Parmigianino Paints Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Parmigianino’s extraordinary Madonna represents the peak of refinement for Italian mannerist painting while conforming to the dictates of traditional theological beliefs supported by passages from scriptures, Dante, Petrarch, and contemporary poetry. It appeared at a time when values were being questioned throughout Europe in all areas, soon to be followed by a lapse into orthodoxy.

Summary of Event

Elena Tagliaferri, widow of the noted Petrarchan poet Francesco Baiardi, commissioned a painting from Parmigianino on December 23, 1534, to grace the funerary chapel of her husband, Francesco Tagliaferri, with the intention of soliciting prayers to earn indulgences for the temporal release of his soul from suffering in Purgatory. The painting, the Madonna dal collo lungo, or Madonna with the Long Neck, was installed on the altar in 1542 with an inscription recognizing that it had been left unfinished at the death of the artist two years earlier. Madonna with the Long Neck (Parmigianino) Parmigianino Tagliaferri, Elena Baiardi Tagliaferri, Francesco Paul III Tagliaferri, Elena Baiardi Baiardi, Francesco Paul III Parmigianino

More than thirty surviving drawings indicate that at one stage, the composition had been a traditional Madonna and Child flanked by Saints Francis and Jerome, symmetrically disposed and in normative proportions. Parmigianino modified the composition to reflect changing doctrinal ideas about the subject. Background temples became foreshortened until a single column was emphasized, foreground saints were made smaller and less prominent, angels holding a large vase now crowded the frontal plane, and the central figures became attenuated. A small figure of Saint Jerome holds a scroll in the lower right corner. Parmigianino uses the conventional device of a parted curtain in the upper left-hand corner to alert the viewer to the Madonna as a revelation.

Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck emerged not long after Christopher Columbus had sailed west to reach the Americas; when Nicolaus Copernicus was questioning Ptolemy’s ideas of planetary motion; when Niccolò Macchiavelli, in Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640), was recommending a practical approach to politics over old chivalric ideas; and when Andreas Vesalius, in De humani corporis fabrica(1543; On the Fabric of the Human Body, books I-IV, 1998; better known as De fabrica), was questioning the ancient anatomical studies of Galen. Perhaps most important, however, was the recent revolution in religion now known as the Reformation, inaugurated in 1517 after Martin Luther risked charges of heresy to challenge the Catholic Church in the area of dogma, questioning the sale of indulgences, the efficacy of the sacraments, the importance of the priesthood, and the interpretation of Scripture. The overintellection of these decades was followed in the arts by Parmigianino and his contemporaries, who challenged the classical statements of an earlier generation, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1497) and Raphael’s DisputÀ (1510-1511; Dispute over the Sacrament).

Luther’s position on salvation eliminated the need for the Blessed Virgin as intercessor with Christ. Parmigianino’s painting, by contrast, supports the Church’s position through a vigorous reassertion of Marian imagery. He represents Mary simultaneously in three of her common roles: as Virgo Lactans (the nursing Madonna), Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy), and Madonna of the Immaculate Conception. Saint Jerome and Saint Francis (who appears only in some of the preliminary drawings) were strong advocates of Mary’s immaculacy, and Francis was also the namesake of the deceased (and of the painter). Jerome was a friend of widows who argued against their remarrying, and also the patron saint of notaries. Consequently, he had a particular resonance for both donor and husband. Catholicism;Italy

The cross on the vase is a reference to the donor, Elena Tagliaferri, whose patron saint was Helena, the mother of the Constantine, who journeyed to the Holy Land in search of the True Cross. It is also a proleptic reference to Christ’s crucifixion as Redeemer. The cleaning of the painting in 1982 confirmed art historian Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) memory of it, revealing a palimpsest of the painted cross on the vase held by the angel. The urn is also a reference to Mary’s womb as a tabernacle. Such associations are made in many late Gothic writings, such as the Mirror of Human Salvation (c. 1324), which relates the Virgin to the Ark of the Covenant, “As the ark contained the golden urn with the manna, so Mary offered us the true manna of heaven.”

The Madonna, oversized even as seated although no throne is visible, follows the medieval practice of hierarchic representation for sacred figures and alludes to Mary’s sanctity. Her heightened stature is referred to in numerous writings such as Saint Bernard’s opening prayer in Canto 33 of Dante’s Il Paradiso (c. 1320), “surpassing created beings in all lowliness, as in height above them all, Enobler of thy nature. . . .” Parmigianino’s Virgin was said to be influenced by passages from the Song of Songs and reflects attitudes expressed in Agnolo Firenzuola’s (1493-1543) dialogues on female beauty, but such passages relate to the Virgin with difficulty only as broad metaphors. Parmigianino more likely offered his visual poetry as a response to passages from Petrarch’s Canzoniere (1470) in praise of his beloved Laura—such as “Some perhaps may think my style is wrong in making her beyond all others gracious, saintly and wise, charming and chaste and lovely,” (Canzoniere 247: 2-4), or “Your lofty beauty, unequalled in the world . . . seems to adorn and crown the lovely treasures of your chasteness” (Canzoniere 263: 12-14)—which echo to a degree Psalm 44:3, “You are beautiful above all humankind.”

The painting is often cited as one of the earliest and most prominent forms of a style now known as mannerism Mannerism , in which the classic proportions of the human form were discarded in favor of elongated limbs, complicated poses, and unnatural proportions. This departure from the normative through distortion of form had a receptive audience at the time, as evidenced in the changes in canons of proportions for the human figure recommended in art treatises after 1530. As the Jansons put it in their history of art, “After 1520, the confidence of the High Renaissance in the almost divine powers of the human spirit was no longer shared by the younger artists; to them, man seemed once again at the mercy of forces over which he had no control.” In this respect, mannerism can be seen as an artistic response by southern Europeans to the turmoil of the times and, to some degree, threats from the north that were both religious and political: the Protestant Reformation Reformation;Italy , beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses; the sack of Rome in 1527-1528 by the Habsburg emperor Charles V and the attendant gains for Protestantism and secular authority against the Catholic Church (some historians have even cited this event as marking the end of the Italian Renaissance); and the subsequent erosion of Church authority by monarchs such as Henry VIII with his deliberate reversal of Church authority in favor of monarchial power.

Madonna with the Long Neck is in this respect a quintessential expression of the mannerist reaction to the new crisis of faith and a rejection of the previous generation’s use of classic forms to express confidence in the human spirit. Although enlargement was typical for Marys of the Misericordia type (it is Mary who is to be interpreted as enlarged, not the lateral figures as diminished), Parmigianino does not represent Mary in normative proportions. Her torso is distended, and even the Christ Child’s arms and legs are attenuated, as is the angel’s right leg, indicating that sanctity magnifies all who come into contact with it. A litany from Ecclesiastes 24 refers to Mary’s growing tall as a metaphor for her increased stature in agreeing to be the Mother of God. Here, Parmigianino’s literal interpretation of the passage results in figural distortion. No other Madonna by Parmigianino has such distended proportions. Tallness for the painter was not simply an affectation on his part, but a theme of the painting as a sign of the heightened state of Mary’s wisdom in agreeing to be the mother of the promised Messiah.

The column minus its capital reinforces the notion of extension. It is a reference to Mary as a pillar of the Church; a single column is often made prominent in Annunciation and Nativity scenes. It is also a reference to the one who commissioned the work, Elena, because widows were frequently referred to in poems of the times as standing tall “like a column” against the uncertainty of the future. Furthermore, the funerary context of the painting is underscored by the column and vase, two elements often found in ancient cemeteries.

The distended forms give the painting its sense of elegance and refinement, which flatters Mary, because beauty was synonymous with goodness in writings of the time. Its exquisite character also refers to its patrician patron, who would have expected an image of such opulence. Additionally, Mary’s modesty is a reflection of her virtue, and her gestures and attitude are those appropriate for a woman as indicated in contemporary treatises on dance. Her eyes downcast in modesty, the gentle placement of her right hand, and the delicate positioning of her foot suggest care and thoughtfulness in the decorum expected of a woman.

In his figure of the Virgin, Parmigianino makes explicit the incipient elegance of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as Mary’s foot becomes a visual fulcrum in the painting. It is the one element that projects beyond the pictorial surface to intrude on spectator space, and it was stimulated by the extended foot of Michelangelo’s Madonna in the Medici Chapel. Mary’s foot (and her downward glance directing it) conforms with the deliberate measure of space recommended for the female dancer in contemporary dance treatises. The control implied in this detail becomes a signifier of Mary’s virtue. This is the same foot that scriptures foretold would “crush the head of the serpent” (Genesis 3:14), an imagery frequently associated with the immaculacy of Mary.

The prominence of Mary’s breast as a nursing Madonna, made explicit in Parmigianino’s drawings, is a reference to her Son’s Incarnation, so necessary a part of God’s promise of Redemption. Christ’s destiny is alluded to in the cross on the vase, in the column behind as a reference to his scourging, and in his dangling arm, a signifier of morbidity inspired by a relief on a Roman sarcophagus depicting the Death of Maleager. The painting thus becomes a proleptic pietÀ, with Michelangelo’s Vatican PietÀ as a frame of reference.

The painting’s traditional iconography in combination with its idiosyncratic elements of style place it on the cusp of important aesthetic and cultural transitions besides the general movements mentioned above. The year of the painter’s death was also the year of Pope Paul III’s approval of the Jesuit order, founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. This was followed in 1545 by the pope’s consenting to convene the Council of Trent to counter the Protestant reformers. With Paul’s reinstatement of the Inquisition by creation of the Holy Office in 1542, this led to a reassertion of orthodoxy and a revitalization of the Church, with Ignatius’s Jesuits reclaiming Eastern Europe from Calvinism and extending the faith to India, China, and Japan in the wake of Portuguese merchant fleets.


Parmigianino’s painting inspired numerous copies, attesting to its popularity. It was recorded in engravings by the Florentine Francesco(?) Petrucci (1660-1719) and the Bolognese friar, Giovanni Antonio Lorenzini (1665-1740), and it offered a point of departure for Benedetto Pagni’s (1504-1578) Medici Madonna, now in Sarasota. But the Emilian cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (1522-1597), in his discourse of 1582 on sacred and profane images, may have had Parmigianino’s panel in mind when he commented that painting the Virgin with “curly hair, pompous and vain garments and ornaments, and even with pearls hanging from her ears . . . turns ones stomach to see.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bambach, Carmen, Hugo Chapman, Martin Clayton, and George Goldner. Correggio and Parmigianino: Master Draughtsmen of the Renaissance. London: British Museum Press, 2000. Catalog of an impressive exhibition of Parmigianino’s drawings, with five samples of studies for the Madonna with the Long Neck.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeGrazia, Diane. Correggio and His Legacy. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1984. Catalog for an exhibition of drawings by Correggio and his followers, with color reproductions. Includes four studies by Parmigianino for the Madonna with the Long Neck.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Cecil. Parmigianino. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994. A concise overview of Parmigianino’s career and artistic output, with striking illustrations of his paintings and related drawings, accompanied by a catalog of paintings and etchings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaccaro, Mary. Parmigianino: The Paintings. Turin, Italy: Umberto Allemandi, 2002. An introductory text that is followed by lavish color illustrations and a catalog of individual works.

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

1477-1482: Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1508-1520: Raphael Paints His Frescoes

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

Nov. 3, 1522-Nov. 17, 1530: Correggio Paints the Assumption of the Virgin

1532: Holbein Settles in London

1563-1584: Construction of the Escorial

June, 1564: Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco

Categories: History