When, back in college, I first encountered the Mannerist Italian painter known to the public as Parmigianino (1503-1540), it was by way of a slide of his symbolic, devotional, unfinished painting known as Madonna of the Long Neck, a private commission that took him six years of his 37-year life to complete.We were told it’s a masterpiece, and I was happy to agree, as long as I didn’t have to keep it in my living room. Despite the angelic beauty of the Madonna’s face and the charm of all the adolescent angels crowding in on one side of her to see the infant in her lap, the naked, ashen-colored child stretched out across her mighty, enrobed thighs looks alarmingly lifeless. The Madonna’s delicate head, canted against the twist of her body; her Alice-in-Wonderland neck; and her disproportionately mighty legs reminded me, as a total package, of a brontosaurus, excuse me, an apatosauros—and, after nearly five decades, they still do. Behind the Madonna, an unnervingly unmoored row of columns float toward a treeless horizon. Somewhere, alone, in their vicinity is a tiny, half-naked male figure (he’s both far away in distance and, I guess, far below the Madonna and angels in other, symbolic respects) who turns out not to be the babe’s dad but rather the prophet St. Jerome silently reminding everyone of something on the order of “I told you so!”
The painting seems to be about anticipation of one kind or another: The pre-teen angels are certainly expecting something; the baby’s alarmingly lifeless posture and pallor, some art historians have explained, is a reminder of what is going to happen when it grows up. What did Parmigianino’s early-16th-century patron think when she looked at this work? There’s no way she could have had the associations I do. Not only were the Tenniel drawings of Alice four-and-a-half centuries in the future, but the brontosaurus-apatosauros wasn’t first (mis)named and classified until 1875. As for the disturbing architectural elements, de Chirico wouldn’t be teaching us to see such architecture as ominous until the 20th century. Did the painting look to the patron like a dream or just the usual iconography of transcendence? Did the elements I see as so strange lead her to shake her head and say, “Artists! What will they think of next!”? What did she make of those headless columns? Did the painter explain to her what his reasons were for the physical distortions, or, paraphrasing Frank Lloyd Wright’s answer to clients who protested the way he built their houses, did Parmigianino say, when she asked, “If you don’t like my vision, get another painter”? And how would he have finished the painting, if he had finished it? If I were a poet, I’d write a few lines about Madonna of the Long Neck and its enigmas.
Art reviewer and poet John Ashbery—taken by another famous Parmigianino canvas, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a presentation piece Parmigianino made at age 21 to demonstrate his virtuosity—did exactly that, publishing his own masterpiece of a poem, of the same title, by my estimate some 600 lines long, in 1975. I can’t say I understand Ashbery’s poem entirely, either: Sometimes he focuses directly on the painting (enumerating the moods he finds in the painter’s expression or the possible interpretations of the intended gesture of the painter’s magnified right hand). Sometimes, as David Lehman has observed, the poet manages to squeeze himself inside the reflection; there, he describes the sensation of, so to speak, rubbing elbows with the painter’s consciousness and ruminating on the analogy between Parmigianino’s bravura image of unreachable youth and the human soul; and sometimes the poet seems to be using the painting as a platform to speak about tensions and his efforts to resolve them in his own life. But when I listen to Ashbery read those unemphatic, six-beat lines, meticulously crafted to seem spontaneous and conversational (there’s a film on YouTube) in his steady, slightly flattening and purely American voice, I think, well, if I were to ponder a little harder, it would all make sense to my intellect as well as to my ear, like the fine print of an insurance policy. The illusion that sense is swimming just over there, under the surface of the sensibility, if only we had world enough and time to fish it out, is a special type of greatness in art, as aggravating as it can be in insurance policies.
Over at The Frick Collection this summer, yet another Parmigianino is visiting temporarily: a portrait of a woman, Schiava Turca (“Turkish Slave”), a title slapped on it by an art cataloguer three centuries after it was painted. This lovely picture also has an enigma or two in it, but its subtle elements of distortion (such as the woman’s delicately stylized left hand) aren’t as pressing as the question of, Whom does the painting represent? In the accompanying catalogue—a beaut in every way—Frick scholar Aimee Ng presents a most elegant essay concerning her painstaking detective work to try to provide an answer, or a couple of related answers. From comparisons with portraits of male and female Renaissance Italian poets and with other paintings by Parmigianino, and by research into aspects of the sitter’s dress, the ostrich fan she holds, and the meaning of her hat badge—showing a winged horse and stream underfoot, which Ng is pretty sure represent Pegasus, the horse associated with poetry, whose stamping hoof drew forth the Hippocrene spring, sacred to the Muses—Ng proposes that the sitter was herself not only the painter’s muse for that canvas but also a poet and possibly a specific poet: Veronica Gambara.
Incidentally, I looked up Pegasus and discovered that, as far back as Hesiod, this was one unusual horse. He and a twin brother, Khrysaor (represented as either a giant or a winged boar), were children of the disharmonious couple Poseidon and the Gorgon Medusa—who, by some accounts, after being raped by Poseidon, was transformed into a monster, with hair consisting of live serpents and a face that turned anyone who looked at her to stone. When Perseus, using his shield as a mirror to catch Medusa’s reflection so he wouldn’t have to look at her, beheaded her, from her neck (or from the blood of her neck) the twins were born. The ornamental, snaky curls of Schiava Turca took on a new import after I learned this.