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Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) (1503-1540)  

Parmigianino (literally, "the little guy from Parma") is the name given to the sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance painter Francesco Mazzola. Hailing from the Emilian town of Parma in north-central Italy, where he was born in 1503, Parmigianino is almost universally recognized as one of the most important practitioners of the cultural style that dominated Italy and much of Europe in mid- to late-sixteenth century: Mannerism.

Little is reliably known about the personal life of this rather eccentric painter, a lifelong bachelor, although much has been speculated. However, his superbly refined and tortuously complex style has often appealed to a gay male audience sensitive to the extremes of taste embodied by Mannerism.

Parmigianino also often imbued his subjects with an overt or subtle eroticism, some of which may be interpreted .

Reared by two painter uncles in Parma, Francesco was something of a prodigy, commissioned to paint important frescoes in the Cathedral of Parma at the age of nineteen in 1522. Two years later he was in Rome, presenting one of his most famous works to Pope Clement VII: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

This work, a virtuoso bust-length depiction of the young artist as though reflected in a curving, convex mirror, already showed many of the characteristics of Parmigianino's later work: facility, grace, and, especially, invenzione (inventiveness or imagination). The power of the work is such that it inspired poet John Ashbery to write his poem of the same name almost four centuries later.

Leaving Rome after the Sack in 1527, Parmigianino wandered through Italy, eventually returning to Parma after a successful stay in Bologna.

Around this time he painted the famous Cupid Carving His Bow, which depicts a highly Cupid carving a deadly-looking bow for his arrows of love, as two putti struggle at his feet.

This painting refers to Renaissance ideas about love as a painful experience, but the ambivalent gender of the main figure marks an interest in androgyny that, while it toys with expressions of sexual identity, relates to the artist's documented interests in the arcane science of alchemy.

Toward the end of his life Parmigianino was reportedly obsessed with alchemical experimentation, to the detriment of his artistic career.

Parmigianino's most famous work, Madonna of the Long Neck, from around 1535, was never finished. The artist's interest in gender ambiguity is clearly evident here in the androgynous attendants who swarm at the Virgin's right side. An oversized, almost alien-looking Christ child sprawls languidly across her lap while a mysterious, tiny figure of a prophet unrolls a scroll in the background. The Virgin herself, with her greatly elongated proportions and contrived pose, epitomizes the hyperbolic grace and artifice that were hallmarks of Mannerism.

While Parmigianino's drawings do include overtly homoerotic images and male nudes (as the Figure Study of 1526-1527), his own sexual orientation is as ambiguous as the androgynes he painted. Cecil Gould sums it up coyly, "Judging from the totality of his art, I suspect that his instincts were bisexual."

The appeal of the artist to a gay audience is his exploration of an extreme aestheticism that can be appreciated for its artistic imagination as well as for its camp excessiveness.

Joe A. Thomas


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Parmigianino's Madonna of the Long Neck (circa 1526).
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  European Art: Mannerism

The dominant style of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Europe from around 1520 to about 1600, Mannerism has proven to be a great favorite of glbtq audiences, who developed a camp appreciation for its frequent excesses.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Renaissance

The various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented, provide a great deal of evidence about Renaissance sexuality and art.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

literature >> Ashbery, John

John Ashbery, one of the leading contemporary American poets, avoids explicit gay content in his poetry, but his work shares concerns with other late twentieth-century gay writing.

arts >> Fuseli, Henry

Swiss-born Henry Fuseli spent most of his life in England, where he established a reputation as an artist of great originality and where he painted pictures of both heterosexual and homosexual subjects.


Fagiolo dell'Arco, Maurizio. Il Parmigianino: Un saggio sul'ermetismo nel Cinquecento. Rome: Mario Bulzone Editore, 1970.

Freedberg, Sydney. Parmigianino: His Works in Painting. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Gould, Cecil. Parmigianino. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Popham, A. E. Catalog of the Drawings of Parmigianino. 3 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.


    Citation Information
    Author: Thomas, Joe A.  
    Entry Title: Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola)  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 10, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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