The Italian painter Parmigianino (1503-1540) was a pioneer of the mannerist style, within which his work shows an essentially decorative emphasis and accomplished smoothness.
The real name of Parmigianino a nickname meaning "little man from Parma, " was Francesco Mazzola. He was born on Jan. 11, 1503, in Parma. After his father, a painter, died in 1505, Parmigianino was brought up by two painter uncles. His own first works show an easy assimilation of the most sophisticated local styles, first Francesco Francia's and then Correggio's.
At the age of 19 Parmigianino was commissioned to execute frescoes for the Parma Cathedral; he painted a series of saints that rival Correggio's in their sinuous grace and gentle shadows. Soon thereafter Parmigianino extended these qualities into a personal idiom in the frescoes of the story of Diana and Acteon for a castle at Fontanellato; the figures are built up by a sketchy, pasty brushstroke that suggests an environment of fresh air but also confirms the elegant artificiality basic to mannerism, the frank embrace of the fact that painting differs in its essentials from nature.
Visually, mannerism is the intentional distortion of the proportions of the human figure and of spatial relationships. Good art for the early Renaissance was the successful imitation of nature, and this goal seemed to be achieved by High Renaissance artists. Their successors, such as Correggio, were thus able to learn it as apprentices and concern themselves rather with harmonious variations on ideal natural beauty. By the same token, the next generation could easily learn variants on ideal beauty which were already abstracted from their origins in nature and so could concern themselves with artifice and stylized distortion, as Parmigianino did.
In 1524 Parmigianino went to Rome, taking as a sample work his Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, a distortion of his own appearance meant to amuse and attract praise for its technical virtuosity. In Rome he developed an elegant style of painting Madonnas, with a harder and smoother surface.
Parmigianino fled the sack of Rome in 1527 and went to Bologna. In his Allegorical Portrait of Charles V (1529-1530), executed in Bologna, where Charles V was crowned in 1530, he produced a pioneer formulation of the absolutist state portrait. Beginning in 1531, back in Parma, Parmigianino painted his most classic statements: the almost perversely erotic Cupid Sharpening His Bow, with Cupid seen from the rear but turning with a smile, and the Madonna of the Long Neck (1534), both paintings unified by a crisp twining line. His great church commission for S. Maria della Steccata in Parma, begun (1531) with six decorative female figures, was neglected when he developed a passion for alchemy. Threatened with a lawsuit for breach of contract in 1539, he fled to Casalmaggiore, where he died on Aug. 24, 1540.
Parmigianino was an accomplished draftsman. He was also the first Italian painter to be an etcher.
Sydney J. Freedberg, Parmigianino: His Works in Painting (1950), is a sound although needlessly elaborate visual analysis. A. E. Popham, The Drawings of Parmigianino (1953), contains an excellent summary text.