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 be more spiritual than that of the Renaissance, but Dr. Briganti can claim of Pontormo’s astonishing Deposition in the Florentine church of S. Felicita that it has no religious content, and it is possible to return again and again to this undoubted masterpiece and remain wholly uncertain as to whether the artist is tragically involved or cynically indifferent to the suffering he portrays. And what is the meaning of El Greco’s Laocoon in Washington—not just in the iconographical sense, but in the wider sphere of the emotions? We sometimes have doubts about the sincerity of swooning Baroque saints or virtuous Victorian fathers, but there is never any question of what we are intended to feel.
None of the books here under review raises this problem, and to a large extent their success varies in inverse proportion to the wider questions they discuss. Thus the most original and interesting of the three is the rather clumsily produced paper that Mr. Craig Hugh Smyth read to a recent art historical congress, which has nearly twice as many pages devoted to notes as to text. After discussing the different ways in which critics, past and present, have used the word Mannerism, he analyzes some of the poses most frequently found in Italian painting of the mid-sixteenth century and very ingeniously relates much of the formal content of this painting to the influence of late antique relief sculpture. Thus baldly stated, the idea may sound trivial and of interest only to narrow specialists. In fact it is of first rate importance, for it implies that far from being anti-classical, as has often been glibly stated, the artists of this time were in fact trying to be still more classical than their predecessors of the High Renaissance. Pedantic, maybe, and striving after the letter rather than the spirit of ancient art—nonetheless, if we accept that such was their intention—and the literary evidence certainly supports the interpretation—we are bound to “see” the work of many Mannerist painters in a wholly new light, and to be far more chary of calling in political disasters to account for a revolution that in fact never took place. Never? One of the reasons for which one must regret the form of Mr. Smyth’s publication—which is more in the nature of a communiqué on current lines of thought than the volume one has the right to expect at such a price—is that he confines himself to such a very narrow province and elaborates so little on his ideas. Is it possible to isolate so completely the formal aspects of Mannerist painting? And what becomes of the generation of the 1520s—men like Pontormo and Beccafumi—who fit the theory much less easily than later artists and about whom Mr. Smyth is compelled to be rather evasive? But despite these and other criticisms his insights are of real interest and importance, and make one hope that he will deal with the period in greater detail.
Dr. Briganti also visualizes Mannerism as a continuation of, rather than a break with, the High Renaissance—indeed he wishes, despite the restraints imposed “by a certain cultural taboo,” to annex the whole of Michelangelo. The translation of his book is the first work to make available for English readers a clear historical narrative of the successive phases of Italian painting during the sixteenth century. It is illustrated with rather gaudy color plates which often bear no relation to the text but which do convey some idea of the leading works of the period.
Compared to these two short monographs, Professor Würtenberger’s larger volume is much more ambitious—but not nearly so satisfactory. He makes no attempt to define the term Mannerism—how could he, as he proposes to use it to describe nearly all European art of the last two-thirds of the sixteenth century?—and he moves rather too easily between Michelangelo and Ancimboldo, Spranger and Giambologna. His lack of true historical sense involves far more than the mere dismissal of chronology, which is such an obvious feature of this book. By building his chapters round a series of themes such as the “personal affirmation of autocratic power,” the “glorification of artistic creation” and so on, he makes the basic assumption that throughout the sixteenth century and all over Europe there existed such a concept as Mannerist man. Yet he too often has interesting things to say about individual patrons or artists and his book is fully illustrated (though, disgracefully, there is no index or list of plates) with material that is not easily available elsewhere. In the light of the close analysis of Mannerist art that is being undertaken by Dr. Briganti, Mr. Smyth, and others, it is clear that Professor Würtenberger’s book is thoroughly old fashioned; but when the process of sorting out is nearer completion and we can start to build again, some of the points he makes will have to be taken into account.
February 6, 1964