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The term mannerism describes the style of the paintings and bronze sculpture on this tour. Derived from the Italian maniera, meaning simply “style,” mannerism is sometimes defined as the “stylish style” for its emphasis on self-conscious artifice over realistic depiction. The sixteenth-century artist and critic Vasari—himself a mannerist—believed that excellence in painting demanded refinement, richness of invention, and virtuoso technique, criteria that emphasized the artist’s intellect. More important than his carefully recreated observation of nature was the artist’s mental conception and its elaboration. This intellectual bias was, in part, a natural consequence of the artist’s new status in society. No longer regarded as craftsmen, painters and sculptors took their place with scholars, poets, and humanists in a climate that fostered an appreciation for elegance, complexity, and even precocity.

Mannerism’s artificiality—its bizarre, sometimes acid color, its illogical compression of space, the elongated proportions and exaggerated anatomy of figures in convoluted, serpentine poses—frequently creates a feeling of anxiety. Works appear strange and unsettling, despite their superficial naturalism. Mannerism coincided with a period of upheaval that was torn by the Reformation, plague, and the devastating sack of Rome. After its inception in central Italy around 1520, mannerism spread to other regions of Italy and to northern Europe. In Italy, however, it remained largely a product of artists in Florence and Rome.

The character of mannerism continues to be debated. It is often discussed, and judged, in relation to the High Renaissance that preceded it. Some scholars see mannerism as a reaction to Renaissance classicism, while others regard it as a logical extension of it—a natural outgrowth of Michelangelo’s emphatic modeling or Raphael’s refinement. Already in 1600, mannerists were criticized for having willfully broken the unity of Renaissance classicism, its integration of form and content, its balance of aesthetic aims and ideas. Today, when classicism no longer has a unique claim on “perfection,” mannerism emerges more clearly as a link between the High Renaissance and the emotionally charged and dynamic baroque art that followed.

Agnolo Bronzino, Italian, 1503 - 1572, Eleonora di Toledo, c. 1560, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.7

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Two nude young boys and a young woman holding a standing infant are tightly grouped around a table, almost filling this vertical painting. They all have pale skin tinged with pink. The woman is shown from the knees up, and she stands at the front, right corner of the table, which spans most of the composition. Facing our left in profile, her auburn-brown hair is pulled back and wrapped with a slate-blue ribbon, and is wound around the crown of her head. She looks down with dark eyes under thin brows. She has a long nose, and her full, dusty rose-pink lips are closed. Two thin cords hang like necklaces just above the neckline of her carnation-pink gown, which is unbuttoned to reveal one bare breast. The plump infant stands at the center of the group. The woman holds him close to her body, but he turns his face away to look at the young boy on our left. That child faces our right in profile and has wavy, copper-red hair. He is nude except for a blue sash, which is tied once tightly around his waist and then wrapped so a loose hoop hangs down over his belly. His right knee, closer to us, rests on an olive-green cloth crumpled on the table beneath him. He leans back slightly, with his belly pushed forward, and looks down at the infant while pointing to us with his closest hand. A third child, with unruly honey-blond hair, stands facing us from the back of the group, so is seen between the woman and the pointing child. The child at the back of the group touches the woman’s shoulder with one hand, looking straight at us with mouth slightly open. A burgundy-red sash is visible around the waist. Near the bottom edge of the painting, the tabletop is covered with a pumpkin-orange cloth striped with plum-purple and black. A book rests near the baby’s feet and is partially covered by the green cloth to our left. A peacock-blue cloth is bunched on the right half of the table and hangs off that side, obscuring the woman’s knees. The background is painted with broad strokes and swirls of brown and flint blue, with flickers of red and gold in the upper right.

In a sense, Andrea del Sarto could be called the godfather of mannerism. Two of his students—Rosso and Pontormo—took the expressive potential of his early work as a point of departure. Andrea’s approach, however, remained more classical. While his students looked beneath the appearance of the real world for something more introverted and abstract, Andrea sought a more forceful expression of what he saw in nature. It has been said that color, vibrant and communicative, was his real subject. Produced late in his career, this painting has a quiet warmth and calm sentiment, despite the intensity of its hues.

Charity’s face reproduces the features of Andrea’s wife Lucrezia. Vasari, who apprenticed in Andrea’s workshop (and disliked his wife), noted that “because of seeing her continuously and having drawn her so often, and—what is more—having her impressed on his soul,” every woman his master painted looked like Lucrezia.

Andrea del Sarto, Italian, 1486 - 1530, Charity, before 1530, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.5

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This portrait is less precisely detailed, less “objective,” than others in this room, partly as the result of Rosso’s technique. To a greater extent than most of his contemporaries in Florence, Rosso left his brushstrokes visible. This man holds none of the attributes that normally help define a sitter’s persona; his character is established by his strongly projecting elbow. Light rakes across it and seems to push his gesture to the front of the picture plane. The image crowds the panel. Such concentration and stylization complement the man’s expression, which is at once haughty and slightly sad and may reflect an ideal of male deportment.

Rosso—he was called “the red” for his red hair—probably painted this not long before the artist left to work in Fontainebleau. In Italy, Rosso’s personal, introverted style did not exert much influence, but in France it was an important starting point for mannerism in the North.

Rosso Fiorentino, Italian, 1494 - 1540, Portrait of a Man, early 1520s, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.59

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Like the somewhat older Rosso and Pontormo, Jacopino was probably a student of Andrea del Sarto. His earliest works essentially paraphrased his teacher’s compositions, but here newer influences are evident. A hint of Pontormo’s style emerges in the longer, more elegant proportions of the figures and in the hard, polished color. Furthermore, the figures’ monumental scale and almost sculptural mass signal Michelangelo’s influence.

Images of the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth were popular in sixteenth-century Florence. Here, many elements of the composition play a symbolic role to extend the scene’s meaning. The cloth, just warmed over the brazier, foreshadows Jesus’ burial shroud, and the cradle at Mary’s feet, his tomb. The unseen future, with Christ’s passion and its promise of mankind’s salvation, is expressed in these signals and the linked gestures of the figures.

Jacopino del Conte, Italian, 1510 - 1598, Madonna and Child with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1535, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.11.1

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Five men and two women gather around an infant in a landscape in this vertical painting. The people all have pale or peachy skin with delicate facial features. Halos, like gold rings, float behind each head. All the men but one have beards, and most of the people’s lips are parted. The pudgy baby, Jesus, lies nude on a white cloth on the grassy ground near the bottom center of the composition. Three people kneel around and look down at him. To our left, a man wearing a fur-lined, powder-blue tunic under a rose-pink robe crosses his arms to touch opposite shoulders. A tall staff with a gold cross at the top rests in one elbow. Just behind Jesus, a woman wearing a gold crown and sage-green and pink robes holds a palm frond in one hand and extends the other over the baby. To our right, Mary wears a gold diadem and an apple-red dress. The cloak billowing behind her shoulders and fluttering to our right is emerald green on one side and silvery blue on the other. She also crosses her hands over her shoulders. Four men stand behind the group. Starting behind Mary, to our right, a man faces our left in profile. He holds a tall staff in one hand and points at Mary with the index finger of the other. The next man looks at the first with his hand held by his own face, the first two fingers splayed over his beard near his mouth. Next, another man looks down at Jesus with his hands together in prayer by the shoulder farther from us. These three men wear robes in canary yellow, burnt orange, dark blue, vivid green, or raspberry pink. The fourth man, along the left edge of the painting, is nude except for a coral-orange and yellow cloth tied around his hips. He has short brown hair and is cleanshaven. The feathered ends of three arrows project from his torso and three more wounds on his neck, shoulder, and thigh trickle blood. He holds an arrow by his side with one hand and reaches out with this other to hold the first two fingers and thumb up over Jesus. A gray stone building rises along the right edge of the composition behind the group. A person wearing a white tunic, red robe, and a straw-colored hat climbs a set of stairs there. That person holds a long staff over one shoulder and carries a lamb by the animal’s four legs in the other. In the sky above the main group, a bearded man a triangular halo over gray hair floats among about a dozen winged, child-like angels on a cloud bank. The man holds up one hand in blessing and holds an orb topped with a cross in the other hand. A bank of winged baby heads clusters in the distance, farther along the cloud bank. A few people, tiny in scale, sit or walk through the landscape, which leads back to ice-blue, craggy mountains. Cream-white and muted blue clouds fill the sky above. The artist signed the work as if he had left an inscribed tablet near Jesus. It reads, “M.D.XXXIIII. PERINO BONAC CORSSI FLORENTIN OPVS FACEBA.” The letters of the artist’s name, PERINO, are then combined into two monograms.

Perino was born in Florence but trained in Rome, in Raphael’s studio. He extended Raphael&rsqu;s feeling for ornament, making fluid patterns an important element of his own style. Perino’s decorative ornamentation, in turn, influenced the next generation of mannerists in Rome.

This early work was painted for a family chapel in Genoa, where Perino had settled after the sack of Rome in 1527. Here the Holy Family is surrounded by saints. John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria, and James Major were probably name saints of the painting’s patrons; Roch and Sebastian were patrons of plague victims. (Plague devastated many Italian towns, including Genoa, following the sack of Rome.) In the background, a man carries a bound lamb into the temple. The painting would have been installed over the altar in a funerary chapel, a backdrop to masses said for the dead.

Perino del Vaga, Italian, 1501 - 1547, The Nativity, 1534, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.31

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A  light-skinned man with short, auburn-brown hair and a long beard is shown from the hips up, his chest and sloping shoulders covered by a muted cobalt-blue cape in this vertical portrait painting. His body is angled to our left and he looks at us from the corners of his brown eyes under curving, low brows. His head, torso, aquiline nose, and hands are slightly elongated. He holds a black hat in his right hand, on our left, close to his body. His left hand emerges from a white sleeve painted with swirling brushstrokes, as he presses a small book to his chest, holding it open with one page caught between thumb and index finger. The lower edge of his cape drapes over that arm, revealing rose-pink lining. He stands with his back to a grayish-green wall that does not span the width of the composition. Slivers of other spaces, possibly rooms, are suggested by tall, narrow views of windows and arched openings along the sides of the painting.

A man must therefore not be content to do things well but must also aim to do them gracefully.

Giovanni della Casa’s description of a gentleman’s deportment, which appeared in Il Galateo, his 1558 book of manners, might also be applied to mannerist painting. Objective reality is tempered by grazia and a self-conscious artifice. Here, Pontormo accentuated della Casa’s long, slender figure. The refined gesture of his elegant fingers holding a book well suits a man who was a humanist scholar, poet, and political adviser as well as a high-placed church official. The sitter’s own grazia is mirrored, even amplified, by the smooth, polished surface of the paint.

Della Casa’s expression is at once reserved and inquiring, aloof but not disengaged. Compare the more chilly elegance of Bronzino’s portrait in this room. Not surprisingly, it was Bronzino who became principal portraitist for Florence’s ruling Medici family: official images had to convey authority and impassive assurance, not humanize their subject with personality.

Pontormo, Italian, 1494 - 1556/1557, Monsignor della Casa, probably 1541/1544, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.83

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Once thought to be the work of Pontormo, most scholars now agree this is an early painting by Bronzino, who apprenticed in Pontormo’s workshop. The Virgin’s symmetrically oval face resembles Pontormo’s madonnas, but other elements point to Bronzino’s own emerging style, particularly his use of large areas of color and his isolation of the figures. Although they are linked through gesture and gaze, each seems to be framed within an individual space. The Holy Family almost forms a human still life: the figures are frozen on the surface, their masklike faces lacking humanity. Little emotion shows below the hard, smooth paint surface.

From a distance, we first see a strong linear pattern emerging from the almost abstract interplay of bright figure shapes and the dark background. Yet up close, the work’s precision and particularity dominate. Such tension between abstract composition and intense realism in detail accounts for much of the “strangeness” detected in mannerist paintings.

Agnolo Bronzino, Italian, 1503 - 1572, The Holy Family, c. 1527/1528, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.387

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A woman wearing a crimson-red brocade dress and gold jewelry fills most of this vertical portrait, but her right hand, on our left, rests on the shoulder of a young boy tucked into the lower left corner of the panel. The woman and boy both have pale, white skin, and both face and look out at us against an emerald-green curtain that falls behind them. The woman has brown eyes, a straight nose, full pink lips, smooth cheeks, and a long neck. Her brown hair is pulled back under a turban densely embroidered with gold. The woman’s dress has puffed shoulders and decorative slashes on the sleeves. One gold chain rests on her throat and the other falls over her chest. She wears long gold earrings, a gold belt, and two gold rings. She holds a brown leather glove in her left hand. The boy’s face is even with the woman’s waist, and he raises his left hand to hold hers, which is draped over his shoulder. He has curly blond hair and dark eyes, and he wears black with a ruffled white shirt just visible at his collar.

Bronzino changed this portrait significantly some five or six years after it was finished by adding the boy. The addition turns the portrait into a dynastic monument; the two unidentified sitters must have been highly connected to Medici circles. Other changes increase the opulence and impressive display of the portrait—and the prestige of the sitters. Some of these can be seen clearly with the naked eye, especially the sleeve enlargements, where the added pigment is darker.

The boy’s ghostly paleness—he is painted over the green background—and his compressed position reflect the painting’s history as much as they do the artist’s decisions. What is typically mannerist, however, is the sitters’ reserved elegance and, for Bronzino, their cold hardness. The woman appears invulnerable behind her detachment. In the cruel intrigues of the Medici court, this was a useful, perhaps even necessary, protection.

Agnolo Bronzino, Italian, 1503 - 1572, A Young Woman and Her Little Boy, c. 1540, oil on panel, Widener Collection, 1942.9.6

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Adriaen de Vries was born in the Netherlands, but he spent considerable time in Italy. This statuette reveals the influence of Michelangelo and the Florentine sculptor Giambologna, with whom de Vries worked. The figures are powerful, their interaction energetic and dynamic. Even the surface is animated, reflecting light from restlessly modulated planes.

This statuette was made for the Hapsburg emperor Rudolph II in Prague, after de Vries had been appointed a court artist. An allegorical figure of Empire holds the wreath of victory over a vanquished figure of Avarice, a money bag at her feet. The theme of empire triumphant is natural enough, but why the triumph over avarice? In the early 1600s Rudolph was in a weakened political position and hard pressed to pay for his wars against the Turks. He blamed his failures on grudging and insufficient financial support. At least in his private study, where he kept this bronze, he could contemplate an unrealized triumph over stingy “allies.”

Adriaen de Vries, Netherlandish, c. 1556 - 1626, Empire Triumphant over Avarice, 1610, bronze, Widener Collection, 1942.9.148

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