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Scherzo Mannerism

Mannerism, from the Italian maniera, is an art-historical term used to describe an artistic style prevalent in sixteenth-century Italy. Artists like Pontormo (Empoli, 1494 - Firenze, 1557), Parmigianino (Parma, 1503 - Casalmaggiore, 1540), and Bronzino (Firenze, 1503 - 1572) popularised a new style that conspicuously amplified the traits of the High Renaissance. Where Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael pioneered balanced compositions, harmonised colours, and proportional shapes, the mannerist style introduced distorted elongations, crowded compositions, and fanciful inventions in complicated allegories. It is an art that is at once refined and over-scrupulous, elegant and unnatural, new and tired.

It is on the derogative end of the spectrum that the eighteenth-century art historian and archeologist Luigi Lanzi first used the term in reference to sixteenth-century Italian art. For him (and for many still), manierismo was a tasteless disfiguration of the classical harmonies pioneered by the Quattrocento masters (see Lanzi, Storia Pictorica dell'Italia (1792)).

Giorgio Vasari (Arezzo, 1511 - Firenze, 1574) in his Lives (1568) describes a 'progresso dell'arte' from the medieval style to 'la maniera moderna'; he traces a teleological progression of art from its artisanal, 'maccanica [mechanical]'' roots in the medieval art of Cimabue towards a refined, intellectual, liberal art, perfected in artists like Leonardo da Vinci. That is why 'la maniera moderna' (partly meaning 'in the style of modern artists, like Michelangelo') is for Vasari the culmination of this 'progresso dell'arte'. But it is this same meaning that was seized upon by nineteenth-century art historians to deride sixteenth-century painting as simply 'in the style of' the masters of the previous generation. What is new or innovative in mannerist art is also trivial, no more than trifling embellishment of the previous generation's classicism.

I must admit that I am slightly partial to this categorisation. I much prefer the calm stillness of Quattrocento altarpieces to the bustling crowds and over-musculated bodies of those gigantic, Cinquecento frescoes. Vasari himself was an important mannerist artist. But after walking through the Palazzo Vecchio's Salone dei Cinquecento [Hall of the Five Hundred] and straining my neck to look at Vasari's titanic frescoes, I had the ironic sense that his lauded 'maniera moderna' was no more than an over-wrought 'maniera' of Michelangelo. Larger-than-life figures crowd the gigantic walls in writhing musculatures, whilst the popping colours of bright reds, oranges, yellows, and blues randomly strewn across the walls strike a discordant tone. I've never seen so many multi-coloured, plump (and pumped, bodybuilding) horses before. The Rout of the Pisans at Torre San Vincenzo (1568-1571) looks more like a circus act than an awesome battle. The whole of the Palazzo Vecchio, decorated by Vasari and his studio, is covered in these garish frescoes. I was left feeling like Vasari is a copying clown compared to Michelangelo.

But all this is more an unfair reflection of my own taste than a serious critique of mannerist art. The pejorative associations of mannerism I think miss a crucial element: the tone of some of these works. There is often a playful distortion of High Renaissance motifs and techniques that is cunningly self-aware. It is important not always to take these paintings too seriously. Now take Salviati's (Firenze, 1510 - Rome, 1563) Madonna and Child with Young St John the Baptist and an Angel.

Francesco de'Rossi, known as Il Salviati (Firenze, 1510 - Roma, 1563), Madonna and Child with Young St John the Baptist and an Angel (c. 1543-1548), Oil on wood panel, Galleria dell'Academia, Florence.

Salviati here provides a fresh twist (literally) on that classical, triangular composition of Virgin and Child so perfected by artists like Raphael (1483, Urbino - 1520, Rome). Compared to Raphael's gracefully composed and balanced Madonna Del Cardellino (Madonna of the Goldfinch) (1505-1506) - which can be seen a few minutes downtown in the Uffizi Galleries - Salviati piles his little babies atop his Virgin in a disorienting mass. Her slightly turned figure is just enough to suggest the charming weight of this groping gaggle of plump babies: babies that resemble more the mischievous, tender putti (cherubs or cupids) of romantic mythologies than the mysteriously sacred babes of the Christ child and St John the Baptist.

And this romantic, affective association is only heightened by the colour palette. Traditionally, Mary is in a blue cloak (denoting the purity of the Virgin and the Catholic Church) and a red tunic (symbolic of the blood of Christ that will run in the Passion). But here, Salviati clothes his Virgin in a prominent, unmistakably pink shirt. This pink, glowing in the centre of the panel, fuses into the rest of the painting’s hues: in the pink ribbon tied around an amber ginger head of hair; in the blushing pink of the Virgin's and children’s' cheeks; in the hazy pinks of the clouds melting into the fading landscape. By washing the painting in these warm, pinkish shades, Salviati playfully modulates the traditional colour pallet of the Virgin and child's iconography. These hues are more suggestive of that warm, tactile, human intimacy between a mother and her child.

Blushing cheeks, rosy lips, fiery clouds, groping, putti-esque babies (the angel by Mary's thighs looks suspiciously like a little cupid already); these are all tropes that also conjure up a romantic, even erotic affection. The warmness of the painting tokens the fecund, sexual beauty also associated with a physical mother. Mary's blushing, reddish cheeks highlighting her milk-white skin are directly from Petrarch's red-white love sonnet colour pallet:

et le rose vermiglie in fra le neve

mover da l'ora, et discovrir l'avorio

che fa di marmo chi da presso 'l guarda

And I'd see scarlet roses in the snows,

tossed by the breeze, discover ivory

that turns to marble those who see it near them.

(Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), Sonnet 131: 'Io canterei d'amor si

novamente', in Il Canzoniere, translation by

The rose-red cheeks, milk-white skin motif was such an endemic trope of romantic love by the sixteenth century that it began to suffer relentless parodies by love sonneteers. Shakespeare famously takes Petrarch to task:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips' red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks

(William Shakespeare (1565-1616), Sonnet 130, Shakespeare's Sonnets


Salviati's painting is slyly sexualised. His Virgin is a beautiful woman (meant to be looked at with a romantic desire appropriate to those sixteenth-century Petrarchan motifs). In this context, Salviati's painting is playfully subversive. If Renaissance humanism and classicism starts the trend towards a more 'human' (tender, affectionate) Virgin, Salviati acknowledges how a human mother is also a sexualised being, a physical object of beauty and desire. His is a knowing parody of the traditional iconography; his is an especially beautiful (*wink*) Virgin.

A scherzo is the Italian for joke; in music a scherzo is a playful, fast-paced piece: either an interluding movement that introduces a diverting character, or a stand-alone piece that has itself a diverting, blithe tone. The more I look at mannerist art, the more this term comes to mind. The most attractive mannerist pictures are those which, in the way Salviati’s does, riff off previous expectations in playfully mischievous ways. Have a look at Parmigianino's Madonna of St Margaret.

Francesco Mazzola, known as Il Parmigianino (Parma, 1503 – Casalmaggiore, 1540), Madonna di Santa Margherita, 1529, Oil on panel, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

Parmigianino was commissioned to paint this panel for the nuns of the Santa Margherita convent during his time in Bologna from 1527-1530. St Margaret is venerated in the hagiography as a virgin saint. An early Christian from the third century in Antioch, Margaret embraced Christianity and consecrated her virginity to God. She was disowned by her father and refused to denounce her Christianity when Olybrius, the Governor of the Roman Diocese of the East, asked to marry her. Her subsequent cruel torture resulted in many miracles, including a triumph over Satan in the form of a dragon.

But here, the traditional iconography of Margaret trampling over the dragon is relegated to a dark corner of the painting. Instead, centre stage is Parmigianino’s idiosyncratic, even eccentric use of paint. Gone is the rounded, careful sfumato of Leonardo or Raphael, where brushstrokes are nearly invisible as figures are smoothly rendered. Instead, Parmigianino lathers the paint with an elaborate dynamism. St Jerome in the top-right corner is no more than a few, brisk, rapid swirls! Margaret’s hand resting on the Virgin’s knee is similarly just a few, fluid squiggles. This watery, flowing quality in the paint channels all the energy of the painting towards its centre: that tantalisingly close space between the rosy lips of Margaret and the Christ child. All the brushstrokes direct here: in the plump thighs and arms of the Christ child; the skin around the eyes and cheek of Margaret. Just look at how the paint seems to quiver in the delicate fingers of Margaret under the Christ’s chin!

Perhaps this is just the overactive libido of a young man speaking, but there is something undoubtedly erotic in the way Margaret stares into the Christ’s eyes, in how her fingers lightly brush his chin, in how their lips are only millimetres apart. Parmigianino’s use of paint accentuates this charged, underlying energy. The dynamic swirls demand an emotional response; those rapid, purposeful, even trembling brushstrokes evoke a productive ecstasy in the painting of the picture. Contemplating the picture thus demands an ecstatic response - including an erotic ecstasy. That this painting represents a Virgin saint ‘married to God’ and was made for a convent full of virgin women ‘married to God’ completes the joke. There is a light-hearted, wry smile at just how ‘unfeeling’ or ‘unsexual’ these devotees really are.

Scherzo mannerism. I wonder how seriously Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara (1533-1587) meant us to take him when he orchestrated the iconographic program in his gardens at the Villa Lante (1566 onwards). The impressive fountains and canals are repeatedly fed by a conspicuously obvious lobster (a gamba, or Gambara himself - and his opulent wealth). In the same way, I wonder how cheeky Vignola (Vignola, 1507 - Rome, 1573), the architect of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola (as well as the Villa Lante!), was being when he designed the pentangular palazzo (1559-1573). Knowing it would be filled with scheming courtiers, he creates perspectival games where figures can be clearly seen all the way across the building from rooms on the opposite end and where sound echoes amplify the conversations of those standing in the centre of certain rooms whilst muffling the conversations of those in the corners.

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (Vignola, 1507 - Rome, 1573), on the left is Villa Lante (1566-1578), Bagnaia; on the right is Villa Farnese (1559-1573), Caprarola.

I conclude with these architectural games because they are to me the culmination of the mannerist ethos. At once self-aggrandising without being too serious, impressive without being too austere. At its best, mannerist art is so outrageous that it is (self-consciously) funny. I still maintain my reservations towards Vasari’s frescoes (and most other mannerist clown-paper covering the walls of sixteenth-century villas). But I also have come to love the playfully embellished tones that come with a culture of increased artistic self-awareness. The sixteenth century is arguably the period where art becomes primarily a liberal practice, founded in personal invention and virtuosic talent rather than repetitive craft. It is in this climate of refined thought that artists and patrons can really exploit the potentials of satire and parody through the idiosyncrasies (and exaggerations) of style.

Thanks for reading! Remember to have fun. Life is best lived with some scherzo.

Lots of love,


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Pat Wang Maugüé
Pat Wang Maugüé
Nov 08, 2021

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