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Mannerism is a movement emerged in the Renaissance; therefore, it initially coexisted with the Renaissance classical spirit and later with Baroque tendencies, arising from the movement of the Counter-Reformation. ‘Maniera’, according to Giorgio Vasari, is a word that is equivalent to style, to an exercise of art according to certain schemes.[1] However, Mannerism is a highly complicated movement, which cannot be reduced to a phenomenon of artistic decadence manifested in the exercise of art as routine. To go more deeply into it, we must delve into the attitude that artists active in Italy during the third decade of the sixteenth century assumed against the classical art of the Renaissance. The attitude of these artists, which representing Mannerism in its most characteristic phase, is always dialectic: it is based on imitation and simultaneous distortion of classical models; this phenomenon did not occur as a result of the lack of creativity, but by virtue of the presence of a new spirit, while derivative and antagonistic to Renaissance classicism.[2]

Among the artists who represented the Mannerist movement in its truest form, there were personalities whose temperaments, and because of the course of their lives, showed very unique forms of existence, which have some features in common: the ambivalent attitude to art, religion and life in general, the outsized response stimulus whose natures do not correlate with the effects produced and also the presence of an intense creative potential that seems to have fed from the anguish. Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, and Rosso Fiorentino are among them.[3]

One of the most effective and helpful catalogues of the main features of the art of the mid 16th century was written by Craig Hugh Smyth in his work ‘Mannerism and maniera’. The author, who distinguishes between early Mannerism and maniera mature artists, enumerates a number of objectives, easily identifiable characteristics in the works of mannerist authors.[4]This essay aims to examine and compare some of the main features listed by Smyth in the works of Parmigianino and Rosso.

Although Mannerist artists have had a reputation for being very good draughtsmen, but bad colourists, this concept is correct only for the second generation Italian Mannerist,[5] as both Rosso and Parmigianino manifested in the form archetypical, a remarkable coloristic renewal over previous artists. [6] But Parmigianino was an independent artist. His colour is quite different than other painters. Where Rosso forced the local colour and used it dynamically to divide the layers, allowing them flashing in the light, the colour of Parmigianino relied on the finest nuances. A type of greenish general tone is spread over the whole, and to it are subordinated the local colours, running from moss green to pod green.[7] One of the many extraordinary aspects of painting Madonna of the Long Neck (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 1534-39) by Parmigianino is its colour scheme. Golden cushions’ edges and tassels at the feet of the Virgin are audaciously green and red, possibly with reference to hope and charity, but otherwise, everything is silent, despite the contrast between the zones of light and shadow is like brittle. The cloth of honour is mostly pale pink against brown, although there are accents of pale mauve on the sleeves of the Virgin, which is coated otherwise in a dress in greyish and deep blue cloak, whose tones are repeated in the sky. It is hard to think of an altarpiece that is not a night scene that comes closer to being a black and white.[8] However, Rosso, in his evolution as a colourist, developed complex references to ways of modelling of the High Renaissance artists, which correspond to his obvious manipulation of other artistic conventions. His combination of different ways of using colour is also characteristic of other painters of that generation and should be seen as an important component of the Mannerist style. One of the earliest works attributed to the Florentine painter is a fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin at the entrance of SS. Annunziata in Florence, dating 1514. If we compare the work with a contemporary fresco by Andrea del Sarto Birth of the Virgin (1514), also in the same church, we can deduce the source of inspiration for Rosso. If the work by Andrea is observed, a new selection of colours in Florence based on intermediate tones like purple, red neutral, neutral pale yellow and blue rather than red and blue saturated common is appreciated.[9] Rosso took the pale combinations like a starting point and then he regrouped them in what the author S. J. Freedberg described as “imminently dissonant”[10] Although the fresco has suffered over time is possible to observe the juxtaposition of oranges, greens and pale yellows and intense violet. What Rosso did was dress the apostles in tones of similar values, opting, like Andrea, for an extensive range of tones but a restricted range of values. Rosso had considered the invention of Leonardo Da Vinci of the chiaroscuro painting, the theory that different colours in the same light should be relatively the same darkness or lightness or value. [11]

However, it is important to note that during his time in Rome, Rosso studied more artists a part of Raphael and Michelangelo. The work Dead Christ with Angels (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1524-27) has a debt with another young artist newly arrived in Rome, Parmigianino. In his Florentine paintings, Rosso has always been very careful to create smooth and fine finishes, to remove any evidence of the manufacturing process of painting. This work exhibits areas of skin delicately modelled with a barely visible shading technique while patches clothes show ostentatious and visible brushstrokes. This juxtaposition of smooth and rough modelling is characteristic of the work of Parmigianino, and demonstrates the Mannerist artificiality interest in more than naturalism in painting. If the painting was known as artificial and highly regarded as such, then there was no need to remove the traces of the hand of the artist who created it.[12] Thus, it could be argued that although initially, both artists used colour in a different way, as it develops their work, this use of colour is likening in both painters.

Smyth claims that another mannerist feature is the tendency to flattened figures parallel to the picture plane. An essential support for this effect is given by the flat light. Light is a distinctive feature of the maniera and gives it uniformity. The shadow is reserved mainly for surfaces that recede or project. [13] Although light in Deposition is consistent in direction and intensity, it is strangely intense and sharp. Rosso used light as an excuse for abrupt transitions and saturations in tone and shapes; instead of modelling his form in chiaroscuro, like Leonardo, and then employing a gradual change between full light and shadow, the artist introduced a sharp break in colour between full light and shadow that an extra line was created, especially evident on the Magdalena at the foot of the cross. “Forms begin to lose their illusion of three-dimensionality, to be dissolved by colour and light, which together function to fragment and flatten them”[14] However, Parmigianino’s works have a smooth light (similar to Correggio) that proves that the artist did not create with plastic volumes.

Smith says that in the Mannerist works space can be deep or may be superficial and almost eliminated. The floor is usually inclined upward, placing higher rear figures. And often it is described as space like divided or broken into parts that are not easy to unite.[15] Parmigianino never built his figures exclusively by volumes, such as Michelangelo and some of the Mannerist. Instead, his figures always appear isolated and even embedded in space. Only this space is not proportional to the figures in it, and it is here that approaches trend early Mannerist movement in Florence. He also used the system additive layers, and apparently, he also assumes this in Florence; that is, building three-dimensional space by parallel layers and thus brings close to the image plane. This is already evident in his early portraits, but still more insistently in his late painting, as in the image of the Virgin with two deacons sitting at a balustrade. However, the layers are never interlaced nor the figures. [16]

In relation to the composition, Smyth affirms in his book that the Mannerist paintings with more than a few figures tend to lack the focal point. The secondary figures are likely to be abundant and more or less uniform also highlighted in light, scattering attention and obscuring the subject.[17] The painting Circumcision (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1523) by Parmigianino is a good example of the artist’s predilection for crowded and complicated compositions, although it is true that it is still possible to identify the Christ child as the centre of the composition.[18] In Marriage of the Virgin (San Lorenzo altarpiece, Florence, 1523), a work that belongs to his Roman period, the composition is determined in distinctly separate planes, with the main subject in an upper shelf by architecture, while the bystanders in the foreground are under-endowed with unusual prominence.[19] However, this feature is more pronounced in the work of Rosso. The painting Moses defending the Jethro’s Daughters is a violent and dramatic struggle, where Moses, in the centre, swats one of the Midianite shepherds who had expelled seven daughters of Jethro away from the well. Below Moses, it is the twisted bodies of two pastors defeated, while on his right another enemy screams in pain. An opponent with wild hair attacks in from the upper left, apparently his target being the surprised and frightened shepherds found on the right.[20] It is a composition in which the figures, both primary and secondary, occupy almost all the space and they are arranged so that attention is scattered and the subject loses prominence. The change of scale is also a defining feature of the Mannerist style. In the Madonna of the long neck, this is so great that there is no way to move between the foreground and background. The five angels on the left form a compact group in such a constricted space that is difficult to imagine how it is possible that the bodies be accommodated in it. The virgin has a higher development than other figures, her proportions were unnaturally dilated and hands and head have been lengthened to emphasise its elegance.[21] This feature is also noticeable in the painting by Rosso. As happens in the work of Parmigianino, on the canvas Dead Christ, the central figure shows a scale clearly superior to other figures of the work.

Finally, one of the defining characteristics of the Mannerist style is undoubtedly exaggerated refinement and elegance, strength and muscle or exaggerated and extravagant and innovative effects and a variety of bizarre poses.[22] The stilted and affected forms that seem artificial, known as artificiositá was one of the first features that struck and entered the concept of Mannerist art. In the Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino it can be found admirably worked all typical forms, making this an emblem of mannerist attitude. To achieve these artificial forms are used often the elongation of its proportions. The Virgin appears slim, figure wins in refinement and grace while satisfying the very Italian taste for organising line image of the human body. This feature is also seen in the work of Rosso. His painting Dead Christ with Angels presents a very large figure, too close. It is almost suggesting that he is leaving the canvas. The shape of the nude Christ is influenced by the latest sculpture by Michelangelo, in which the seemingly soft bone structure of the cage hip and rib allows a continuous and fluid movement throughout the figure is greater than the possible movement between the individual parts. This is the germ of the so-called serpentinata figure.[23]

In conclusion, throughout the comparison of some of the main features considered as belonging to the Mannerist period, it could be argued that the pictorial works of Parmigianino and Rosso Fiorentino differ in some points. Thus, the use of colour is more smooth and natural in Pamigianino, while his contemporary uses it in a more aggressive manner. Similarly, the use of light is not the same in both artists. While painting Rosso presents abrupt transitions and saturations in shades and shadows, the work of Parmigianino presents a more moderate use of soft light. However, it is important to note that the work of Rosso suffered an evolution throughout his career so that those differences discussed above are dimmed, bringing these two authors representatives of the first stage of Florentine Mannerism.


[1] L. Cheney, Giorgio Vasari’s Teachers: Sacred & Profane Art (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007), p.85

[2] T. Conde, ‘Rosso Fiorentino, un pintor manierista’ in Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (Universidad Autonómica de México, Volumen XII, número 44, 1975), pp. 123-133

[3] T. Conde, ‘Rosso Fiorentino, un pintor manierista’ in Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (Universidad Autonómica de México, Volumen XII, número 44, 1975), pp. 123-133

[4] H. Miedema, ‘On Mannerism and maniera’ in Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol10 (1979), pp.19-45

[5] J. Busquet, La pintura manieriste (Neuchatel: Editios Idées et Calendes, 1964), p. 148

[6] T. Conde, ‘Rosso Fiorentino, un pintor manierista’ in Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (Universidad Autonómica de México, Volumen XII, número 44, 1975), pp. 123-133

[7] W. Friedlaender, Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), p.39

[8] D. Ekserdjian, Parmigianino (London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 211

[9] J. Shearman, Andrea del Sarto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), p.131

[10] S. J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500-1600 (New York: Penguin, 1983), p.192

[11] L. Caron, ‘The Use of Colour by Rosso Fiorentino’ in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol.12 (1988), pp. 355-378

[12] L. Caron, ‘The Use of Colour by Rosso Fiorentino’ in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol.12 (1988), pp. 355-378

[13] C.H. Smyth, Mannierism and Maniera (Vienna: Irsa, 1992), p.39

[14] L. Caron, ‘The Use of Colour by Rosso Fiorentino’ in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol.1 (1988), pp. 355-378

[15] Smyth, Mannierism and Maniera , p.49

[16] Friedlaender, Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting p.40

[17] Smyth, Mannierism and Maniera, p.47

[18] Friedlaender, Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, p.70

[19] D. Franklin, The Art of Parmiigianino (London: Yale University Press, 2003), p.133

[20] J. Peluso, ‘Rosso Fiorentino’s Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro and its Pedants: Their Roman Provenance and allegorical symbolism’ in Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut, Vol.20, 1976, pp. 87-106

[21] J. Paoletti and Radke, G. El Arte en la Italia del Renacimiento (Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2002), p.425

[22] Smyth, Mannierism and Maniera, p.49

[23] J. Shearman, ‘The “Death Christ” by Rosso Fiorentino’ in Boston Museum Bulletin, Vol.64, 1966, 148-172