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Mind Your Maniera

Historians no longer saw in the paintings of Pontormo, Rosso, Parmigianino, and El Greco the disintegration of Renaissance art but an independent style for which they kept, unfortunately perhaps, the very term, Mannerism, by which it had been condemned—precisely because its condemnation made it attractive. Max Dvorak saw in Mannerism the artistic expression of a spiritual trend. Walter Friedlaender, who restricted himself to the post-Raphaelesque years in central Italy, more guardedly defined Mannerism by its formal aspects—its distortion of anatomy, its emphasis of two-dimensional patterns, etc.—before attempting any interpretation. But for both, Mannerism constituted a successful challenge to the humanistic art of the High Renaissance.

This reassessment of the postclassical art of the sixteenth century quickly gained momentum. Under the influence of Surrealism, interest in Mannerism spread from its expression of spiritual values to the irrational itself. The Surrealist hunt for extravagant and bizarre themes as well as forms restored admiration to works produced during the sixteenth century throughout Europe. Mannerism threatened to proliferate indefinitely.

After World War II, in an attempt to reintroduce some order into our historical view of the late Renaissance, a new generation of scholars concentrated on the art between 1540-1560, the painting of Bronzino, Salviati, Vasari, and their followers. They no longer considered their work a watered-down version of Mannerism, as had Friedlaender, and they gave it semi-independent status under the name of maniera. The courtly art of the maniera, painted for a cultivated aristocratic elite, was in many ways antithetical to the powerfully expressive works of Pontormo and Rosso admired by the critics of 1920. If the center of gravity of Mannerism had now to be shifted from 1525 to the maniera of 1550, the whole notion had to be reconsidered.

The most thorough revision of the concept of Mannerism appears in John Shearman’s short book on the subject. Written in a spirit of pugnacious empiricism shared by many English scholars, it is almost a manifesto against much of the modern history of art I have been describing. Shearman’s ambition is to go back to the sources in order to reconstruct the past in the most accurate possible way. He wants to find in the sixteenth century itself not only the material of art history but the principles for interpreting that history.

The mid-sixteenth century was a period that was exceptionally articulate about its own critical and historical thinking; Vasari was its principal spokesman. In his and in other texts one can find a theory of art that crystallizes around the term maniera, which roughly means “style.” Vasari placed great emphasis on sophistication, elegance, grace, virtuosity. He and other writers worked out not simply an aesthetic theory, a definition of the beautiful, but a form of aestheticism, i.e., they placed aesthetic values above all others, or rather made them independent of other considerations. Historically, Vasari and his companions claimed to be the direct and complete heirs of the High Renaissance, and saw an unbroken continuity between the art of the first decades of the century and their own works. Their bella maniera was for them simply the quintessence of the art of the previous generations.

Shearman, however, assumes for the sixteenth century something that would be untenable for any period: that the contemporary theory gives a completely adequate and satisfying account of practice. He takes as an axiom that “every Mannerist work must exemplify the quality maniera,” or, in other words, represent the aestheticism I have mentioned. It must also exclude any qualities that are antithetical, like violent or intense expressiveness, powerful energy, or any kind of harshness. So Mannerism for Shearman includes a wide range of works by artists from Pierino del Vaga to Wtewael, covering most of the century, but excludes the early Pontormo and Rosso for their violence, Tintoretto as too energetic, and El Greco as suspiciously intense.

Shearman has done more valuable research on cinquecento painting than anyone else since World War II, but he has no coherent view of the sixteenth century. It is hard to imagine how the nonclassical works of art that he excludes from Mannerism would fit, except as oddities. But what concerns us here is not so much this difficulty as how little his Mannerism has to do with the style isolated and cherished by the historians contemporary with the expressionist movement of our century. If we accept Shearman’s view, then the violent and subversive expressions of Mannerism seem left out of history and consequently diminished in importance.

It is to be expected that Shearman would disapprove of militant historians like Dvorak who believed history had a direction and who revalued the despised fragments of the past that were sympathetic to their own view of the present. However, the rehabilitation of the maniera that Shearman and others have undertaken is equally militant, and it is also a definite step forward in the history of taste. It has brought to light many works that were disregarded and revealed qualities in them we had missed. Their high artificiality may now appear to us as deliberate and positive. We appreciate better the porcelain-like finish of Bronzino’s religious paintings with their underlying eroticism, or the ornamental elaboration of Salviati. And even Vasari occasionally triumphs by his extravagant and witty overstatements (as in the Sala dei Cento Ciorni, Cancelleria, Rome).

But to celebrate art that is entirely subservient to an established social rule—the art of courts at its most characteristic—is symptomatic of a conservative cast of mind, and curiously links the aestheticism of the maniera to comparable tendencies in the art of today and its criticism.


Freedberg’s own view of Mannerism in the Pelican book is complex and original. He agrees, as we have seen, with Friedlaender and those who followed him that there was a profound break between the classical and Mannerist generations. Nevertheless he believes that the High Renaissance had a decisive and pervading influence throughout the entire century; and he has at the same time profited from the recent celebration of the High Maniera.

Freedberg in fact has worked out an idiosyncratic way of characterizing painting which is as interesting as his conclusions about the sixteenth century. In his view, the course of art is determined by a few men who distinguish themselves by “invention,” which is for him an absolute value equivalent to what is usually called genius. Invention, however, always seems to be based on previous works and manifests itself as a way of dealing with specifically artistic problems, not of course in verbal theories, but in art itself. Hence, as I have already mentioned, Freedberg argues that Mannerism emerged from the inner tensions within classicism, and that it was from the achievement of Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo that Pontormo evolved a new style. As for the minor masters, those painters who do not “invent,” they appear in Freedberg’s work as feeble buffoons, aping an art that remains alien to them. They bring comic relief to a book otherwise on a consistently elevated tone; at the same time, they fulfill the survey function expected of the Pelican History of Art.

If the classical style is the privileged invention of a few great artists, the relation between individual artists and the style of a period must be reconsidered. Since Wölfflin, many critics have thought that the style of a period is like an artistic language used by artists, much as writers use the language of their time. For Freedberg, an artist works within a style (or “idiom,” as he often calls it), and yet paradoxically art is precisely the creation, transformation, and elaboration of style.3 Once a style of painting is adopted and used by artists, it becomes weakened and adulterated. Hence “invention” is the power to create style, a power that always distinguishes great or high art, a notion to which Freedberg is clearly attached.

What Freedberg mainly does in the Pelican History is to characterize and compare the different sixteenth-century styles. As he writes in his preface, “The most pressing business of the art historian is to deal with that which is essential and peculiar to art: its visual matter as it becomes, both in its own right and as an instrument, an agency of meaning” (emphasis added).

This statement is more outspoken than explicit. But clearly it must be understood as part of a distinct tradition of art criticism: the quest for the quality or qualities which set art apart from all other activities. Of course, the heroic days of searching for “that which is essential to art” are gone, the days when Roger Fry could deliver a lecture on a Crucifixion without ever mentioning Christ except as the “central mass of color.” Yet Freedberg does concentrate on purely visual matters such as color and line and on what might be called their abstract meaning in paintings.4 He is notorious for his lack of concern with iconography—with the interpretation of subject matter in the light of textual evidence and symbolism that such art historians as Warburg and Panofsky have practiced so brilliantly. But Freedberg is also very sensitive to certain aspects of representation, not only to spatial effects but to what he calls the “human content” of pictures, the figures as we see them before we apply iconographic knowledge to them.

One of my students recently described a Raphael Madonna as a “mother and her child.” “The circles around the heads,” she added, are “probably symbolic.” Her attitude is not dissimilar to Freedberg’s. To put it simply, what she was ignorant of, he has chosen largely to ignore. Both separate the human content of art from the religious.

For example, when Freedberg writes of Pontormo’s Deposition (Florence, Sta Felicita), he is not concerned with the religious subject, although the two angel-like figures who carry the dead Christ are such an odd feature in this painting that one may well wonder whether its subject is indeed a deposition. But he is preoccupied by the emotions in the picture:

The character of his [Pontormo’s] emotion, too, acquires new clarity…. There is no search, as in the Certosa, for disjunctive eccentricities of expression, nor are emotions pointedly assertive, as they were there. In the Deposition, there is a tight emotional consistency, which the actors differentiate within its unitary texture as if according to the precepts of the classical style. The power of feeling that was in the Certosa Passion is heightened by this concentration, and the sympathy elicited is more complete, because it is without distraction.

This discussion is carried on entirely in psychological terms which are applied mainly to the artist himself (“the character of his emotion”). Yet the emotions, since they are expressed by the figures, evidently have something to do with the subject of the picture, what Freedberg calls (when speaking of another Deposition) “the human and religious meaning that the theme traditionally bears.”

Naturally this emotional content largely depends on physical appearance and gestures, but it is also intimately related to the more purely formal aspects of painting. About Rosso’s Madonna and Saints, 1518 (Uffizi), Freedberg writes:

The color—assertive and now wilfully dissonant—consumes and replaces effects of plastic form. It finds a singular quality of beauty, poignant and bizarre, that partly redeems and partly reinforces that state of mind the actors illustrate.

The word “poignant,” often used by Freedberg, is ascribed here to the effect of color, and he uses it to link the formal characteristics of the painting, its abstract meaning, with its human subject.

But one wishes Freedberg were more explicit about how this human content is conveyed to the spectator. As it is, the reader feels at the mercy of personal impressions and of suggestive rather than descriptive prose, in spite of Freedberg’s eloquence and his use of a consistent terminology, which gives his work an appearance of rigor. This is unfortunate in view of the importance of psychological interpretation in his work. Clearly for him the iconographic meaning of a painting, something we perceive only after we take in the purely visual relations, is inferior in importance to the human content, which seems primary, and of direct importance to style.


This comes out clearly in Freedberg’s treatment of the maniera, where he brilliantly analyzes the techniques used by the mid-sixteenth-century artists. He shows how the maniera painter stresses the physical presence of his work, for instance by a high finish or by creating contradictions in the fictional space of the painting that call attention to the painted surface. He points out how the artist “quotes” motifs from previous works of art in a way that cuts off the quotation from its original setting without making it part of a new one. The result is an emphasis, in maniera pictures, on the artifice of art and a break between the meaning or impact of the work and its subject matter. Thus Bronzino’s Pietà (Besançcon), a masterpiece of the maniera style, appears, to our eyes at least, as anything but dramatic or “poignant”: a cold but intense beauty overpowers every other consideration.5 For the maniera artist the only secure reality that seems to remain is art itself, and aesthetic force becomes his almost exclusive motive and pre-occupation.

Even the human content, the “psychic energy” of the figures, to which Freedberg is so attentive, he finds sacrificed in maniera painting. He strongly implies that, gifted as some of the maniera artists, such as Salviati, may be, they remain inferior to their predecessors because of the limits of the maniera style itself.

Although no aspect of art seems foreign to Freedberg, his effort to isolate what is particular to art restricts his attention roughly to two kinds of meaning: 1) the abstract meaning, which he discusses by describing the devices at work (for example, clarity of line, harmony or violence of color); 2) the “human content,” which we have found to be psychological. Both convey what is usually called the expressive meaning, the immediate sensuous and emotional effect of the formal organization, or of the figures, without the help of more or less conventional symbolic languages.

To restrict oneself to the expressive aspects of art, however, can be dangerous. It leads Freedberg to exaggerate the independence of aesthetic considerations, as we can see by considering one example, his treatment of the first-generation Mannerist Parmigianino.

He does not, of course, interpret Parmigianino in the light of the later maniera aesthetic, and he grants to the Vision of Saint Jerome (London, National Gallery) “a high spirituality in its very aestheticism.” But for him this still is a “private substitute” for devotion in a work that has “no overt religiosity.” Similarly, in writing about the famous Madonna of the Long Neck, he still seems to believe, as he did in his early monograph on the artist (1955), that the subject of the painting is a mere pretext for aesthetic experiment.

But if Parmigianino had been as indifferent to subject matter as Freedberg appears to be, it is unlikely that he would have produced this unprecedented version of the subject. The Virgin, tall and aristocratic, with an acute and sinuous grace, holds the child asleep on her lap with his arm hanging down in the traditional position of the dead Christ of a Pietà. In the foreground a great angel, surrounded by youthful figures, holds out a polished urn that should reflect the body of Christ. Vasari, who described the painting with care, emphasized that the urn instead reflected a cross. No such cross is visible today, and Freedberg believed that Vasari must have been mistaken. However, an early copy of the painting as well as an eighteenth-century engraving plainly show the cross, and it is now established that a complex and overtly mystical subject figures in the Madonna del collo lungo.6

Does the remarkable anatomical distortion that gives the picture its name have an iconographic justification (as Freedberg once suggested only to reject it immediately)7 or is it simply an experiment in grace, pure maniera, as he would have it? I do not suggest simply that Parmigianino lengthened the Virgin’s neck for symbolic reasons. In fact, a study of the preparatory drawings8 assures us that the composition as we know it was not the visual translation of an iconographic scheme provided in advance either by the artist or his patron. It evolved while Parmigianino worked. He moved gradually away from a straightforward symmetrical composition and a conventional treatment of the Madonna to the elaborate conceit and precarious equilibrium of the painting.

We can see from the unfinished background that Parmigianino’s formal and thematic investigations both continued for as long as he worked on this painting. He seems to have hesitated between his original plan for a colonnade in a rapidly receding perspective, and the single white column we now see—“the Column of the New Law” that is one of the most familiar Renaissance symbols for the Virgin. And this visual metaphor linking the Virgin’s neck to the column in the background corresponds by a remarkable symmetry to the one that links the urn to the body of Christ.

Freedberg was right to suppose that the length of the neck was primarily determined by considerations of style. But only when Parmigianino isolated and emphasized the column did the long neck become fully significant in the painting. The metaphorical relation of the neck to the column is an essential part of the visual poetry of the work. Moreover, the interplay between symbolism and visual form brings out the expressive content always latent in the style itself. The deformation of nature, the anatomical distortions in this painting reflect not only an aesthetic pursuit but also a contempt for material contingency. The extreme grace, even the nascent eroticism express a mystical urge.


There is no serious reason to believe that the handling of the themes in painting is any less essential or peculiar to art than the handling of paint, or that they are in the end separable activities. Freedberg’s isolation of the aspects of art which he considers specifically visual is really a fiction, a convenient instrument of analysis. Its drawbacks are evident and there is much to be gained by considering iconography as only one aspect of form in a general rhetoric of art.9 Still, the fiction Freedberg constructs is a useful one. By making a strong distinction between meaning and subject matter it does away with the insidious illusion, fostered by too many art historians, that iconography can deliver to us the meaning of a work of art.

Moreover the point of view from which Freedberg sees sixteenth-century painting finds a strong justification in the period itself. The idea of style as the vital force of an artistic language, central to Freedberg’s work, itself goes back to the Renaissance. Thanks to that idea, ways were found for art to pose its own problems without cutting itself off from other kinds of experience. For example, the rapid development of Raphael’s style and the unity of style in each of his large projects—the Vatican rooms he decorated and his series of tapestry cartoons—show how preoccupied he was with stylistic questions. Yet in these works we find no loss of human understanding or of Raphael’s extreme sensitivity to the religious, social, and political functions of art.

Conditions were not always so favorable in the sixteenth century as they were for Raphael. The efforts of the maniera artists to keep art in seclusion, largely separate from spiritual and social concerns, were pathological, clearly related to the precarious social and economic position of artists after the breakdown of the guild system which had previously protected them. The profusion of treatises on art that appears during the maniera years is a symptom of the artists’ concern with their uncertain status.

Nevertheless, these texts articulated ideas which were to remain useful and alive in one form or another long after the maniera was discarded. The notion of style in these works, their conception of a system of independent artistic values, has remained essential to the Western tradition of artistic thought. What Freedberg has done is to elaborate this heritage into a sophisticated modern criticism. By adhering to a conception of art linked to the Renaissance by a living tradition, he has been able to make the art of the sixteenth century immediately understandable to us without losing a sense of its distance from us in history.

  1. 3

    In part, Freedberg moves between two notions of style. First there is style as a concept imposed on art by critics and historians in order to place it comprehensibly in history, as we divide the sixteenth century into High Renaissance and Mannerist styles. Then there is style as myth, as the vital force of an artistic language—what the sixteenth century called grace or maniera. In that sense the achievement of style by an artist is a historical event, as, for example, Leonardo’s “invention” of classical style.

  2. 4

    Whether the “visual matter” of figurative painting has an abstract meaning that can be isolated is a question that Freedberg does not discuss. This is one wildcat he does not want to let out of its sack. But many of his analyses often allude to this meaning and they are among his finest contributions.

  3. 5

    Obviously the beauty of a work like the Pietà comes not only from its carefully contrived formal organization but from the perfection of body and grace of the figures. While these appear remote from the dramatic religious theme, they may be related to social or sexual-erotic meanings that any thorough consideration of the picture would have to take into account.

  4. 6

    In his monograph Freedberg mentioned the engraving and assumed that the engraver had been reading Vasari. The early copy of the painting was brought to light—too late it seems for Freedberg to take it into account—by Ute Davitt-Asmus, “Zur Deutung von Parmigianino’s ‘Madonna del collo lungo,’ ” (Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 31, 1968, pp. 305-11). Davitt-Asmus has shown that there was a well-established tradition for the urn as a metaphor for the body of Christ in commentaries of the Song of Songs (1-3), and it is therefore reasonable to assume that the youths who surrounded the angel are the adulescentualae of the original text, understood as the innocent souls to whom it is given to contemplate the body of Christ.

  5. 7

    In a learned (and perhaps jocular) footnote in his monograph, Freedberg had already observed that a medieval hymn mentions “collum tuum ut columna, turris et eburnea” (“your neck like a column, like an ivory tower”—again a reminiscence of the Song of Songs); and in the seventeenth century one still finds that “a long neck is a sign of virginity.” Freedberg, however, doubted that any of this could have occurred to Parmigianino and asserted that “the length of the Madonna’s neck is the result of an aesthetic proposition entirely.”

  6. 8

    The study of Parmigianino’s drawings is now made convenient by the publication of A. E. Popham’s Catalogue of the Drawings of Parmigianino, published for The Pierpont Morgan Library by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1971. (3 vols: Vol. 1, text xiv+284 pages and 48 fig. on 36 plates; Vols. 2 and 3, illustrations.) All the drawings are excellently reproduced on 474 plates. This posthumous work, which has been superbly produced, is a monumental work of connoisseurship.

  7. 9

    There is no question that Freedberg acknowledges the value of other approaches and that he uses them when he wishes to do so with distinction. The issue here is the consequences of using visual analysis as exclusively as possible.

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