not far at all – who can say, given previous evidence, what distance means in this painting?) dark grey-blue thunderheads roil over a white horizon.  The source of the illumination is not apparent.  Is it dawn?  A rising moon?  A flash of lightning?

No matter how mysterious the surroundings, however, one’s attention is always redirected to the commanding presence of the equally mysterious Madonna.  Nearly everything about her – every unorthodox decision made by Parmigianino – provokes questions.  What, for instance, is her expression?  Her eyelids are lowered as she gazes at the baby in her lap.  Out of the corner of the viewer’s eye, she seems always to be smiling; but as soon as one studies the actual curve to her mouth, it seems slighter, almost wistful.  Overall, she is reserved, almost removed, as she looks upon her infant son.  She barely uses one hand to support him.  Her other hand is occupied in a self-referential gesture across her chest.  The long, graceful fingers pose further questions.  Why is she splitting them in a “v”?  Her index finger points in one direction, the remaining fingers point in another.  The arrangement does not direct the viewer’s eye down any meaningful sightlines.  The gesture means precisely nothing, and yet its specific oddness, and the fingers’ wilting, almost boneless curve, draw the viewer’s attention again and again.  Another question arises after noticing the more conspicuous anatomical impossibilities: what is the Madonna sitting on?  Her son, massive and clearly yielding to gravity’s pull, is sprawled heavily across her immense lap.  From her wide hips to her enormous knees, the Madonna provides a stable support.  But there is nothing evident supporting the Madonna herself.  In contrast to her prone son, everything about her seems weightless.  Her robes float airily around her; her small head perches atop her thin, long neck; her curved right hand rests delicately across her breastbone; her right foot does not depress the tasseled pillows upon which it sits; and her left toes barely graze the ground.  How does such an enormous figure sit, supporting her sleeping child, without anything to support her?

There is no way to be certain that these questions can be meaningfully answered, in the symbolic sense.  Perhaps Mary’s weightlessness is meant to emphasize her ethereal qualities.  Perhaps the picture of the Virgin Mother and Christ Child is ironically meant to remind the viewer not of his birth, but of the child’s ultimate death…by enlarging the body of Christ and the Madonna’s lap, Parmigianino creates a pose that is strikingly reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pièta, where the mourning Mary holds her adult son’s body 1.  Size is also a way of establishing visual hierarchy in art – perhaps then the angels (half the size of Mary) and Saint Jerome (one sixth of her size), are meant to have less divine authority beside the impressive Madonna.  Or it could be that Saint Jerome, who is only included in the painting by request of the commissioner (Elena Bairdi Tagliaferri, who admired Saint Jerome’s legendary loyalty to the Virgin 2), was purposefully shrunk by Parmigianino, who was not famous for respecting his patrons’ wishes.  Nothing is clear.

The many obscurities of Madonna dal collo lungo, even if devoid of symbolic value, actually establish its value as an example of late Renaissance work, as well as a quintessential example of Parmigianino’s contribution to the art world.  Parmigianino was a pioneer of the style now labeled Mannerism: the graceful, sinuous poses of elongated forms, the exploration of irregular spatial relationships 3.  At the outset of the sixteenth century, this style was just beginning to take root.  The legacy of the previous hundred years encompassed the achievements of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, etc.  The desire those artists shared – to depict the human form realistically, to defend its beauty – was an incentive force throughout the Renaissance 4.  Endless poses of the human figure were executed with astounding accuracy and faithfulness to nature…so by the time Parmigianino started painting, artists, particularly those working in the cultural center of Florence, were seeking new
horizons 5.  Where those before him had mastered painting’s capability to portray the absolute truth, Parmigianino sought to explore the medium’s ability to stretch the truth.  Thus the exaggerated elegance of Parmigianino’s work, the polished smoothness of his figures, the affected gestures, and dynamic compositions are each part of a culmination of a century’s worth of artistic experience.

When viewed this way, all of the anatomical liberties taken in Madonna dal collo lungo have a more substantial effect than speculative symbolism: Parmigianino was breaking new ground for the art world.  Even if Parmigianino did have hidden meanings in his work, it was through his Mannerist approach that he expressed them.  This painting is testament to Parmigianino’s particular talent as a Renaissance artist: he had the ability to twist the truth, and in doing so, allow us to see the truth more clearly.

Sources:

1 – The Art of Parmigianino. Franklin, David.  Yale University Press, 2004. P. 1
2 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_da_Correggio
3 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mannerism
4 – http://www.artble.com/artists/parmigianino
5 – http://www.glbtq.com/arts/parmigianino.html
6 – http://www.artble.com/artists/parmigianino
7 – it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_Santa_Maria_della_Steccata
8 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmigianino
9 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/26.70.3%5B102%5D
10 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/etch/hd_etch.htm