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
, which depict human beings 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.
, the 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
, and even
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.