Renaissance Italy was a hotbed for fruitful thinking, and that is a major understatement. How lucky we are today to still see how Medici money, Filippo Brunelleschi and a bunch of red bricks could transform the Florentine skyline, to realise just how bright and lasting the Venetian painters could mix their pigments, to merely appreciate the uncontainable potential of a rare, grave-robbing, Vitruvian Man-scribbling mind like da Vinci’s. And how many other artisans toiled to see nature and man more clearly? To push existing limits of perspective, to make dukes and popes and apparently-pious patrons smitten with their depictions of haloed saints and heathen-damning last judgments.
It’s rather quite incredible to apprehend the scope of distinct approaches to art and creativity that were carried out during that veritable golden age, especially considering the scary-rigid religious and social doctrines that dictated the destinies of most people. Your choice, ladies, marriage and motherhood by sixteen tops or a cell in the nunnery?
Some of the freakiest masterpieces you’ll come across from the late Renaissance period belong to a genre the Italians call Manierismo, Mannerism, considered a reaction to the fleshy idyllic naturalism from the likes of the Leonardo and the Raphael. Nudes and Virgins and Christ Childs and Depositions from the Cross and Lamentations were still trending throughout the 1520s to 1590s, no doubt, but they were elongated, contorted, all out of proportion and leggier than any top model staggering down the resort wear runways.
Creeping up in Rome and Florence, the mannerist aesthetic spread with a vengeance up the Italian boot and into central and northern Europe, impacting sculpture as well as painting. Somehow, the exaggerated, unnatural nature and technical ease of Mannerism looms more heavily in the paintings than in their stony, chiseled counterparts.
Look first at this theatrical scene by Andrea del Sarto, starring Abraham in the throes wielding a big old blade near the throat of his son Isaac. This story of near-sacrifice is almost mythological, but del Sarto’s visual re-telling of it is quite off-kilter in true Mannerist style. Isaac’s right arm seems somewhat shriveled, and in its violently yanked back state looks something like a chicken wing awaiting a dousing of buffalo sauce. He crouches awkwardly on both a tiny foot and a big, clunky foot, and though his little round face reads confused anguish, his hair billows coolly in the breeze like that of a surfer bro at a secret-cove clam bake.
Abraham is gargantuan and towering, with forearms like yule logs. In his bewildered, fixed gaze rests all the tragedy and insanity of King Lear. And what are his wild eyes fixed upon? A cherub coming in hot to stop the massacre with the features of a thirty-something baby and teacup poodle-sized appendages. Warranting not much explanation, but acting as showy decoration in the background, are a mule and two prone figures, one sobbing uncontrollably, the other just buck naked.
Tonally, Jacopo da Pontormo’s Deposition might be more muted, but all the heightened emotion is there. The downward diagonally swooping composition directs the eye to a dead but gleaming Christ, though his entourage that squirms with the pain of its loss cannot be ignored for long. Aghast expressions, pearly skin, reaching extremities and cascading drapery are everywhere to be seen. As are necks craned at right angles and spidery-long toes. The plain surroundings, void save one watchful cloud, washed-out colouration and the fact that figures’ heads seem to emerge suddenly from each other’s knees, chests and the crook of the Virgin Mary’s elbow all serve to make everything so surreal.
And then there’s this work by Parmigianino, known pretty astutely as Madonna of the Long Neck. It’s not such an utter departure from more realistic works made earlier in the sixteenth century, but it is a triumph of mannerist oddity. Parmigianino’s earnest attempts at a certain lifelikeness only make his subtle pictorial hyperboles stand out all the more and creepier. All’s well that ends well with the Virgin’s face, save some largish ears, but long neck is right. It looks spring-loaded.
Her hand, with its feathery fingers, seems larger than her shiny curl-topped head, and her robe suddenly becomes sheer at the navel. And that’s about when the eye meets the almost extra-terrestrial looking Baby Jesus, all limbs and torso, who again bears those teeny, tiny feet. Starkly in contrast to his mother’s snowshoes. In fact, everything about the Virgin Mary is colossal, when the background finally comes into view. Why, she nearly reaches where a ceiling could easily be and she’s taller than the doric column to the right; which is also rivaled by a cluster of fair, lanky, snooping, no-neck children, save one with the oiled up thigh of an Amazon.
There’s no denying that these are three beautiful paintings, perhaps rendered even more remarkable among Renaissance-era enthroned Madonnas for their ahead-of-its-time absurdity. In this short dip of the (normal length, please) toes into the pool of Mannerism, I can only hope to have piqued some more interest in its further study. For it was a much partaken-in and rather lengthy movement in the history of art that eventually fed into all things ornately Baroque. At the very least, there’s now no confusing the rebellious, quirky, almost torturous genre with any tips learned at finishing school concerning the proper order of fork usage.
Sources: The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Mannerism”, The Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
Diane H. Bodart, Renaissance & Mannerism, New York/London: Sterling Publishing, 2008