Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 2017
Bastian Eclercy Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2016. 304 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9783791355061)
Exhibition schedule: Städel Museum, Frankfurt, February 24–June 5, 2016
Agnolo Bronzino. Portrait of a Lady In Red (ca. 1533). Oil on poplar. 89.8 x 70.5 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Städel Museum.

Until recently, extensive thematic exhibitions on the Florentine maniera have been confined to Italian and, more specifically, Tuscan institutions. Elsewhere in Europe, however, the last few years have seen a reanimated interest in Mannerism: the latest, in the spring of 2016, was the large-scale exhibition Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Organized by Bastian Eclercy—chief curator of Italian, French, and Spanish painting at the museum—the show focused on Florence as epicenter of “European Mannerism” in the pivotal period between the 1510s—when the Medici’s return to power coincided with the emergence of a new generation of artists, including Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino—and 1568, when Giorgio Vasari published the second edition of his Lives, in which he precisely molded the complex concept of maniera.

Featuring a section of nearly 120 prominent works of painting, sculpture, engraving, architecture, literature, and drawing, many loaned from prestigious European and U.S. museums as well as private collections, Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence was the most substantial exhibition on Mannerism staged in Germany. In organizing the show, Eclercy deviated from curatorial trends and chose to structure the objects in a chronological sequence, thus allowing visitors to interact in each section with a range of artistic media and subjects. For this reason, the exhibition recalls two other historic exhibitions: the Palazzo Strozzi’s Mostra del Pontormo e del primo manierismo fiorentino (1956) and the Uffizi’s L’officina della maniera (1996–97). The latter, curated by Alessandro Cecchi and Antonio Natali, focused on the variety and boldness of the laboratory of the Florentine maniera in the era between the two republics (1494–1530). In a similar manner, the Städel exhibition focused on the role of Florence as artistic workshop and the continuities between the “High Renaissance” masters and the subsequent generation of “Wild Youth” eager to experiment with new forms and ideas. The exhibition was divided into eight sections, beginning with early Pontormo and Rosso, the most prominent exponents of this new generation of Florentine painters, and tracing the development and enrichment of Mannerism through the sixteenth century. The Mannerists inheritance of High Renaissance forms and techniques was underscored in a selection of red-chalk drawings by Andrea del Sarto, under whom Rosso and Pontormo trained in the 1510s. Similarly, the grouping of Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna (ca. 1507/1508), Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John (ca. 1516/1517) by Pontormo, and a painting of same subject by Rosso (ca. 1515) underscored the profound formal renewal introduced by the latter painter. As Vasari wrote, Rosso studied “art with but few masters, having a certain opinion of his own that conflicted with their manners.” (“In his youth, Rosso drew from the cartoon of Michelangelo, and would study art with but few masters, having a certain opinion of his own that conflicted with their manners” [Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, 10 vols., London: Macmillan and the Medici Society, 1912–15, vol. 5, 187].)

Indeed, as the Frankfurt exhibition revealed, the young Pontormo and Rosso looked for new formal and visual experiences. Rosso’s Holy Family with the Infant St. John (ca. 1521) and St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (ca. 1521/1522)—the attribution of the latter to Rosso by Philippe Costamagna is accepted by David Franklin in the exhibition catalogue—epitomize the experimental paths followed by Rosso and Pontormo. Vasari critically suggested that they diverted from the mainstream of the High Renaissance and the art “senza errori” of their master, Andrea. Certainly Rosso fundamentally transformed the Florentine tradition, yet he never completely disowned it, as evident in his Portrait of a Man with a Helmet (ca. 1523/1524). For his part, Pontormo adapted fundamental formal loans of quattrocento masters, as well as those of Northern artists. This was made clear by the display of the Uffizi’s Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1519–23), in which the Florentine formal vocabulary of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio combines Lucas van Leyden’s graphic research, as also in the pairing of Pontormo’s study drawing for The Nailing to the Cross (1523–25) and the same subject in a print by Albrecht Dürer (Small Woodcut Passion; 1509–11). Derived from a common source of Andrea’s, Pontormo and Rosso opened new fields of formal possibilities. As was previously emphasized in the impressive Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition of 2014, Pontormo e Rosso: Divergenti vie della Maniera, the two painters each pursued distinct directions with their art.

Pontormo’s St. Jerome as Penitent (ca. 1528/29), with its dramatic centripetal composition echoing the contemporary Evangelist tondi of Santa Felicita, and Bronzino’s sinuous St. Sebastian (ca. 1528/29) both emblematized the turbulent years of the last Florentine Republic. Indeed, the Sack of Rome (1527) not only ended the golden age of Clement VII in Rome, but also had profound consequences for Florence, as the Medici, declared rebels, were temporarily forced to leave the city, and a new Florentine Republic was born. This turmoil provided the framework for Eclercy’s investigations of the diversity of the maniera expressions, comparing Perin del Vaga’s (1522), Pontormo’s (ca. 1522; ca. 1529/1530), and Bronzino’s versions of the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (ca. 1530). In the exhibition catalogue, Eclercy dedicates an essay to the historical and political significance of these artworks whose creation was inflected by the dramatic events of early sixteenth-century Florence: the plague of 1522 and the siege of the city in 1530, the death knell of the Republic.

The defeat of the short-lived Republic inaugurated the era of the Medici princedom—the focus of the exhibition’s final sections. Within the Medici-controlled duchy, the role played by court artists—Pontormo, Bronzino, Baccio Bandinelli, Vasari—became essential in the rulers’ cunning political use of visual arts. It was appropriate, then, that the section dedicated to portraiture opened with Pontormo’s intense portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici—first capo, then Duke of Florence. Within this section—where admittedly most of the sitters are feminine—Bronzino’s Portrait of a Lady in Red stood out (ca. 1533). This is not only one of the most important of the sixteenth-century holdings of the Städel, but also evidences the profound renewing of the cinquecento portrait painting to which Pontormo’s and Bronzino’s contributions are absolutely crucial. This specific question was critically analyzed within the Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition on Bronzino (2010–11) and in the exhibition Florence: Portraits à la cour des Médicis in Paris (2015–16). Armored in damask and pearls, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Lady in Red gazes penetratingly at the viewer. Whereas the sitter’s gaze here revealed something about the model’s inner self, with the election of Cosimo I in 1539 and the complexification of the ducal court, Bronzino’s official portraits changed to give powerful political images to the duke and his court.

But at the same moment, the Florentine artistic milieu was moved by Leonardo da Vinci’s controversial Paragone (1651), to which Bronzino participated along with Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, Pontormo, and Vasari, among others. If Benedetto Varchi’s Due Lezzioni of 1547 formalized the rivalry between painting and sculpture as a theoretical and literary debate, the Paragone undoubtedly also had a visual component. In the exhibition, Bronzino’s Pigmalion and Galatea (ca. 1530) served as a programmatic illustration to this issue, together with some examples inspired by Michelangelo’s works, such as Pontormo’s Venus and Cupid (ca. 1533) and Francesco Salviati’s study Aurora in the Medici Chapel (ca. 1540-45 ). With the inclusion of Cellini’s modello for Perseus from the Bargello (ca. 1546)—surprisingly the sole presence of the artist in the exhibition—the Städler’s survey on Paragone succeeded more in underlining the impact of Michelangelesque models (revealing the network of formal quotations and artistic exchanges within the framework of artistic rivalry) than it did in conveying the important role of images in the Paragone debate. Yet in unifying the three arts under a sole and same father, Disegno (considered at once as drawing and as the “animating principle of all creative processes”), and thus forging a highly influential artistic theory, Vasari found a common ground to appease painter, sculptor, and architect alike.

Vasari’s multipurpose personality—as historiographer and art theorist, he was the modern founder of art history and smith of the maniera concept; and as court artist, he was one of the most prolific creators of sixteenth-century Italy—served as the coda for the exhibition. The variety and relevance of his productions were presented in Frankfurt through a selection of works showing his skills as painter (as, for example, Portrait of the Duke Alessandro I, ca. 1534; and Toilet of Venus, ca. 1558), as draughtsman, and also as art collector (as exhibited in the sheet of Fra Bartolomeo from Vasari’s Libro de’ disegni; after 1524). Last but not least, Vasari’s profound comprehension of the power of images made him a clever political promoter of the Medici princedom, to whose grandeur his own art and writings greatly contributed.

Unquestionably, the Städel’s Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence provided a unique opportunity to see the disquieting emergence and flourishing of multiple creative perspectives that the term Mannerism has attempted to unify. But this reviewer also found some weaknesses. The first point concerns the linear and slightly too didactic structure of the exhibition, which did not sufficiently highlight the present dynamics in the research on the maniera. The second one concerns the catalogue: the essays, although quite stimulating, are too few in number, and the chapter introductions are likewise excessively short. This does not do justice to the exhibition’s relevance, its intellectual exuberance, and the wonderful complexity of the some six decades of political and artistic life that made up Florentine maniera between 1520 and 1580.

Antonella Fenech Kroke
researcher, Centre André Chastel, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique