by Roderick Conway Morris

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In Parma, a master's 500th is celebrated

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARMA, Italy 15 February 2003
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror by Parmigianino, c.1524



In the 16th century, Francesco Mazzola, nicknamed Parmigianino on account of his birthplace, would have been regularly mentioned in the same breath as Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and the other greats of the age.

Since then Parmigianino's star has never disappeared from the central constellation of High Renaissance artists, but has brightened and dimmed more markedly than those of his leading contemporaries.

A major exhibition, marking the 500th anniversary of his birth in Parma, 'Parmigianino and European Mannerism,' helps to explain why he is still less of a household name than his Florentine and Venetian colleagues, while offering a welcome chance to savor his particular genius. The show continues at the National Gallery in Parma until May 15, then travels on to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where it will be open June 4 until Sept. 14.

Parmigianino was born into a family of artists so mediocre that there was little he could learn from them. Instead, he wisely sought superior examples in works by the likes of Pordenone, the author of a dramatic crucifixion scene in the cathedral at nearby Cremona, and Correggio, his fellow townsman, who was some 15 years his senior. But even in his juvenile canvases and frescoes, in the San Giovanni Evangelista church and at Fontanellato outside the city, a distinct style and sensibility are already discernible.

Rome, at the time, was the natural destination for an ambitious young painter, especially after the election of the art-loving Medici pope, Clement VII. This event attracted artists from all over Italy and Parmigianino arrived in Rome while still only 21. His manifest and exceptional talents won him easy access to the new pope, to whom he presented three paintings, including his 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,' an astonishing feat of technique and observation that remains one of the most accomplished self-portraits ever painted.

The artist received an important commission from the pope to do a cycle of frescoes in the Vatican, but this never came to fruition - the first of several large-scale undertakings that, for various reasons, were never begun or completed. Meanwhile, always a spontaneous and tireless draftsman, Parmigianino became deeply immersed in printmaking and executing works expressly for prints. The recently invented technique of etching had arrived in Italy from Germany just a few years before and Parmigianino became the first Italian master of this new medium. He also executed many designs for 'chiaroscuro woodcuts,' another newly invented form.

His decision to devote so much time and energy to prints - as an artist of the stature of Duerer had done before him - was by no means on the face of it a foolhardy choice. By committing himself seriously to the field, Parmigianino could place his stamp on these fresh, experimental art forms, spread his fame more widely and possibly guarantee himself a steady income. And from his 3-year Roman sojourn until the present day, the artist's drawings and prints have never ceased to be held in the highest esteem by collectors and connoisseurs. But his early death, at the age of 37, left posterity with an unusual, somewhat skewed legacy. For while some 1,100 Parmigianino drawings and prints survive, there are only about 50 paintings, including frescoes, leaving a richer trove to the more rarefied world of the cognoscenti than to the wider public.

The Sack of Rome in 1527 drove the city's artists to far-flung places of refuge, Parmigianino going first to Bologna, where he continued both to paint and etch, and then in 1530 back to his native city, where he was supposed to do two altar pieces for the imposing, newly built Santa Maria della Steccata church in the center of town. The following year he was contracted to fresco the church's apse and the broad vault in front of it. After several preparatory schemes, the subject chosen for the arch was taken from the parable in St. Matthew's gospel of 'The Wise and Foolish Virgins,' the only part of Parmigianino's scheme ever completed.

Nothing quite like this extraordinary tapestry-like creation exists in Parmigianino's or in any other Renaissance artist's work. Trios of blond vase- and lamp-bearing Wise and Foolish Virgins face each other on either side of the vault, the central Foolish Virgin with an expression of sublime empty-headedness, while her counterpart frowns with purposeful concentration, their clinging, diaphanous drapery emphasizing their full, sensual bodies beneath. In the trompe-l'oeil niches to either side of them are wonderful monochrome statues of Moses, Aaron, Adam and Eve. The overarching background is a further illusionistic tour de force: a blue and red coffered ceiling embossed with huge gold rosettes and festooned with the teeming foison of the earth - flowers, foliage, fruit, crabs, lobsters, scallop shells, frogs, sheeps' heads and birds. The frieze below the curving arch is decorated with gigantic trompe l'oeil books.

Under normal circumstances this frieze is virtually invisible from ground level, as indeed is much of the fascinating, myriad, minute detail of this entire bizarrely captivating composition. Scaffolding erected in the Santa Maria della Steccata church for conservation and restoration purposes has been left in place for the duration of the show, allowing the public to ascend and examine at close hand these stupendous frescoes high up on the vault in front of the altar - an opportunity perhaps never to be repeated.

Work on this masterpiece proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. Finally, after eight years and with the apse above the altar not even begun, the church's trustees demanded repayment of monies advanced, and failing to receive them, had the artist arrested and imprisoned.

One of Parmigianino's friends who contributed to his bail was Francesco Baiardi, whose sister had commissioned the renowned 'Madonna of the Long Neck' (now at the Uffizi), and whose 14-year-old niece was probably the model for the artist's single most famous portrait, which legend later held to be of the courtesan 'Antea.' Baiardi was also the owner of the suggestive 'Cupid Carving his Bow,' and bought Parmigianino's erotic drawings, of which he produced a large number.

Upon his release, the artist fled to Cremonese territory, where he died the following year. His work has resonated down the centuries, his influence resurfacing at unlikely times and in surprising places - as in the oval faces, swan necks and elongated bodies in the paintings of Modigliani. But, as the final sections on his immediate effect on the subsequent course of European Mannerism demonstrate, he spawned followers but none to match the master.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023