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[MUSIC PLAYING] BETH HARRIS: So here, we're looking at the great Mannerist painting by Parmigianino called "The Madonna with the Long Neck." It's a fun painting. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it's a tall painting. It's a big painting. BETH HARRIS: It's big. And Madonna is big. She's big in funny places too. If you look at her head, her head is really tiny. STEVEN ZUCKER: Compared to her hips, especially. BETH HARRIS: She's got really, really wide hips, and then she comes down on these tiny little toes. It's always seemed to me like her body is in the shape of a diamond. STEVEN ZUCKER: In a sense, she's a landscape on which Christ sits. BETH HARRIS: Christ, himself, is also quite large. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's not just large, but look at the way he splays his body. There's this crazy kind of torsion with his arm falling, almost dislocated from his shoulder. BETH HARRIS: There is a precedent for that way that his left arm falls down, if you think about Michelangelo's "Pieta." And Christ here, as a child, but perhaps echoing when Mary will hold Christ in images like the "Pieta" when Christ is dead. And in fact, Christ looks asleep, but there's also a way that he looks dead, too. STEVEN ZUCKER: So that reference actually, in some ways, explains the mass of her lap. Because in that sculpture, Mary is quite substantial in order to be able to support the dead body of her son. BETH HARRIS: It's so clear when we're looking at this that we're not in the High Renaissance anymore. STEVEN ZUCKER: So what happened? BETH HARRIS: Mannerism happened. It's almost like the artists of the High Renaissance had done everything that could be done. They had perfected the naturalism that they had sought after since the time of Giotto. STEVEN ZUCKER: So all of the illusionism that was at the service of the High Renaissance is here being used to distort and to transform the body. It's not so much an ugly deformation as a kind of deformation that accentuates a kind of extreme elegance. BETH HARRIS: Exactly. It takes that ideal beauty and elegance that was in the High Renaissance, that was there, and exaggerates it. And one way of thinking about Mannerism is to think about it as art taken from art, instead art from nature. We think about the Renaissance as being based on observation of nature and the natural world. But when you look at this, you think back to works of art like Michelangelo's "Giuliano de Medici" and that long neck, or back to the "Pieta." STEVEN ZUCKER: That makes a lot of sense, the idea that this is art that is self-referential, that is referring to its own traditions. BETH HARRIS: The respect for human anatomy, and for portraying that naturalistically, that's not important to Mannerists. In fact, I think there's a letter from one Mannerist artist to another Mannerist artist, where he said something like, take a left hand and put it on a right arm. It's like there's a willful complicating of the body. STEVEN ZUCKER: And setting up relationships between forms that are absurd. Look at the relationship between the vase that's being held by the angel in relationship to his/her thigh. Look at the relationship between the massive Virgin Mary and the prophet in the lower right corner that is presumably impossibly far away, but somehow just a tiny figure at the feet of the Virgin. BETH HARRIS: And look too at the way that the Virgin holds her hand to her chest with these impossibly long, almost boneless fingers. There's a way in which the gesture fails to mean anything. STEVEN ZUCKER: It means gesture, as opposed-- BETH HARRIS: And drama. STEVEN ZUCKER: --as opposed to a specific intent of the figure. BETH HARRIS: There's a kind of dramatizing here. BOTH: For its own sake. STEVEN ZUCKER: Or that kind of willful compression that creates a sense of almost the impossible. If you look at the columns on the right, there's actually a colonnade that is so deep in space and seen at such an oblique angle that it almost seems like a wall or a single column. But if you look closely at the base, you can see the alternating light and shadow that passes between those columns. But there is ambiguity, and that's in large part because that part of the painting is not finished. So Mannerism, it seems to be this intense reaction to the perfection of the High Renaissance. You have the Renaissance, in the sense, building itself into a kind of extreme naturalism, and then it seems to be almost a kind of flailing reaction against those strictures. BETH HARRIS: Or a sense that there was nowhere to go, except to do something really different. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now all of these ideas were very much a part of a culture of court. And I think it's important to recognize that there was a very specific, very learned audience for these kinds of paintings. And so these were not things that were made for the artist's own wild interest. This was considered a kind of high intellectual almost game.