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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ladyin 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.
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.
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.
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.