Fingers poised, I am about to type out a lecture on the period of art styled Mannerism, but am uncertain where to start. Yes, Florence again, not in the workshops that forged the talent of young Michelangelo and Raphael in the late 1400s, but in the Florentine court of the late Medici in the 1520s. Why did an artist like Parmigianino then paint an elongated Madonna with nipples and tummy button clearly visible under her blue robe and angels only half entering the picture frame on the left? I wonder at the gesticulating Christ child who seems to be slipping off the virgin’s lap. The pose is preposterous, the feeling of the work almost unholy, so who could have commissioned it and where was it to be hung? I happened to be in the Uffizi Gallery thinking such thoughts when a bomb went off in the street just below it and everyone was cleared out of the museum.
I wonder whether in the 1520s new dyes in the Florentine textile industry used flame colour for hair and pastel shades of blue and green for fabrics with light pink for flesh? Did these paintings stylishly depict the underlying unease in the entourage that once surrounded wealthy merchants like the Pazzi, Rucellai and early Medici, but had now migrated to the princely court of the 16th-century Medici dukes? The seductive sheen, shimmering colours and sensuous poses of courtly fashion had even crept into religious paintings about the time Raphael was completing his last works in the Vatican staterooms or ‘stanze’.
From the first decade of the sixteenth century Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael the staterooms nearby under the patronage of the della Rovere Pope Julius II, followed by the Medici Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo il Magnifico, who is said to have encouraged young Michelangelo to work in his sculpture garden. Why did both of these artists, so skilled in depicting figures in space like ours in their early works, elongate or distort human figures in their later ones? Look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling depicting key scenes from the Old Testament and then turn, more comfortably, to gaze at the towering late Last Judgement on the altar wall, and you see the work of the older Michelangelo, long after Raphael’s death. Space is compressed and figures are more tightly linked, even distorted.
Many explanations have been given for the change in the late work of Michelangelo and Raphael that paved the way for the ‘stylish style’ called Mannerism. Some see it as an artistic reaction to the political and religious upheavals of the time, from the Reformation to the wars between rival principalities and dukedoms in Italy and Germany and the emerging nation-states of France, Spain and England. Others see it as the way great artists do not thrive on repeating the same sort of works in the same style however popular with patrons and public, but choose instead to change and experiment – to create.
Even in his lifetime, Michelangelo was called ‘the divine Michelangelo’.