Painting in Central Italy during the 16th Century. Mannerism

As we said in a previous essay, the artistic trend typical of the 16th century is known as Mannerism (also known as Late Renaissance), that lasted between ca. 1520 until ca. the end of the 16th century, when the Baroque style replace it, although the style lasted into the early 17th century. From a formal point of view, Mannerism is characterized by elaborate compositions, by the way in which the human figure is portrayed (which becomes elongated and takes on meandering forms- the figura serpentinata), and by the poetic effects of light and color. Mannerism also exaggerates the typical qualities of the High Renaissance art, being proportion, balance and ideal beauty; as a consequence, the compositions are asymmetrical or appear as unnaturally elegant, they become tensioned and unstable in contrast to the balanced and clear compositions of the Renaissance. The poses are highly stylized and there’s an absence of a clear perspective. Some of these characteristics were already seen in certain regional Italian art schools of the Early Renaissance, as a desire to achieve elegant preciousness in the forms. Thus, in Ferrara at the end of the 15th century, the works by Cosimo Tura and Francesco del Cossa showed a similar trend, manifested in the elegance of the poses and in the exquisite angles of the design and luxurious embellishments, even reflecting certain Gothic accents. But the true father of the Mannerist movement was Michelangelo, who exercised such an overwhelming influence on the artists of his century that very few were able to break away from his personal magnetism. Thus, for example, the undulating human silhouette (the so-called “figura serpentinata” so typical of Mannerism) can be already appreciated in Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan (1530), and this feature spread rapidly as one of the most typical formal characteristics of this artistic movement. The overwhelming influence of Michelangelo cannot be explained only by taking into account the regular diffusion of his artistic ideas, but it is also precise to consider other favorable external circumstances that came into play, among which was a very specific social situation happening during the time: due to its spiritual, aristocratic and highly refined background, the Mannerism was linked to the social groups of intellectuals whom at the time rose to certain positions of power. The bourgeoisie hardly took part in this exaggerated and daring spiritual search. Mannerism was not a naïve style; on the contrary, it was guided by a conscious higher vision and was substantiated by a highly developed theoretical body of literature.

Visitation, oil on wood, by Pontormo, 1528-1529, 202 x 156 cm (Parish Church of San Michele e San Francesco, Carmignano, province of Prato, Tuscany, Italy). The lozenge (rhomboid)-shaped arrangement of the four main figures was probably suggested to Pontormo by Dürer’s engraving portraying the Four Witches (1497). On the other hand, totally original of Pontormo are the intertwining arcs formed by the arms and folds of fabric that firmly unites the two protagonists whose distinctly enlarged bodies dominate the pictorial space. The monumental scene is depicted in a frozen fashion against the background of a roughly painted, eerie and gloomy town. The profile portrayal of the two main figures embracing each other with extreme delicacy and exchanging looks of intense mutual affection is set against the rigidly frontal positions of the two bystanders in the background. Immobile, almost petrified, these last figures keep their eyes fixed on something outside the pictorial space, revealing their total lack of emotional participation in the event. The age difference between these two women and their facial resemblance with the protagonists invite an interpretation of the two maidservants as the doubles of Mary and Elisabeth. Their expressions convey a rather melancholic tone to the scene’s general atmosphere of high spirituality. This work has remained in the church for which it was painted for almost its whole existence.
View of the Capponi Chapel (Cappella Capponi, ca. 1528) in the church of Santa Felicità in Florence. This chapel, located against the entrance wall of the church, was built by Brunelleschi for the Barbadori family at the begriming of the 15th century. Later, Ludovico di Gino Capponi acquired the space in 1525 as a funerary chapel for himself and his male heirs. He commissioned Pontormo to decorate the chapel. The commission included a now lost fresco in the ceiling representing God the Father, pendentive roundels of the four Evangelists (with assistance from Bronzino, see pictures below), a stain-glass window by Guillaume de Marcillat, the Entombment altarpiece (see picture below), and a fresco of the Annunciation.
Deposition, oil on wood, by Pontormo, ca. 1525-1528, 313 x 192 cm (Cappella Capponi, Santa Felicità, Florence). This work is considered Pontormo’s masterpiece. The compositional idea is extravagant and totally unprecedented: an inextricable knot of figures and drapes that pivots around the youth in the foreground and culminates above in the two lightly hovering figures emerging from the undefined background. This complicated bunch of forms arranged in the shape of an upturned pyramid defies any attempt at a rational exploration or identification of planes. The compositional complexity is accompanied by a significant and probably deliberate ambiguity in the representation of the subject, which may be interpreted as halfway between the theme of the Deposition and that of the Pietà or Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The painting appears to represent the moment in which the body of Christ, having been taken down from the cross, has just been removed from his mother’s lap. The Virgin, visibly distraught, and perhaps on the point of fainting, still gazes longingly towards her Son, and gestures with her right arm in the same direction. In the center of the painting, the moment of the separation is underlined by the subtle contact of Mary’s legs with those of Christ. The twisted body of Christ is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican (1498-1499). An intense spiritual participation in the grief of the event profoundly affects the expressions and attitudes of all the figures present, even that of the woman turned away from the onlooker, probably Mary Magdalene, who communicates her anguished psychological condition by reaching out sympathetically towards the swooning body of the Virgin. Some scholars have interpreted the two young figures holding up the deceased’s body as angels in the act of drawing Christ away from the main group and leading him finally into the arms of his Father. The two presumed angelic presences, moreover, seem to be unaffected by the weight of the lifeless body, and the figure in the foreground appears to be in the act of raising himself up by lightly pressing down on the front part of his foot. The cloaked man wearing a strange hat, almost imperceptible against the background of the painting behind the arm of the Virgin to the right, may possibly be a self-portrait of Pontormo: staring at something beyond the confines of the painting and looking as though he was about to leave the pictorial space.

Mannerism found itself in an exceptionally critical historical juncture. It had to harmonize the systematic thought of medieval Christianity with the Renaissance cult of beauty and with the rational scientific thought of the new age that was beginning. A kind of aggressive and fertile irritability in thought was manifested everywhere. In the last decade of the 16th century, the philosophically materialist statements of Giordano Bruno and the brilliant ideas of Galileo surfaced. Both men were condemned by religious authority (Bruno was eventually burned at the stake in a square in Rome).

Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, oil on canvas transferred from wood, by Pontormo, ca, 1521-1527, 120 x 99 cm (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia). Produced early in his career, this clear example of Pontormo’s Mannerist style shows the theme of the premonition of the predestined Passion presented smoothly from the center to the edges and from the surface into the depth of the painting. From the infant amusing himself wit a young goldfinch, our gaze shifts to the Virgin’s sad face, then to the resigned faces of Joseph and John the Baptist, before finally plunging into the agitated gloom of the firmament, in front of the ominous cross looms.
Maria Salviati with Giulia de’ Medici, oil on panel, by Pontormo, ca. 1537, 88 x 71 cm (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, USA). This portrait represents Maria Salviati in a widow’s veil with a little girl. Salviati’s only child was Cosimo I de’ Medici, the girl was identified as one of Alessandro de’ Medici’s illegitimate daughters, either Giulia or Porzia, who after their birth were placed in Salviati’s care. The younger of the two, Porzia, was placed in the Augustinian convent of San Clemente, therefore Giulia is more likely the girl depicted in the painting. The medal that Salvia holds is probably one piece depicting Alessandro.
Portrait of Cosimo the Elder, oil on panel, by Pontormo, ca. 1519-1520, 86 x 65 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Ordinarily, Pontormo painted portraits studied from life, with a deeper attention to the rendering of appearances than character and personality. The subject of this famous portrait is Cosimo il Vecchio, the founder of the Medici clan and the preeminent citizen of Florence during most of his explosive expansion in culture and finance in the 15th century, who had died over 50 years earlier. It is, of course, a posthumous representation painted, according to Vasari, for Goro Gheri da Pistoia, secretary to the Medici. It is based upon previous portraits, and particularly a medal, and is thus more a symbolic than a true physical likeness. This work was Pontormo’s entry piece into the Medici circle. Later, Pontormo would be commissioned by Ottaviano de’ Medici (who owned this painting) to paint some of the frescoes of the ‘salone‘ at his Villa di Poggio a Caiano.

The term “mannerism” was originally used in a pejorative sense and it was coined by his opponents, the baroque painters of the 17th century, especially the Carracci brothers and the art critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori. The rehabilitation of the term and its definition as an expression of the artistic facts that reflect the crisis of the late Renaissance was stated by German art historians of the early 20th century, especially Voss, Dvorak and Friedländer.

St. Mark (left) and St. Matthew (right), oil on wood, by Bronzino, ca. 1525 (Cappella Capponi, Santa Felicità, Florence). Four tondos with the Evangelists adorn the pendentives that supported the old cupola of the Cappella Capponi in the church of Santa Felicità in Florence. Bronzino, that was then an apprentice to Pontormo, probably was responsible for the tondos with St. Matthew (with an intense gaze, half-closed mouth, and tousled red hair) and St. Mark (with its palette of yellow and red tones contrasting with the green of the mantle wrapped around his figure, which looks as if it is peering through a window). These figures of the Evangelists, with their distinctly Michelangelesque influence, have a vigor derived from the way their heads are twisted and pushed forward. They are wrapped in ample robes, whose bold colors stand out against the dark backgrounds.
Portrait of Ugolino Martelli, oil on wood, by Bronzino, ca. 1535 or 1537, 102 x 85 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). This painting is considered as one of the leading examples of Mannerism’s complex, inwardly oriented art. Ugolino, a Florentine aristocrat, a humanist and a linguist, scion of a Florentine banking family, is placed in the courtyard of the family palace, where an unfinished marble statue of David is seen. Ugolino wears the dark attire made fashionable by increasing Spanish influence. The painting is signed BRONZO FIORENTINO on the edge of the table top. On the table a copy of Homer’s Iliad, in Greek, can be seen turned towards the reader. It is open at the beginning of the ninth book, the Embassy to Achilles. A second book, of which only a corner is visible to the left, is inscribed MARO, indicating the Latin poet Publius Vergilius Maro better known as Virgil. Ugolino’s left arm is supported by a work by Pietro Bembo, whose sonnets were written in the vernacular.

This intellectualized departure from the principles that informed the Early Renaissance painting and sculpture soon spread from Italy to the Netherlands and France, before spreading to the rest of Europe. It was in the Netherlands, as we will see in another essay, where the disturbing eroticism of Bartholomeus Spranger originated and where the figurative speculations of Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem and Hendrik Goltzius developed (these last disseminated by the aid of abundant engraved prints). In France, as we shall also see, Mannerism flourished in the art of the court at Fontainebleau, with its frivolous and highly refined motifs, whose origins are to be found in the works by Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Primaticcio and Niccolò dell’Abbate.

Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi, oil on wood, by Bronzino, ca. 1540 or 1545, 102 x 85 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Lucrezia di Gismondo Pucci married in 1528 Bartolomeo Panciatichi, a Florentine humanist and politician. In her portrait, Bronzino describes her beautiful dress, enhancing her aristocratic dignity and her elegance: the long gold necklace she wears includes small plates where are legible the words “Sans fin amour dure“, alluding to love and faithfulness. As is typical of Bronzino’s art, the lady is dressed sumptuously in warm pink satin and dark velvet. A book is held between her hands and her severe, pure face is utterly devoid of any naturalistic beauty. The artist makes this lady of a refined and cultured Florentine society an idealized symbol of chaste beauty as noted in her delicately, but also chastely gathered hair, and high spirituality.
Young Man with a Lute, oil on panel, by Bronzino, 1532-1534, 98 x 83 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

The true initiators of Mannerism were the Florentines Rosso Fiorentino (a disciple of Andrea del Sarto), Pontormo and Bronzino, the Sienese Domenico Beccafumi, and the Parmesan painter Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino.

Portrait of a Lady in Red, mixed technique on poplar panel, by Bronzino, 1533, 90 x 71 cm (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). This painting is considered as one of the most important works of Italian Mannerist portraiture. The young woman probably belonged to one of the leading Florentine families. Her self-confidence and high social status find expression in the picture’s bold composition: the placement of the armrest parallel to the bottom edge and the ingenious lighting of both the figure and her architectural backdrop serve to keep the viewer at the proper distance.
Portrait of a Lady in Green, oil on panel, by Bronzino, 1530-1532, 77 x 66 cm (Royal Collection, Windsor). In this astounding portrait, Bronzino displays his mastery at drawing and modelling, as well as his use of firm delineation of the features and the gentle modulation of light. The tilt of the sitter’s head and the angle of the shoulders provide a distinctive characterization for this unknown figure. Similar attention has been given to the costume with its slashed sleeves, puff shoulders, embroidered chemise and elegant headgear. Here Bronzino combined the simplicity of form, attention to detail and high degree of finish often associated with his work. However, it lacks the abstract qualities of Bronzino’s mature portraits which transcend a feeling of reality in favor of the metaphysical (see pictures above and below).

Jacopo Carrucci, known as Pontormo, from the name of his birth town Pontorme (May 24, 1494 – January 2, 1557), trained in the workshops of Leonardo and Andrea del Sarto, and is today considered one of the most interesting Mannerist artists. He is famous for his use of the figura serpentinata and ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an undetermined environment and have haunted faces and elongated bodies. Pontormo painted in and around Florence, often supported by the Medici. A restless and anguished painter, throughout his life he pursued a search for new forms of expression, which led him, through the study of German painting, particularly that of Dürer, to abandon academic classicism for a vision richer in expressionist features. These characteristics can be observed in the Visitation painted in 1528-1529, where he rivals Michelangelo, though differs from him in a painful introspection, a deep melancholy and an absolutely new and original chromaticism and luminosity, and in his Deposition (1525-1528), which is considered by many art scholars as his surviving masterpiece. In this work we can already appreciate the key characteristics of the Mannerist style that set it apart from the Renaissance style: the lack of an illusion of space, the lack of linear or atmospheric perspective, the absence of a sense of weight, and inaccuracy in the depiction of anatomy. In Pontormo’s last years, the influence of Michelangelo became more and more apparent. Unfortunately, his works from this last period are scarce (Holy Family, portraits of the Medici family, etc.), since his great series of mural paintings were destroyed. When he died he was painting in the presbytery of San Lorenzo in Florence (a commission that occupied the last decade of his life) the frescoes that narrated the origins of mankind, the Flood, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. These works, apparently impressive due to their enigmatic sense of loneliness, despair, and death, were destroyed in the 18th century because their melancholic tone was not appreciated. At the very moments when Pontormo, neurotic and anguished, was rejected by the powerful elites of his time, Bronzino was hailed as the esteemed painter of the Florentine aristocracy.

Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo, oil on wood, by Bronzino, 1543, 59 x 46 cm (Národní Galerie, Prague). This portrait was painted soon after Eleanora married Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1539. Duchess Eleonora is wearing a luxurious dress, in which she probably entered Florence for the first time after the wedding. Her right hand is adorned with two rings: the large diamond was presented to her by Cosimo at the wedding, the small seal ring is provided with her personal impress.
Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni de’ Medici, oil on wood, by Bronzino, 1544-1545, 115 x 96 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Daughter of the viceroy of Naples Don Pedro di Toledo, Eleonora married Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1539 and died in 1562. In this picture, from ca. 1545, she is portrayed with one of their eight sons, the young John, born in 1543 and who died, as his mother, of malaria in 1562. The intense blue of the background and the stateliness of the figure enhance the preciousness of Eleonora’s dress, while her aristocratic beauty betrays a sense of melancholy. It was painted towards 1545, at the highest moment of Bronzino as a portrait painter. In this work, which is Bronzino’s most important Medici portrait and is technically a tour de force in his oeuvre, the elaborate brocaded gown seems as much the subject of the portrait as Eleonora herself. Eleonora is depicted sitting with her hand resting on the shoulder of one of her sons and wearing a lavish pomegranate motif dress, both features that refer to her role as mother. In this work, Bronzino captured with millimetric attention to detail the dimensionality of the brocaded silk velvet fabric in the gown with its loops of gold-wrapped thread and black pile arabesques against a white satin background.
Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici in Armor, oil on wood, by Bronzino, 1545, 74 x 58 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Cosimo I de’ Medici (Florence 1519-1574) was duke of Florence since 1537 and first Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1569 to his death. In this portrait he is about 25 years old, wearing his glittering armor, that points out his political ability and his power as a ruler-commander who would have enlarged and fortified the Florentine State. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the painting is the skillful rendering of the armor, the flashing light reflections of the metal and the hand resting languidly on the helmet.

Bronzino (November 17, 1503 – November 23, 1572), whose real name was Agnolo di Cosimo, was born in Florence, where he spent the majority of his career. He was known as “Bronzino” probably referring to either his relatively dark skin or his reddish hair. He trained with Pontormo, to whom he was apprenticed at 14, and in consequence, his style was greatly influenced by him. However, Bronzino’s elegant and almost elongated figures always appear calm, lacking the agitation and emotion of those by Pontormo. Bronzino’s first works were mural decorations for Florentine churches, through which he learned the precise and elegant technique of Tuscan drawing. Already in this period of his youth certain unmistakable characteristics that will become prominent of his future work appeared, such as in the decoration of the Capponi chapel, in Santa Felicità in Florence, where we first see his isolated figures in a strange astral world, in which life with no breath and no heartbeat seems possible. In his late 30s, Bronzino became the court painter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. His portrait figures, often viewed as static, elegant, and stylish exemplars of unemotional haughtiness and assurance, influenced the development of European court portraiture for a century. These signature features will become the basis of Bronzino’s wonderful portraits: Ugolino Martelli (Berlin), Lucrezia Panciatichi (Florence), the Young Man with a lute (Florence), the Portrait of a Lady in Red (Frankfurt), all of them simultaneously contrived and perfect, crystalline and icy, but yet with an extraordinary power of human definition. In 1539, Bronzino was appointed a painter to the Medici court, and from then on, most of his portraits were dedicated to this family and its powerful allies, such as the Doria. Thus, his portraits of Cosimo I, like that famous housed in the Uffizi, wearing armor, and those of Eleonora di Toledo, his Castilian wife, serious and taciturn as we see her in her portrait housed in the Prague Museum. Another of her portraits at the Uffizi, where she is accompanied by one of her children, shows her with a worried air which rather than haughtiness reflects a sad reserve.

Venus, Cupid and Time (Allegory of Lust), oil on wood, by Bronzino, 1540-1545, 147 x 117 cm (National Gallery, London). This painting was probably executed during Bronzino’s period at the Tuscan court of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici to be presented as a gift to King Francis I of France. It was designed as a puzzle, and incorporates symbols and devices from the worlds of mythology and emblematic imagery. It would have made the perfect present for the French king, known for his lusty appetites, yearning after Italian culture and magnificence, and with a liking for heraldry and obscure emblems. The three main figures are all posed in a typical Mannerist figura serpentinata form. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, identified by the golden apple given to her by Paris and that she holds in her left hand and by her doves on the lower left corner, has drawn her son Cupid’s arrow with her left hand. At her feet, masks, perhaps the symbols of sensual nymph and satyr, seem to gaze up at the lovers. Foolish Pleasure (also identified as Folly), the laughing child, throws rose petals at them, unaware of the large thorns from a rose stem piercing his right foot. Behind him Deceit (or Pleasure and Fraud), with a girl’s face and a concealed sphinxlike body, her head twisted at an unnatural angle and her hands reversed, holds a sweet honeycomb in her right hand, while concealing a scorpion’s sting at the end of her tail with the other. On the other side of the lovers is a dark figure, the personification of Syphilis and his ravaging effects, a disease probably introduced to Europe from the New World and reaching epidemic proportions by 1500. The symbolic meaning of the central scene is thus revealed to be unchaste love, presided over by Pleasure and abetted by Deceit, and its painful consequences. Oblivion, the figure on the upper left, thus called because of the lack of substance to his representation, eyeless sockets and mask-like head, is shown without physical capacity for remembering, and attempts to draw a veil over all, but is prevented by Father Time with an hourglass resting on his back, possibly alluding to the delayed effects of syphilis. Cold as marble or enamel, the nudes are deployed against the costliest ultramarine blue.

Bronzino’s ideal of bringing to perfection the abstract isolation of form can be appreciated in some of his allegorical compositions such as Venus, Cupid and Time, whose cold eroticism is a product not only of the “figura serpentinata“, but to the great effect of hard-precious stone that he achieved in the color palette. In this and other of his figures, the painting’s surface produces the same smooth impression of water pierced by a clear and crystalline light.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, oil on wood, by Parmigianino, ca. 1524, 24,4 cm diameter (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This painting was one of thee small-size works that young Parmigianino (then 21) brought to Rome with him in 1525 and that he used as examples to showcase his talent to potential patrons. The portrait was given as a gift to pope Clement VII, and later to writer Pietro Aretino. Parmigianino depicted himself in the middle of a room, distorted by his reflection on a convex mirror. He painted on a specially-prepared convex panel in order to mimic the curve of the mirror used.
The Story of Diana and Actaeon, fresco, by Parmigianino, 1523-1524 (Rocca Sanvitale castle, Fontanellato, Parma, Italy). A small room (the Camerino) in the castle of Rocca Sanvitale contains a fascinating fresco decoration by Parmigianino. It depicts the famous story told by Ovid of the hunter Actaeon, who innocently saw Diana bathing, and hence was punished by the goddess and transformed into a deer that was eventually killed by his own dogs. The Camerino has a vaulted ceiling with 14 lunettes. Parmigianino designed the narrative in a series of drawings placed in the lunettes; thus he maintained a clear visual separation between the space in which the action takes place (the lunettes) and the vaulted ceiling in which he painted a pergola in perspective as a separating device.
Madonna and Child with Saints, oil on wood, by Parmigianino, 1531-1533, 73 x 60 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This painting dates from the period after Parmigianino left from Rome after the sacking of the city (1527) and went to Bologna for a few years, where he focused on producing altarpieces and paintings for private devotion like this one, commissioned by Count Bonifacio Gozzadini from Bologna. John the Baptist (kissing the infant Jesus), Magdalene (carrying the ointment jar) and Zachariah (to the right of the painting) accompany the traditional group of the Virgin and the Child. The stern gaze of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, guides the viewer towards the Virgin, who is sitting down with the Child in her arms. Baby Jesus, with his large languid, thoughtful eyes, is held tight by John the Baptist, whose tanned complexion is in stark contrast with the pale skin of the Messiah. John the Baptist is bending over to give his cousin a tender kiss, which he returns, caressing his cheek. On the left, a sensual Mary Magdalene, her breast barely concealed by her long blonde flowing hair, shows the vase of anointing oils, her traditional attribute. In the background, classical architectures sprout in the lavish landscape.
Madonna dal Collo Lungo (‘Madonna with the Long Neck’), oil on panel, by Parmigianino, 1534-1540, 216 x 132 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This painting was commissioned to Parmigianino in 1534 by Elena Baiardi Tagliaferri for the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Parma. Although the painting was to be finished in five months, when Parmigianino died in 1540, this altarpiece was in his study, still unfinished. Two years later, the painting was placed in its intended location, and the following inscription was added to the base of the column to justify its incomplete state: FATO PRAEVENTUS F. MAZZOLI PARMENSIS ABSOLVERE NEQUIVIT (‘Adverse destiny prevented Francesco Mazzola from Parma from completing this work’). A Virgin with a statuesque figure reminiscent of Michelangelo, but with unnaturally elongated forms, contemplates the Divine Infant, who is asleep on her lap. The Child’s slumber prefigures his death on the cross, as the image of the Crucifixion is reflected in the vase that the angel is showing to the Virgin. The column on Mary’s left highlights the suppleness of her bust and neck. The small figure at the bottom on the right next to the unfinished colonnade is St. Jerome, who is unrolling his scroll as he turns towards an also unfinished figure, St. Francis (Parmigianino only painted one of his feet). Although depicting a sacred theme, Parmigianino doesn’t abandon the typical sensuality of his artistic production: the figures with elongated limbs and refined poses, interpreted with sophisticated elegance, are permeated by a subtle eroticism, perceivable in the drapery clinging to the Virgin’s body, highlighting her curves, in the slender hand lifted to the breast, and in the litheness of the naked leg of the young angel in the foreground. The painting takes its subject from a simile in medieval hymns to the Virgin which likened her neck to a great ivory tower or column as an appropriate interpretation of the Virgin as an allegorical representation of the Church.
Cupid making his bow, oil on panel, by Parmigianino, ca. 1533–1535, 135 × 65.3 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This painting is a good example of the Mannerist style in the art of Parmigianino, and it was frequently copied and used as a model by numerous artists.
Portrait of a Young Lady (also known as ‘Antea’), oil on canvas, by Parmigianino, ca. 1535, 139 x 88 cm (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). The identity of the young woman portrayed is unknown, the name “Antea” (a popular courtesan in Rome) is fictional. Some people have noted a striking resemblance between Antea and an angel standing next to the Madonna on the “Madonna with the long neck” painting also by Parmigianino (see picture before), which suggests that this young woman could have been a studio model, and not just a sitter for her own portrait. Parmigianino applied particular detail to the depiction of the expensive fabric and of the lady’s jewelry, so she must be a lady of rank.
Portrait of Gian Galeazzo Sanvitale, Count of Fontanellato, oil on panel, by Parmigianino, 1524, 109 x 81 cm (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). In this portrait of Gian Galeazzo Sanvitale, Count of Fontanellato and a condottiero, the sitter’s self-confidence is extraordinary. The count stares out at the viewer, calmly daring anyone to challenge his innate physical and intellectual superiority. In his right hand he displays a bronze medal marked with the mysterious ciphers “7” and “2” (other interpret them as “C” and “F”), which must have had significance for him and his close circle of friends, but whose inscrutability serves to distance him from the viewer. On a table behind Galeazzo are pieces of a shining armor and a flanged mace, symbols of his military role as condottiero. Behind a wall, on the right, is a lush landscape with a tree.

But perhaps the most delicate Mannerist expressions were shown in the works by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (11 January 1503 – 24 August 1540), called the Parmigianino (meaning “the little one from Parma”) from the name of his hometown, Parma. His work is characterized by a “refined sensuality” and often showing elongated forms. Active in Florence, Rome, Bologna, and his native city of Parma, Parmigianino’s work was initially influenced by Raphael and Correggio (visible in the beautiful nude figures he painted around 1523-1524 on the walls of the castle of Fontanellata, near Parma, depicting the History of Diana and Actaeon). Once in Rome, he became familiar with the works of Michelangelo, from which he took the “figura serpentinata” that he further developed in search of maximum grace and elegance. This fact is visible in his Madonna and Child with Saints (Uffizi) and, above all, in his famous “Madonna del collo lungo” (Madonna with the Long Neck), painted towards the end of his life, a work he left unfinished. In this famous painting, the elongated and sinuous lines in search of the pure form almost border with abstraction. In the background, a column, over which light slides, gives us a concrete image of the sense of the perfect form that led Parmigianino’s hand to draw the unnaturally elongated Virgin’s neck, the perfect ovals of the faces and the bare leg of the angel. Parmigianino died young, at the age of 37, from a sudden fever. Up to this day, Parmigianino remains the best known artist of the early Mannerism and was one of the first Italian painters to experiment with printmaking.

Descent from the Cross, fresco, by Daniele da Volterra, ca. 1545 (Church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti, Rome). This fresco is Volterra’s best-known painting after drawings by Michelangelo. Daniele shows us here the traditional iconography of the body of Christ being handed down from the cross by several men who reach toward him as women weep below while the Virgin swoons. This work is part of Daniele’s first major commission in 1541, when he was asked to decorate with frescoes the Cappella Orsini in the church of Trinità dei Monti. This fresco influenced and was copied by many famous painters, between them Peter Paul Rubens who was in Italy from 1600 to 1608.
The Blinding of Polyphemus (scene 1), fresco, by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-1551 (Sala di Ulisse, Palazzo Poggi, Bologna). In the Sala di Ulisse the story of Odysseus painted in fresco by Tibaldi begins in the center image of the ceiling, which first captures the attention of those entering the room by an especially sculptural framing and through the size, force, and drama of the depiction. In the figure of the giant Polyphemus, whom Odysseus is ramming on the eye with a stake, Tibaldi combines the models of Michelangelo’s Adam from the Sistine ceiling and the ancient Hellenistic marble of Laocoön.
Amor and Psyche, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Zucchi, 173 x 130 cm (Galleria Borghese, Rome). This painting, the only one signed and dated by Zucchi, was commissioned on the occasion of the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine, which took place in Florence in1589. The painting portrays the crucial moment of the story of Amor and Psyche when the maiden looks at her incognito sleeping lover, who is soon struck by the drop of boiling oil that falls from the lamp she holds, and she finally realizes who her beautiful lover was. Zucchi was known for the precision and elegance in depicting details, including here the flowers, jewels, and fabrics, which were often executed in collaboration with his brother, Francesco.

Within the Mannerist style, we should highlight painters like Daniele da Volterra (with his beautiful coloring and excellent composition), Pellegrino Tibaldi (with his exuberant temperament), Jacopo Zucchi (and his almost baroque sense of light), Giuseppe Arcimboldo (with his imaginative and hallucinating head portraits that would later influence the surrealist artists of the 20th century), Sofonisba Anguissola the first great woman artist of the Renaissance (with her fine self-portraits), Lavinia Fontana regarded as the first female ‘career artist’ in Western Europe as she relied on commissions for her income (also an accomplished portraitist with extreme attention to detail), and of course many other painters. Mannerism will continue to appear as a poetics of the irrational and the absurd, always oscillating between the pagan and erotic and the mystical and religious, in a permanent search of a captivating and contradictory beauty.

The Four Seasons in one Head, oil on poplar wood, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca. 1590, 60 x 45 cm (Private collection). Arcimboldo painted this work for Don Gregorio Comanini, a Mantuan man of letters. He gives the following description of the painting in his dialogue Il Figino, published in 1591: “Please have Comanino show you that piece of art that he made of the four seasons. There you will see a very special painting! A very knotty trunk represents the breast and head, some holes for the mouth and eyes, and a protruding branch for the nose; the beard is made of strands of moss and some twigs on the forehead form horns. This tree-stump, without its own leaves or fruit, represents winter, which produces nothing itself, but depends on the production of the other seasons. A small flower on his breast and over his shoulders symbolizes spring, as well as a bundle of ears bound to some twigs, and a cloak of plaited straw covering his shoulders, and two cherries hanging from a branch forming his ear, and two damsons on the back of his head represent summer.
And two grapes hanging from a twig, one white and one red, and some apples, hidden among evergreen ivy sprouting forth from his head, symbolize autumn. Among the branches in the head, one in the middle is loosing a bit of its bark, and pieces of it are bent and falling off; on the white area of this branch is written ‘ARCIMBOLDUS P.“. In his paintings of the allegories of the Seasons and the Elements, Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted composite heads from all kinds of objects, whose selection gives meaning to the allegory. This compositional method was not invented by Arcimboldo, but the sophistication and imagination with which he applied the distinct objects in his picture-puzzles are a very personal achievement and a showcase of his true originality.
Self-Portrait at the Easel, oil on canvas, by Sofonisba Anguissola, ca. 1556, 66 x 57 cm (Muzeum-Zamek, Łańcut Castle, Poland). Sofonisba depicts herself in a simple brownish-red habit, covered by a smooth black waistcoat. Under the dress, she wears a white blouse, closed around the neck, with a high collar and cuffs decorated with folded hems. She looks at us while she works in a devotional painting of a Madonna and Child composed with a particularly affectionate pose. Sofonisba’s most distinctive works are her portraits of herself and her family.  Sofonisba’s work and style had a lasting influence on subsequent generations of artists, and her great success opened the way for larger numbers of women to pursue serious careers as artists.
Portrait of Bianca Degli Utili Maselli and her children, oil on canvas, by Lavinia Fontana, ca. 1604-1605, 133.5 x 99 cm (Private Collection). This direct and intimate family portrait was painted by Lavinia Fontana in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century. The painting shows Bianca degli Utili, wife of the nobleman Pierino Maselli, with six of her children. The stern figure of Bianca degli Utili divides the pictorial space into two even and contrasting sections. The three children to the left look directly at the viewer and are portrayed in a pyramidal structure. They appear still and well-behaved. In contrast, the three boys to the right of the composition is less formal. They are shown as rather more playful and animated, and two of the boys look at each other as opposed to the viewer. Lavinia’s work, and in particular this painting, is remarkable for her meticulous attention to detail, including the different hairstyles, the jewelry, the embroidered costumes and the wide range of textures shown. The five boys wear outfits made from the same rich material while mother and daughter wear different dresses with matching fabric. Despite the elegance of the clothes and the formal setting, the portrait stands out for its sympathetic approach to the sitters. As proper of young children, nearly all the figures are seen busying themselves by holding objects. The boy on the upper left is shown with a colorful bird tied to a little chain as his brother below him holds an inviting plate of fruit. In her right hand Verginia holds her mother’s forefinger and with her left tenderly plays with the paw of the little dog, who comfortably seats on Bianca’s arm, underlining her loyalty as a wife. To the right the middle boy’s hands cannot be seen but the movement of his body suggests that behind his mother’s back his hands are not idle. Both of his brothers hold objects, the first in the foreground a pen and inkpot and the second a medallion with the figure of a knight, the objects probably alluding to their future professions. Though Bianca is shown here with five of her sons (she died at 37 after giving birth to her 19th child), Lavinia Fontana placed particular attention to the little girl, Verginia, for she is the only child whom Bianca is hugging and she is the only one to have her name inscribed above her head. The painting was probably painted specifically for her or in her honor.

8 thoughts on “Painting in Central Italy during the 16th Century. Mannerism

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