The style we have called “mannerism” spread from Central Italy to dominate much of Europe for more than half of the 16th century. Yet mannerism has proven susceptible to such radically opposed readings that it may be viewed as an art of angst and alienation, or by contrast as a confident and untroubled ornament of the period’s rapidly expanding court culture. It is no surprise, then, that some scholars advocate abandoning the concept altogether. Yet a refusal to face the historiographic aporia staged by mannerism forecloses a full reckoning with much of the most innovative art of early modernity. Bronzino’s Bodies and Mannerism’s Masks proposes that mannerism’s availability to a dizzying range of interpretation paradoxically reveals its coherence as a cultural phenomenon. Many mannerist works exhibit a self-conscious elusiveness that at once encourages and resists interpretive gambits; their own operations inaugurate the interpretive conundrum we still confront.
The mask and the nude are preeminent emblems of this art, apparent antipodes that are in fact intimately related. The mask appears to conceal; but in mannerist works, masks may instead become sites of revelation. The nude appears to reveal, yet could itself become a mask and a cipher; a 1548 treatise encouraged ambitious painters to ensure that at least one figure in every work was “contorted, mysterious, and difficult, so that you may be regarded as a painter of worth by those who understand art’s perfection.” Self-consciously obsessed with style, mannerist art might certainly ornament court culture. Yet style itself could become a mask in this art, enveloping the narrative and iconographic imperatives of church and state within its own discourses. A gap could thus open between artistic processes and the institutional purposes of public art, an ambiguous space with the potential to harbor unsanctioned readings and counter-narratives in a world experiencing unprecedented political and religious upheaval. This is nowhere truer than in Florence, which was caught up in a violent and protracted transformation from republic to Medici principality during the same decades in which it emerged as a center of increasingly heterodox reform sympathies.
It is in this environment that the inventive and transgressive art of the leading Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572) became the fulcrum for the imbricated questions of body, mask, and mannerism that animate my project. Bronzino has been perceived as quintessentially “mannerist” by scholars from otherwise opposed interpretive camps; but his at once exemplary and idiosyncratic engagement with body and mask moves between, even undermines, dominant understandings of mannerism. He shares with Michelangelo (1475–1564) a radical commitment to the nude, even in sacred art, that has been called mannerist. Indeed, along with his mentor Pontormo (1494–1557), Bronzino creates the limit cases of a Christian art grounded in the body. Yet while Michelangelo moved increasingly from initial life studies to ever more preternatural figures, drawing the body from fallen flesh toward a sublime intimation of what an awed contemporary called “the perfections of God,” Pontormo and Bronzino repeatedly allowed traces of lanky studio models to bleed into the “ideal” nudes of finished works, destabilizing Michelangelo’s already contested investment in the sacred nude with the sensation of skin and the trace of the studio.
Moreover, Pontormo and Bronzino at once radicalize and ironize period claims that the best contemporary art vied with divine creation itself in its powers of animation. In a number of their works, this strategy is exemplified by prominent masks that attain such uncanny animacy that the faces of the paintings’ “real” figures begin to appear masklike in comparison. In some instances, these animating masks may become a kind of chorus, commenting enigmatically on the histories and allegories which they frame or in which they lie strewn. Inspired by such experiments, Francesco Salviati (1510–1563) introduced an undercurrent of ambivalence into his frescoes of Roman triumph for Cosimo de’ Medici’s audience hall by fashioning animate masks that appear to respond with shock and opprobrium to the apparently celebratory frescoes.
Bronzino’s Bodies and Mannerism’s Masks examines the operations of body and mask in the most ambitious Florentine art of the 1520s to 1560s—from Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, through history painting for the new Medici regime and the portraits and mythologies of Bronzino, to Bronzino’s transgressive late religious paintings—to reconsider how the exceptional cultivation of artifice associated with much mannerist art could open new spaces for reflection and agency, and for their dissimulation. The book recovers an art driven by experimentation and excess and shadowed by masking, dissimulation, and irony—an art that engenders a poetics of style which frequently appears calculated to exceed, even to destabilize, its ostensible political and religious functions.
University of Washington
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2020–2021
Stuart Lingo will return to the University of Washington, where he is Donald E. Petersen Endowed Professor in the Division of Art History. During the 2022 spring semester, he will be in Florence as a visiting professor at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.