Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino

We are in Florence, in the beautiful Uffizi Gallery, where journalist and cultural reporter Olga Mugnaini will lead us to the discovery of a masterpiece by Francesco Maria Mazzola, also known as Parmigianino: the Madonna with the Long Neck.

This oil on wood painting was begun around 1534 and remained incomplete on the painters’ death in August 1540. 


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The composition is dominated by Mary, holding a sleeping Child on her lap. In opposition with the majority of traditional representations, Jesus is not a newborn, but rather a five or six year old child. 

The Madonna is characterized by elongated, sinuous proportions, typical of the figura serpentinata of Italian Mannerism, an artistic current inspired by an anti-classic aesthetic. As a matter of fact, everything in Mary’s representation seeks to break with tradition: her neck is elegantly curved, almost sensual, thus giving its name to the painting; her white dress is so thin that we can see her belly button; moreover, Mary is not wearing a veil, and her hair is gathered in an elaborate hairstyle with pearls and a diadem. 

Mary is smiling, but her eyes, looking down on Jesus, are pensive and melancholic: she already knows what tragic destiny awaits her son. At a first glance, the Child’s pose looks slouched and precarious – however, it reminds us of the pose of the Pietà by Michelangelo, thus alluding to Christ’s sacrifice. This imagery is also reprised by the angel on the left holding a vase, in which we can see a reflection of the cross.

Behind the Madonna, in the unfinished right half of the painting, there is a large empty space with a line of columns without capital: we can see their shadows at their base, whereas in the upper half only one column is clearly painted. It’s a reference to the Temple of Solomon, but also a symbol of purity associated with the Virgin in the Cantico de’ Cantici: a hymn to Mary recites “Collum tuum ut colonna”, your neck is like a column, which explains the emphasis placed on Mary’s neck in the painting.

A typically Mannerist element of this work is the distortion of human proportions: from the Virgin’s neck to her body, twice the size of the angels on the left. With his elongated, slender figures, Parmigianino wanted to break with the traditional sense of balance of the Renaissance and give his paintings a more complex and elegant look, thus obtaining an unnatural, but undoubtedly sophisticated look.