Is Giant Baby Syndrome covered by my Renaissance health plan?

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Madonna and Child with Angels, AKA "Madonna with the Long Neck"
Parmigianino, c. 1534/40



From Edward Winkleman's blog, a good post about yet another art historian with convenient medical explanations for the artistic idiosyncrasies of the old masters. In addition to arguing that the Mona Lisa had high cholesterol, the historian has an even more timely link to current events:

Among his other findings are that two of the most iconic figures in Renaissance art had a rare condition that may also afflict Osama Bin Laden. One is the young man with a red cap and distinctly sardonic expression who is the subject of Botticelli's Portrait of a Youth, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The other is the sinuous and sinewy lady who modelled for Parmigianino in the 1530s when he painted his Madonna with Long Neck. The unfinished work, on which Parmigianino laboured for six years, is now in the Uffizi in Florence.

The subjects of both paintings have unnaturally long fingers and slender hands. Franco believes they had a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, named after the French paediatrician who first identified it in the 19th century. Al-Qaida's tall and bony founder is also suspected to suffer from Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissues.(source)

Winkleman retorts,

if Marfan syndrome explains the the long neck of the Madonna, what explains the absolutely freakish height of the naked infant? Judging from this angle and the size of what we assume were not angel dwarfs, that child would have to be at least 5 or 6 years old and if so, well, then, we have much bigger concerns about this woman than what health ailments she might share with a 21st Century terrorist.

Oh, snap!

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Yeah, that shit really bugs the fucking crap out of me. It's like these fuckers have never heard of Occam's Razor: Oh, no. It couldn't possibly be that these painters just hadn't quite figured out how to be completely effective at representation of the human form. No. It must be that they made the decision to use as models people with extremely rare disorders.

Yeah - I don't really mind the ones where the art historian argues that the artist may have had myopia or astigmatism or colorblindness or migraines or something, based on multiple paintings by the artists having the same set of quirks. But the models with rare disorders thing is just odd. It's so much simpler to hypothesize that the artist was either deliberately or unconsciously distorting the human form.

Well the bit about vision problems has some historical basis, Monet was known to have cataracts and had surgery to remove them. There was a steady change in his painting that matches the progression of his cataracts. However historians go from some historical examples of this and try to find similar explanations for other artists without much proof.

I've got another explanation for the size of the baby: the artist may very well have modeled the child after an older kid. Since with the exception of commissioned portraits most artists of the time used either their family members or prostitutes as models since it wasn't a "respectable" thing to do. He may not have had access to a younger child to model for him. Entirely speculation of course but more plausible.

It's been a while since I took art history, but I remember this painting and remember distinctly that the artist used a dead toddler to model the baby Jesus. (I remember wondering why he didn't use a dead infant!) Mannerists took the Renaissance interest in drawing and painting from life and from observation further by drawing cadavers and even robbing graves to get them. Agreed about the Occam's Razor thing: this was a Mannerist thing, not some artist's interest in marfism! It's a defining characteristic of Mannerism that the figures be elongated like that, it was considered elegant or something like that at the time.

And what the heck condition is the 9" dwarf in the lower right corner suffering from?

I find it interesting that (some of) you scientific types find it easier to conclude that renaissance artists didn't know how to render figures accurately than that they chose unusual folks as models.

There's a tendency to assume people-- especially lesser (i.e., non-scientist) beings-- from earlier times were both ignorant and thoroughly stupid, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

If there is anything painters of that time could do, it's render figures accurately.

So now who's on the wrong sharp-and-oily end of Occam's razor?

Why is Occam's Razor oily now, Rick? Euw.

Personally, I think these types of anomalies are easiest explained as products of A) the cultural context and artistic mores of the time, and B) the painters' personal quirks. It may not have even occurred to the painter that Christ's physical size should be age-appropriate - why not make Christ unusually large? Why not make the Virgin's neck unusually long? Today, we tend to expect realism, but that's our own cultural context at work.

Also, Rick, it's not me who smacked down the historian dude's Marfans hypothesis, it was prominent art gallerist Ed Winkleman, who is most definitely not a scientist.

Otherwise known as Parmigianino's "Madonna with the Grossly-Distended Hoo-Haa"?

There's a tendency to assume people-- especially lesser (i.e., non-scientist) beings-- from earlier times were both ignorant and thoroughly stupid, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Please try to read more carefully. While you clearly have some sort of bug up your ass about this ginned-up grievance, no one has asserted anything of the sort.

If you knew the slightest fucking thing about the history of representational art, you'd know that it is uncontroversial that--unsurprisingly--artists refined their techniques and got better and better at representing shit in their paintings over the centuries. The parsimonious explanation for people looking weird in old paintings is not that the models had some rare disease, but that the artists' representational techniques were not as advanced as they are now. This has nothing to do with those artists being stupid or ignorant, any more than Newton's insights into physics--incomplete and, strictly speaking, wrong though they were--were stupid or ignorant.

I often regale my art and design history students with excerpts from the proliferation of medical explanations for various portrayals and techniques: El Greco's supposed astigmatism, Michelangelo's Night's breast cancer, Akhenaten's Porphyry (or whatever it was supposed to be), the chiropractic explanation for the Grand Odalisque--so I was highly amused to find this one. I do frequently make fun of the Giant Baby Jesus in Parmigianino's Madonna, but note that (using Occam's razor) the most probably explanation is simply "Mannerism." Fashions come and go in human history, and they probably have little or nothing to do with medical conditions. Human beings have, throughout history, emphasized what was considered important or beautiful. Which is why, I think, bronze statues of Greek men tend to have such lovely bottoms.

The Giant Baby is, in fact, Jesus. So, following the habits of relational perspective left over from the Middle Ages, he may well simply be portrayed as big because he was the most important figure in the painting. That explains Mary's lap (like her lap in Michelangelo's Pieta). The Virgin's long neck and fingers appear to have been the preferred attributes of lovely women of the moment.

Such explanations aren't all that entertaining, but probably closer to what was really going on. Most of these guys could paint things any way they wanted to; linear perspective was already highly refined, and they understood what was going on. But seeing is contextual, and many painters "saw" the parts they way they wanted to see them.