Mark for mark and line for line, the drawings of Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (1503-1540), known as Parmigianino (loosely, “the little guy from Parma” and figuratively, “the prodigy from Parma”), are as alluring, lissome, and high-strung as any ever made. Parmigianino beguiles with delicacy, dash, seductiveness, and dizzying skill.
He doesn’t have the majesty of Michelangelo or Raphael, nor the depth of Rembrandt or Goya. Yet Parmigianino’s art is as universal as these masters’. Many of the 52 drawings in the Frick’s aptly titled “A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino” suggest that this phenom was a true heir to Botticelli’s exquisiteness, an inventor of a new kind of art-for-art’s-sake beauty, and a harbinger of the refined sensibilities of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, James Whistler, and Charles Baudelaire.
In almost every drawing you can discern Parmigianino seeing, thinking, and riffing. His art is a balancing act of conflicting affinities and drives. He’ll turn a child into a paisley shape, a figure into a sensuous curve, or hair into a microcosm. He loves picturing the same thing from different angles on the same page: He’ll draw an elongated face, render it in close-up, then from above, then dash off a study of a pouty mouth. In his Venus and Cupid, Parmigianino’s she-creature is both observed and imagined, her pose classical yet tarty. She nestles her chin into her armpit, her legs delicately part, and her drapery slips invitingly aside as her left hand arches above her, tickling the mist. Rendered in this febrile hand, she’s a randy vision. She also seems to predict the distortion of Tintoretto and El Greco, the rambunctious rhythms of Tiepolo, the sensuality of Boucher and Fragonard, the sweet ennui of Watteau, the aplomb of Manet, and many things Ingres and everything Modigliani. In three drawings for his Madonna of the Rose, a sturdy virgin reaches for her tumbling child. Here, as elsewhere, you’re enamored of Parmigianino’s amazingly finicky touch, his exorbitant imagination, and the sensation that everything is in motion. Wilde remarked centuries later about such art, “Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.”
Parmigianino was born into a family of minor artists and began receiving commissions in his teens in his hometown of Parma. He was a natural and ideally suited to his time—the High Renaissance. Raphael was a god to Parmigianino; Michelangelo’s stupendous, just-completed Sistine ceiling was already a classic. Parmigianino hadn’t seen these works in the flesh yet but he drew them from prints, assimilating them but developing his own extravagant style. Just when things were looking rosy for him in Parma, an out-of-town artist named Correggio showed up and basically blew everyone—including Parmigianino—away with his ability to punch holes in painterly space. Correggio got numerous local commissions. Parmigianino got only one. It must have been unnerving.
Ambitious but frustrated, the impatient 21-year-old Parmigianino left Parma and Correggio for Rome in 1524 (he refused to ever be in the same city as Correggio again). By then, however, the world had lurched into upheaval. Martin Luther had been excommunicated in 1519; the Reformation was spreading; plague broke out; the French occupied Naples and Florence in 1525; and in 1527, in what is sometimes called the “death of the Renaissance,” Rome was sacked by Charles V and the armies of the Holy Roman Empire. Tens of thousands of citizens were killed; churches were looted; the pope was imprisoned. Parmigianino fled.
Socially and politically, everything was in chaos. As for art, the idea of surpassing the achievements of one’s forebears seemed preposterous: The way was blocked; all the problems had been solved. Pent-up and disgruntled, Parmigianino and a number of young artists who would later be called mannerists rejected the classicism, naturalism, and grand style of the Renaissance. They instinctively grasped Baudelaire’s dictum “Every age creates its own beauty.” The Renaissance looked to ancient sculpture and nature for art; mannerism looked to other art. Shunning Renaissance order, objectivity, symmetry, strong form, integrated space, and harmonious color, mannerists like Parmigianino, and later Pontormo and Bronzino, put the agitation of their times into their art. They embraced instability, subjectivity, disunity, and distortion. Think Joycean disjunction, cubist fracturing, Kafkaesque weirdness, and convoluted composition.
As with the punks of the 1970s, mannerism appeared incredibly ugly in its time. For centuries, mannerists were branded as “affected” or “repulsive,” dismissed as mere links between the Renaissance and the baroque, or witheringly referred to as the “post-peak generation.” Ouch. The Frick’s modest but mighty exhibition includes a room full of prints and seven muddy paintings that will stir but not shake you. Parmigianino’s masterpiece, Madonna of the Long Neck—an orchestrated, over-the-top encyclopedia of disproportion, contortion, satiny grandeur, and lurid color—doesn’t leave Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. No matter, Parmigianino was a spectacular draftsman (over 1,000 of his drawings survive). Like Raphael, he died at 37. Yet in his short life Parmigianino effectively changed the course of art history by concocting a new artistic sensibility. That he did this mainly through drawing is all the more thrilling.