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Mannerism was a development of the late Renaissance period in Italy. It was a reaction on the perfect harmony, order and design of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Mannerism was an important style of painting of sixteenth century Italy, but not the only one. It co-existed with other styles. Mannerism may have been an evolution of Michelangelo’s painting, but it was taken further mainly by painters like Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. Mannerism is derived from the Italian word ‘maniera’ that means harmony, balance and grace.

Lines and directions were still mostly vertical in the beginning. This technique gave rapidly way for interlaced curves, mainly of naked bodies. Curved lines were used in exaggerated but graceful, dramatic gestures.

Mannerism used very complex and capricious compositions, sometimes in extravagant and exaggerated show of emotions. Mannerism showed great virtuosity in imagination and in compositions. It invented dramatic foreshortening or at least took foreshortening to its furthest application in deformed poises of figures. Compositions seemed to want to burst out of the frame in a chaos of intertwined figures and detail. Mannerism used mainly round and curved forms. The style also made frequent use of classical architectural constructions in the scenes.

Mannerism was characterised by clear, contrasting, showy colours. Colours were often skewed, surprising, harsh and conflicting. Many secondary hues were now introduced, whereas earlier art styles had preferred the chromatic hues.

Painters used mainly scenes from classic antiquity. Other themes were still devotional, but also non-devotional subjects were used. Much portraiture was made in this period. Mannerism introduced dramatic movement, and large narrative scenes. It emphasised the nude in complex compositions of figures.

The Mannerist style underscored less landscape as background, and showed mainly pictures of persons, and especially the nude in the foreground. Chiaroscuro was lavishly and dramatically applied on the forms.

We consider as Mannerist painters Michelangelo Buonarroti, Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Agnolo Bronzino, El Greco, Giulio Romano, Parmigianino, and Jacopo Tintoretto, among others.

Mannerism evolved from the Late Renaissance through the change in style of Michelangelo and Jacopo Pontormo. Michelangelo painted and sculpted the nude so strongly, that this personal style was called his own "terribilità". Pontormo stylised his figures entirely to his own concepts and spiritual ideas so that figures were elongated, slender and gracious. His imagination was vigorous and strange. Subsequent artists took these two very different styles to their extremes, and in this Michelangelo’s style was more imitated than Pontormo’s.
Painters like Rosso Fiorentino and Giulio Romano took up Michelangelo’s most frantic energy for new views, and developed them into deformed poises of figures with dramatic foreshortening. Parmigianino evolved Pontormo’s style.
Mannerism was a revolution in form and composition mainly.


Giovanni Battista di Jacopo called Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540). Musée du Louvre. Paris. Painted around 1530-1535.

Rosso Fiorentino’s painting offers a picture apparently all in the same reddish tones. We see interlaced figures and unrestrained flows of lines and forms. There is no well-organised balanced composition at first glance. All is emotion and blatant expression of movement and drama. Compared with the Botticelli Madonna, which is a strict intellectually designed and well-ordered scene, Rosso Fiorentino’s Pietà seems a picture in which all emotions have been let loose.

Design of composition in the Pietà was apparently less important for this artist. Dominance was given to the colours. Rosso painted in similar colours, so that we would like to refer to harmony of analogues as Chevreul named the juxtaposition of all scales of one colour. But when we look with more attention, we discover that Rosso used a very varied palette of orange, red and magenta colours with a few green and blue patches to brighten the picture and the mood. Rosso painted green and blue ribbons on the figure of the right, then also a blue robe on Mary Magdalene in the lower left and a blue-green robe on the figure of the upper left, which could be Mary Salome. So these three blue-green areas form a triangle around Christ.
The other colours are almost of the same brightness, and even the body of Christ and the back of the figure on the right are not in the yellow or broken white flesh colours we would normally expect. The colours are very faint bluish, magenta hues induced by the surrounding orange and red colours.
There are no contrasts of pure colours as with the earlier Renaissance painters in this picture. Rosso used less easily recognisable hues, composed of secondary colours. The colours are more complex than the primary colours preferred so far in Florence. Rosso’s colours are surprising and deliberately sought to look different from the colours of Van Eyck or Botticelli.

The largest difference with paintings of previous styles, is with Mannerism in the display of emotions. The Virgin Mary spreads her arms in sheer pathos. Her open arms remember of the cross far more than the corpse of Christ.
When in paintings of earlier periods solemn dignity was shown, here the figures display their emotions overtly, and with great drama. This was a major deviation from the Italian Renaissance style, and a forebode of Baroque art. There is not one common poise in the picture. All the figures are painted in a different and often unnatural manner. The head of Christ has fallen backwards and lacks dignity; his corpse is so white as to lose credibility. This is so different an image compared to what we had been used to in older Pietà scenes! The youth on the right kneels; the Magdalene is seated; Mary Salome stands out and supports the mother of Christ; the Virgin Mary falls backwards into the arms of Mary Salome, fainting and mourning in despair. Christ lies in this mass of red and profusion of other colours. Mary’s blue maphorion is a dull magenta and Christ’s deformed, tortured face takes the same colours, tinted also with orange in places, as the other colours of the cloaks around him.

All the figures are intertwined in one movement, interlaced in arms and emotions. Yet, Rosso Fiorentino has not yet done away with all structure in his painting. Mary Magdalene is seated in the lower left corner, and from there our gaze follows the body of Christ, to the upper right corner.
Rosso used the left diagonal to place his main theme in, which is the dead Christ. Along this direction Rosso placed the brighter colours. Along an oblique line, vaguely the right diagonal, are the youth on the right, as well as the heads of Christ, Mary and Salome. That oblique direction lies higher than the right diagonal, higher up, like the horizontal beam of Christ’s cross. And that indeed is the second form of the cross in Rosso’s picture. We can thus discern in the position of the figures two intertwined structures of crosses. These two forms are the underlying composition of the scene.
No Florentine Renaissance painter would have used oblique and intertwined directions as the structure of his work. Rosso, however, used the oblique lines a long time before Caravaggio re-discovered these directions and applied them in the representation of movement. Rosso intuitively came close to sense the force of these directions to create a new representation.

All concentration of our view is on the figures, even much more so than with Sandro Botticelli. There is no landscape at all with Rosso. The scene of the Pietà is even set inside a cave, and Rosso painted the outline of the rocks on the top of the frame. Therefore, Christ’s face can fall into the shadows, as was his death, taking on the strange, fierce colours we never saw before. Giorgio Vasari wrote that Rosso always gave certain faces an air of cruelty and despair and subsequently softened them, as they should be. Rosso probably did this also with the face of Christ, and even of the Madonna.

Rosso Fiorentino made many vigorous pictures like this Pietà, with a powerful imagination, unequalled in strong expression, mannered in his search for strange innovation, very individual and innovating in style. More than in any style before him, Rosso brought passion and emotions, often violent and wild emotions, to the viewer. Gone was in some of his pictures the respectful devotion for heavenly beauty of the devote viewer. Rosso would show violence and wildness and ugliness in distorted bodies.

That was one of the innovations of the style we now call Mannerism. Mannerism was led into two directions.
One direction was the direct inheritance of Michelangelo, of his terribilità centred on the nude figure. Among his followers were Rosso Fiorentino and Giulio Romano.
Jacopo Pontormo took another direction. Pontormo also sometimes used new secondary colours, but overall continued to give predominance to line over colour. Pontormo stylised his figures somewhat, as we have seen during the Gothic era, to elongated forms again. Pontormo also continued to put more distance between his figures and the viewer, and less obvious show of emotions.

Giorgio Vasari wrote that Rosso could design wonderfully. But his style was altogether too new for the Florentines, too radically different to their tastes. Rosso’s scenes were too far away from Pietro Perugino’s and Botticelli’s elevated and perfectly balanced, intellectually controlled images. The show of emotions, so blatantly drawn, was not considered good manners by the Florentines. When Rosso painted his saints moreover with ugly faces, the Florentines did not forgive him and refused his painting.

Vasari praised much Rosso, but the artist left Florence for Rome, hoping to find more understanding and sympathy there. Matters progressed even more badly for Rosso in Rome. He painted worse in Rome than in Florence, and he got caught in the sack of Rome.
The mercenary, mostly German army of Emperor Charles V attacked Rome on its own account. The Pope had to flee for his life into the Castel Sant’ Angelo, for the mainly Lutheran mercenary troops had no mercy for the Catholics and sacked the town. Rosso was made a prisoner, stripped of his clothes and forced to work for the mercenaries.
Rosso escaped and fled to Perugia, then to Borgo San Sepolchro, to Arezzo and to Borgo again. He was a Florentine, so called now Fiorentino, Rosso the Florentine. He caused uproar in Borgo by fighting a priest during mass, and although he was in his right – says Vasari – swords were drawn against him. So Rosso left for Venice by night and was entertained there by that other passionate man, the writer Pietro Aretino.
Rosso travelled on, this time to France. He went to the court of King Francis I. Francis liked Italian artists. He set Rosso to work on the decorations of his new palace at Fontainebleau. Rosso also made designs for vessels, for masquerades and triumphs of the castle. The King came to like Rosso and the painter received many commissions for several pictures in the halls of Fontainebleau. These are some of the most enigmatic pictures in the world, containing many symbols and puzzles and hidden meanings.
Rosso could live in the lifestyle, no longer of a painter, but of a prince, said Vasari. He kept many servants and he had horses and a fine house. Then, tragedy struck.
Rosso accused one of his friends, Francesco di Pellegrino, of having stolen from him a sum of hundreds of ducats. Pellegrino proved his innocence in court of justice, and according to Vasari, Rosso understood that he had falsely accused a close friend. He could not retract because that would mean losing his own honour, which would prove him a disloyal and evil man. Rosso saw no solution to the issue. He decided to kill himself. He drank a phial of poison. Rosso Fiorentino died in 1540.

Rosso painted his Pietà in Fontainebleau around 1535-1540, in the last years before his death. His painting shows the difference with the style of the Renaissance. His painting is very much in tension, much in a state of conflict, strained and strong in violent emotion. Painting and art along this style could not be sustained. This art was too strong, and not really agreeable to most viewers. It was an art of softer emotions but that would further build on the blatant show of emotions of the Mannerists that would emerge.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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