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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Parmigianino was a talented painter from the early 16th century who helped to draw attention to his local city of Parma, but was also active in Florence, Rome and Bologna.

This was an artist like no other - experimenting in print making which was particularly rare within Italy at the time. He also did not come from one of the established Italian artistic cities such as Venice, Rome or Florence, and this gave him a unique outlook on many things. "The little one from Parma", as he was affectionately nicknamed, soon realised that he could not succeed within his career unless he looked beyond the boundaries of his city of birth. His initial desire to enter the medium of print making was probably seen as a natural extension of his considerable talents as a draughtsman, though he was also a successful and passioniate painter too. Those who study his career today will immediately be presented with a selection of his most famous oil on canvas works, but this only tells a small story about his life and artistic contributions which are still much celebrated within Parma.

This was an artist who arrived early into the Mannerist period. His style is most famous for the sensitive brushwork which can be found throughout his shortened career. His oeuvre consists mainly of portraits of local figures as well as the standard religious themes which dominated throughout the Italian Renaissance. His earliest pieces, of those that we are aware, appeared when he was in his mid-teens and continued until his death in 1540, at the age of thirty seven. He focused predominantly on religious topics early on, perhaps aware that these were a safer bet as he started to build a solid reputation for the first time. As he became more confident and established, he started to produce more portraits, many of which were in the three-quarter length format that had previously been reserved for only the most significant of models.

It is hard to imagine just how much more successful Parmigianino might have been were it not for both his premature death, but also the political instability that impacted his early years. He was forced to relocate several times due to the conflict which involved various Italian armies as well as the French. At this time, the country was particularly fractured and this ensured many art schools were local to their kingdoms and held unique characteristics. Just around when he turned 18 he was sent off to Viadana to complete various projects, though the move was more for his own protection from this political instability. He would also later meet Correggio, who was more established at the time and would have helped to inspire new ideas in this young artist. Eventually, he was able to reach Rome and would now enjoy a better array of opportunities with which to build his career and also draw in additional influences from the vast local collections.

"...[Parmigianino was] celebrated as a Raphael reborn..."

Giorgio Vasari, describing his arrival in Rome

He had a strong relationship with one of his uncles, Pier Ilario, who initially encouraged him to take over elements of his own artistic work before helping him to acquire some commissions of his own. Having arrived in Rome in around 1524 they would work together on a number of different projects, though by this point Parmigianino was entirely independent and also seen as such. He had essentially surpassed the influence of his uncle and now was the figurehead of this combination. After some decorative work in a number of churches they were forced to leave Rome due to further political instabilities, along with most other local artists. Parmigianino headed to Bologna, where he remained for around three years. Although the relocation was not planned, he was still able to continue his successful career and also foster some new relationships with local patrons and other notable artists.

Having completed a number of important painters whilst in Bologna, he would return to the familiar surroundings of Parma in 1530. A string of commissions continued here, including two commissions for the Church of Santa Maria della Steccata. Even at this stage he was still producing religiously-themed pieces in the main, though portraits offered him an enjoyable break from this from time to time. Many of his portraits from the 1530s are still in Parma, amongst a number of significant galleries and museums that will still speak fondly of his contributions to art from this region. Some of his portraits were also of relatively 'normal' figures and he showed an interest in a variety of people for his work, which is more in line with modern styles than those of the early Mannerist era.

Parmigianino was also skilled in other mediums besides painting. He produced a number of woodcuts and also prints from etched copper plates. He is recognised as one of the most talented draughtsman within the Mannerist movement, though very few drawings from his career have survived to the present day. This art form is notoriously fragile and few artists saw their sketches as something worth taking care over, nor documenting in any depth. Those with large studios would normally hand them around in order to teach certain elements around style and composition, which again would lead to their depreciation over time. We can still get a good idea of his technical skills in drawing through his surviving etchings, though, as the two mediums are very closely related in terms of the technical demands.

There are some unique characteristics within Parmigianino's paintings, if we look deeper into specific works. For example, he experimented with miniature art for a period in his younger years, such as with Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror which he completed at the age of 21. He tackles the distorting impact of mirrors within this piece which stands out as an unusual choice within the Mannerist era. His miniature sized pieces at around this time was also another sign of experimentation which underlines his desire to create and impress, but without just following what had gone before. During this period there was a lack of understanding about new ideas in comparison to today, with religious themes dominating most artist's oeuvre. Even landscape art was just starting to appear at this point and was only being used as a supporting element with the background of paintings.