Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino

James W Singer 16 June 2024 min Read

Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck is a masterpiece of Italian Mannerism that presents an unusual interpretation of traditional depictions of the Virgin and Child.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Mannerism

Mannerism was an artistic period in European art that emerged in the 1520s. In Italy, it faded in the 1590s and was replaced by the Baroque style. Its roughly 70-year lifespan overlapped and coexisted with the end of the High Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. Mannerism is sometimes incorrectly dismissed as merely a transitional period between these two more famous styles.

However, this dismissal overlooks the weighty contribution Mannerism provided to art history. Mannerism proves that Renaissance art is sometimes overly rigid and boring and that Baroque art is sometimes too dark and somber. Mannerism plays with compositional rules and injects sensuality while maintaining a light-filled ambiance.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino

Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (1530-1540), better known as Parmigianino, is probably the most famous Mannerist painter of the Parma School which existed in the early 16th century in the modern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. He practically established the signature style of Mannerism with his paintings’ elongated bodies, unbalanced compositions, and disorienting spaces.

Compared to the order and balance of the High Renaissance, Mannerism seems weird and bizarre. However, its rule-breaking nature creates interest, generates emotion, and sometimes sparks eroticism. Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck is a masterpiece of Italian Mannerism that presents an unusual interpretation of a traditional Madonna and Child subject.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1523-1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1523-1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Composition

Madonna with the Long Neck is an oil-on-panel that measures 216.5 cm tall and 132.5 cm wide (85.2 x 52.2 in). It features a very traditional Italian subject: Madonna and Child. This iconography has been repeated and painted for centuries as it is a ready vehicle for artistic exploration. Its familiarity makes paintings approachable while allowing for new techniques and ideas to inject modern freshness.

Parmigianino is no exception to this trend. He presents the Virgin holding the baby Jesus surrounded by angels and a saint in the background. However, the figures’ bodies seem distorted, the colors a little too intense, and what is happening with the disembodied foot in the lower right corner?

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Madonna

Dominating the scene is the Virgin. She is a statuesque figure that has a strong Michelangelo-like air of strength and solidity. However, unlike Michelangelo’s statues, Parmigianino’s Madonna has elongated features reflecting the courtly taste of 1530s Parma.

The Madonna’s hair is styled like an aristocratic lady’s, with pearls and a large jewel adorning her locks. She appears more queenly than the humble wife of a carpenter and hence projects a sort of “queen of heaven” grace to her image.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Further adding to the aristocratic overtones are her small oval head, smooth elongated neck, delicate long fingers, small round breasts, and flaring wide hips. Her body reflects the 1530s ideal Parma noblewoman.

Eroticism

Despite the religious subject, there is a subtle eroticism to the painting. For example, the Virgin’s clothing clings and exposes her nubile body. It echoes the wet-drapery technique famously explored in the ancient Greek statuary. The wet-drapery style highlights her bodily curves such as her firm bosom, lower belly, and thick knees.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Further highlighting her bodily beauty, is the motion of her right hand as it gently touches her breast. Her elongated fingers draw the viewer’s eyes to her chest and to the base of her column-like neck. Additionally adding sensuality is the long, lithe exposed leg of the angel to the left of the Virgin. Its skin is exposed as far as the hip and its groin region is barely covered. For a heavenly creature, it is certainly showing some earthly sensuality.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

The Child

The Christ child is upon the Madonna’s lap and held by her right arm. Jesus is not a newborn baby in Parmigianino’s scene—he is unnaturally large with long legs, an adult-sized head, and abnormally thick thighs. Unfiltered viewers may comment that he is an alien baby. Weird! Huge! Awkward!

However, while he may not resemble a newborn child, he definitely attracts attention which is exactly what Jesus should do. He is the “Saviour” according to Christian belief. He is the basis of Christianity. Therefore, should humane-bound perception apply to him? If he is the son of God then why should he be bound by earth(l)y standards of beauty and convention?

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Jesus’s central role in Christianity is further deepened by his sleeping attitude. The Child is not actively awake and interacting with his mother, as in many paintings depicting Madonna and Child.

Instead, he is listlessly sleeping and sprawled across his mother’s lap. His position alludes to his fate—the ultimate death at the Crucifixion. He will be the ultimate sacrifice for mankind’s sins. The reference to his death in his infancy is a very common motif in Christian imagery.

Parmigianino further references the deathly fate by depicting the cremation urn held by the long-legged angel. While Jesus was not cremated, a cremation urn was a frequently used symbol of death and life’s brevity in paintings.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Unfinished

Madonna with the Long Neck was commissioned by a noblewoman, Elena Baiardi Tagliaferri, for the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Parma. Parmigianino was contracted to complete the work in 5 months, but shockingly after 6 years, it was never finished until Parmigianino’s unexpected death.

The uncompleted state of the painting explains the random foot in the bottom right corner.

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino began painting Saint Francis, another figure meant to be in the painting but never managed to complete it. His sudden death also explains the see-through nature of Saint Jerome, who is unrolling a scroll, because his final layers were never completed either.

When the painting was placed on display, a note was added to the frame declaring “Adverse destiny prevented Francesco Mazzola of Parma (Parmigianino) from completing this work.”

Parmigianino madonna with the long neck: Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Detail.

Bibliography

1.

Alderotti, Monica. “Madonna with the Long Neck.” Collection. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Retrieved 2 June 2024.

2.

Bayer, Andrea. “Sixteenth-Century Painting in Emilia-Romagna.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York, NY, USA: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

3.

Charles, Victoria, Joseph Manca, Megan McShane, and Donald Wigal. 1000 Paintings of Genius. New York, NY, USA: Barnes & Noble Books, 2006.

4.

Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 12th ed. Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

5.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Collection. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Retrieved 2 June 2024.

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