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Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1523-24 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: Sometimes in our history we say a painting is like a mirror, that is it's a perfect reflection, utterly undistorted and exacting. Sometimes the mirror itself is distorted and that's what we have in Parmigianino's self portrait. He did this when he was 21 years old. Dr. Harris: It's a self portrait in a convex mirror and so the reflection we're getting is really distorted. It's a lot of fun. Dr. Zucker: It really is fun. It's maybe even more ingenuous even looking back on itself because Parmigianino didn't paint this on a flat surface. He had created a wooden base that actually is convex and mimics the mirror itself, which just heightens the effect. Dr. Harris: He's really showing off. Dr. Zucker: Parmigianino's face is almost dead center, but he's wonderfully calm, but it seems as if the world around him is swirling, and chaos has been unleashed by the distortions of this mirror. Then, I can't just help but love the way, what would normally be the rectilinear beams of the ceiling and of the window, all of the right angels that would form the architecture of the room, here collapse around him and create this beautiful distorted frame. Dr. Harris: This is an early Mannerist painting. We think about Mannerism happening right at the end of the High Renaissance beginning in the 1520's and that idea of distortion, of showing of, of virtuoso technique those are also things we see it with Mannerism. He presented this portrait along with some other paintings that he had done to Pope Clement the viii in hopes of achieving some papal commissions. Dr. Zucker: That did not happen. Dr. Harris: No, but you can see that this painting would really be, "Look what I can do," and of course he's foregrounding his hand, the instrument of his great technique. Dr. Zucker: It's interesting his painting is one that looks back on itself over and over again. If you look to the right side of the painting you can just perhaps make out what must be a doorway, but it's become very small. And to the right of that, you can just make out the gold of the frame of the painting itself, which must be on his easel and you can see the top of the easel. So, you can see the frame that he's fashioning that will actually hold this wooden panel. And so there really is a way that this is wonderfully self conscious. Dr. Harris: When you think back to the very beginnings of the Renaissance when the artist was considered a craftsman and how that's changed and how the artist now regards himself as this great talent with important services to offer the Pope, things have really changed. Dr. Zucker: It's a really intellectualized talent and one that thinks about issues of optics, Dr. Harris: Science. Dr. Zucker: And really almost of the philosophy of seeing itself. (piano playing)