Parmigianino (1503-1540) – An Artist with a Fascination of Witchcrafts

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Self-Portrait by Parmigianino There was another artist called Benvenuto Cellini on which we have written a full article describing the unbelievable incidents of his life. He was very much interested in supernatural and necromancy affairs.

Here, we have stumbled upon another renaissance period artist who was much interested in supernatural things like witches and witch-crafts. Yet, he didn’t performed any supernatural or paranormal activities like Benvenuto Cellini, but his interest in those things surely amplified in some of his works, which were not commissioned to him but were made for his own pleasure.

Artistic Journey

Parmigianino, meaning “the little one from Parma”, was an Italian painter born on 11th January, 1503. His parents died just in two years of his birth due the plague, after which he was raised by his uncles, Michele and Pier Ilario. He got his early interest in arts and training from his uncles, who were modest artists of the time, according to Giorgio Vasari, the historian of the renaissance era.

The early capability of his artistic ability could be known by the incident in which his uncle received a commission to decorate the church called San Giovanni Evangelista in Parma. It was the same church where his contemporary artist Correggio worked upon. When Parmigianino’s uncles failed to complete the church for unknown reasons, young Parmigianino took the work in his hands and completed it. He did some frescoes on the walls of the church. Seeing his early works list, in his young age he completed many commissions including Bardi Altarpiece, Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine and Saint Francis for the church of the Frati de’ Zoccoli.

As many artist of the time did, Parmigianino had many artistic journeys and sojourns to cultivate his skills. When he sought for the patronage of pope Clement VII, he travelled to Rome with five paintings, which included his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The people and the pope received him with a great celebration declaring him as ‘Raphael Reborn!’ It was a big honor for the artist which he enjoyed for over a three years. No artist would like to leave such place where he is being celebrated as an adept artist. Though, he had to flee from Rome with many other artists due to the infamous incident of Sack of Rome, in which roman emperor Charles V and the League of Cognac (France, Milan, Venice, Florence and Papacy) battled.

From there he went to Bologna in 1528, where he completed works like Madonna with Saint Margaret and Saints, Madonna of the Rosa and Madonna with Saint Zachariah.

Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino

Madonna dal Collo Lungo (Madonna with Long Neck)

After three years of time, in 1530 he came back to Parma where he lived permanently until his death. In 1534, his much known work called Madonna with the Long Neck (image on right) was produced. In this painting, his trademark of elongating the figures can be clearly seen.

As you can see, the neck of Madonna is longer than usual. Also the other body-parts seem to have more length than a normal person. The painting also depicts his mannerist style profoundly, as the figures are posing in more unnatural and tensed style. A fun-fact about the painting to include is that the Italian medical scientist Vito Franco has diagnosed the reason of Madonna’s long fingers as the symptoms of the Marfan syndrome. Just like many people have diagnosed Mona Lisa being pregnant or her Cholesterol level was worryingly high. Another glimpse of his mannerism can also be perceived in the Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, where his hand in foreground is unnaturally long. Though, here the reason of the length is the rounded mirror.

The draftsman also worked upon some etchings being the early etcher of the time. Due to his skillful productions, he was called as “master of elegant figure drawing”. From the many works produced by the artist, some of the major works are Circumcision of Jesus, Vision of Saint Jerome, Cupid Making His Arch, Conversion of Saint Paul and Turkish Slave.

Though his most of the works were produced according to the commissions he got over the times. But, in between he created some works for his own curiosity, which were the influences of the contemporary artists or his own ideas. 

The Fascination of Witchcraft

As mentioned before, the artist was not interested in doing any witch-crafty, he was just fascinated by the ideas and the fantasies of the witches.  In the book, Witches on Top: Magic, Power, and Imagination in the Art of Early Modern Italy by Guy Tal, there is a section which describes Parmigianino’s works consisting the witches with sensual tones. Such known work is named A Witch Riding on a Phallus. The work consist the depiction of a witch, which is riding on a giant Phallus.

Witches' Sabbath by Parmigianino

Witches’ Sabbath

The inspiration he got to draw such portrayals is said to be the erotic etching series of I Modi by Marcantonio Raimondi. The series is also known as The sixteen Pleasures as it depicts the various sexual positions. It created a big upheaval in the society and church diminished most of the work. The artist got imprisoned for such ‘unholy’ work. Though, Parmigianino already took some insights from the series and began to produce the works which consisted his fantasies about witches with the mixture of sensuality.

According to Vasari, his other field of interest was alchemy, the early form of today’s chemistry. At the time, alchemy was not allowed for everybody as people and church believed that it could be used to derived things like elixir of life, philosopher’s stone and the ability to transform base metals into noble metals. Following this wrong belief, Parmigianino may have hoped to achieve aforementioned magical abilities, as he was as much fascinated in magic according to same historian.

In medieval or renaissance period, there were many misbeliefs and misunderstandings of the world as the field of science was not developed or sometimes the real scientific discoveries were disapproved as they breaking the centuries old beliefs of the church. Parmigianino could also be counted as the person who tried to understand the mysteries of the magic for a while and then left it. Or he could not pursue it, due to his early death.

He died at the age of 37, on 24th August 1540, due to an intense fever. It is very interesting that when we learn about such great artists from the past, we gradually create a big picture about them. And then, their deaths come in our ways from making them the art-gods in our imaginations. Their deaths make us realize that they were also normal people who did extraordinary stuff in the same times, which has been given to all the other people. This apparent truth encourages us in silent way.

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