Why the Mannerists’ Bizarre Paintings Deserve a Second Look
Among the thousands of un-babyish babies in Italian art—a group big and bizarre enough to merit its own Tumblr—there are none quite like the infant Jesus in Madonna and Child with Angels (1534–40). Though clearly a newborn, Jesus must be well over 2 feet tall, most of that height contained in his long, skinny torso. Then there’s the infant’s lazy, almost languorous pose. He dangles precariously off of his mother’s lap; judging from the slope of Mary’s thigh, baby Jesus is about to slide to the floor. Not many people notice this accident-in-the-making the first time they see Parmigianino’s painting, probably because they’re too busy gaping at an even more bizarre feature of the work, the one that gave it its informal, better-known title: Madonna with the Long Neck.
It might be better to understand Mannerism by getting a sense of what it was like to be a young painter in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century. The masters of the preceding generation had produced works that represented, at that moment in time, the apex of dramatic, lifelike painting. The smothering greatness of their achievements ushered in what Susan Sontag called a “late moment” in culture—an era whose peaks are already past—“that presumes an endless discourse anterior to itself.” For the younger generation, making art in the shadows of these giants must have been intimidating, to say the least.
In our own late moment, already poised to be remembered as the “Age of the Remix,” some postmodern artists have problematized the concept of originality, choosing to reinterpret old styles and forms, rather than start from scratch. Something roughly similar could be said for the Mannerist painters who emerged in the 1520s: The High Renaissance was like an austere parent, one they imitated and occasionally parodied, but could not ignore. “The strongest impression left behind by a typical Mannerist painting,” art historian Eric Newton once wrote, “is that the artist has derived hardly anything direct from nature, but has absorbed, digested, and stylized the paintings of others.” That’s an apt way to characterize Madonna with the Long Neck: It’s as if Parmigianino is playing a pictorial version of the telephone game, copying endless copies of Renaissance masterpieces until the image has mutated into something wilder than Raphael could have ever imagined.
Much as some contemporary artists use humor to distance themselves from their historical precedents, the Italian Mannerists often presented their Renaissance homages in a lighthearted spirit. Over the centuries, many have confused this playfulness with slightness, interpreting it as a tacit admission that Mannerism was just a knockoff of what came before. Until well into the 20th century, in fact, Mannerist painters were by and large considered minor figures in the canon. More recently, art historians have tended to see inventiveness where others once saw stagnation. In a famous 1964 essay, Sontag found in Mannerism an ancestor of the modern Camp sensibility—“a love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” she wrote. New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl echoed Sontag’s point when he wrote that “we are mostly Mannerists now. Art about art, and style for style’s sake.” Mannerists may not have surpassed Michelangelo, exactly, but they found freedom in subservience, taking pleasure in an ironic form of imitation that was part homage, part parody.
The problem with irony is that some people won’t recognize it. The Florentine painter Bronzino is an excellent case in point: His reputation has gone up and down over the centuries, and his works, like Mannerism itself, are often described as “cold”—technically brilliant, but emotionless. Bronzino’s portrait of Lodovico Capponi, completed between 1550 and 1555, shows its young subject—a page in the Medici court—standing against a green curtain, so that viewers have no idea where he really is. His long, clever fingers; slightly pursed lips; and narrowed eyes make him seem menacing and faintly revolting, like a 16th-century Italian Draco Malfoy.
Yet it’s simply wrong to say that this is a “cold” portrait. In a sense, Bronzino presents his viewers with a mask, the kind that many callow, insecure young men still wear today. But he also offers us a glimpse underneath that mask: Witness the medallion Lodovico carries in his right hand, which depicts a woman’s face. It’s crucial to know that at the time he sat for this portrait, Lodovico was having a passionate affair with a woman who’d already been chosen as a bride for a member of the Medici family. Historians have suggested that Bronzino knew about the affair when he painted the portrait, and in this way, the work’s apparent chilliness becomes a joke, even a rather sweet one: No matter how hard this kid tries to model himself off of older, haughtier courtiers, he remains, at heart, a starry-eyed softie.
In the past 50 years or so, Mannerism has made a major comeback, to the point where scholars are trying to claim certain radical 16th-century artists as Mannerists, even if their works traditionally haven’t been studied through such a lens. The delightful paintings of built out of fruits, books, flowers, and more, may not seem to have much in common with the excessively stylized works of Bronzino or Parmigianino, but their vivid colors and cheeky humor make them excellent candidates. For that matter, the notion of using old or inanimate fragments to build something lively and new almost sounds like a metaphor for the Mannerist aesthetic.
Then there’s notoriously unclassifiable, late-16th-century painter who lived in Spain for most of his adult life. Studying in Venice and Rome as a young man, he would have come across many of the key Mannerist works, and later on, he carried their influence—along with that of Byzantine icons and Michelangelo’s sculptures—with him to Toledo. The long, slender martyr in Christ Carrying the Cross (ca. 1577–87) bears a clear resemblance to Parmigianino’s figures—he’s like the man the baby in Madonna of the Long Neck grows up to be—and yet, it would be hard to confuse Parmigianino’s paintings for El Greco’s. In the best Mannerist works, the emotional meaning has to be teased out, slowly and carefully; in El Greco’s, strong emotion soaks through every square inch of the canvas, and the force of the figures’ faith or suffering or joy threatens to tear them to bits. Mannerism’s gaze is fixed on the High Renaissance; even when he’s consciously imitating earlier artists, El Greco seems to be looking forward hundreds of years to
But whether El Greco was or wasn’t a card-carrying Mannerist isn’t really the point: He studied Mannerism for years, and in the process of imitating this highly imitative movement, he happened upon a style all his own. His work—give it whatever label you like—proves that artists can mimic and be highly original at the same time. That’s the thesis to which the Mannerists devoted their careers, one that’s crucial to bear in mind when we look at their paintings today.