The way Getty Museum talks about its expected purchase of an Old Master painting, pegging it “Late Renaissance,” you’d expect to see something classical with perfect balance, symmetry and idyllic form – you know, like Michelangelo’s “David.” But “Virgin with Child, St. John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene” by 16th century artist Francesco Parmigianino comes in the Mannerist style -- which rejected the Renaissance canon. Mannerists made their own rules. Rather than idealize the human form, they wanted the human form to be about being human – the striving, struggling, feeling. Utopian proportions and perspective didn’t tell the story they wanted to tell. (More about the painting in a moment)
Vive la difference!
So it’s odd that the Getty Museum director Timothy Potts told the LA Times that the painting was “late Renaissance.” That’s like calling Impressionism Late Neo-Classicism or Abstract Expressionism Late Ashcan School. While one followed the other it was not in lockstep. It came in rebellion against what came before. Potts also said that Parmigianino’s painting “encompasses in the best possible way “the ideal of beauty and refinement of the mature Italian Renaissance,” as if the two styles were joined at the hip. Shakespeare, who was a Mannerist writer, made clear what the style was in a line in his history play “King John”: Come the three corners of the world in arms/And we shall shock them. That’s what Mannerists painters did: they sought to shock with off-putting compositions and contorted figures and jolt the traditionalists out of putting people on a pedestal. Not unexpectedly, devotees of the Renaissance balked, faulting the new style for affectation. #Art historian at the time, George Vasari, a Mannerist sympathizer, argued that by exceeding exact measurement in their figure art, painters like Parmigianino evoked extra feeling -- a kind of swooning that is stirring and poignant.
Perhaps the biggest sign of Mannerism in Parmigianino picture is the exaggerated neck of the Madonna. Like his better known “Madonna with the Long Neck” in the Uffizi collection, he lengthened the neck for effect. Some historians say that stretching the Madonna’s neck creates a sense of grace, an air of spirituality. This writer’s interpretation extends that thought: elongating the neck hikes its separation from the head to stress the divide between the mind and the body. There’s also an eerie, glacial light in the painting, as if issuing from another world. Whatever it is, the image holds you fast.
To be fair, the Getty director isn’t the only one who uses the term Renaissance and Mannerist interchangeably. Back in the day, Vasari reported that Parmigianino was called “Raphael reborn,” likely because Mannerist naysayers couldn’t let go of their allegiance to the Renaissance style. How else to explain comparing Parmigianino to Raphael, who epitomized the Renaissance cannons of harmony and naturalism. There’s little natural in an elongated neck. But let’s give Renaissance Rome a pass because of its emotional attachment to the past and because it was in shock from the new style. What’s Getty’s excuse?