In 1524, a 21-year-old painter nicknamed Parmigianino (in reference to his hometown, Parma) came to Rome hoping to win the favour and patronage of the art-loving Medici pope, Clement VII. To this end, he presented the Pope with this ingenious self-portrait, which would become one of the most famous and unusual paintings of the age. It was received at the papal court with great amazement and acclaim and, according to Vasari in his 1550 book, Lives of the Artists, Parmigianino was ‘celebrated as a Raphael reborn.’
From this promising start, Parmigianino - born Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola - would go on to become Italy’s most influential Mannerist painter over the next twenty-years. Never afraid to diverge from convention, he would always seek to do something new and unexpected. He had first learned to paint in his father’s Parma workshop and as a teenager worked along side his fellow Parma resident, Correggio, absorbing the elder artist’s elegant and illusionistic style. But Parma was just a stepping stone for ambitious Parmigianino; intelligent and sauve, both in personal manner and in his work, Parmigianino would fashion himself as the courtly ideal of an artist and it was with this daring self-portrait for the Pope that he first came to prominence.
It was a remarkable feat of trompe l’oeil. Full of bravado, Parmigianino pictured himself elegantly dressed in fur gazing directly at the viewer. Vasari describes the paintings creation as follows: ‘…he [Parmigianino] began to draw himself as he appeared in a barber’s convex glass. He had a ball of wood made at a turner’s and divided in half, and on this he set himself to paint all that he saw in the glass. Francesco himself, being of very beautiful countenance and more like an angel than a man, his portrait on the ball seemed a thing divine, and the work altogether was a happy success, having all the lustre of the glass, with every reflection and the light and shade so true, that nothing more could be hoped for from the human intellect.’
Distorted as in a convex mirror, his pale, delicate hand dominates the foreground drawing attention to the hand that could create something so extraordinary. The elegant exaggeration and elongated features would become characteristic of Parmigianino’s later work.
He went on to work for Pope Clement in Rome, where he was influenced by the art of Raphael and Michelangelo. However, just three years later, the sack of Rome forced Parmigianino, like many artists, to flee the city. After a few years in Bologna, he ended up back in Parma where he created some of his most characteristic works including the Madonna of the Long Neck (1534, Uffizi Gallery, Florence). He died at 37, according to Vasari, after becoming a devotee of alchemy and going mad.
1524 Joachim Patinir, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
1522-24 Palma Vecchio, A Blond Woman (Flora?), London, National Gallery