Mannerism and Maniera
Mannerism, the European Style of the Sixteenth Century
It is odd that the problems raised by Mannerism should still cause us so much bewilderment. Styles have always changed and historians have been able to accommodate themselves to this fact easily enough. For all the boring controversies we have had about the meaning of the word Romanticism no one finds too much difficulty in charting the course and significance of Romantic painting in nineteenth-century France and England. It almost seems as if we too, despite the critical independence we claim to have achieved through long wanderings in our Museums without Walls, are as convinced of the normative value of classical art as was the Renaissance itself. We can just accept the idea that later Gothic artists were not fitfully groping towards the aspirations of Raphael, but we can only react with astonishment or pain when we learn that later artists wished to move on once the classical ideal, as Raphael conceived it, had been attained. For this reason, perhaps, we have been forced to call to our aid a number of catastrophic changes that occurred in sixteenth-century Italy: the sack of Rome and Florence, Spanish occupation, religious ferment and the Council of Trent, the collapse of the urban economy and the formation of a new aristocracy (for once the middle classes are sinking instead of eternally rising), the break-up of artistic guilds and the foundation of academies. Each of these changes must certainly be taken into account when we discuss the art of this period, but the historian who leans too heavily on them to explain the disturbing masterpieces of the 1520s and 1530s must also suggest how it was that the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII a generation earlier had led to the “serene masterpieces” of the High Renaissance; and why, if Botticelli was inspired by the teaching and fate of Savonarola to paint in a more Gothic manner, Fra Bartolommeo, who was far more closely associated with the friar, should have so resolutely embarked on his career as one of the pioneers of the classical style.
Perhaps, then, there is no more a “problem” of Mannerism than there is a “problem” of the High Renaissance; the generation of the 1520s in Florence and Siena, whose paintings are usually held to inaugurate the new style, were certainly not doing anything unusual when they borrowed from the North: expressionism is as evident in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci as it is in those of Pontormo; the art of Piero di Cosimo should remind us that classicism was not the only style current in the early years of the century. And yet, when we have done all that we possibly can to explain away Mannerism and to resist (vainly, no doubt) the use of a term which embraces so many different and often contradictory phenomena, certain points remain to tease us; above all, and uniquely in the history of post-medieval Western art, the essential ambiguity of so much sixteenth-century painting. The art of Mannerism is often said to…
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