Something very strange happened in the world of the visual arts during the sixteenth century. Its opening years were the golden age of the Italian High Renaissance and the arts seemed to have attained a perfection. Da Vinci, Raphael and the young Michelangelo had shown that there was little that the artist could not do. Surpassing even the artists and craftsmen of classical antiquity, they had captured for their generation the lineaments of the ideal world that existed beyond the world of appearances. The world of the Renaissance was an orderly, rational world in which man was now the epicenter, richly and divinely endowed with power and wisdom.
However, the repose and serenity of the high Renaissance were soon replaced by a restlessness and confusion. Calm statuesque figures became strangely elongated, their gestures extravagant, and their limbs so contorted as to resemble less of the human figure and more a corkscrew. Proportion, order, and in particular the dignity of the human form had taken a turn for the grotesque and a disquieting turn for the unease characterized, for example, by the vegetable portraits by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The label given to the advent of painting has been termed ”mannerism”, though the category remains vague and not clearly defined as the style of the Renaissance or the Baroque. The acute uncertainty about the identity of Mannerist artists is a reflection about the nature of Mannerism itself.
Michelangelo seemed to have broken away seemed to have broken away from many of the canons of Renaissance artistic theory in his later work, and to have thrown up a whole galaxy of visual hints for future generations. However, there was really not enough common ground among Michelangelo’s successors to constitute a distinctive and clearly identifiable form of art. Parmigianino,Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino are certainly included. For some, Brueghel, El Greco and Tintoretto are quintessential Mannerists for some, but disqualified by others as too solid, too spiritual, or simply too energetic.
For some, Mannerism represents a development of Renaissance ideals of beauty in the pursuit of a supreme artistic virtuosity. For others, it represents a deliberate rejection of those ideals; a brusque turning away from classical proportion and harmony. They have a point. Giulio Romano’s frescoes depicting the Titans being crushed beneath the weight of cascading rocks and shattered columns symbolizes the destruction of the ordered world of the Renaissance in a cataclysmic upheaval. Perhaps the world of the Renaissance, with its firm standards and fixed values was in the process of disintegration. People were losing faith in a rational and coherent universe and began to believe that the world was dissolving around them in the wake of disasters occuring such as the Ottoman assault on central Europe and the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V running wild and sacking the eternal city. There was also Luther’s defiance of the pope and the dissolution of the traditional unity of Christendom.
It is not an accident that the age of Mannerism appears to speak directly to our own age across the gulf of centuries. The resemblances seems seem closer than the differences; breakdown of established values,sense of insecurity, spiritual malaise and seemingly reckless responses to the world’s problems. Mannerism, in many respects, was the art of alienation.
”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 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.( Kenneth Clark on Jacques Bousquet )
Clark, in his book ”Civilzation”, referred to Mannerist art as ”Play it for kicks”, that is the Mannerist motto, and like all forms of indecency, its irresistible.” In the sixteenth century, the traditional system of thought and values was shattering beyond repair. The Copernican revolution destroyed the certainty of the earth oriented Aristotelian universe. The rise of Protestantism promoted spiritual in
dualism and capitalism , economic individualism. This also brought a dehumanization of personal relations as religious and class strife entrenched in the new structures emerging such as state bureaucracies,international banking and financial networks and institutionalized churches. Mannerism was he articulation of people feeling alienated from the society that was arising around them, and they deliberately began to opt out.
Also, there was a changing relation between patron and artist as the status of the artist was itself transformed. The medieval artist had been a craftsman, a mere manual worker lacking identity. The artistic theories of the Renaissance depicted the painter,sculptor and architect in a new and distinctly more flattering light. The artist became a man who possessed a special insigt into the ideal world , together with the capacity to bring that world alive for less privileged mortals. He was akin to a gentleman scholar, and the rise in social status meant higher prices for his services.
The sixteenth century was the age of the collector. Sooner or later, most of the artistic celebrities of the age were drawn into the glittering orbit of their patronage. The concern of collectors such as he eclectic Farnese family was less with any particular style than it was with the acquisition of works of supreme virtuosity. Mannerism was quickly accepted in Europe north of the Alps as it mingled with native Gothic forms as if the Renaissance had traveled out of Italy in Mannerist disguise. Art was becoming a more intimate affair, as befitted the new age of the connosieur.
The art that conceals art, this was the real virtuosity, and the supreme ideal of the Mannerist generation. Theirs was a civilization that was reaching out, in navigation, astronomy, and science toward the supreme aspiration which was mastery of the environment. The arts could hardly remain unaffected by this new technological command. The delight in virtuosity was everywhere and with it excess and artificiality abounded, which perhaps was the root of the trouble. In this world of emblems, epigrams and hidden allusions, the manner all too frequently came to mean more than the matter. Man could not live indefinitely by virtuosity alone. Many of the supremely elegant artistic productions of the times were distinctly short of spiritual content. But it was precisely spiritual content that the new age of of fierce religious partisanship was beginning to demand. There was too much paganism, too much permissiveness, too much sensualism and nudity, in the art of the first generation of the Mannerists. It was time for artists to be brought back to their proper duty which was the deployment of their talents for the greater glory of God.