The Mannerist Style


by Jacques Bousquet
Braziller, 356 pp., $20.00

Mannerism; drawing by David Levine

Ever since the 1920s when Max Dvorak, the most inspiring teacher of his day, gave the term fresh currency, art historians have been debating the definition of the word mannerism. As usual in such debates there has been a division between expansionists and contractionists, enthusiasts and precisionists. On the one hand the word has been stretched to cover art and literature of every kind, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century; on the other, as in recent careful studies by Craig Hugh Smyth and John Shearman, it has been restricted to a short episode in Roman and Florentine art of the sixteenth century. Jacques Bousquet, the author of this sumptuously illustrated volume, is a flagrant expansionist, partly from enthusiasm for his subject, partly, it must be admitted, from a lack of art-historical training. The subtitle of his work, The Painting and Style of the Late Renaissance, does not hold out great hopes of accurate classification. All is grist to his mill, and among the titles of the short chapters in which he defines the themes of mannerism are Perversion, Sadism, Melancholy, Crafts and Mechanical Inventions, Occultism, The Terrifying Image, and even The Love of all Things Good and Beautiful. Such inclusiveness involves a surprising chronological agility. He skips lightly from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth and on the same page (218) quotes both Marsilio Ficino and Milton as evidence of mannerist sentiment. The trouble is, I think, that he has not made up his mind whether mannerism should be regarded as a style with certain identifiable characteristics, or as a “spirit” which expresses itself in certain subjects. In the great artists of mannerism, as in all great art, style and spirit are one and indivisible; but many of the impulses, eroticism, sadism, curiosity, perversion, and so forth, which he claims as peculiar to mannerism, have been of recurring interest to human beings, and cannot be made the basis of an art-historical definition. A useful definition of mannerism must combine stylistic and historical analysis.

The style originated in Rome (although M. Bousquet repudiates this view) in about the year 1520. It grew partly out of the strange and compelling stylistic discoveries in portions of the Sistine ceiling, notably the spandrels with the miraculous Salvations of Israel, and some of the Ancestors of Christ; partly out of the elegant formulas in which Raphael’s pupils interpreted the later designs of their master. From these two sources flowed the two differing, although occasionally mingling, currents of mannerism, which may be called for convenience the expressionist and the decorative. The young artists who first fell under the spell of these works were extremely talented. The two Florentines, Rosso and Pontormo, the Sienese, Beccafumi, and the north Italian, Parmigiano, as well as two of Raphael’s pupils, Perino del Vaga and Giulio Romano, were as gifted as all but the greatest of the preceding generation. But they suffered from the…

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