Everyone knows the Renaissance art of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: Leondardo, Raphael, Michelangelo (or at least they know the Ninja Turtles!), and everyone's heard of at least one seventeenth-century Baroque painter: Rembrandt. But what about the eighty-year gap in between?
The period from roughly 1520 to 1600 was filled by a lesser-known and lesser-loved style called Mannerism. Art historians have disagreed over which works can be given this label, and also over their merits. Some attack Mannerist art for being all style and no substance, while others praise it for its innovations in pursuit of sophisticated beauty. I believe that both views are valid for some works but not for others. On the whole, Mannerist art is a mixed bag.
Inspired by the classical art and ideas of Ancient Greece and Rome, the art of the Renaissance had been characterised by order and harmony, perspective depth, and a realism totally lacking in the Medieval art before it. The Mannerists now largely abandoned all this in favour of irrational compositions, ambiguous space, and flat relief-like arrangements of exaggerated forms. Because of this, some historians have called it an anti-classical art, but the truth is that Mannerism's roots lay firmly in the Renaissance.
They took to extremes the complex technical forms, compositions and effects like contrapposto, figura serpentinata, foreshortening and illusionistic perspective, of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. They made Leonardo and Raphael’s ideally beautiful figures more unnatural, with contorted bodies, elongated limbs, and artificial colour and lighting. They were intellectuals, fond of references to these Renaissance masters, which were appreciated by their educated court audiences. Giorgio Vasari, the extremely influential art historian and not-so-influential Mannerist artist, saw the history of Renaissance art as a progression from the first steps of Giotto to the culmination of Michelangelo, and the extremes and intertextuality of Mannerist art are a result of their desire to build on the work of the recent masters and push things even further forward.
In the period from 1515 to 1524 the Florentine painters Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino became two of the first Italian artists to break away from the harmonious classicism of the Renaissance. Their art often has a violent expressive character to it, which, along with its abstracted formal experimentation and rejection of tradition, makes it uncannily similar to some of the avant-garde art of the Modernist era. After a long period in disrepute, one of Mannerism’s first rehabilitators was the German Expressionist Walter Friedlander, who in a 1925 essay praised Pontormo and Rosso for their radical anti-classicism.
Rosso’s Descent from the Cross is anti-classical in several ways. Firstly, it is not realistic. The severely agitated expressions and poses are exaggerated. Rather than having smooth and natural colour, it is divided into flat acid planes, with Christ’s body painted green. Secondly, it lacks both the harmonious balance and the perspective that were developed and perfected in the Renaissance. Although it is based on a symmetrical cross, the composition has no central focus and the figures form a complex crisscrossing web. With minimal background, there is little depth. Thirdly, its tone, created through all of the above, is not peaceful or heroic, but crazy and frightening. Although this painting was certainly quite new and original, the figure of Christ is based on a Pietà drawing by Michelangelo, and it is an exaggeration or distortion of Classical Renaissance art rather than something completely different. The draperies are like those in many Renaissance paintings, only with unnaturally sharp folds and edges. It is more anti-classical and much less graceful and elegant than later Mannerist art, even including works by Rosso himself. I find it regrettable that this radical expressive style was not developed further into something completely new, rather than refined into something more elegant. The shocking, almost surreal style and near-grotesque figures serve to accentuate the horror of a horrific Biblical episode, doing justice to it in a way that Renaissance harmony and Mannerist elegance cannot.
For Vasari, the greatest artists were those who achieved pure beauty through their masterful cultivation of the ideal of maniera, meaning manners, style, stylishness, grace and elegance. He may have overlooked the importance of subject matter, and the possibility that too much maniera in art could have a distancing effect on the viewer. Although for Vasari, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes contained some of the most divine maniera of all, a great deal of their immense power comes from their depiction of Bible stories. Vasari’s preoccupation with cultivating stylishness and grace is shared by his Mannerist contemporaries, beginning with Raphael’s pupils Giulio Romano and Perino del Vaga in Rome in the 1520s, and then spreading to artists visiting Rome, and then to artists all over Italy and Europe after the city was sacked in 1527.
Only in recent times had artists come to be seen as any more than common craftsmen humbly serving their patrons. Instead of for money or God, art was now created for its own sake, as an intellectual discipline taught and learned in academies, written and read about in scientific studies. Mannerists indulged themselves in formal experimentation and showing off. They now saw being a great artist as far more important than inspiring faith, glorifying God, or telling a story, so they often lost interest in the actual subject of their work.
This problem is particularly evident in epic portrayals of dramatic stories like The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, as we can see from Agnolo Bronzino’s version. Where Michelangelo was able to use stylishly arranged muscular figures in contorted poses to tell heroic stories, Bronzino loses sight of his subject in trying to quote the earlier artist, and outdo him in complexity and maniera.
His scene is overcrowded with people twisting their bodies in ludicrous ways for no reason other than to look stylish, to show off the painter’s virtuosity and to look like caricatures of Sistine Chapel figures. The figure of St. Lawrence, who is supposed to be cooking on a fire, reclines like an even more elegant version of Michelangelo’s Adam, and communicates no feeling about his situation. We could accept this as the Saint’s calm acceptance of his martyrdom, except that everyone else in the picture has almost the same bland Michelangelesque face. This painting fails to fulfill its function, which was most likely to show the greatness of a man who sacrificed himself to God, because there is little distinction between him and the surrounding sinners.
Works of art don’t have to have specific subjects to be great, but they must communicate some sort of feeling or meaning. Where Michelangelo used contortions to evoke power and heroism, and Rosso and twentieth-century artists used distortions to express intense emotions, Bronzino creates a vague sense of ridiculous and hollow grandeur. I don’t know whether it was intentional, but this painting seems to me to be about decadence, of both the Ancient Romans and the Italian Mannerists. Perhaps of the Catholic Church and Western Civilisation too.
Bronzino and other Mannerists were much better at portraits. Their ideal beauty, so unnaturally perfect that they are almost cold and inhuman, is suited to their subjects’ good manners and social pretensions, which is the other meaning of maniera. In Parmigianino’s The Madonna of the Long Neck, the super-smooth forms of the Virgin and Child have been unrealistically elongated to create an image that has something of the beauty of Leonardo and Raphael’s ideal figures, but more unearthly, with a cold elegance. Peter Humfrey believes that such coldness and sensuality are inappropriate, and I can see how this is a rather unconventional approach to such a sacred subject, but it is the artist’s unique interpretation of the super-human perfection of these divinities, who are supposed to be objects of worship, not real people.
In 1924 the German Expressionist Max Dvorak used the art of El Greco to argue that Mannerism was a spiritual and expressive art. El Greco used Mannerism’s stylised abstractions from reality, relief-like arrangements, spatial ambiguities and elongated forms, but in the passionate service of spiritual subjects, not the cultivation of maniera. His painting The Burial of Count Orgaz has the Mannerist characteristic of anti-classical irrational space, but its effect is anything but mannered. The lack of perspective depth on the wall of figures in the bottom half has an ungracefully striking immediacy, and Count Orgaz’s foreshortened corpse leaps out at the viewer as a focal point. Above the earthly scene, dynamic clouds and figures on the left and right and a vertical line of cloud and drapery in the middle give the feeling of an exhilarating rush upward towards Christ. In this heavenly upper section, the atmospheric and linear perspective on the waves of figures is exaggerated and distorted to create immensity and magnificence. The unnatural lighting, colours and shapes beautifully convey the dazzling unearthly splendour of Heaven.
A concern for the cultivation of stylishness and grace is one of the major characteristics of a lot of the art that has been called Mannerist, but not the only one, and not of all. A better, more inclusive definition of Mannerism would be “a more complex form of Renaissance art, lacking its Classical harmony and realism.” It is true that the subject of Mannerist works was often lost in all the stylistic complexities and extremities and intellectual references, but sometimes when the subject was fitting, the Mannerist style could heighten its emotional power and communicate its meanings in unique and wonderful ways.