Mannerist Art & Architecture

In the Neurotic Avant-Garde

Pontormo's VIsitation, in Carmignano

Michelangelo may have left Florence permanently for Rome in 1534, but not before sowing the seeds for the bold, neurotic avant-garde art that has come to be known as Mannerism.

The first conscious ‘movement’ in Western art can be seen as a last fling amid the growing intellectual and spiritual exhaustion of 1530s Florence, conquered once and for all by the Medici. The Mannerists’ calculated exoticism and exaggerated, tortured poses and brilliant palette, together with the brooding self-absorption of Michelangelo, are a prelude to Florentine art’s remarkably abrupt turn into decadence and prophesy its final extinction.

Foremost among the Mannerist painters are two surpassingly strange characters, Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, who were not in such great demand as the coldly classical Andrea del Sarto and Bronzino, consummate perfectionists of the brush, both much less intense and demanding. There were also charming reactionaries working at the same time, especially Il Sodoma and Pinturicchio, both of whom left their best works in Siena.

In sculpture Giambologna, Benvenuto Cellini and to a lesser extent Bartolommeo Ammannati specialized in virtuoso contrapposto figures, each one more impossible than the last.

With the advent of Giambologna and Ammannati's contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, Florentine art lost almost all imaginative and intellectual content, and became a virtuoso style of interior decoration perfectly adaptable to saccharine holy pictures, portraits of newly enthroned dukes, or absurd mythological ballroom ceilings. In the cinquecento, with plenty of money to spend and a long Medici tradition of patronage to uphold, this tendency soon got out of hand. Under the reign of Cosimo I, indefatigable collector of pietra dura tables, silver and gold gimcracks, and stuffed animals, Florence gave birth to yet another artistic phenomenon – kitsch.

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