Two days ago (March 16th) I gave you what I thought was a very strange painting entitled Child with Doll by Henri Rousseau. The depiction of the child was odd and the proportions of the figure just didn’t look right. The figures in today’s painting have similar unusual proportions but in my mind there is still an element of beauty about the figures. The title of today’s painting actually derives from such artistic distortions. The picture painted in 1534 by the Italian Mannerist artist, Parmigianino is entitled Madonna with the Long Neck, and hangs in the wonderful Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Before we look at the painting in detail I think we need to understand a little about Mannerism and Mannerist artists.
Around the 1520’s in Italy, art in many ways had reached its peak of excellence. It was the time of the great High Renaissance painters Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonaroti, Titian and Raphael Santi. It was believed by many that the works of these four giants of art could never be bettered. Their paintings combined splendour and harmony with correctness. Although few would disagree with this appraisal of their work, think how it affected a young up-and-coming artist of the time to be told that no matter how hard they tried, their work would never come up to the standard of those that went before them. Would you be disappointed and disheartened by that appraisal of your future? Would that just make you want to give up your artistic career? For many aspiring artists at that time that is what they did – gave up their dreams but for others they decided to imitate the works of the great High Renaissance artists. They looked at the musculature of the figures in some of Michelangelo’s paintings and copied the figures in to their works and as Gombrich wrote in his book The Story of Art:
“….Michelangelo had loved to draw nudes in complicated attitudes – well, if that was the right thing to do, they would copy his nudes, and put them into their pictures whether they fitted or not. The result was slightly ludicrous – the sacred scenes from the Bible were crowded out by what appeared to be a training team of young athletes….”
Others searched for a way to overcome the situation they found themselves in. They knew that art would eventually move on and they decided they must be part of that future. They realised that they would never be able to improve on the works of the Renaissance Masters and for them to become great artists and have their works of art become popular they needed to change their painting style. Something had to be different about their work if it was to achieve greatness. They looked at how they would depict people in their paintings. They played round with how their figures posed within a scene. Often figures would be distorted into almost impossible poses. Sometimes they would disregard the true physical proportions of their figures, frequently elongating them. They did not believe their paintings had to exhibit balance or harmony, which was of great importance to the High Renaissance artists. These mid 16th century Italian artists believed they could be the new future of art and were known as the Mannerists. The art produced by these Mannerist painters was not loved by all. Many critics suggested that this art genre was simply characterised by its artificiality, superficiality and exaggeration. One could sum up Mannerism by saying it is a style in art and originating in Italy as a reaction against the equilibrium of form and proportions characteristic of the High Renaissance. However, the term Mannerism, to some people, rather than be thought of a style, is just the era in Italian art, sandwiched between the High Renaissance period which began around 1490 and ending circa 1527 and the arrival of the Baroque period of art circa 1600. Art critics and writers have varied views on what they believe Mannerism to be and in his 1957 book entitled Mannerism, John Shearman, the author, wrote:
“…This book will have at least one feature in common with all those already published on Mannerism; it will appear to describe something quite different from what all the rest describe…”
And so to our picture today, which was painted by the great Mannerist artist Girolamo Francesco Mari Mazzola, more commonly known a Parmigianino which translated means “the little one from Parma”, his birthplace. Today’s work of art is his painting, Madonna with the Long Neck. This was his crowning masterpiece. He commenced working on the painting in 1534 for the church Santa Maria dei Servi at Parma. However at this time of his life the artist became fascinated with alchemy and all the magic that goes with it and this obsession resulted in his art commissions being neglected and on his death six years later this painting was still incomplete.
As we look at this painting, the title is self explanatory. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary dressed in luxurious robes. On her lap is the baby Jesus. To the left we see a group of angels and to the right of the Madonna, in the background we see the diminutive figure of the prophet, Saint Jerome, almost naked standing before a vertical column, holding an unfurled scroll. This tiny figure of St Jerome is in marked contrast and completely out of proportion with the overbearingly large figure of the Madonna.
If we look closely at the Madonna we can see that her physical features have been distorted by elongation. Look at the length of her neck, hands, fingers and feet, all of which are too long. Look at the lower half of her body. This seems to be far too wide. Are all those features part of the Mannerism concept? Some art critics would have us believe that the elongated length of her neck has religious significance and harks back to medieval hymns and litanies to the Virgin Mary which compares her neck to a great ivory tower or column (is that why we have a white column in the background of the painting?) and that the architectural reference to the column furthered her symbolic role as representing the Church. But if this was the reasoning behind the long neck what was the reasoning behind the elongation of her hands, fingers and feet? Another strange aspect to the painting of the Virgin Mary is there is a sensuousness about her pose and her clothing which is very unusual in Madonna portraits. Look how the fingers on her right hand touch her breast. Look how the almost transparent greyish garment lies against her breast and how the cloth hangs against her nipple. See how her fingers almost point towards her breast and nipple as if guiding our eyes to what we should observe. Look at how the cloth gathers tightly against her stomach and how we can clearly see her navel. Parmagianino’s Madonna has elaborately curled hair which is decorated by pearls and frames her exquisite and beautiful face. The robes she is wearing are sumptuous and cascading. This is a very unusual portrayal of the Mother of Christ. This is more a portrait of a (then) present day beauty. She has the beauty of a Raphael Madonna but incorporates, some would say, “suffers from”, the elongation at the hands of a Mannerist painter.
Now look at the baby Jesus who rests on his mother’s lap. The baby is not being lovingly cradled as it is in the more normal depictions. His elongated figure just lies across her lap and we wonder if he will slide to the floor. Look closely at the figure. Is the baby alive and asleep or are we looking at a dead body with his lifeless arm hanging downwards. Are we looking at a lifeless body lying across the thighs of the Virgin Mary similar to the dead Christ’s portrayal in the familiar Pietà figures? Why has the artist given the baby a deathly-grey pallor? Again look at the face. Do you think this is the face of a baby or an older infant or are we being tricked into believing that the child is older because of his elongated features?
The group of six angels are crammed into the left hand side of the painting. The artist, being a true Mannerist, made no attempt to balance the painting by having them split into equal numbers on either side of the Madonna and Child. If you think I have counted up the number of angels incorrectly and can only see five, I believe the face of the “unfinished” angel is just below the right elbow of the Madonna. Earlier I talked about the sensuousness of the artist’s depiction of the Madonna, this time I again have to draw your attention to the sensual depiction of the angels, particularly the angel standing at the front. Look at the way her silky gown is cut high exposing her upper thigh. Note how the toes of the elongated left leg of the baby press the skin of the angel’s upper thigh. It is almost acting as a pointer to where our eyes should look. This is similar to the Madonna’s fingers and where they direct our gaze, which I mentioned earlier. Was this just coincidental and am I making too much of it? Did the artist intend to add an element of eroticism into this “sacred” painting which was to hang in a church? Look at the vase which this angel at the front carries. Although my picture doesn’t show it so clearly, there is a cross on it which was thought to be a reference to the future fate and coming Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion.
As I said at the beginning, this painting was unfinished at the time of Parmigianino’s death. The sixth angel has not been completed. nor has most of the upper right background. Look carefully at the feet of Saint Jerome, the man who is holding the scroll. Just to the right of his feet are another pair of feet which presumably was to be the start of another figure ! The capital of the single column (the crown) is missing. Was that just because the painting is unfinished or did the artist paint it as such to make the comparison of the Madonna’s elongated neck and this single smooth column more tenable. If we prefer the “unfinished” reasoning then maybe we should also consider that it is quite possible that this was to be one of a number of columns, which would be shown in the background if the artist had completed the work.
There are so many unanswered questions for you to ponder upon. All in all, this is a strange painting but this should not detract from its magnificence. This is now looked upon as one of Parmigianino’s greatest works of art.