Minding Our Mannerists

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"The Visitation," by Pontormo, 1528.Credit: Courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi Foundation

FLORENCE – It’s probably one of the most bizarre descriptions in the history of the loaded relations between artist and patron. While the 16th-century artist Rosso Fiorentino was working on an altarpiece commissioned by an important local patron, a meeting between the two ended with the patron bolting out of the artist’s studio in a panic, appalled by what he had seen.

As Giorgio Vasari wrote in his biography of Fiorentino (published in 1550), the man who commissioned the altarpiece – Leonardo di Giovanni Buonafe, the spedalingo (director) of a local hospital – paid a visit to the artist, “but he was a man who had little understanding of the art of painting, and when he saw the work sketched out, all the saints seemed to him to be devils.” The explanation – that the artist customarily began by creating “cruel and desperate expressions” before softening them and “bring[ing] them back into the good style” – was to no avail. The patron “ran out of the house and refused the panel, declaring that Rosso had tricked him.”

The altarpiece, still known as “The Madonna of Spedalingo,” is now held in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. It no longer scares off viewers, despite the rather frightening face of St. Jerome by Mary’s side. But this dramatic encounter between the artist and the person who commissioned the work became one of the events that is linked to the artistic style which the painting is perceived to represent: Mannerism.

Less well-known than its older brother, the Renaissance, and less successful than the style that followed it and conquered Europe – Baroque – Mannerism is perhaps the most ambivalent style in the history of art. It’s hard to think of any of its components that is not the subject of controversy among scholars.

Art historian Antonio Natali, the director of the Uffizi, recalls that the term originated in the definition coined by Vasari (1511-1574), the quasi-official art historian of the period. The artists from Leonardo da Vinci onward, he wrote, worked in “la maniera moderna” (the modern style). “Maniera is a chronological categorization of that period,” Natali notes, recalling the term’s reductive interpretation. Afterward, in order to deprecate 16th-century artists who departed from a “correct” depiction of nature, “Mannerism” became a pejorative description for artists more occupied with their style than worthy artistic values. From here emerged the loaded contemporary use of the word “mannered,” in connection with affected, patently insincere behavior.

In the shadow of giants

Rather than seeking to revive the debate over Mannerism, a new exhibition at the city’s Palazzo Strozzi aims to trace, without prejudgment, the paths of two artists who were perceived as the most salient representatives of art in the era following the period in which the three giants of the Renaissance (Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo) were active, at times even alongside one another.

The two artists to whom the exhibition is devoted, Rosso and Pontormo, are members of the succeeding generation. They were born in 1494, a few months apart and a few kilometers from one another in Florence, and grew up into one of the most turbulent periods in the city’s history, but also a period of unprecedented artistic blossoming, including the installation of Michelangelo’s sculpture “David” in front of what is known today as the Palazzo Vecchio. These were the decades of what is usually termed the “High Renaissance,” which drew to a close when both Leonardo (1519) and Raphael (1520) died.

“Over and above one’s appreciation of the visual beauty contained in the works, these are two intellectuals, poets who write visual texts without words,” says Natali, who co-curated the exhibition with Carlo Falciani, who researches art of the period. The two have organized the exhibition to reflect those ramified paths without getting drawn yet again into the controversy over the term “Mannerism.”

Childhood and adolescence in those dramatic years in Tuscany are the point of departure for those “diverging paths of Mannerism,” which led the two artists to follow different routes. The artist known as Rosso Fiorentino (“the red-haired Florentine”) wandered from Florence to Rome, then back to Tuscany, finally becoming the favorite artist of the French Renaissance king Francis I, in whose court he spent about a decade.

In contrast, Jacopo Carucci – better known as Pontormo, after the small village on the outskirts of Florence in which he was born – chose to remain in Florence almost all his life, becoming the court artist of the Medicis after their return from exile. These, then, are the divergent paths of two extraordinarily complex artists in a fateful period of Italian history, which peaked with the Sack of Rome in 1527 and the split with the Protestants.

The great queen

In order to present not only an “exhibition of beautiful works” but also a “beautiful exhibition” of Mannerist art – which is “a great moment of deep thought,” in the words of the Uffizi’s director – the curators chose to chart two ramified paths in the Palazzo Strozzi, the venue for the exhibition.

This is, in fact, the first exhibition devoted entirely to the two artists, and encompasses some 70 percent of their recognized works. Taking into account the fact that the previous exhibition devoted to Pontormo was held in this same stunning palace in 1956, it’s clear that this is a one-time opportunity to view the art of the period and try to get a better understanding of the Mannerist style, which both charmed and disturbed art aficionados of the 16th century. There are 80 paintings, drawings, tapestries and prints that tell the story of the maniera in all its complexity.

In the course of more than three years’ work on the exhibition and accompanying catalog, the researchers invited to take part in the writing – myself among them – received guidelines in the following spirit: Not to stick to the somewhat entrenched definitions of Mannerism, but to address the distinctive complexity of each of the artists.

One example is what is perhaps the most sensual work by Rosso Fiorentino on display in the exhibition (and about which I was asked to write in the catalog), “The Death of Cleopatra” (1525-1527). Painted during the period of the artist’s sojourn in Rome, the work was influenced by a very famous ancient sculpture (now in the Vatican collection) that depicted the death of the best-known Egyptian queen of all time.

New restoration work on the painting uncovered a series of precise details – like the amazing hairstyle or the fastidious fingernails – that leave no doubt that the artist not only looked at ancient sculpture but also read the ancient texts (or talked to someone who had). The writings of Plutarch and others describe Cleopatra’s suicide from the bite of an asp she had smuggled into her room, after meticulously arranging her appearance to ensure that she looked like a queen (the hair and fingernails are mentioned explicitly in some sources).

While writing and observing the work, it was difficult not to recall that Rosso’s contemporaries maintained that the effect of the encounter with ancient works of sculpture was ruinous for him, and that the shock of the remnants of the ancient world that he discovered in Rome spoiled his style and vitiated his paintings.

This, of course, is open to interpretation, like the whole continuing debate about Mannerism and the ability of Rosso and his ilk to internalize influences and give expression to their own style regarding the past. There is no doubt that “The Death of Cleopatra” is a splendid example of the power of the encounter of a Florentine artist with Rome, just before the city was laid waste in the brutal siege and looting of 1527, in the wake of which most of the artists there, including Rosso himself, fled.

The little donkey

Another restoration produced new revelations in what is Pontormo’s best-known work today, “The Visitation,” which is held in the Church of St. Michael in Carmignano, not far from Florence. In this work, dating from circa 1528-1529, Pontormo depicts the encounter between Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Elizabeth (Elisheva), the mother of John the Baptist. The two pregnant women hold each other, looking at each other. Their emaciated feet may or may not be touching the ground, and their stomachs may or may not be touching each other’s.

This painting, characterized by spectacular colorfulness and suffused with a spirit of mystery, was cleaned meticulously for the exhibition. Not only were two small figures discovered sitting on the typical street in which the scene is set, but also a tiny head of a donkey and a small woman peeking out of a window: new and intriguing details.

Is all this another example of the “strangeness” of Pontormo, who was perceived as an eccentric by his contemporaries? “It is a street scene that takes place behind four women,” co-curator Falciano says, reluctant to attribute precise symbolism to the newly discovered figures.

Indeed, throughout the exhibition and catalog, Falciani avoids reviving the myth of “two crazy, weird artists,” but prefers to accord Pontormo and Rosso “two more complex keys of reading,” which accord with “a moment of significant artistic freedom.”

What, though, is the origin of the image of the maniera artists as bizarre and verging on madness? In fact, already toward the end of the 16th century, art critics and clerics began to disparage the artists of Rosso and Pontormo’s generation for their excessively daring and sensual works (when nude figures appear in them) or for simply not being clear enough.

Vasari’s comments about the two also contributed, to a certain extent, to the perception of two artists on the far edge of normalcy. For example, he wrote that Rosso Fiorentino’s best friend was a faithful monkey that accompanied him wherever he went. And Rosso’s death – in the court of Francis I, who was very fond of the Italian artist – was dramatic, according to Vasari. He is said to have killed himself by drinking poison after wrongly accusing a friend of theft. The historical truth of this account is in dispute, but it reinforced Rosso’s image as an incomprehensible artist. His affection for kabbala, albeit not unusual at the time, added to the eccentric image.

As for Pontormo, Vasari claimed that he was “strange” and suffered from fear of crowds, and more acutely from an obsessive fear of death – to the point where he refused to attend funerals. He spent his final years on an intensive project, of which almost nothing remains – a monumental fresco in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, in Florence.

Concurrently, he started to keep a diary, doing so for the last three years of his life. This text offers a rare glimpse into the way of life of an artist in his waning period. It intermingles everything: the figures he painted, the food he ate, the new mattress on which he slept, and the aches from which he suffered. The banality of the descriptions charmed artists in the second half of the 20th century, who saw Pontormo as an archetype of a contemporary artist.

It is not by chance that in his 35-minute masterpiece “La Ricotta” (1963), the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini – casting the actor Orson Welles as an insensitive film director – reconstructed paintings by Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, creating one of the most poetic moments in Italian cinema. Images from the film round off the catalog, as a very meaningful statement about two 16th-century figures who were, perhaps, the first modern artists.

“Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism” runs at the Palazzo Strozzi until July 20.

Sefy Hendler is a senior lecturer in early modern Italian art at the Tel Aviv University department of Art History. His latest book is “La guerre des arts” (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2013).

Rosso’s “Death of Cleopatra,” 1525-27.Credit: Courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi Foundation