It's one of the most amazing little paintings I've ever seen. It's a self-portrait. The young artist was barely twenty when he rendered his precocious, reflected image from a convex mirror onto a round, wooden panel barely nine inches in diameter. In the foreground is the graceful image of his right hand, slender, feminine, and delicate. A window lights the scene from the left, illuminating his boyish face and brown hair most effectively. He looks much too young to belong to such an accomplished artist. The painting was done in 1523 just a year before he was to arrive in Rome to begin his professional career. His name was Girolamo Francesco Mazolla. He was born in 1503 in Parma, Italy, and it was from his hometown that he derived the name by which we know him today--Parmigianino--the boy from Parma.
The youthful face in the mirror gives little hint of the misfortune that was to befall the talented young man in Rome. He died, a tired, worn-out man in his thirties. But in the seventeen years of his professional career, he managed to master the painting style of his hometown hero, Correggio, as well as Rome's Michelangelo, Raphael, Rosso Fiorentino, and Giulio Romano. Parmigianino had been in Rome for just a short time when it was Sacked by invaders from the North in 1527. He was imprisoned. Yet even there, he continued to paint. Upon his release, he was forced to flee Rome for Bologna where some of his greatest works were completed. One of the best, his 1530 painting, "The Conversion of Paul," demonstrates a mastery of both medium and message. Parmigianino may have been the first artist to be considered a "Mannerist" painter. In this work, we see the full force of that much misunderstood and maligned style. It's a tour-de-force of his elegant, sometimes exasperating painting skill.
Parmigianino's most famous work was one of his last, painted in 1535 but still considered unfinished at his death. It is an enormous, full-length Madonna and child known as "Madonna with the Long Neck." Critics have loved it and hated it for centuries because it is about as far removed from any other painting of its type either before or since as can be imagined. I mentioned that Parmigianino is exasperating. On the one hand he is probably the best painter of his time (excluding Michelangelo). Yet he insists upon an elegantly elaborate, anatomical (not to mention unbiblical) distortion of the mother and child as to be irreverent and even erotic. Some have likened it to an abstraction, others probe it's setting and peripheral figures for deep symbolic meaning, while others simply have trouble getting past the massive thighs, petulant breasts, gossamer clinging garments, and stylish hairdo, not to mention the damnable gooseneck from which the painting gets it's name. Amongst art historians, Mannerist painting is not the most beloved period in art. Though Parmigianino, along side Tintoretto and Pontormo, are obviously the best of the lot, it's work such as this enigmatic Madonna that gives the style such a bad name.