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.

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 …

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