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Mind Your Maniera

Mannerism: Style and Civilization

by John Shearman
Penguin, 215 pp., $2.95 (paper)


On the first page of Painting in Italy 1500-1600, Sidney J. Freedberg describes the first decades of that century as “the most extraordinary intersection of genius art history has ever known.” This evaluation, indeed, goes back to the sixteenth century and remained essentially unchallenged until the nineteenth, and it was so profound a conviction that the “classical” style of these decades, originated by Leonardo and culminating in Raphael, became the measure of all art.

Things have changed. Not only is Raphael no longer the standard of artistic value, but it is not even fashionable now to dislike him. The rehabilitation of the postclassical “Mannerist” art, the style of the succeeding generation of Pontormo, has been one of the most fertile and dynamic events in art history four centuries later. Today the authority of Raphael has been destroyed and we may admire him again without embarrassment.

To give an account of sixteenth-century Italian painting is a formidable task. There are few painters of any consequence who have not been the subject of at least one study since 1945, and faced with this mass of information the art historian risks compiling a bare list of artists, works, and dates. Further, the main artists, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, are of such towering importance that it is difficult to keep things in proportion. Finally, the historical problems are among the most debated and most difficult to resolve.

Sidney Freedberg was the most obvious choice for this volume of the Pelican History of Art. His principal work, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence—1500-1520, was a searching study and a major achievement. The exceptional visual sensibility and intellectual power at work in this vast study of style made him the leading authority in the field, in spite of the tortuous and demanding prose he invented to convey the complex process of seeing art (prose rumored to have been described by Freedberg himself as “late Henry James retranslated from the German”).

In the new Pelican volume, Freedberg conveys a remarkable amount of information including very rich bibliographical references (up to 1968), but the information is unobtrusive because it is subservient to a powerfully controlled scheme. Freedberg very seldom describes explicitly the methods he uses; they are like an elaborate intellectual scaffolding removed after a construction is finished.1

The first quarter of the book concerns the creation and development of the classical style of painting in central Italy (Rome and Florence) and in Venice. To Freedberg it is a style largely invented by Leonardo and formulated for the first time in his unfinished Adoration of the Magi of 1481 (Florence, Uffizi). The Last Supper (1495-98, Milan), simpler but more grandiose, can serve as a mature example of classicism. The disciples, while painted with extreme vividness, are also idealized heroic figures. With all their individuality, they each typify different ways of behaving at the dramatic moment when Christ has pronounced the terrible words: “One of you shall betray me.” The apostles are not lined up along the table as they had usually been in previous representations of the Last Supper but are arranged into four closely knit groups of three figures with an energetic movement that converges and resolves itself in the central figure of Christ. This formal arrangement is inseparable from the psychological interplay between the characters, and we also sense an organic relation between the figures and the space they inhabit.

The dominant quality of this kind of painting for Freedberg is that it has “a sense of living harmony,” a complete integration of all aspects of art: subject matter, psychological treatment, and formal organization. Freedberg’s characterization of Leonardo’s aim, “to effect a genuine reconciliation between the values of material and spiritual experience,” may be applied to High Renaissance classicism in general.

Although for a long time Leonardo painted in isolation, from about 1500 until 1520 the possibilities of the classical style were investigated thoroughly by a number of other artists (Michelangelo, Raphael, Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto, etc.) in Florence and Rome, especially in the vast decorative projects of the Vatican under Julius II and Leo X, and above all in Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and in Raphael’s Stanze and tapestry cartoons (now in London). In Venice an independent classicism displaying a greater concern with nature, atmosphere, and light was created by Giorgione. While the Venetian classical style was brought to maturity by Titian, who relied more on color to organize his painting than on line, as in Florence, the aims of Venetian classicism, for Freedberg, still are similar to those in central Italy: to achieve harmony among all the elements in the painting.

Freedberg sees the development of the classical style as a progressive increase of the “tension” among these elements—in particular between the rich and exact description of reality, on the one hand, and its transmutation into an idealized vision on the other. He describes Raphael’s Transfiguration (1517-1520) as showing the extreme limit of these tensions, revealing a breach or fault in the classical synthesis. The death of Raphael in 1520, a year which also saw the deaths of his two patrons, Pope Leo X and the banker Agostino Chigi, marks, in Freedberg’s view, the end of the High Renaissance in central Italy.

Why did the classical synthesis break down? Freedberg mostly considers matters of style in answering this question. But we may interpret the almost complete extinction of classicism as a failure of the confidence in the unity between physical and spiritual reality that was at the heart of the humanistic culture of the first quarter of the century, a unity that expressed itself in the arts principally in the construction of three-dimensional space habitable by convincing although idealized figures. It was not only the body and the soul that seemed in harmony, but also religion and spirituality; even paganism and Christianity were felt to be reconcilablé.

After Raphael’s death, however, there arose a crisis which manifested itself first of all in the destruction of three-dimensional space, especially in Florentine painting—or in a straining of its possibilities and its verisimilitude that amounted to its destruction. In Pontormo’s or Rosso’s paintings of the early 1520s the figures are thrust against the surface of the picture. In the Sala di Costantino, mostly the work of Giulio Romano after the death of Raphael, the illusionist scheme of the decoration (with simulated statues and tapestries, etc.) is so complicated, and the receding perspective so abrupt, that we can see the surface as a pattern of rhythmic accents.

In Freedberg’s view this emphasis on the decoration of the surface of paintings was a crucial departure. By calling attention to the artifice of representation it prepared the way for the High Maniera of Vasari, Salviati, and Bronzino. And as Freedberg shows, the High Maniera, the utterly sophisticated art of central Italy in the middle of the century, a much more coherent style than earlier Mannerism, quickly conquered the whole of Italy. Only Venice, because of Titian’s immense authority, resisted it for a time, but eventually, with Tintoretto, it too surrendered to the Mannerist style.

By 1570, Freedberg concludes, the maniera of central Italy lost its vitality, at times taking the form of “Counter-maniera” (a new term coined by Freedberg), which replaced complexity and aestheticism with simplicity and piety in response to the Counter-Reformation. But the Counter-maniera, of which the Zuccharo brothers are the chief exponents, shares the artificiality of the maniera and is not to be confused with anti-Mannerist art or the Anti-maniera we see in Pulzone, for example (although the distinction is, indeed, not always easy to make). From this Anti-maniera, of course, came the true reform of Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio, with whom a new and transformed classicism was reborn.

Freedberg is careful to take account of variations in different regions, and his general scheme is an effective one to present the unprecedented production of sixteenth-century painting in a comprehensible order. Its main weakness is that it has no place for one of the greatest artists of the time, Correggio, who is classified by Freedberg as “proto-Baroque”—another way of saying that he does not really fit into the scheme. Even though Freedberg insists that Correggio could never be mistaken for a Baroque painter, he discusses him from a seventeenth-century point of view, as the Baroque artists would later see him, rather than within the context of the sixteenth century.

In fairness to Freedberg, it must be pointed out that this has become a traditional view of Correggio, because modern historians of Renaissance painting have not yet found a way to place him. Before the twentieth century he was simply considered one of the great canonic painters; but our view of the classical Renaissance has (with evident benefits) become more narrow and more sophisticated. I believe it would be preferable, however, to present Correggio’s work as an extension of classicism, as Freedberg has done for the late, so-called “impressionist” Titian.


What distinguishes twentieth-century views of sixteenth-century, painting, including Freedberg’s, is the important place given to Mannerism, even if what we understand by this name is controversial. Previously, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, the Renaissance was conceived as a movement that reached its climax with the great classical generation of Raphael and Michelangelo (the High Renaissance) and then rapidly declined. “Mannerist” was a term used since the seventeenth century to condemn this late phase—a condemnation that as time passed was applied to more and more of the art of the sixteenth century. For the pre-Raphaelites and their spokesman Ruskin, even the later works of Raphael became decadent.

Alois Riegl, a great Viennese art historian of the late nineteenth century, made possible a new understanding of the late Renaissance and, in fact, of all forms of art precisely by denying the validity of the term “decadence.” For him the art of any period or people should not be evaluated according to a fixed standard; instead, changes in style should be understood as revealing, within a general scheme of history, a change in the mental climate of the society that produced the art under discussion.2

This theory, with its elements of Hegelian idealism, provided a basis for rehabilitating Mannerism, but it would have remained ineffectual had it not coincided with a change in taste and sensibility that had powerful social, ethical, and spiritual echoes. In some aspects of sixteenth-century art that had previously been considered as aberrant, art historians—most prominently Walter Friedlaender and Max Dvorak—discovered features that were parallel to the avant-garde art of their own time. El Greco, whom Dvorak saw as the paragon of Mannerism, was hailed in 1912 on the first pages of Der Blaue Reiter, the expressionist manifesto edited by Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Hugo von Tschudi, the museum director who daringly presented eight works of El Greco in an exhibition at the Munich Alte Pinakotek in 1911, was one of the principal supporters of the modern movement. Franz Marc wrote that “Cézanne and El Greco are related spirits,” and they both “stand in the closest connection with the flowering of our new ideas of art.” The new evaluation of Mannerism was part of the contemporary interest in all unclassical forms, from African art to the paintings of the Douanier Rousseau.

  1. 1

    I will not be able to discuss here many striking features of this important book, particularly Freedberg’s remarkable ability to characterize styles of painting and to substantiate ideas by examining specific works. Nor can I discuss the problems raised by his decisions to separate sixteenth-century painting from sculpture, drawing, and printmaking, and to give little emphasis to paintings in their architectural settings, and in relation to decorative and ornamental styles.

  2. 2

    This is an oversimplification of Riegl but it is, however, the view upon which is based the work of Max Dvorak, whose influential work on Mannerism will be mentioned below.

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