Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

by John Ashbery

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola)

Parmigianino (1503–1540) was an Italian Renaissance painter associated with Mannerism. He rendered his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror around 1524 on a specially prepared convex canvas. Today, it resides at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, where Ashbery was able to view it in person for the first time in 1959 (after having seen a copy nearly a decade earlier). Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," then, first published in Poetry in 1974, is the product of twenty-five years of thought regarding Parmigianino's painting and all it represents.

Ashbery begins the poem by referring to Parmigianino's prominent right hand in the painting:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.

Throughout the poem, Ashbery returns repeatedly to Parmigianino's self-portrait as a touchstone for his own speaker's meditations on representation, perception, time, and so on. He often addresses Parmigianino directly as "Francesco," lending the intimacy of two practitioners discussing their craft—the practice, here, being art and its relations to and deviations from life. Very near the poem's end, Ashbery writes,

Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room . . .

Giorgio Vasari

Vasari (1511–1574) was an Italian painter and historian who learned his art from various teachers, including Michelangelo. His book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, laid down the style for writing art histories that is followed through the present day. Ashbery quotes Vasari to explain how Parmigianino set about creating a convex mirror for his painting:

He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass . . .

We also learn that, according to Vasari, "Pope Clement and his court were 'stupefied'" when they first saw Parmigianino's portrait.

Sydney Freedberg

Freedberg (1914–1997) was an expert on Italian Renaissance painting and taught at Harvard University. Ashbery directly quotes Freedberg in order to explain Parmigianino's relationship with realism and idealism:

Realism in this portrait
No longer produces an objective truth, but a bizarria . . . .
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony . . . . The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty [. . .]

Ashbery states that, in a similar manner, our dreams too keep us interested till one day they leave behind a vacuum. It is then that we realize their importance—if not their exact meaning.

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