Mannerist art – an unexpected delight

Coming to Florence my main aim was to learn more about, and rejoice in, the art of the High Renaissance. Our course provided ample opportunity with lectures on the triumvirate who have come to be synonymous with that period – Michaelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. We were able to witness first hand the incredible art, both painted and sculpted, that these geniuses produced and gain an appreciation into their roles in the wider cultural and historical milieu of Florence and beyond in the cinquecento.

A lecture on Mannerist art seemed at first a bit of an oddity. Furthermore, the topic and subject matter was changed at the last minute as the main work we were to study was undergoing restoriation. No matter, a chance to gain a little new knowledge then.

Sometimes the fates align and one suddenly experiences a whole new, wonderful world and indeed that was how I would sum up today. Our last visit was to be the Palatine Gallery at the Pitti Palace. I knew they have an excellent collection of Raphaels and was anticipating learning more about his oeuvre. Little did I realise how the day would open my eyes to the charms of Mannerism.

In the morning, I had decided to visit the Chiostro Della Scalzo; I have never been before and the museum guide described it as an oasis of calm. The main attraction is a fresco cycle by Andrea del Sarto.

Whoever wrote the guidebook didn’t tell the attendant about the oasis of calm; she rabbited on excitedly at the top of her voice for ages, totally disturbing the pea e until one of my apparently famous looks actually encouraged her to behave in a manner more appropriate to a religious setting! I was then able to carefully examine the cycle, which was executed between 1520 and 1526 for the atrium of a now destroyed church.

From there my route took me back via Santissima Annunziata and I remembered that Andrea del Sarto had worked there too, along with Rosso Fiorentina and Jacopo Pontormo; I took the chance to revisit their work in the atrium there.

In the afternoon, our guide round the Palatine focused on the works of del Sarto, Pontormo and Fiorentina and I was able after the class finished to view more of their works in the gallery rooms.

Finally, as I walked home I passed Santa Felicita and remembered that the altarpiece of ‘The Deposition’ by Pontormo which was being restored was supposedly being re-exhibited this very day. Taking the chance to pop in, I found myself standing before what is probably the most beautiful work I have seen in my month here. Sometimes things just happen that way, no planning just chance. I’ll never forget how seeing that painting made me feel inside.

So, let’s take several steps back and work our way through some ideas and examples of Mannerist art. ‘Mannerism’ sometimes finds itself described negatively, in terms of what it’s ‘not’. Granted it doesn’t have the linear perspective or draughtsmanship of the High Renaissance. But it does have a style or ‘manner’ all its own. Giorgio Vasari coined the term in his 1568 life of Jacopo Pontormo, describing his ‘strangeness and fanciful new maniera’. This Italian term covers our concepts of ‘style’ and ‘technique’. How would one conceptualise this in a positive descriptive fashion?

Mannerism seems to absorb aspects of Michaelangelo (physical form) and Raphael (colour and tone) yet is more than a mere synthesis; its use of bright colours in unusual juxtapositions along with heightened physical gesturing makes it a new and distinctive form. It overlaps the end of the High Renaissance and the development of counter-reformation art and the baroque.

Temporally, most accept the style as extant between circa 1530 and 1580. It’s main geographic focus was here in Florence and the artists I will consider are:

Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530)

Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556)

Rosso Fiorentina (1491-1572)

These artists would certainly have seen the works of the triumvirate of Renaissance masters. There are particular references in their modelling to the two great fresco cycles commissioned by the Florentine republic to decorate the Salle dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo’s work, ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ did get underway but failed early as a result of technical miscalculations; several accurate painted copies were made. Michaelangelo’s ‘Battle of Cascina’ never got past the stage of the giant preparatory cartoon before he was called to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but most artists of the day would have seen the drawings first hand. It is also likely that the colour pallette of the Mannerists owes much to that used on the Sistine ceiling.


It is Andrea del Sarto whose work forms the bridge between the High Renaissance and Mannerism. Vasari describes him as a painter ‘without errors’ and Michaelangelo admired his work. The son of a tailor, he was apprenticed into a relatively nondescript workshop and much of his talent appears to have been self taught. I would like to present some of his works which I saw today in the order which I encountered them, rather than attempt a full chronological biography. I believe this will serve as a representative sample of his oeuvre.

The Chiostro dello Scalzo was frescoed between 1520 and 1526 and represents his most important fresco cycle. Executed in monochrome pigments it details excepts from the lives of Christ and John the Baptist. I will show some of the scenes which demonstrate the use of line and expression which gives his work strong narrative and emotive power.

From 1509 to 1514, del Sarto was employed by the Servite order to fresco the atrium of Santissima Annunziata. Having undergone recent restoration, these works flow with vibrant colours. Closer inspection reveals touches of charming naturalism.

In ‘The Birth of the Virgin’ one sees the child being welcomed and warmed by a cosy fire.

‘The Procession of the Three Kings’ gives us a menagerie of approaching animals and a wonderfully nonchalant gesture from one of the attending courtiers.

And in ‘The Miracle of the Saints Relics’ we see some highly interested young onlookers.

The Palatine Gallery in the Pitti Palace contains several of del Sarto’s panel paintings. Like a large portion of Florentine artistic output at this time, the works follow conventional religious themes, reflecting the commissions an artist could expect to receive. It would not be long before the Council of Trent had a significant impact on the content and style of art in Italy and elsewhere, precipitating the development of counter-reformation painting and the baroque.

Chronologically the first piece in the Palatine collection is the ‘Disputa sulla Trinita’ of 1517.


Del Sarto painted two very similar versions of ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’, the Panciatichi in 1522-23 and the Passerina in 1526.

The portrait of ‘Saint John the Baptist’ painted in 1523 is a good example of his style; given the presence of a single large figure it is easier to appreciate his skill in modelling the young Baptist and contrasting flesh tones with the red of the fabric. This work still remains within the stylistic forms of the High Renaissance.


His ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1526-7 shows some of the focus on unnatural movement which would become more pronounced as Mannerism unfolded.


By 1528 in his ‘Madonna and Child with Six Saints’ the style is more recognisably Mannerist; there is no architectural component (the Madonna rests on clouds) and the fan of figures appear on the verge of motion rather than fixed in ecstasy.

2F6DA635-10B6-4740-941D-9DA9A87C6EC7Andrea del Sarto died at 43 of the plague, having worked almost all of his life in Florence.

Rosso Fiorentino, real name Giovan Battista di Jacopo (1486-1531) trained under del Sarto and worked with him at at Santissima Annunziata before moving to Rome. He fled to France during the sack of Rome and worked at the Chateau de Fontainebleau for Francois I until his death.

At Santissima Annunziata he frescoed ‘The Assumption of the Virgin’ in 1527.


His ‘Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro’ (1523) in the Uffizi owes something in the depiction of male physicality to Michelangelo but its composition, colour palette and expressiveness are clear indications of a new genre.

16354773-E799-4689-BE60-9E32FD766204Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557) is often cited as the artist who established the twining poses and vivid colours which typify Mannerism.  He came to Florence as an orphan and spent time with Leonardo before settling with Andrea del Sarto in 1512. As did his master, he worked in the atrium at Santissima Annunziata where he frescoed the ‘Visitation’ in 1514-16.

6E1E41A2-62F5-4CC2-8C22-2B0093D7A6FDOur course was scheduled to have a lecture based on the work of Pontormo in the Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita, but this was changed as the chapel was closed for restoration; it was hoped to have it reopened on March 29th. My walk home from the Pitti Palace took me right past the church or I may have forgotten this; I decided to pop in just in case. What I saw amazed and moved me.

Pontormo decorated the chapel in 1528. To the right of the altarpiece he painted an Annunciation, simply the figures of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin on a white background separated by a portrait in a niche.

The roundels contain portraits of the Evangelists; experts are conflicted on how much of this work was done by Pontormo and how much by his compatriot Agnolo Bronzino.

But it is the altarpiece, ‘The Deposition from the Cross’ that takes your breath away. The colours are simply astonishing in their vibrancy and also in the way that he crosses the normal colour wheel in juxtaposing unusual combinations. It takes several minutes to absorb the luminosity before one can examine the structure of the painting and see that there is no attempt to impose realism or weight on the figures or create any sense of perspective. Faces show anguish and despair. What we have is a swirl of brilliant colour which is overwhelming and really quite beautiful.


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