The sack of Rome in 1527 drastically changed the political and cultural context of Italy. The papacy, ever since the fall of the Roman Empire the core of European politics, slowly starts losing its supremacy. Similarly, the recent discovery of America gradually deranges the economic centrality of great states such as the Republic of Venice, while others benefit from the new trade perspectives coming from the Atlantic. The world of Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Leonardo and Raphael (who dies in 1520) is fading and a new artistic era approaches. In less than one hundred years, Bernini will complete his revolutionary David, establishing the Baroque style as the avant-garde language of European art. However, the change is not that fast and, indeed, the last eighty years of the Sixteenth century cannot be disguised as a merely transitional period.
Transfiguration – Raphael – 1516-20 – oil on panel – Rome, Musei Vaticani
The artistic dignity of Mannerism, so it is the called this notable style, has long been questioned. First, the answer of art historians to it is various: some recognise it, others do not, some considers it as a deviation from the Renaissance standards, others give it significance on its own. In this regard, I believe that Arnold Hauser’s masterpiece, actually titled Mannerism, provides a balanced insight. As he points out, Mannerism lives of the tension between innovation and manner. In other words, Mannerism stems from the struggle of artists in front of the heavy tradition of the Renaissance, whose most complete expressions are Raphael and Michelangelo. Their own final works, such as Raphael’s Transfiguration or Michelangelo’s Last Judgements, highlight a new artistic tension and uneasiness toward the rational canons of order and symmetry imposed by the Fifteenth-century humanist culture. In Raphael’s work, the usually bright and airy atmosphere is transformed into a gloomy and packed environment where figures crowd on the first level, confusingly gesturing. Sharp contrasts prevail and the visual balance of the composition does not quite match the artist’s renowned ordered and totally symmetrical arrangements of figures. Even the great Renaissance masters feel that the something is shrinking, that the old manner has to be overcome by a new one.
Pietà – Rosso Fiorentino – 1537-40 – oil on panel, transferred to canvas – Parigi, Musée du Louvre
Interestingly, one manner is replaced by another. The very first season of Mannerism, actually, is characterised by a strong inventiveness that artists employ to develop a personal style, in a way that is unique in European art. Before the Sixteenth century, indeed, the role of tradition is strongly connected to the art practice and works such as Pontormo’s Deposition, where the logical iconographical focus (the cross) is missing were simply unheard of. New, strange and unsettling compositions are now employed: painters aim to detach themselves from the strict imitation of idealised nature fostered by Michelangelo and Raphael’s manner (although the two painters are far more than this), whose artistic fame dominated Italy at the time. However, this tendency toward novelty and virtuosity soon turned into an established manner, its originality soon fading. As a matter of fact, the word Mannerism stems from the criticism moved by later authors to these artists, as not being really original but merely trying to surprise the viewer with obscure iconography and twisted compositions.
Madonna di San Zaccaria – Parmigianino – 1530-3 – oil on panel – Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi
As mentioned, Mannerism develops in a moment of great upheaval and turmoil. It originates from a specific substratum and its roots are inevitably bound to it. Its quick dissolution and the birth of the Baroque may thus seem the obvious response to a momentary crisis. After some decades, Europe finds a new balance and so the Church: badly hurt by the Protestant reformation, fortified by the counter-reformist movements, it is again ready for a rich season of patronage. From Urban VIII to Alexander VII, Baroque dissolves the remainings of Mannerism. The art becomes a public device of political propaganda, an instrument for rulers throughout Europe to state their power and for the church to oppose the Protestant reproach of images. There is no space for intellectualistic conceit anymore: the personal genius is now subject again to authority.
Madonna di San Zaccaria