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The Visionary

The Art of Parmigianino

Catalog of the exhibition by David Franklin, with an essay by David Ekserdjian
an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa,October 3, 2003–January 4, 2004, and the Frick Collection, New York, January 27–April 18, 2004.
Yale University Press/National Gallery of Canada, 289 pp., $60.00; $49.95 (paper)

1.

That Parmigianino ranks among the great draftsmen of the Renaissance is an assessment first made by his contemporaries in the sixteenth century. Giorgio Vasari began his life of the painter with praise for the “gracious virtue of his drawings,” and said he was “consecrated by Nature at birth to drawing.” Another contemporary critic, Lodovico Dolce, wrote that “every design of his preserved on paper astonishes the eyes.” At a time when the market for drawings was still in its infancy, Parmigianino’s designs were collected by artists and connoisseurs alike. Passion for them even inspired crime. During the sack of Rome in 1527, German soldiers forced Parmigianino to ransom his life with drawings; and a few years later in Bologna, a cache of his designs was stolen, an early instance of theft in the modern history of art.

Parmigianino is especially prized for his unearthly and idealized sense of beauty. His pictures, populated with elegant and elongated figures, are now generally considered archetypal images of Mannerism, the period of extreme grace and stylishness in the arts that followed immediately after the High Renaissance. The first modern study of the artist, by Lili Fröhlich-Bum in 1921, was called Parmigianino und der Manierismus, and his most famous painting, the Madonna of the Long Neck, is the opening illustration of John Shearman’s Mannerism, a standard account of the movement.

The year 2003 was the five hundredth anniversary of Parmigianino’s birth, and this event was celebrated by exhibitions in Florence, Parma, and Vienna, as well as by books on all aspects of his art. The superb show now on view at the Frick Collection is the last of these efforts, and certainly one of the best. The works in the show have been beautifully selected, and the catalog, written chiefly by David Franklin, with an essay by David Ekserdjian, is a model of clarity, intelligence, and concision. The show itself is marvelously installed. Two of the three exhibition galleries at the Frick are underground, in rooms with low ceilings and no natural light; sometimes these spaces have seemed airless and unwelcoming. On this occasion, however, one has the experience of descending into a cave or a crypt to see rare and precious treasures. It is a magical effect.

Almost all of the works in the show are intimate in scale. This makes sense not only in view of the small size of the galleries but also with respect to the development of Parmigianino’s reputation. Throughout his life the artist aspired to paint works on a monumental scale, to be displayed in public or semipublic locations. At times he was notably successful in this ambition. But he also specialized in making small and exquisite paintings, drawings, and prints, and these works—not the larger pieces—were the source of much of his fame during the sixteenth century and beyond.

This aspect of his career began in 1524 when, in preparation for moving to Rome from his home town of Parma, the artist made three paintings to show to prospective patrons. One of these, the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, was among the most cherished pictures in the later Renaissance. (The distinguished list of its owners includes Pope Clement VII, the poet Pietro Aretino, the artist Alessandro Vittoria, and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. The architect Andrea Palladio once acted as a broker in the sale of the picture.) That painting could not be lent to the current exhibition; but a picture believed to be another of the three early panels, the Circumcision (cat. no. 20), is on view at the Frick. Praised by Vasari for the beauty of its lighting scheme, the Circumcision is a stunning work of glowing color and shimmering luminosity.

Early commentary on Parmigianino’s art is unanimous in saying that grace is a major part of its appeal. The word grazia and the related concepts leggiadria (charm) and vaghezza (loveliness) appear over and over again in the descriptions of his works by Vasari, Dolci, and others. These terms suggest the seductive power of his art. The first dictionary of Italian, published in 1612, specifies that grazia is the type of beauty that captivates the viewer; and Dolci reports that Parmigianino “gave a certain vaghezza to his works that makes everyone who sees them love them.”

According to Renaissance theories of beauty, both leggiadria and vaghezza were qualities implicitly associated with motion. This is noteworthy because in Parmigianino’s works everything is moving. The impulse to portray movement affects all aspects of his art, from composition to figure style, line, and lighting. It can be seen, for example, in Parmigianino’s early painting Female Martyr (cat. no. 12). Every figure in the picture is in motion, and in a complex, yet graceful, way. The saint pushes against the ground with her right foot, and raises her left foot; she twists her torso and turns her head, and her arms flutter upward; even her fingers appear to flicker individually. Likewise, everything in the background of the picture—the fronds of the palm tree, the leaves of the bushes, the clouds in the sky—is shifting and shuddering. These motions combine to create a dynamic effect: the trunk of the tree thrusts downward and spills into the foreground. The emphasis on a powerful line jutting obliquely forward is a distinguishing feature of Parmigianino’s early works. It can be seen in nearly every piece hung near this painting in the show, including the Circumcision, a drawing of a Sleeping Shepherd (cat. no. 11) and studies for the frescoes he painted in the castle of the Sanvitale family at Fontanellato outside Parma (cat. nos. 9 and 10).

The lighting in Parmigianino’s works adds significantly to their sense of pulsating energy. He subtly varied the intensity of illumination over the entire surface of his images, making them appear to smolder and flare up like the embers of a fire. His special genius for the depiction of shadows adds to this effect. Some artists and viewers may think of a shadow as a kind of absence or diminution, an area relatively lacking in light and activity. But in Parmigianino’s works the shadows are as charged and dynamic as the illuminated portions. In the Female Martyr, the shadows positively radiate with a warm, dark glow; and in the Circumcision they gleam with the intense black of obsidian. The shadows in his prints and drawings, too, have remarkable power. In some of these, he applied dark wash with such force that it seems to sculpt the page into a complex swirling relief, full of deep recesses and steep projections. In others, the shaded sections are composed of such vigorous strokes that they look like areas of compressed energy, ready to explode off the page. The result is akin to the illusion of three-dimensional space in the greatest works on paper of Gorky or de Kooning, yet far more powerful.

Parmigianino habitually composed forms out of curved lines. Sometimes, especially in the drawings, these lines are short and tight and dash across the image in a lively and excited fashion. In other works, the lines are longer, and move with a more stately and majestic tempo. The artist was so addicted to the idea of curvature as an expression of grace that it is difficult to find a straight line anywhere in his entire corpus. Even when working with a ruler, he varied the intensity and width of the lines, causing them to appear to waver or tremble.

This is especially evident in his images of buildings where the architectural elements are never drawn straight and true. Parmigianino admired and imitated Raphael, yet when he copied Raphael’s works he always made the static forms of the classical architecture appear more mobile and dynamic, more Baroque. In Parmigianino’s copy after Raphael’s cartoon of Saints Peter and John the Evangelist Healing the Lame Man (cat. no. 26), the columns seem to sway and dance, an effect also found in Parmigianino’s Marriage of the Virgin (cat. nos. 30 and 31). Likewise, in his drawing after Raphael’s Saint Paul Preaching at Athens (cat. no. 22), the tempietto in the background almost appears to spin like a carousel. In Parmigianino’s works, architecture never seems to bear weight; rather it moves and seems to ascend.

2.

The emphasis on energy and motion must have been instinctive for Parmigianino. It was already there in his earliest works, and he began his career at a very early age. Born to a family of minor painters in Parma, Francesco Mazzola—the artist we call Parmigianino—was so precocious that he may have become a professional artist by the time he was twelve, and he painted his first altarpiece when he was only sixteen. That work survives and many fundamental traits of his style are already conspicuous. The figures are tall and elegant, with unnaturally long and graceful limbs; and the lighting, although somewhat harder, displays the subtle glimmer and strong chiaroscuro of his mature works.

Even as a youth Parmigianino was always in search of new sources of inspiration, and one vastly important stimulus for him was the art of Correggio, the founder of the Emilian school of painting. Correggio arrived in Parma around 1519, and between then and 1530 he made a series of frescoes for the Camera di San Paolo, the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, and the cathedral of Parma, as well as numerous panel paintings. These pictures are of revolutionary importance, and the frescoes contain perhaps the most convincing illusion of heavenly space created in the sixteenth century. Parmigianino possibly served as an assistant to Correggio in painting the frescoes in San Giovanni Evangelista, and he certainly had access to Correggio’s preparatory drawings for the project, some of which he copied. One such copy is in the exhibition (cat. no. 5). Its medium, red chalk, is characteristic of Correggio, as is its emphasis on a soft radiant haze that enrobes the figures. Parmigianino continued to make references to Correggio’s work during the rest of his career. In the exhibition this is particularly clear in the studies for the Vision of Saint Jerome (cat. nos. 43–48), a group of drawings which are inconceivable without the older artist’s example.

Immediately before arriving in Parma, Correggio was in Rome, where he assiduously studied the Sistine ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo. From these he learned not only about the depiction of space, but also a new ideal of the figure; the poses of the saints and angels in his frescoes in Parma proclaim his intense emulation of Michelangelo. In the exhibition catalog David Franklin emphasizes the importance of Michelangelo for young Parmigianino, and speculates that Parmigianino had access to drawings or prints made after Michelangelo’s designs. Perhaps these copies included some by or belonging to Correggio. In any event, the strong influence of Michelangelo on Parmigianino’s early figure style often seems refracted through the lens of Correggio’s more personal interpretation. This is especially clear in the frescoes that Parmigianino painted in San Giovanni Evangelista around 1522. Three related sketches are in the show (cat. nos. 2–4), and the Olympian musculature and the coiled intensity of the figures recall works of both Michelangelo and Correggio.

Another early project of Parmigianino was a series of frescoes of Diana and Actaeon at Fontanellato. The drawings for this commission are some of the most beautiful sheets in the exhibition. One sketch (cat. no. 9), in a combination of red chalk and pen and ink, shows a group of putti standing in a frieze above a curtain raised to reveal a window or door and the goddess and her handmaidens bathing within. Actaeon, already transformed into a stag, looks helpless and pathetic cowering in the corner. Another drawing contains an early and rejected idea for the series in which the Rape of Europa was depicted instead (cat. no. 10). The figures tumble out of the picture, their rounded and doll-like bodies suggestive of a world of dreamy innocence. As Franklin notes in his entry, this is “the most fully realized and attractive study of a mythological subject in all of Parmigianino’s early surviving work.”

The patron of this commission was Count Galeazzo Sanvitale, and he also asked Parmigianino to paint his portrait. In the finished picture, the sitter looks alertly out at the viewer and proffers a medal for inspection. Preliminary drawings (cat. nos. 13 and 14), however, record a very different idea in which Sanvitale turns sharply in his chair to look at another figure behind him. This sort of radical change in conception was typical of Parmigianino. The artist regularly developed his work by a process in which the composition went through many stages, often of markedly different character. For Parmigianino, the act of making was the spur to creativity; it was only by drawing—and drawing a lot—that he could realize what he truly wanted to depict. One sketch would lead to another and another, each spontaneously suggesting another possibility until he would finally find the solution he wanted. Nowhere is this clearer in the exhibition than in a celebrated drawing for the Steccata church in Parma from the 1530s; the sheet contains nine different proposals for the pose of Moses, each beautifully rendered (cat. no. 68). Evidently none proved satisfactory, however, for the fresco itself contains yet another idea for the composition.

In 1524, shortly after finishing his work at the Sanvitale castle, Parmigianino left for Rome, and his initial reception there was extremely encouraging. Pope Clement VII was impressed by the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and others praised him extravagantly for his outstanding talent. According to Vasari, it was said that “the spirit of Raphael had passed into the body of Francesco [Parmigianino].” Despite this acclaim, however, the painter did not win the major commissions he desperately craved. In Rome in the mid-1520s, money was tight, and the former pupils of Raphael retained a firm grip on the few projects at hand. Although Parmigianino was asked to paint the Sala dei Pontifici in the Vatican, this was never begun, perhaps because of a lack of money. For nearly three years he was unable to obtain any public commissions, and instead was forced to concentrate on small-scale works.

During this period, Parmigianino began to experiment with printmaking, possibly as a means of making his work more widely available, and he quickly became a leading figure in the field. He was the first Italian artist to make etchings, and he made other innovations, often combining different print techniques, such as etching and woodcut, on the same sheet. By these means he sought to add color and chiaroscuro to printmaking, thus increasing both its naturalism and its powers of expression. Whereas the prints of his predecessors often look like frozen tableaux, Parmigianino’s have atmosphere and energy, and the figures almost tremble with the pulse of life. One room of the exhibition is dedicated to these works, and they make a truly astonishing display.

Parmigianino was both an eclectic artist and an idiosyncratic one. The combination of traits is especially clear in the so-called Vision of Saint Jerome (National Gallery, London), the great altarpiece he was working on in 1527 at the end of his time in Rome. The picture is a summa of the most advanced tendencies in art of the previous thirty years. The composition is closely dependent on Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno, and the noble pose of the Virgin and Child combines elements of both Michelangelo’s Pietà and his Bruges Madonna. Moreover, the warm colors recall the works of Correggio, and the gesture of Saint John the Baptist’s arm toward heaven is like that in the famous painting by Leonardo. Despite such references, however, the Vision of Saint Jerome is far from academic. The proportions of the bodies are distorted and each part of the picture differs in scale, with the figure of Saint Jerome in the background oddly small in relation to that of Saint John the Baptist in the foreground. The flash of light in heaven above illuminates the darkness on earth below. The result is an image of nearly mystical intensity.

Some two dozen preparatory drawings for the picture are extant, and to judge from these survivors, a great many more must have been made. Most of the sketches are for the Madonna and Child. In some of these the Virgin is shown seated, as the commission demanded, but in others she is shown standing, and the artist also experimented with many different ideas for the placement of the baby. Only after seemingly extensive trial and error did the artist decide to imitate Michelangelo, and one wonders with what combination of pride and relief Parmigianino came upon this solution. In a preparatory study for the Madonna’s drapery, perhaps the most ravishing images in the show (cat. no. 45; see illustration on page 20), the shimmering cloth pours across the model’s knee with silken fluidity, and the model’s nude stomach and breasts seem soft, smooth, and alluring.

Following the sack of Rome in 1527, Parmigianino moved to Bologna, where he lived for about three years. As David Ekserdjian comments in the catalog, this was the “the most uncomplicatedly productive [period] of his entire career, yielding a pair of altarpieces, numerous religious paintings for domestic contexts, and a fine crop of portraits.” One of these portraits, of Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci, is the only large-format work in the exhibition and it is a picture of extraordinary interest and power (cat. no. 65). As in many of Parmigianino’s male portraits, the cardinal looks away from the viewer, and seems pensive or preoccupied. Another distinguished picture from this period is the Virgin and Child, from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (cat. no. 54). It is painted in a looser manner, with more evident brushwork, and it is instructive to compare the two works to see the range of the artist’s style and technique.

The painter returned to Parma in 1530, and during the next decade, he attempted, with ever greater abandon, to slip the bonds of naturalism and raise art to a new level of sublimity. Perhaps never before had a painter been so thoroughly equipped with the powers of mimetic representation; and yet he willingly turned his back on the common forms he encountered on earth to depict instead his private visions of heaven. That this turn was conscious and intentional can be seen in the wide stylistic gap between his portraits and his altarpieces of these years. Made around 1535, the portrait of Antea, presumably a courtesan, is realistic, immediate, and intensely sensuous. But at almost the same time, Parmigianino also painted the altarpiece of the Madonna of the Long Neck, an image of angelic and unearthly loveliness. The Virgin’s limbs are impossibly long and elegant, and her body seems nearly weight-less, like spun glass. It is as if Parmi-gianino sought to show what flesh without the taint of sin might look like. In one of the compositional sketches in the exhibition (cat. no. 73), the sinuous, slithering forms of the Madonna intertwine with the architecture in the background to form a helix that spirals upward.

Visionaries are impractical and Parmigianino suffered increasing difficulties in fulfilling his commissions. In 1531 he contracted to paint a series of frescos in Parma’s Santa Maria della Steccata within a period of eight months. But eight years later he still had not finished the project. Vasari says that this failure was caused by Parmigianino’s passion for alchemy, which distracted him from painting. However, the frescoes he completed in the choir of the church and the nearly one hundred extant drawings for the project suggest instead that it was the artist’s unbridled imagination and compulsive creativity that bewitched and overwhelmed the painter. In the nave, every inch of the fresco is supercharged with elaborate detail, all of it the result of nearly endless fantasizing and revision.

While at work on this painting, Parmigianino drew a small but celebrated self-portrait (cat. no. 67), which sharply contrasts with his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In that work, the young artist looks innocent and free as he gazes directly and confidently at the viewer. But in the drawing, he is haggard, with a straggling beard and dirty hair, and he gazes into the distance while images of otherworldly women, drawn from the paintings for the Steccata, are shown dancing above his head.

It was the alchemy of art, not of nature, that seduced Parmigianino and led to his downfall. In 1539, frustrated with his failure to complete the project, the confraternity of the Steccata in Parma had Parmigianino arrested and jailed. He fled to the nearby town of Casalmaggiore, where, according to Vasari, he became ever more eccentric and melancholy. He died soon after. Fortunately for us, his visions of grace live on.

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