An Era's Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Haber
in New York City

Aping naturalness may be the first step
Toward achieving an inner calm
But it is the first step only.

      —John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

The Art of Parmigianino

Parmigianino ranks among art's first and greatest prodigies. Yet he died a step ahead of poverty and prison, with little to show for his few major commissions. Hailed as the very incarnation of Raphael, he left Rome when Raphael's own studio hogged the spotlight. Valued a generation after his death for his delicate draftsmanship and fidelity to the Renaissance masters, he did more than almost anyone to create the break with the past known as Mannerism.

He knew his skill. Yet he so lost himself in his work that he had trouble completing much of it, driving him first to prison, then to exile and an early death. German soldiers took him by surprise in his studio during the sack of Rome, as if too obsessed to read the newspapers. He had to buy them off with drawings. One wonders what the soldiers made of them. Parmigianino's Female Heads, a Griffon, and Finials (private collection, c. 1522–1524)

Now the Frick allows a stranger to draw close, like the soldiers, with a mix of sketches, prints, and a few oils. "A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino" tries to get past the idea of Mannerism as proto-Modernism. It follows the artist born Francesco Mazzola first to Rome, then to the relative safety of Bologna, and finally back to his native Parma in search of financial security. At each step, it asks one to see a serious artist of his time, concerned for tradition, patronage, and his craft.

The small paintings, largely from private collections, necessarily add to the sense of intimacy. A patient visitor will feel a bit of a connoisseur, too. At the same time, the show highlights the radical uncertainty of art after 1500.

Generation MDX

America, itself a land of perpetual self-invention, loves watersheds. Museums in the year 2000 clambered over one another to explore a century of modern art. So what if 1900 happens to fall decades after the Salon des Refusés and some years before Cubism? No matter, not when art critics and computer programmers were facing serious Y2K problems. Few, however, looked back exactly half a millennium. The National Gallery of Canada did just that in 2003, as the first stop for Parmigianino on his way to the Frick.

Try to imagine his birth year. In 1503 Leonardo da Vinci painted The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo was at work on David, Raphael was about to begin his first signed altarpiece, and Andrea Riccio was making the transition from goldsmith to sculptor in bronze. Giuliani della Rovere became Pope Julius II and set out to reform Rome, to drive out the invaders, to define the Papal States, and to create the High Renaissance.

Within twenty years Leonardo was in self-imposed exile, Michelangelo was at war with pretty much everyone, and Raphael was dead. City-states had fallen to the conflict of empires, and Italy was nearing chaos. An artist Parmigianino's age had every reason to revere the recent past—and to know the impossibility of recovering it. Call him an artist of his time, but the time is never entirely the present. I think of that first wave of Mannerism as the Renaissance's generation X.

Parmigianino definitely confronted art with a new generation. Even his nickname, the little guy from Parma, announces a rising star. He came to Rome at twenty-one, bearing a self-portrait as a gift for the Pope, a career maneuver, and a boast. Painted on a rounded surface, like an actual convex mirror, it shows the youthful features, fashionably long hair, and quiet confidence of a rock star now. He looked "so beautiful," Vasari reports, "that he seemed an angel rather than a man." From his style and his life, one might say a dark angel.

His hand thrusts forward, without a brush, spread wide as if indeed distorted in a mirror. It holds his face at a reserved distance, invades the viewer's space, and puts the artist, along with the Pope himself, on the far side of the glass. The gesture emphasizes the virtuosity and mark of a painter. It adopts, too, the forthright stance and outsize ego of a man of means. Yet it puts in doubt the hierarchies that sustained status, ego, and art alike.

The gesture marvels at the illusion of nature, while disturbing the very solidity of the room. In another painting, The Vision of Saint Jerome, the saint has the same place in the foreground and much the same flagrantly bent arm. Jerome lunges forward and points backward, toward the Madonna. She sits on a rise, but in the background—for not even the mother of God can claim a grander place than in a saint's mind and spirit. The High Renaissance described a divinity both human and larger than life. Parmigianino teases out a different dichotomy, between the material and the spiritual, the artist's ego and his insight.

The private sector

In short, conditions for making art and seeing the past were changing. Cities may have fallen, but artists were becoming individuals, even celebrities, negotiating with private markets. Following the inclinations of his learned audience, Parmigianino portrays mythical figures out of books that scholars now can at times barely identify. On one double-sided sheet, a female head close to a Raphael Madonna blends in with architectural studies, the mythical griffon, and perhaps another portrait as well. As David Franklin, the exhibition's curator, points out, it all but encapsulates a career. Sacred and secular, classical and modern, and public and private all meet in the artist's imagination and a patron's study.

The very notion of a prodigy would have made less sense only shortly before, back when young artists toiled as apprentices, like Bronzino soon after for another Mannerist, Pontormo—who had himself studied alongside Rosso Fiorentino. Legend has Giotto, as a shepherd boy sketching in the fields around 1300, but the upshot is to whisk him off into a workshop in time to kick off the Renaissance. A true prodigy in contrast stands on his own, appreciated by those able to recognize him. The whole notion of virtuosity, rather than dignity and grandeur, appeals to an elite audience. It allows nudity to stand not for a humanity that all can share, even a god, but for sensual, personal delectation. It takes for granted a norm of nature against which to play.

Prints, another commodity for private purchase, were gaining a life of their own. Parmigianino took an unusual interest in creating them himself, rather than leaving to others to find markets for his work. Reproduction also served younger artists as models, almost on a par with studying the originals. Above all, he copied, twisted, and varied as he went. Once he even makes a print after his own print, reversing his composition in the process. See why I like to call Mannerism, by analogy to Postmodernism, the Post-Renaissance?

At the Frick, one sees continuity and beauty quite as much as disturbance. Scholars today often take copying as a sign of respect. They think of Mannerism as simply the late Renaissance, but with its own rules of patronage. By showing Parmigianino on such an intimate scale, without the bravura of his most famous paintings, the Frick makes the case well. Ironically for a Post-Renaissance art, all this reinterpretation takes place today—in context of a broader reaction to Modernism.

One seeking neurotic distortion will come away disappointed. The studies offer few insights into the genesis of the self-portrait or Vision of Saint Jerome, neither of which can travel to New York. It has studies for perhaps Parmigianino's best-known work, Madonna of the Long Neck. They give little attention, however, to the curious anatomical feature that gives the painting its name. And yet the questions will not go away. To the Renaissance and Mannerism, a copy of the past always comes with a challenge.

Parmigianino learned from Correggio, before leaving his native Parma to compete on his own, and he assiduously studied the latest manner in Rome. He copied Raphael's ability to unite his figures in a looping, continuous flow, like links in a chain. He copied Michelangelo for his fascination with architecture—and with figures that tumble beyond their architectural niche. A late horse's head could come right out of Leonardo's unfinished Adoration of the Magi. And in the process, everything changes.

Breaking the tablets

In one of his first paintings, on display at the Frick, Parmigianino tackles Correggio on his home turf, a night scene. Parmigianino's Circumcision takes place under a distant, silvery moon, but the painting's real illumination comes from the infant Jesus. Yet for all the privileging of the holy, the spiritual has run wild. The furiously cramped attendants press in on the child, back off in fear and wonder, or just keep talking as if none of this matters. The priest at dead center vies with him for authority and attention. They hold the ceremony by moonlight, like a witch's sabbath. Parmigianino's Circumcision (Detroit Institute of Arts, c. 1523–1524)

Raphael once shows a statue, a soldier, with its back to Saint Paul's preaching. The classical world, symbolized by the eager listeners and the Pantheon behind them, already get the message, but paganism clearly does not. It makes sense that Parmigianino copies that image—itself a drawing for reproduction, a cartoon for tapestries. Parmigianino also tends to relegate his key figure to the middle ground. He does so, for example, with a Virgin right out of Raphael. Eyes almost always look away and almost never meet.

The prophets of the Sistine ceiling overpower their support. When Parmigianino's sleeping cardinal overflows his niche, he looks more in danger of falling. A single sheet of paper has more than a dozen variants on Michelangelo's Moses, as if the younger artist can never settle on an answer. In each, too, the bearded prophet turns from the superhuman embodiment of a male God's anger into a wraithlike, feminine dance. Only someone who knows the rules as well as Parmigianino can finally break the tablets of the law.

A Madonna and Child evokes Leonardo, with the child at arm's length, reaching back to his mother. However, for Leonardo the gesture creates at once a human bond, a god's premature independence, and the very independence of painterly space. Parmigianino instead has an infant fearfully reaching back to his mother. Sure, that horse rears up, but more often animals suggest a baser view of gods and humans, not to mention the menagerie for a man of wealth and taste. In one of the last drawings, a goat's head seems to caress a soldier's leg.

Again and again, Parmigianino downplays entirely a mainstay of Renaissance art, human anatomy. Beautiful red chalk and dense cross-hatching cast a further sheen over the mostly clothed figures. In Raphael's portrait of the Pope, one remembers tired eyes, a bright papal robe, and aged hands gripping the throne. One senses at once a sick man grasping for support and a vigorous intellect with the strength to do it. In Parmigianino's portrait of an aging cardinal, also on loan at the Frick, the red has become muted grays, and the hands approach shapelessness. In the cardinal's fatigue, he could already be close to a long sleep.

When Parmigianino rings those changes on the past, he signals a wholly new relationship between the human and the spiritual. He can do so even in a portrait, Parmigianino's Antea, where sexual desire mingles with ideal beauty, or in "La Schiava Turca," where beauty meets the art of poetry. For the High Renaissance, every gesture partakes at once of this world and of a superhuman realm. Vision has become division. For Parmigianino, material existence may fade at any moment into moonlight and a dream.

The burden of traditions

Mannerism has had a tortured afterlife. Its ideals held on almost to 1600. Parmigianino, who so struggled during his lifetime, found his beauty appreciated soon after his death. Starting with the Baroque, including transitional artists such as Orazio Gentileschi, Mannerism then largely entered the backwaters of history—until the twentieth century. Artists and historians now discovered not a tired repetition of Renaissance themes but a personal, even eccentric art. Understandably enough, this happened in Germany as it neared Expressionism.

The connection to Modernism has value apart from a specific interpretation. Modern art demands looking carefully at some peculiar stuff, in order to see more than madness—or at least to see when nothing but madness makes sense. It forces one to recognize Western realism not as natural but as a norm. One can then ask why art would deliberately break the norm, whether to relish the dissonances it brings or to seek other norms with entirely different purposes. In other words, the modern world has helped free Mannerism from the burden of distortion. One can finally see El Greco, another Mannerist given a recent close-up view by the Frick, as a supremely competent artist with decent eyesight.

Recent critics, however, have taken the belief in competence further still. Forget Expressionism: they want to rescue Mannerism from its fans, and this exhibition aims for nothing less. It stresses the continuity of the Renaissance, the skill and knowledge of artists, and their immersion in their time. Indeed, Parmigianino looks that much more respectful of norms as he learns. A river god shows the increasing command of form starting with his years in Bologna.

Still, a man of his time hardly means an artist free of alienation or at ease with tradition. No doubt every image reinterprets the past and unsettles the future, but few do it as consciously as this. Besides, reinterpretation unsettles the past as well. That holds true for modern, postmodern, or older art. In turn, when Mannerism underscores continuities with older art, it disturbs easy notions of a calm, perfect Renaissance ideal. What was Leonardo's Saint John doing with that lamb?

Perhaps it is time to toss aside for good the word distortion, without losing sight of the ever-changing relationships between art and its object. Close to death, Parmigianino draws one more self-portrait, with distant eyes and a long, unkempt beard. Angelic figures, as in a classical frieze, seem to have sprung out of the top of his head. Is he identifying with his art, or is he wondering whether he is about to cross from one realm of the imagination into another, one more timeless but even less certain?

Either way, one has to linger over these drawings to see the sometimes faint outlines and to uncover their strangeness. In his poem on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery calls the artist's gesture "the shield of a greeting." Did Parmigianino experience war, debt, imprisonment, uncertain sexual longings, and a few elite admirers? German Expressionists might recognize themselves after all. Did he carry on the Renaissance as the very incarnation of its ideals? He died in 1540, at 37—the same age as Raphael.

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"A Gracious and Beautiful Manner: The Art of Parmigianino" ran at The Frick Collection through April 18, 2004. A significant early portrait, on loan from the York Art Gallery in the United Kingdom and once attributed to Correggio, remains on extended loan through February 2005. Related reviews look at Parmigianino's "Antea" and Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca."


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