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Bronzino and the Style(s) of Mannerism


Zlatan Gruborović

January 2008

Submitted to the Faculty of Bryn Mawr College

in partial fulfilment of the requirements for
the degree of Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation focuses on the paintings of the Florentine Mannerist Agnolo

Bronzino (1503-1572) and what we call the difference in their styles, which we set within
the larger framework of Mannerism as a particular moment in art history.

It is clear that Bronzino’s paintings, as Mannerist, often have been considered

inferior by comparison to works of the High Renaissance. But in thinking about
Bronzino here we explore the norms of artistic evaluation of both moments as well as the
idea of a decline which has coloured so much of what has been said about Mannerism
and of Bronzino and his work, especially of his later paintings.
To look in this way at the oeuvre of Bronzino also raises the question of whether
here we can see the possibility of his working not in a unified style, but in a number of
styles that Bronzino applied to different types of painting. Thus we address the meaning
of the word style because of its significance also for positioning Bronzino’s stylistically
varied work within the larger artistic context of the period.
Another cultural concept we addressed is the notion of epigonicity. This term we
use here to refer to evaluation based on both the idea of stylistic development and then
of its decline. Related to the problem of the artistic value of the work done after a
forerunner of a style, such epigonicità is used often in the dispute about the artistic
quality of the artists who lived in the time after the peak of art was reached with
Michelangelo. In this project we examine how far Bronzino can be spoken of as an
epigone of Michelangelo.
This dissertation combines several levels of speculation and historiography,
taking into account more general descriptions of Mannerism, style(s) and maniera, as
well as an analysis of particular paintings by Bronzino. Yet such apparent complexity is
in a profound sense a reflection of the Bronzino’s paintings themselves, produced within
the richly layered culture of sixteenth-century Florence.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgement 4

Introduction 5 – 11

Definition of Terms and Methodology 12 – 20

Chapter I. Bronzino's Opus 21 – 43

Chapter II. Reception of Bronzino’s Work (and of Mannerism in General) 44 – 86

Chapter III. Maniera, Style and Mannerism. The Style(s) of Bronzino 87 – 151

Chapter IV. Epigonicità 152 – 226

Conclusion 227 – 230

Bibliography 231 – 238


We1 would like to thank the members of the History of Art Department of the Bryn
Mawr College for all their support. More specifically, we are deeply thankful to our
adviser and mentor, Dr. David Cast, for all his patience and kindness in helping us
define and refine both our dissertation and its style. We are indebted to Dr. Alice A.
Donohue for introducing us to the different concepts of the term style, which become
one of the major subjects in this work. We are thankful to Dr. Steven Levine for his
warmth and understanding as well as for his precious corrections of the imperfect
version of this dissertation. Dr. Homay King was a careful reader and her appreciation
of certain materials that otherwise were considered inferior in our work made us rethink
the whole concept of writing in a foreign language. Finally, late Professor Phyllis Pray
Bober needs to be mentioned here, since her kind introductions to unknown works and
phenomena of art echo in every museum we have visited since we met her.

Ms. Joanne Stearns needs to be mentioned as a very special and rare friend – without her
support, we probably would never have finished this work. And finally, we would like
to thank my Mother, Mrs. Radmila Gruborovic, who by virtue of compromising her own
emotional security and by giving me her unconditional encouragement made our
intellectual enterprise (modest, as it is) possible. We dedicate this dissertation to Mrs.
Gruborović and to Ms. Stearns.

Bryn Mawr, May, AD 2008

It needs to be stated and clarified here that in this dissertation the reader will be addressed by the writer in 
plural, and that this was a mere stylistic choice, which does not imply any particular approach to writing 
about art.  

Zlatan Gruborović


In his recent book published on Agnolo Bronzino, Maurice Brock made a number of

lengthy comments on his religious paintings. As an introduction to this particular group

of Bronzino’s pictures, he wrote:

“It goes without saying that some of Bronzino’s private devotional pictures are
universally admired,…, but, all in all, his altarpieces remain unloved.”2

2 Brock, Maurice, Bronzino (Paris: Flammarion; London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 240.

It might be useful to compare these lines by Brock with those written by Arthur McComb in 1928, in the
"Preface" to his book Agnolo Bronzino; His Life and Works. McComb offered what seemed to us an interesting
yet peculiar account of the reception of Bronzino’s art in Anglo-American circles. Of the neglect accorded
Bronzino’s work by English and American connoisseurs and philistines alike, McComb wrote:

“It is a curious fact that practically nothing has been written in English about Bronzino. We may look for the
reason, at least partly, in the fact that unlike many more 'primitive' artists – Botticelli, for example –
Bronzino has never stood in need of rehabilitation. Always severe enough in style to win the suffrage of the
aesthetic connoisseur, he was yet sufficiently representational to cause the Philistine with a 'fancy for
pictures' no misgivings. He thus escaped alike violent detraction and passionate defence. He escaped, in fact,
being written about.” [McComb, Arthur Kilgore, Agnolo Bronzino; His Life and Works, (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1928): "Preface," no page number, Emphasis Added..].

We used the word peculiar because we believe that McComb’s argument symptomatises the condition to
which it points. That is to say that despite the acuity of his view – he saw that there is something curious
about the fact that Bronzino “has escaped being written about” – McComb failed to notice something crucial
in the mystery of Bronzino’s reception. We would suggest that McComb failed to notice that Bronzino may
have been excluded from the art-historical discourse by virtue of being a Mannerist artist.

Whereas Bronzino’s work within the art-historical discourse became more ‘visible’, Brock, like McComb,
fails to see the obvious reason for the disliking of Brozino’s religious images: that they were not received
well since they were painted.

And such a preference in artistic value within the same genre he explains further in the

following way:

“…the painter [Bronzino] always proceeded by imitating art. In his eyes, proxemic3
status had no business affecting style: the fact that a work was intended for public,
official, or merely private presentation entailed no specific modifications in choice of

We have decided to begin our work on Bronzino, and on his style, or styles, and on

Mannerism as a stylistic period, with a quotation, and thus like Bronzino we risk being

labelled as “Mannerist”5 ourselves. But we did this in order to demonstrate one of the

recurring themes in art commentary on Mannerism and Bronzino himself and the

prevalence of the old criticism of his work that still exists even in contemporary art-

historical discourse. For whilst Brock could have chosen any number of ways to

comment on Bronzino’s religious paintings, he almost without any adaptation (if not by

virtue of mere adoption), criticised them in the same way as Raffaelle Borghini did in

1586, even if he did not at this point in his book acknowledge this particular and well-

known art historical source. And one would expect that in such a recent publication on

Bronzino, lavishly decorated as it is with paintings from all of the genres of painting

Bronzino worked in, and written also with passion for formal analysis, some fresher and

3[We found it useful to include the definition of the word “proxemic” here. According to the Oxford English
Dictionary online database, it derives from proxemics: “The study of the spaces that people feel it necessary
to set between themselves and others as they vary in different social settings, or between different social
groups or cultures; also the study of the feeling for space between people as it is manifested in aspects of
culture such as the planning of houses or towns, in language, etc. Hence proxemic a., of, relating or
pertaining to proxemics]

4 Ibid., 240.

5This title we would attain by virtue of imitating or referring to other works, in this case, to a quote from a
book by Maurice Brock.

less condescending attitude towards Bronzino would be found. However, the text, for all

of its thoroughness, reads like a new gown made of patches of old criticism, woven

together and then camouflaged by the phrase “the art of reference”6 that Brock

introduced to escape the term Mannerism in all its negative connotations. Brock claimed

such were the pictures of Bronzino, that in all of them there are references to a painting

or a sculpture by Michelangelo, used deliberately by Bronzino to strengthen his position

as a Florentine painter and to affirm his stylistic adherence to fiorentinità, a term used by

Brock to refer to a specific sense of belonging to the city of Florence both in the political

as well as in the artistic sense. For Brock, Bronzino painted in the way he wrote poetry –

and this enterprise of Pontormo’s follower today still remains almost without any

audience – where he made constant and often jocular references to the works of earlier

Florentine poets, and to Petrarch in particular.

We also used Brock’s critique here as an example of the numerous accounts of criticism

that often will be read and contested in this dissertation. And now it may still be of use

to say here that the essential subject of this dissertation are the paintings by Agnolo

Bronzino (1503-1572) and the tradition of critical response that has grown up around

them in the more than four centuries since they were painted. The pictures of Bronzino

today are very well known in any history of sixteenth-century art. But his work,

stylistically varied and complex as it is, remains still a subject for further investigation.

And perhaps in this thesis more than in the work of other scholars who have written

recently on Bronzino, we will attempt to concentrate both on the visual evidence of the

6 Ibid., 19.

paintings themselves and on the long tradition of criticism in all its patterns and variety

that has accumulated about him and his work.

It is clear that Bronzino’s paintings, as Mannerist, have often been considered inferior

when compared to works by the painters of the High Renaissance. But in this

dissertation we will attempt to explore further the norms of artistic valuation of both

moments or periods or styles (that is, the norms of Renaissance and of Mannerism) as

well as the idea of a decline which, it must be recognised, has coloured so much of what

has been said about Bronzino and his work, especially of his later paintings. Such an

account of the notion of rise and decline was to be found in the work of Giorgio Vasari,

and it is his treatment of Bronzino that will be especially important for us, not only in

what he says about Bronzino and the artists around him – especially Michelangelo

Buonarotti – but also because within his narrative there is a clear account of the idea of

progress and decline, borrowed from the similar accounts of cultural decline found in

antiquity. It is from this account by Vasari and from, as we now recognise, many other

similar accounts of artistic progress and decline in later writers that we will look at

Bronzino’s pictures and of their place within the whole tradition of sixteenth-century


With Bronzino, it is perhaps his portraits that first come to the modern mind. But his

religious and allegorical paintings still remain less studied, which is especially

interesting since in the sixteenth century they may have been more important if more

troublesome than any of these portraits. We will be concerned here with these later

religious works, such as the Descent of Christ into Limbo, (Florence, Soprintendenza alle

Gallerie, 1552, fig. 43.), the Resurrection of Christ (1552, Santissima Annunziata, Florence,

fig. 44.), Noli Me Tangere (1560-65, Musée du Louvre, Paris, fig. 51.) and most

importantly – the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1569, San Lorenzo, Florence, fig. 56.). All of

these have been severely criticised and then neglected, in this way also being made less

accessible to later ages. And of the four mentioned, still most strictly criticised is The

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, and for all that has been said of this monumental composition,

we would rather see it here as signalling a fundamental shift in Bronzino’s stylistic


To look in this way at the complete work of Bronzino raises also the question of whether

we are to see here the possibility not of a unified style, but of a number of styles, which

according to the then contemporary demands of decorum and genre Bronzino applied to

each type of painting in which he worked. We will also seek to answer whether such

stylistic diversity was something particularly characteristic of Bronzino or of the period

in general. Thus, addressing the word style seems necessary not only because of the

prevalence of this term in today’s critical discourse on Mannerism (as seen in such

phrases attempting to define Mannerism as stylized style or as stylish style), but also

because of its significance for positioning Bronzino’s apparently varied work within the

larger historical framework of the period. It would be unrealistic to claim that in this

dissertation we will come close to defining as elusive a term as style;7 however, it will be

7Here perhaps one can remember that “[a]ccording to George Kubler, ‘style is a word of which the
everyday use has deteriorated in our time to the level of banality.’” [Sohm, Philip, Style in the Art Theory of
Early Modern Italy (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1]

Moreover, it seems that the studies in Mannerism suffered as a consequence of the very position of style in
recent art-historical discourse:

possible and necessary to analyse some part of the historical development of this notion

and the relationship between style and the ever changing accounts on maniera, as well as

between style and later, yet also instable accounts of Mannerism. At this point, a reader

who is disinclined to connect our simultaneous approach to the period in general and to

an opus of an individual painter may question our approach. And such a question may

simply be simulated here: Why is the general critical discourse about Mannerism central

for understanding the responses to Bronzino? As a reply, we would suggest – and we

can only hope we will manage to prove here – that the reception of Bronzino’s paintings

by scholars was mediated by the more general attitudes of the authors (writers on art

and later art historians) in their periods towards Mannerism as a style. For unlike the

work of most painters of the High Renaissance, the paintings of Bronzino have not been

always praised, and this was essentially a consequence of the predominantly negative

critical response to Mannerism which started in the late sixteenth century and – perhaps

surprisingly – still is present in much of the discourse of contemporary art-history.

Although this is not indicated directly in the title of this work, we will be interested also

in what we can call the notion of epigonicity, a general term which here emerges as a

consequence of an evaluation based on an idea of stylistic development and then of its

decline. Related to the problem of artistic value of the work done after a forerunner of a

style, such epigonicità (the term epigonoi meaning after-comers) refers to a dispute about

the artistic supremacy of the artists who lived in the time after the peak of art was

reached with Michelangelo (or, more generally speaking, with the artists of the High

“Mannerism, the period style premised on either a celebration or and excess of style, suffered from a similar
fate.” [Ibid., 8]

Renaissance), and who thus were seen as inferior to their predecessor(s). In this thesis

we would like to see how far Bronzino could be seen as an epigone of Michelangelo and

whether such a claim then leads us back again to all the problems of imitation and

decline within the general history of culture.

It may seem that this dissertation combines several levels of speculation and

historiography, here taking into account more general descriptions of terms such as

Mannerism, style and maniera, as well as an analysis of the particular paintings from the

period itself. Yet the need for such apparent complexity is there in all the visual evidence

of Bronzino’s paintings themselves, produced as they were within the rich and layered

culture of sixteenth-century Florence. We can only hope that our thesis will succeed in

shedding new light on the often misinterpreted, denigrated and obscured late paintings

by Bronzino.

Definitions of Terms and Methodology

Before we proceed to the methodological and structural issues of this dissertation,

certain definitions may be required here. First, the term “Mannerism”8 will be used in

this text as a stylistic and chronological denominator of a non-evaluative kind, and it

will refer here to a period style in Italian painting (and art in general) between the 1520s

and 1600.9 The debate on the appropriate term for the stylistic period, which we called

Mannerism, still is acute and demonstrates very clearly the difficulty of forming a

consensus on this particular epoch in art history. Recent books such as that by David

Franklin seem to show still a certain negative attitude to the term “Mannerism.” Authors

such as Franklin, whom we will introduce further in the text, attempt either to replace

the term “Mannerism” with terms “Renaissance” and/or “High Renaissance, or to

abolish it completely, and replace it with elusive time-related categories (such as art after

8 We decided to capitalise the letter “M” in “Mannerism” in this text since we believe that the style of the
Mannerists had gained its legitimacy as a stylistic rather than as a pejorative denominator.
9 It is believed that Mannerism started either with Raphael’s (1520) death or after the Sack of Rome (1527).

The date used for its end varies – it usually coincides with the date when the Baroque emerged. The
periodisation of Mannerism itself, that is, the further delineation of different periods within Mannerism
itself will be addressed in great detail in this dissertation.

the Renaissance or sixteenth-century art), leaving the stylistically disjointed paintings to be

categorised by genres rather than by period or style. Since Franklin’s book is the most

recent work that addresses the issues of styles, we need to present it here briefly, for it

will help us contrast different approaches to periodisation and the question of terms in

stylistic analysis, topics of substantial interest when analysing Mannerism.

In the introduction to his work Painting in Renaissance Florence 1500-1550, Franklin in an

almost Herostrates-like manner explained why he thought the use of terms such as

Mannerism and High Renaissance were dangerous and perhaps even inappropriate when

describing Florentine art of the Cinquecento. Firstly, he posited that the High

Renaissance and Mannerism are antagonistic:

“Indeed, the High Renaissance could not exist without its Mannerist nemesis.”10

Franklin then referred in a rather negative way to Mannerism as to “that compound

known in varying guises as Mannerism, first as a period of spiritual anxiety, and, more

recently, as one of intensive formal sophistication.”11 To prove that neither the term

“High Renaissance” nor “Mannerism” are applicable to all the artists of this period,

Franklin gives an example of Andrea del Sarto’s development, which, in his account,

evades the formal barrier of the two styles. He also quotes Vasari, who included both

Leonardo and Salviati in his third period of stylistic development, which Franklin saw

as an error in stylistic evaluation on Vasari’s account. In Franklin’s own words – and

10 Franklin, David, Painting in Renaissance Florence 1500-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 1.
11 Ibid.

with some part of his intention we may agree – his concern in the book “will be to

promote heterogeneity, not linearity, by isolating artistic strands rather than to argue for

general historical trends of an indefensibly loose and monolithic nature.”12

However, Franklin still distinguished between two groups of the Florentine artists in

1500-1550: “one filled with the innovators of heterogeneous styles who were mainly

preoccupied with the complexities of process”13 and the second group “[c]omprised

more respectful and complacent artists of homogenous and artificial styles, who were

inclined to repeat themselves with preset formal solutions.”14 Hence, what he refused to

distinguish by applying labels such as “Mannerism” and “High Renaissance,” he

discerned by virtue of a descriptive evaluation, which incorporates the very word style

which he seemed to decry.

However, for Franklin, there can be no Mannerist reaction against High Renaissance art

because “there was no normative High Renaissance for the artists so labelled [i.e., for the

Mannerists] to contradict.”15 Thus, by giving a few examples (and thus avoiding to

discuss the whole issue) and by quoting Vasari, Franklin attempted to undo the usual

and yet simple binary opposition which was used by Walter Friedlaender for

distinguishing the Early Maniera from the High Renaissance. Yet he does not allow the

complexity of the relationship between Renaissance and Mannerism to enter his

discourse – he resolves this important issue by erasing both terms from his narrative and

thus denies the reader of a fuller historiographical account.

12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 1-2, Emphasis Added.
15 Ibid., 2.

We will provide yet another peculiar example of scholarly treatment of Bronzino and

Mannerism here. Gordon Campbell in his very recent book Renaissance Art and

Architecture included Bronzino as a Renaissance painter without once mentioning the

word Mannerism. Here is an almost full quotation on Bronzino from this fourteen-

hundred entry book:

“... Italian painter and poet, born in Florence, where he trained in the studio of Jacopo
da Pontormo, whose Martyrdom of San Lorenzo (in the Florentine Church of San Lorenzo)
he was to complete in 1569. Bronzino’s subjects were often religious (e.g. Christ in Limbo,
1552, Uffizi) or mythological (e.g. An Allegory of Venus and Cupid, 1540/50, National
Gallery, London). His finest and most influential pictures were courtly portraits, such as
his Portrait of a Young Man, Portrait of a Lady, and Pierro de’Medici (all in the National
Gallery in London), Eleanor of Toledo and her Son (Uffizi), and Portrait of a Young Man
(Metropolitan Museum, New York).”16

Interestingly, Campbell’s account of Mannerism is a positive one, and the term

Mannerism is included as a lengthier entry:

“The notion of repudiation of the ideals of Raphael and early Michelangelo by the
artists of the period 1530 to 1590 is a fiction invented to support a historiographical
theory. Such artists were not, however, content merely to replicate the achievements of
their predecessors. The importance of neoplatonism in sixteenth-century thought
encouraged a movement away from realism towards idealism and fantasy, and also
encouraged a taste for novelty ... and for esoteric allusion.”17

The question that we can only propose here without being able to speculate on the reply

of the author would be: If Mannerism was “the repudiation of the ideals of Raphael and

Michelangelo”18 and yet it resulted in “a taste for novelty,”19 then why is Bronzino not

16 Campbell, Gordon, Renaissance Art and Architecture (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2004),
17 Ibid.,163

18 Ibid.,163.

named a Mannerist and why are his portraits, being closest to the realism of the

nineteenth century, still are called his finest works?

The problems about the term Mannerism and with Bronzino remain present in scholarly

debates in vivo as well. For Dr. Alexander Nagel in his talk “The Volatile Art of the

Sixteenth Century,”20 advocated the total exclusion of the term Mannerism, because of

its allegedly singularly negative connotation. And also, at a more recent conference at

the University of Pennsylvania21 on April 1st-2nd 2005 Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt of

New York University expressed similar attitude towards Mannerism, suggesting that

the term “High Renaissance” is not a proper term in art history any more, applying the

same attitude towards “Mannerism,” and claiming that it was not a style but based on a

periodisation that was a product of which she called the “Platonist,” “nominal” and

“Continental” approach to art history.

We hope to show later that by erasing the term Mannerism completely from the art

historical discourse greater harm than service can be done to an understanding of this

period. Although we believe that the terms Mannerism, maniera and style, because of the

possible negative connotations and the complexities of their separate histories, need to

be addressed carefully, to dismiss the term Mannerism altogether would erase its

important yet problematic history, which would then distance us forever from

19 Ibid.,163.

20 Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 2004.

21 The conference was titled: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Sala del Maggior Consiglio.

perceiving what we can see as important changes that occurred in Italian art after the


The inclination to see Mannerism as a continuation of High Renaissance or Renaissance

may be grounded in the dislike some scholars have of the terminology used since the

famous essay by Walter Friedlaender,22 but it is certainly difficult then to understand

their preference for a term that was invented later (i.e. the High Renaissance, the term

that Dr. Weil-Garris Brandt dismissed as historically unfounded) and which is almost as

all-inclusive and nebulous as the term Mannerism itself.

As for the term style, the attempt to define it may be futile. We intend neither to write a

history of that concept here nor to offer its definition, but merely to say that in the title of

this dissertation this term refers to the particularities of individual artistic expression of

the artist as well as to the formal qualities inherent in any particular period of art. What

we intend to show here is that in a highly developed culture the two meanings of this

term can be closely related. Furthermore, an entire chapter of this thesis will trace the

intertwining of the terms style, maniera and Mannerism, and attempt to apply such

critical curvilinear progression to the style or styles of Bronzino.

We need to introduce the third term connected to both Mannerism and style: namely

decline. Because Mannerism often was seen as a decline, or one that occurred after the

peak of art had been reached in the High Renaissance. Although the Oxford English

22Friedländer, Walter, “Die Enshtehung des antiklassischen Stiles in der intalienischen Malerei um 1520,”
Reportium für Kunstwissenschaft 46 (1925), 49-86.

Dictionary defined the terms decline and decadence as almost synonymous, in the context

of this paper we preferred to use the term decline instead of the term decadence, because

the term decadence is perhaps too closely associated with the Decadent movement.23 That

is to say that we will avoid the word decadence because, in the course of the nineteenth-

century fin-de-siècle, it assumed a mostly positive tenor, according decline both an

aesthetic and an ethical metaphorical value. Further, the phrase model of decline denotes a

particular schema describing the process of (art) historical development as a cyclical

alteration of periods of rise and decline.24

Having introduced the main terms as well as the importance of criticism and its history

when looking anew at or reading about Bronizno’s oeuvre, we now would like to move

to the structure of this thesis. In the First chapter we will provide the details of

Bronzino’s life and work. We will define then the genres and stylistic periods recognised

by scholars within Bronzino’s opus, which will be useful when discussing his styles and

their decorum. Here we will follow attributions of Maurice Brock and Charles


The Second chapter will also include historiography of Mannerism and historiography

of Bronzino’s works. These two accounts we found necessary to intertwine because

Bronzino in earlier historical accounts merely was enumerated amongst the Mannerists,

23 This is not to say that we consider readings based on the nineteenth-century definition of decline

unsubstantiated. Charles McCorquodale, for example, made compelling references to Huysmans when
interpreting Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid (London, National Gallery, 1540-45). [Cf. McCorquodale,
Charles, Bronzino (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 89]

24 This of course means that the better term to use would have been the model of rise and decline. However, we

did not use this longer term, in order both to achieve brevity of expression and to relate our reader directly
to the period we are investigating (i.e. Mannerism), which is seen as the last fragment of the sequence in
such cyclical model of the development in the arts (i.e. as a decline).

his works to be recognised and studied individually only in the twentieth century.

Finally, a recent account on Bronzino and Mannerism which emerged indirectly from

studies of contemporary art compared to Bronzino’s works will be shown here.

The Third chapter will begin with general accounts on style and maniera most

importantly by Marco Treves and continue to more general accounts of Meyer Schapiro.

Then we will explain the model of rise and decline, as applied to particular periods in

art history, especially to the sequence of styles now called Renaissance, Mannerism and

Baroque. This general notion will be of help then to understand the position of Bronzino

and his paintings and their different styles within the discourse on his work. As we have

emphasised previously, we intend to show that Broznino’s religious paintings executed

later in his opus (seen uniformly as a decline in his opus today) actually present him as a

stylistically flexible painter who adopted different styles for different subject-matters or


The Fourth chapter addresses the problem of epigonicity, a notion rarely discussed by

other scholars on Bronzino. Thus we first will introduce the term epigonoi as defined in

Greek tragedy, and then continue to explore different connotations that the term

acquired in history and culture. Before looking at Bronzino’s works, said to have been

done under Michelangelo’s influence, we briefly will address Vasari’s biography of

Michelangelo and Michelangelo’s late works, such as The Last Judgement, and their

reception under the Counter-Reformation. After this we will analyse later religious

paintings by Bronzino, especially the Martyrdom of St Lawrence. We intend to interpret

this monumental fresco, once called one of “Mannerism’s most monumental failures,”25

as a signal of Bronzino’s acknowledgement of the forthcoming Classicism. Finally, we

will consider the question of epigonicity of this work which, in our view, looks into the

future rather than into the past.

The Conclusion will question the properties of the arguments we have presented and

attempt to produce a synthesis of them, as well as estimate their potential influence on

the position of Bronzino’s paintings in the current critical history of sixteenth-century art.

The structure of those chapters that address the problems of style and epigonicity is

determined by the need to explain these difficult major theoretical notions before

discussing the reception and criticism of Bronzino’s paintings. We believe and we will

attempt to show that Bronzino’s opus was never analysed without taking into account

the general criticism and evaluation of the period style of Mannerism. Thus most of the

comments on Bronzino’s work we have included and questioned in this dissertation can

be traced to the critical vocabulary that has accumulated around Mannerism. Because of

this, in our chapters we move from the general and more difficult notions to the

particular examples influenced by the first.

As for the style of this text, we need to emphasise also that we will be looking at textual

as well as visual evidence in this work, and that such an approach will demand shifts in

our narrative, in its style as well as in methodology. Thus, often we will resort to formal

analysis of paintings found to be very important for our research, as well as to close

McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 154

analysis of early and contemporary texts regarding Bronzino’s paintings and Mannerism

in general. In order to present our material here as clearly as possible, we will do our

best, further in the text as well as in this brief acknowledgement, to warn the reader of

the shifts in narrative which came as a result of the methodological apparatus we chose

to apply here. And we again need to say that we both in the style and in the

methodology of this thesis attempted to capture a reflection of the layers of art history

and culture, revealed to us already or still emerging in art-historical debates and


Chapter I. Bronzino's Opus

In this chapter we would like to present a brief account of Bronzino’s life as well as of

his pictorial opus. Although by now many art historians have focused on Bronzino’s

works, either by taking into account his entire opus, or more often by commenting on

individual works and on certain groups of works (portraits, or religious works in

particular locations) we will find it necessary rather to show the diversity within

Bronzino’s work in all of its complexity. Our attempt here to construct a typology or to

determine different genres within his opus will serve our further aims: the account of

these genres will help us understand the various and contradictory accounts made of

Bronzino, even today. The task here is not to re-establish a new value system or to prefer

one genre or style (which we may see in his opus) and neglect another, but to try to

remove the layers of historical narratives which operate still in the critical, and visual

field today, those layers which obfuscate certain paintings by Bronzino and by virtue of

contrast make others more legible, if not even more intelligible.

We know little about the early years of Agnolo Bronzino26. He was born on 17th

November 1503, in the suburb of Monticelli, outside of Florence. It is believed he was of

a modest origin – his father was a butcher, and his modest family origins (“of ‘honest,

humble and poor parents,’”27) influenced that in written documents he appeared with a

rather complicated name (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano di Agnolo di Antonio di

Agnolo di Toro), that consists of the names of his male ancestors, rather than a single

surname, which then in the sixteenth century was an upper class denominator. By 1529

Agnolo had acquired the nickname Bronzino28 which perhaps means “little bronze,”29

referring to his hair or his dark complexion that resembles that of bronze, and not to his

homosexuality30. Vasari claimed that he was depicted in Jacopo Pontormo’s famous

Story of Joseph (or Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, 1518, National Gallery, London, fig. 1.),

saying that Bronzino can be identified with the little boy with darker complexion or

bronze hair who sits by the steps to the left of the painting.

His emotional life remains a mystery to us, except for his devotion to his master

Pontormo, and his unusual family arrangement with the family of an armourer

26 We decided to follow the more recent accounts of his biography by McCorquodale (McCorquodale, Op.

Cit) and Maurice Brock (Brock, Op. Cit.), but we need to warn the reader here that we do not share the
opinions of either of the two authors of Bronzino’s paintings. To explain this further: both McCorquodale
and Brock follow the old criticism of Bronzino’s work by which his portraits are considered his best work,
and they both in their different ways interpret Broznino’s last paintings as decline within his oeuvre.

27 McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 9; the reference is to Raffaello Borghini’s dialogue Il Riposo (1584)
28 Brock traced a document from 24th July to 10th October 1529 referring to the painting Pietà with Mary
Magdalene (Church of Santa Trinità) in which the painter is signed as “’Agnoli di Chosimo pitore detto
Bronzino’” [Brock, Op. Cit.,13]. Brock also found another “antiquated” nickname that Bronzino invented for
himself – “’Crisero’” [Ibid.., 13] – and it seems that it interestingly comes from chrusos which means gold in
29 Ibid., 13.
30 Ibid., 13

Cristofano Allori, with whom he shared a household from around 1540 to 1546. Then

one of Allori’s sons, namely Alessandro Allori, became his pupil, and came to use the

surname Bronzino as his own.

Of Bronzino’s childhood and early artistic influences we know little. Charles

McCorquodale connected his artistic development with a rather detailed account of the

political circumstances during his formation as an artist and also speculated about early

influences on him, namely the Battle of Cascina (1504, destroyed in 1512) and The Holy

Family (or The Doni Tondo, 1504-1506, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), both by

Michelangelo Buonarotti. We will not follow the history of Florence in order to decipher

Bronzino’s works with different masters. However, we may agree that in those two

paintings which were of major influence to many artists of his generation Bronzino may

have encountered first the contorted positions of the bodies (that he then may have

taken to his liking), and it can be claimed that the Doni Tondo, with its high degree of

surface finish and elegance may have influenced his further stylistic development. In

addition, another artist relevant for his development was Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530),

the master also to Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. However, a later source says

that Bronzino in his childhood worked with Raffaellino del Garbo (1446-1524)31 and then

31 In order to present slightly different model of Bronzino’s stylistic development we will refer here to
Feinberg’s periodisation of his work which also includes changes in his style and artistic influences:
According to Feinberg, Bronzino first worked with del Garbo and by 1519 he Joined Pontormo’s workshop.
The next stage occurred in 1530 when “Bronzino embarked on an independent career” [this is the year of his
visit to Pesaro] although the painting created for the Duke of Urbino were “strongly Pontormoesque.”
Feinberg saw Bronzino as constantly striving to refine and polish Pontormo’s style, and that he achieved in
Medici court portraits. The London Allegory Feinberg called “a paradigm of High mannerism in Florence in
its congealed eroticism and courtly opacity” and it represented “the extreme to which Bronzino was willing
to take his art.” “In some respects it is a synthesis of the formal eccentricities he learned from Pontormo and
the cool sculptural style of Michelangelo; the Allegory has been seen as an homage to and inversion of the
latter’s Doni Tondo (1504, Uffizi).” [From Studio to Studiolo: Florentine Draftsmanship under the First Medici

with an unnamed “painter of ‘cose grosse’ or crudities.”32 The influence of Raffaellino,

who was also master to del Sarto, can be seen in what Charles McCorquodale calls

“formal clarity and technical proficiency in the use of paint”33 reflecting also a choice

Bronzino had made in 1514 between joining del Sarto or Pontormo, choosing the latter

of the two painters. If we believe that Bronzino was portrayed in Pontormo’s Story of

Joseph, we could conclude that Bronzino was present perhaps as a pupil at Pontormo’s

bottega even before 1520. What we also know from the documents from the period is

that he followed Pontormo as an assistant to the Certosa at Galuzzo in 1523, during the

outbreak of the plague in Florence, and that he also may have contributed to a few of the

paintings at the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicità, Florence, the work mainly done by

Pontormo from 1525-26 to 1528.

It is McCorquodale who has traced the earliest known work of Bronzino34 to Certosa del

Galuzzo claiming that Bronzino painted two paintings there at the Chiostro Grande

(grand cloister): a fresco The Man of Sorrows With Two Angels (1523, Certosa del Galuzzo;

Grand Dukes, ed. Feinberg, Larry J. (Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College; Seattle :
Distributed by University of Washington Press, 1991), 75]
According to Feinberg, the next phase in Bronzino’s opus commenced after his visit to Rome. Then Bronzino
decided to temper his style probably under influence of Girolamo Muziano (1532-92) and Girolamo
Siciolante da Sermoneta (1521-80). This new “sober manner” [Ibid., 75] can be seen in his Holy Family with
Saint Elizabeth and St. John (1546, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), although Feinberg here sees this
manner more as an option he applied on occasion than a radical turn in his style. The last phase Feinberg
described: “Like so many Florentine artists of the late sixteenth century, Bronzino exhibited an artistic
schizophrenia, shifting easily from conservative, even anachronistic, manner to one of the most pretentious
and overwrought artifice, as seen in his fresco of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence....” [Ibid., 75]
32 McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 13, reference here again is to Raffaello Borghini’s dialogue Il Riposo.

33Ibid., 13
34Not wishing to exercise the issues of authenticity of Bronzino’s paintings, we will follow here the
attributions made in McCorquodale, Op. Cit., and sometimes in Brock, Op. Cit., which seem to be quite
generous, as both authors occasionally included works which we believe are obvious studio copies, and
even works not executed by Bronzino at all. However, our task here in this chapter is not to judge these
assessments of others but to present what we believe to be Bronzino’s opus, and thus we need to rely on
authors who were in position to make claims about authenticity.

McCorquodale in the text called it Dead Christ Supported by Angels), and an oil and gesso

Angel Bringing the Palm and Wreath of Martyrdom to St. Lawrence on the Grille (1523,

Certosa del Galuzzo; referred again under a different title in the text, as Martyrdom of St.

Lawrence). He also proposed that even in these now damaged paintings we can see a

rather cruder manner that Bronzino followed before creating his own style. However,

we should keep in mind that it was in these frescoes that Pontormo also followed what

sometimes could be seen, as by Vasari, as the crude manner of Albrecht Dürer. In

addition these two pictures are in extremely poor condition and the attribution of these

is therefore rather difficult. Another painting McCorquodale mentioned is that of the St.

Benedict (mid-1520s, Badia, Florence; fresco transferred to canvas), seeing this also as

reflecting an unrefined manner in Bronzino’s stylistic development.

The first works by Bronzino that most authors accept are one or two of the four tondi

representing the Four Evangelists in the Capponi chapel of Santa Felicità, Florence,

painted between 1525 and 1528. The attribution of the four Evangelists varies from

author to author. McCorquodale proposed that only one of the four Evangelists in Sta

Felicità, namely St. John (1525-28, Capponi chapel, Santa Felicità, Florence, fig. 6), is by

Pontormo, whereas we would argue (and agree with Maurice Brock) that the two

Evangelists painted by Bronzino may have been St. Mark and St. Matthew (1525-28,

Capponi chapel, Santa Felicità, Florence). These, it should be noted, are almost

indistinguishable from the paintings done there by Pontormo.

The first works that are more firmly attributed to Bronzino and that are clearly

distinguishable from Pontormo’s work were painted before Bronzino’s sojourn to the

Court of Urbino at Pesaro in 1530. It seems that at in these first years Bronzino

established himself as a portrait painter, and it was in this genre that he firstly and

successfully separated himself from Pontormo. However, not all scholars agree in this

matter, and many argue that it was much later in Bronzino’s work that his style was

formed. We will agree here with Larry Feinberg, who in a study of Bronizno’s stylistic

development concluded that “[b]y 1530 Bronzino embarked on an independent

career,”35 although, according to the same author, the paintings created for the Duke of

Urbino were still “strongly Pontormoesque.”36

Portrait painting was also Bronzino’s most important activity in the following ten years,

when he painted that of Guidobaldo della Rovere (1532, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), A Lady

with a Dog37 (1529-30, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), A Lady in Green (1530,

Hampton Court, H.M. The Queen; a painting of arguable attribution) and Portrait of a

Young Man (Self-Portrait?) (1529, Metropolitan Museum, New York).

Bronzino’s religious works from that period include Holy Family with SS Anne and John

(1526-27, National Gallery, Washington, fig. 13.), Madonna and Child with St. John (1528,

Corsini Gallery, Florence, arguable attribution), The Dead Christ with the Madonna and the

Magdalen (1528-29, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, fig. 14.). The latter is seen by some

authors as a point in which Pontormo and Bronzino’s style diverged.

35 From Studio to Studiolo: Florentine Draftsmanship under the First Medici Grand Dukes, ed. Feinberg Larry J.

(Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College; Seattle: Distributed by University of Washington
Press, 1991), 75.

37Often this painting is attributed to Pontormo. Although Brock claimed that by now it is unanimously
attributed to Bronzino, we would have difficulties in making an accurate attribution.

During his stay at Urbino, Bronzino was introduced to the highly stylised atmosphere of

the court where a few years earlier Baldessare Castiglione had written Il Cortegiano.

Besides the portrait Guidobaldo della Rovere, the only other painting done by Bronzino

while in Urbino is The Story of Apollo and Marsyas (1531-32, Hermitage Museum, St.

Petersburg), for which a study exists at the Louvre. At Pesaro, according to

McCorquodale and Craig Hugh Smyth, Bronzino executed some of the fresco decoration,

and these two authors agreed that Allegory of Peace (1530-32, Villa Imperiale, Pesaro,

arguable attribution) is by him.

It seems that Bronzino might have stayed there at Urbino as a court painter had

Pontormo not asked him to return to Florence. And it was there on his return, during the

reign of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, that Bronzino first gained some status as an

important portrait painter, even though until 1537, when Cosimo I ascended the throne,

he received only one commission from the court. Bronzino most likely then met Giorgio

Vasari, who was in charge of the court paintings and decorations before 1537. Within his

view of the opus of Bronzino, the years between his arrival from Pesaro in 1532 and

admittance to the court in 1537 McCorquodale described as consolidation of his stylistic

development. However, this period is obscure since almost nothing from the work he

executed then (and that Vasari also mentioned) has survived, namely designs for

comedies, three decorative schemes for three villas – one of the Bettini and two of the

Medici family – and the apparati for the wedding between Cosimo I de’ Medici and

Eleonora of Toledo. The portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici as Orpheus (1537-39, Philadelphia

Museum of Art) which is now believed to have been executed before his marriage to

Eleonora of Toledo38 is the only commission that Bronzino may have received from the

court before Cosimo’s accession in 1537. In this mythological portrait Cosimo is

represented half naked, in a rather contorted pose, with indirect attributes of sexual

potency (seen in the positioning of the flute) which may or may not constitute a basis for

the claim that this portrait indeed was painted before the marriage. This work remains

the only potential proof of a direct commission that Bronzino was given from the

Medicis, since in the marriage decorations he was just one of the artists who executed a

rather complicated décor, which may have been planned by another artist, most likely

by Vasari. However, some authors such as McCorquodale saw the “complexity and

sophistication”39 and “mature version of the maniera”40 in the frescoes that later Bronzino

painted at the Eleonora Chapel as stemming from his development and his experiences in

these years. It seems that Bronzino during these five years also became familiar with the

intellectual elite of Florence, as most of his portraits represent men of letters. Perhaps it

was from such a context that Bronzino in 1538 began writing poetry and influences from

poetry can also be seen in his works at that time; namely in portraits of Dante, Petrarch

and Boccaccio he painted for Bettini’s villa41. Only the cartoon now in Munich42 can be

related without any doubt to these half-figure portraits Bronzino painted in the lunettes

for Bettini. At the same location Pontormo produced the painting which in a way will

haunt Bronzino whenever he will turn to painting allegories, namely his Venus and Cupid

(1533, Accademia, Florence), done after a cartoon by Michelangelo (which was also

38 If this was true, the proper dating for the portrait should be 1537. The fact that the portrait is still dated
between 1537 and 1539 undermines the claim that it was sent to Eleonora of Toledo before their marriage.
39 McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 41.

40 Ibid.
41 Of the three mentioned, the only picture that may have reached us is the one which Brock identified as
portrait of Dante, though it seems to us as a painting of arguable attribution which also is not mentioned by
any other author.
42 Portrait Head of Dante (1530, Graphische Sammlung, Munich; black chalk).

copied by Vasari). In the Medici villa at Careggi Bronzino also painted at the loggia the

allegories mentioned by Vasari as Fortune, Peace, Justice and Victory or Prudence, none of

which has survived.

There are a few Bronzino’s portraits from this period we still have: Boy with the Book

(1532-33, Castello Sforzesco, Milan), Andrea Doria as Neptune (1533, Pinacoteca Brera,

Milan), Young Man with a Lute (1534, Uffizi, Florence), Alessandro de’ Medici (1534-35,

Johnson Collection, Philadelphia, sometimes attributed to Pontormo) and Ugolino

Martelli (1535-36, Staatliche Museum, Berlin). In the books on Bronzino the accounts of

the portraits are usually followed by analysis of the drawings on which they are based.

We will not follow such an approach for it would open up the questions of authenticity,

and speculations on changes between the initial concept of the work and its final

execution, which are not useful for our particular approach to Bronzino. All that needs

to be said here is that the portraits as well as Bronzino’s letter on the paragone written in

1549 in response to Benedetto Varchi show Bronizno as a painter who is fully conversant

with the ways then of speaking about representation in all its truthfulness and

artificiality. Hence his portraits from this period may puzzle by their strange amalgam

of the real and the artificial – indeed, it was often claimed that it was by means of the

artificial that Bronzino depicted the real. And however this may appear to us today as

an inverted process of representation, in the Renaissance at that moment such an

approach was common and accepted within all that was acknowledged about the

concept of emulation and imitation.

From this period of his work also date the portraits of Bartolomeo Panciatichi (1540, Uffizi,

Florence) and of his wife Lucrezia Pantiatichi (1540, Uffizi, Florence). The former displays

Bronzino’s attention to details as well as to the particular positioning of the body parts

of the sitter, which are juxtaposed to what by the tradition of Albertian perspective is the

peculiar arrangement of the background, which also includes elements of architecture

not belonging to any architectural style of that moment.

At this stage in his career, Bronzino was mainly a portrait painter, for we have no record

of any major religious commissions given to him. The painting of this period that

escapes a clear genre designation is Pygmalion and Galatea (1529-30, Palazzo Vecchio,

Florence, fig. 23). And if the landscape in the background is seen often as influenced by

Northern paintings, the figures and the style of the altar in the foreground seem

undoubtedly Italian, mostly done under the influence of Pontormo and perhaps also

Parmigianino. Brock noted that the strange choice of the perspective seen in the steps of

the altar corresponds to the perspective of another painting – Pontormo’s Portrait of a

Halberdier (1529-30, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) – for which Pygmalion and

Galatea was a cover, and that seems to be a plausible observation. For us what seems

more important though is the level of stylisation and contortion of the bodies, which still

show Bronzino not yet as affected by Michelangelo’s work as in his later paintings.

Again, as in the portrait of Bartolomeo Panciatichi, the ornamentation of the sacrificial

altar needs scrupulous analysis since its visual and stylistic sources do not appear at all


The most important painting from this period remains the Adoration of the Shepherds

(1535-40, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) which many consider as Bronzino’s

radical turn to what now is often called the High Maniera. Yet this painting seems also

to belong to the High Renaissance tradition, in its symmetric arrangement, triangular

composition and obvious reliance on Leonardo’s works. Although some figures do

display the contorted positions of Mannerism, the overall impression is one of stability

and clarity, which had led some writers to speak of this painting as of the beginning of

the classicising phase of his work. Yet it seems to argue better that the Panciatichi

Madonna (1535, Uffizi, Florence) and The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and

a Female Saint, probably Saint Anne (1538-3943, National Gallery, London) would be taken

as signals of stylistic change in Bronzino’s work. The layering of the figures and the

compression of the space make these two works fundamentally different from the

Adoration, in which figures appear as isolated and positioned in space in far clearer a

way. The figures in the two aforementioned paintings of the Madonna and Child seem to

occupy almost the whole surface of the picture plane, and the background – along with

its explanatory role of assigning clear positions in the spatial grid to actors – disappears.

Historical circumstances which we cannot explain easily here brought the attention of

Grand Duke Cosimo I (1519-1579) to these diverse works of Bronzino’s, and as of 1537

he became the court painter of the Medici. Among the first dynastic portraits that

Bronzino painted for the Medici is that of Maria Salviati (1540, Kress Collection, San

Francisco), the mother of the Duke and a woman whose excellent lineage and political

skills helped Cosimo to rise to his position of the Duke. What then follows is a series of

43 Sometimes dated between 1540-50.

portraits, religious paintings and apparati for masques and festivals that Bronzino

executed as official painter to the court of the Grand Duke Cosimo I. Accordingly, it

seems that one of Bronzino’s first commissions was to design the elaborate and

temporary decorations which are only known from Vasari for the marriage of the Duke

to Eleonora de Toledo, the daughter of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. This marriage

was of great importance to Cosimo I, because it made a clear political statement of his

alliance to the Emperor (who along with Pope Clement VII helped the Medici to regain

their rule in Florence in the 1530s) and created a dynastic link to the prestigious courts in

Madrid and Vienna. Thus these temporary works, that today appear as a less important

and lost segment of Bronzino’s oeuvre, may have been then of utmost importance both

for him and for his patron. It seems that Bronzino also executed many similar

decorations for comedies, and it is interesting that for the marriage decorations of

Cosimo I Bronzino painted, on the base of Tribolo’s equestrian statue of Giovanni de’

Medici, two very beautiful scenes of the colour of bronze – witty reference perhaps these

were to his own name, and pictorial evidence of his thinking about the problem of


Vasari highly praised all these decorations by Bronzino, and although we do not know

through whom, it seems that not his portraits or any earlier paintings, but these

wedding decorations, brought Bronzino new commission from the Duke, who then

asked him to paint a Chapel in the Ducal Palace for the Duchess. This work now usually

referred to as the Eleonora Chapel (1541-45, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). The Duchess, who

was known to have had an appearance typical of the Spanish aristocracy at its most

refined, was also deeply pious and documents recently studied prove that she showed

considerable interest in the subject-matter of the frescoes that adorned her private chapel.

According to recent studies of patronage44, Bronzino’s works executed for the Duchess

demonstrate that he was a skilled courtier, who possessed the ability to satisfy both the

Duke and the Duchess. This skill in negotiating the separate desires and mutual needs of

his patrons seem to have secured for him the role as principal painter at the Florentine

court for more than three decades. In this particular case of the Eleonora Chapel, Bronzino

was inclined to satisfy the Duchess’ desire for self-reflection for it seems that her portrait

appears in more than one scene in the Chapel.

To put aside hidden portraits: The programme of the Eleonora Chapel follows the story of

Moses and can be divided into four groups or scenes: The Brazen Serpent, The Passage of

the Red Sea, Moses Striking the Rock and The Fall of Manna, respectively on the four walls

of the chapel. The centre of the chapel is occupied by the Deposition of Christ (1542-45,

Musée des Beaux Arts, Besançon) the original version being of such rare beauty (as

Duke Cosimo I put it – “’cosa rarissima’”45) that it was immediately sent to the Cardinal

Granville, the Keeper of the Seals of Charles V, and replaced by a copy executed by

Bronzino that can be seen now there at the Palazzo Vecchio. In the pendentives of the

Chapel the four cardinal virtues are represented, and the vault, for which exceptionally

studied preparatory drawing was made by Bronzino46, is given to the images of St.

Jerome, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Michael and St. John the Evangelist. The room itself is of

44 Edelstein, Bruce L., “Bronzino in the Service of Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo I de’ Medici: Conjugal

Patronage and the Painter-Courtier,” Beyond Isabella, ed. Reiss, Sheryl E, and Wilkins, David G. (Kirksville,
Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2001), 225-263.

45McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 84.

46The drawing still exists and it became an important object of study for many Bronzino scholars, mainly
because of its details and the differences that appear between the drawing and the final version of the vault
executed at the Palazzo Vecchio.

moderate dimensions and it is in the ceiling that Bronzino’s skillful use of illusionism

can be seen. Especially two out of four scenes in the vault – The Stigmatisation of St.

Francis47, due to its foreshortenings, and St. Michael Overcoming the Devil – attest to

claims of many critics that Bronzino developed here an individual style, different than

that of his master Pontormo. We would agree that St. Michael presents a stylistic

discontinuity in the vault, as much for his posture as for the colouration and movement,

and that in this particular fresco the future style of Bronzino leaning to the Baroque is


The central altarpiece, the Deposition,48 is framed by two scenes which Bronzino painted

later and which represent the Annunciation. The Deposition is sometimes seen as a

combination between such types as Pietà and Deposition and it has been argued that the

scene actually presents not the very moment of Christ’s Deposition, but instead, with the

presence of the Eucharistic and liturgical objects in the very painting, an abstract

allegory of the meaning of Christ’s death. It was in this Deposition, and in the Eleonora

Chapel in general, that a classicised High Maniera style reached its climax in Bronzino’s

work, reincorporating the elements of the High Renaissance, whilst eliminating what

many saw as the nervousness and neuroticism of the Early Mannerism present in his

earlier works.

In these early years as a court painter, Bronzino also painted an allegory which is often

seen as a secular counterpoint of the Deposition, the Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540-45,

47 This particular scene is often seen as proto-Baroque, its style being in obvious contrast to the other three
48 For an influence of Bronzino’s Deposition on Courbet, see Levine, Steven Z., “Courbet, Bronzino and

Blasphemy,” New Literary History, Vol. 22., No. 3 (Summer 1991), 677-714.

National Gallery, London), since it represents a mother and a child and can also be seen

as both a religious yet pagan image. Of particular interest is the fact that the Allegory was

sent to Francis I almost immediately after being painted and such diplomatic

transactions with what are among the most beautiful paintings by Bronzino testify both

to the aesthetic judgement of his patrons (the Medicis), as well as to their true value as an

objects of art to their owners. The Deposition and the London Allegory have been seen

often as the culmination of Bronzino’s mature style, which emanated in images of rare

artificiality. This quality often led the critics to describe the figures in these two

paintings using almost standardised phrases such as: porcelain-like complexion,

contorted postures, and inapproachable demure.

What followed after these two paintings are numerous court portraits of the Medici and

their children: Bia di Cosimo de’ Medici (1542, Uffizi, Florence), Giovanni de’ Medici (1545,

Uffizi, Florence), Eleonora of Toledo-Medici with Giovanni de’ Medici (1546, Uffizi, Florence)

and Cosimo I de’ Medici in Armour (1545-46, Uffizi, Florence), all of which are

undoubtedly originals and not bottega copies produced by his studio. The two latter

portraits of the Duke and the Duchess show them dressed in different ways according to

their gender roles: the Duke as pater patria, in detailed armour that features spikes and in

which his hands in all their morbidezza appear as strangely juxtaposed to his rigid facial

expression; the Duchess, portrayed in a bejewelled dress which is depicted in great

detail and turned in this way almost into a stiff armour-like membrane, appears as no

more approachable than the Duke, despite the elegance and grandezza of her posture.

And it was her passion for pearls, reflected in this remarkable portrait, that may have

been the reason she chose to be buried in this same dress.

We now have some new documentation on the process of how Bronzino worked on

these portraits for the Duchess. It seems from this that Bronzino was not quick in

executing his portraits. He would usually start by making a drawing of the face and only

later add the clothes that were often chosen by Duchess Eleonora to suit certain dynastic

interests. These clothes often would be sent to Bronzino so that he could paint after them

in his studio, without the sitter in front of him. And for arranging such particularities of

the portraits, the costumes or the background, the Duchess would ask for Bronzino

indirectly, that is by summoning him through a series of letters, either from a major-

domo or another court official. One other interesting fact we found in the most recent

studies49 of the relationship between the Duchess and Bronzino: Since studio copies

were not rare in those times, and perhaps because Bronzino took more time than

necessary, the Duchess Eleonora in her letters complained that a copy of a portrait done

by Bronzino was not executed as well as by the painter himself. Thus we see that

Bronzino’s style was recognised by the Duchess and that it was not a style easy to

imitate by his fellow artists.

To summarise briefly: These years around 1545 are considered to be the pinnacle in

Bronzino’s development – he portrayed the Ducal family, he painted frescoes for the

Duchess’ private chapel, two of his paintings were sent as diplomatic gifts to foreign

dignitaries, and eventually the Duke entrusted him with another major commission –

the tapestries showing the Life of Joseph (1549-53). The complexities of the subjects of

 Cfr. Beyond Isabella, ed. Reiss, Sheryl E, and Wilkins, David G. (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University 

Press, 2001) 

these tapestries, which constitute perhaps the most demanding task that Bronzino was

ever given, will have to be excluded from our brief description of his entire opus. This is

mainly due to the fact that he had substantial help when working on the tapestries from

Alessandro Allori, which raises the question of their attribution and thus prevents us

from analysing them in greater detail. The preparatory drawings for the tapestries still

exist and perhaps in them the development of Bronzino’s mature style can be traced

with less concern about the issue of authenticity.

The political climate in Florence changed considerably the mid-Cinquecento, as the

Counter-Reformation grew stronger, and this new movement was paralleled by

Cosimo’s desire to establish an absolute rule over the city of Florence. The Duchess on

the other hand supported the Jesuits and was more eager to allow the clergy to intervene

with the state. However, Cosimo also strove to establish institutions of major cultural

prestige, and he founded the Florentine Academy in 1541, the literary academy of the

Elevate in 1547 and the Accademia del Disegno in 1563. These political and institutional

changes may have affected the literati, as well as the artists, now required to produce art

that was meant to constitute dynastic propaganda for the Medici. Perhaps this even

affected the style in which the artists worked, for according to some sources, Pontormo’s

tortured frescoes at San Lorenzo were “one of the last manifestations of an intense

individuality which the new age did not entirely comprehend.”50 Thus, while Bronzino

was engaged in working on the tapestries (which perhaps was the reason he was not

given the commission at San Lorenzo) Pontormo in his last monumental fresco

50 McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 98

attempted to compete with Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Last Judgement (1535-41, Sistine

Chapel, Rome) It was Bronzino who in 1556 after Pontormo’s death finished this cycle at

San Lorenzo (according to McCorquodale he only finished the Flood and the Resurrection)

which was seen in later history as rather inglorious, leading to its eradication in the

eighteenth century, and we will explain the intricacies of Bronzino’s paintings in the

church of San Lorenzo later in this dissertation.

In 1546 or 1547 Bronzino may have visited Rome, and there he probably painted the

portrait of Stefano Colonna (1546, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome). In 1548

Bronzino again visited Rome for a month, and this was a visit for which we have reliable

records. There in Rome the main influence on Bronzino was that of Michelangelo, who

in a sonnet written in 1561 he called “’the Wonder of Nature, Angel elect.’”51 It seems

that Bronzino’s stay in Rome resulted in a clear change in his style which can be seen if

we compare his religious work before and after 1548. Earlier religious works by

Bronzino, Holy Family with St. Anne and the Infant St. John (of which two different

versions exist – one in Vienna (1545-46, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and another

in the Louvre (not dated)) as well as his later version of the Deposition, which was to

replace the one planned for the Eleonora Chapel (1541-45, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) and

given away upon its completion, when compared to Bronzino’s two major works from

this period – the Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552, Soprintendenza alle Gallerie, Florence)

and the Resurrection of Christ (1552, Santissima Annunziata, Florence) – demonstrate this

new Roman influence. Now Bronzino changed his style by abandoning brilliant and

51 Ibid., 112-13.

vivid palette of the original Deposition and perhaps more generally of the Eleonora Chapel,

preferring a colouration which produces an effect of more sombre atmosphere seen in

the later version of the Deposition which took him another ten years to paint.

To speak of these religious works more: The commission for Resurrection at the

Santissima Annunziata came in 1548 from the Guadagni brothers and it took Bronzino

four years to finish this monumental and highly influential painting, which brought the

court painter to a more public arena of the sacral edifice. The Descent of Christ into Limbo

(1552) was to be placed at an even more prestigious location, namely at the church of

Santa Croce. It seems that the combination of grace and the influence from Michelangelo

brought this painting high praises when it was unveiled; however, very soon after

public taste seem to have changed and under the notion of decorum issuing from the

edicts of the Counter-Reformation, these two masterpieces were harshly criticised by

Raffaello Borghini. Of The Resurrection he wrote in 1584: “’For pity’s sake, let us not even

discuss that.’”52 And the Descent of Christ into Limbo is said not only to have displeased

Borghini, but also many others who saw it after him in later centuries (Ruskin and

Wölfflin are mentioned amongst them) who found it indecorous, lascivious in content

and deprived of a clear narrative. The painting was eventually taken from Zanchini

Chapel in Santa Croce in 1821 and now can be seen in Soprintendenza alle Gallerie in


Between 1550 and 1556 Bronzino painted two allegorical paintings which are usually

seen as variations on his London Allegory. These are known as Venus, Cupid and Jealousy

52 Ibid., 115.

(1550, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and Venus, Cupid and a Satyr (1555, Colonna

Gallery, Rome). These two pictures are often seen as feeble attempts to achieve the level

of sophistication in his most famous and notorious London Allegory; an opinion we do

not support. To this same period belongs an exquisite Saint John the Baptist (1556,

Galleria Borghese, Rome) which shows a strange deviation from Bronzino’s style in

these years.

There are numerous portraits of the Medici and of the chief citizens of Florence and

Rome painted from 1540 to 1559 that have survived, even if not all of them are of equal

value in execution, and many of them were not necessarily either finished or painted by

Bronzino, and are attributed now often to Francesco Salviati or Sebastiano del Piombo.

We will not comment on these in great detail, but mention will be made only of the

paintings which are undoubtedly by Bronzino and which mark the development of his

style. The portraits of Maria de’ Medici as a Girl (1551, Uffizi, Florence) and Francesco de’

Medici as a Boy (1551, Uffizi, Florence) both show similarities to Bronzino’s earlier mode

of depicting the Ducal family – in the elimination of the background, which gives to

these portraits a private quality, and in the insistence on the details of their attire. To

these two portraits, we would add the one also of Eleonora of Toledo (1560, Staatliche

Museum, Berlin) which may be seen, owing to the weary features of her face that

Bronzino captured, as an uncanny anticipation of the Duchess’ death which followed in

1562. Two exquisite portraits which set completely different stylistic issues survive from

this period as well: Lodovico Capponi (1556-59, The Frick Collection, New York) and Laura

Battiferri (1560, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). The former recalls earlier works by Bronzino,

with its background eliminated and yet enlivened by a drapery that dominates the

colour scheme of the painting. It could be seen as the closest pictorial relative to the

much earlier Portrait of a Young Man (1529). In Laura Battiferri the sombre colours and

background treated almost in chiaroscuro only serve to accentuate the minute details of

the face, the hands, the dress and the book that she presents to us with authentic


The final years of Bronzino's have been described often as boring, as inflated images for

ecclesiastical commisions became more laboured and even preposterous.53 Such a

comment may also be due to the fact that in that period, between 1559 and his death,

Bronzino did not produce a single major portrait, the genre that made him famous;

instead, he devoted himself to religious themes. The melancholy mood of the old master

was seen by many as related to the successive deaths of Pontormo, Eleonora of Toledo,

Michelangelo and Benedetto Varchi. And during these final years Bronzino was expelled

even from the Academy and dismissed from the Medici court, for reasons unknown to

us. All we have is a letter54 in which Bronzino, the courtier, thanks the Duke for

dismissing him and promises he will be at his disposal for any future commission, if

necessary. His final paintings include the Annunciation paintings for the Elenora Chapel,

the Noli me Tangere (1560-65, painted for Santo Spirito, Florence, now in the Louvre), the

Nativity (1564, Church of the Cavaliers of San Stefano, Pisa), Allegory of Happiness (1567-

70, Uffizi, Florence), The Resurrection of Jarus’s Daughter (1570, Sta Maria Novella,

Florence) and Pietà (1570, Santa Croce, Florence). Bronzino was also heavily involved in

painting allegorical decorations for the marriage of Cosimo’s son Francesco with Joanna

53 Ibid., 145.
54 The fragment of the letter is given in Brock, Op. Cit., 305.

of Austria. And although the paintings, which were exhibited in this procession at the

Carria Bridge did not survive, we still have two drawings Virtues of Love Chasing the

Vices (1565, Christ Church Gallery, Oxford) and Allegory of Hymen with Venus Crowned by

the Muses (1565, Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins, Paris), which can be seen as a later stage in

Bronzino’s development which culminated in his Martyrdom of St Lawrence (1564-69, San

Lorenzo, Florence)

The fresco of the Martyrdom of St Lawrence at the Church of San Lorenzo is considered to

be his last major commission. Still tainted even among modern scholars by the

comments it provoked amongst the critics and men of letters who were influenced by

the acts of the Tridentine Council, the Martyrdom is often seen today as an unsuccessful

work, full of distraction, and as one of Mannerism’s most monumental failures from

every point of view.

More generously it has been seen by Maurice Brock, who interpreted this fresco as the

last, if not by then old-fashioned, pictorial exemplar of Bronzino’s belief in the

supremacy of Michelangelo’s art and style (which Bronzino expressed in this work by

making numerous references to Michelangelo). This fresco will be discussed in greater

detail later, as we will attempt to view it in a different way than most of the scholars on


To conclude: we can see in this brief account of Bronzino’s life and work that his stylistic

development in the mid-Cinquecento (which was inevitably followed, in some author’s

accounts, by a decline towards the end of his career), was said to have started with the

Budapest Adoration of 1535-40. What remains undisputable is that Bronzino, through

Pontormo, had become a figure present at the court of the Medici, and that his skills as a

portrait painter brought him a permanent position with a monthly salary and pension

afterwards. He was also highly regarded by other younger artists of the period, and he

became a member of the Academy. By the end of his life, however, he grew out of

favour at the court, and thus he lost his position at court and at the Academy, his salary

and pension.55

55In certain accounts of his life and its representation, such as that of Elizabeth Pilliod, both Pontormo and
Bronzino were removed from the court and then misrepresented in Le Vite by Giorgio Vasari. Cf. Pilliod,
Elizabeth, Pontormo, Bronzino, Allori: A Genealogy of Florentine Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

Chapter II.

Reception of Bronzino’s Work (and of Mannerism in General)

The accounts here in what follows will constitute an intertwined historiography both on

Bronzino and on Mannerism. This is necessary because the accounts that signalled the

switch towards the general attitude of the period of Mannerism often included

references to the works of Bronzino, and indeed we found it useful to quote them here.

Firstly we can include here the observations on Bronzino’s paintings made by his

contemporary and fellow-painter Giorgio Vasari.56 We found it puzzling that, in spite of

their clear friendship, Vasari did not dedicate a separate chapter to the life of Bronzino.

Instead, he dispersed his comments on Bronzino, dividing them mostly between the

chapter on Pontormo, Bronzino’s master, and the chapter devoted to the Florentine

Academicians. This perhaps can be explained as a consequence of the fact that Vasari

was competing with Bronzino for the commissions at the Medici court and that, when

Vasari wrote the second edition of Le Vite in 1568, Bronzino was still alive. But still

Vasari did not hesitate to praise Bronzino calling him “a truly excellent artist, and one

worthy of all praise”57 in his chapter on the Florentine Academicians. Thus, it may be

56 Vasari’s accounts on Bronzino are both perplexing and precious, though it was demonstrated on several

occasions that many of Vasari’s attributions of Bronzino’s paintings were incorrect. However, Vasari's Le
Vite provides us with numerous descriptions of the works of Bronzino that are now lost, such as his apparati.
57 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives Of the most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Mrs. Foster, Jonathan

(London: H. G. Bohn, 1885-91), 467

more correct to speak of Vasari’s treatment of Bronzino as showing a certain

ambivalence rather than mistreatment.

However, it can be argued that the ambiguous conclusions reached by Vasari in his

treatment of Bronzino can be seen to be still operative in today’s art-historical criticism:

Not only did most of the recent authors we read compare Bronzino’s and Pontormo’s

styles and paintings, often accusing Bronzino of imitating Pontormo’s style, but also

they have centred their accounts on determining the exact moment when the styles58 of

the two painters diverged. It was only recently that Elizabeth Pilliod has produced a

detailed study of the relationship between Pontormo, Bronzino and Alessandro Allori

and between their often stylistically similar works. Pilliod opened yet another important

topic: she claimed that it was due to Vasari’s favouritism and also because of the

influence of his book that Pontormo was misrepresented and hence today seen as

inferior when compared to Michelangelo, whereas in Florence then, Pontormo was

almost as celebrated as Michelangelo. This seemingly unrelated debate we include here

because of the claims by Chastel that we will address later in this thesis, that it was

Pontormo and not either Michelangelo or Raphael, who was central for the proto-

mannerist Clementine style.

In his evaluation of Bronzino’s paintings, Vasari praised highly both his religious

pictures and his portraits. Thus he called The Deposition of Christ (1542-45, Musée des

58These stylistic similarities can be seen as a result of Bronzino’s apprenticeship with Pontormo and their
numerous collaborations. As a consequence of this, in Vasari's own words “the two artists, for a certain time,
resembled each other.” [Vasari, Giorgio, Lives Of the most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 5,
trans. Mrs. Foster, Jonathan (London: H. G. Bohn, 1885-91), 467.]

Beaux Arts, Besançon)59 in the Chapel of Eleonora de Toledo (1540-46, Palazzo Vecchio,

Florence) a “work of extraordinary merit,”60and he commented on the painting The

Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552, Soprintendenza alle Gallerie, Florence) as

“exhibiting...many nude figures of men and women, old and young, with children, all

displaying various attitudes and singular beauty.”61 Finally, Vasari compared

Pontormo’s and Bronzino’s frescoes at the Chapel of San Lorenzo and concluded that

“here Bronzino displayed judgement superior to that shown by Pontormo, his master, in

the same place.”62 From these comments it seems that Vasari was more interested here in

the concepts of varietà and difficoltà in forms than in any issue of the appropriateness of

the imagery when evaluating Bronzino’s religious paintings.

Vasari thought of Bronzino’s portraits as being “most natural, executed with

extraordinary care, and finished with delicacy which left nothing to desire,”63 and it seems

that apart from the social signals Bronzino was able to represent, it was these qualities of

Bronzino’s portraits (which we might characterise anachronistically as realistic) that led

59To avoid confusion about this particular painting, we remind the reader that the painting in Besançon is
the original version of the centrepiece of the Eleonora Chapel (1541-45, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). After
Cosimo I had sent this painting to France as a present to the Keeper of the Seals of Charles V, Bronzino was
commissioned to paint a replacement which is still exhibited in the Chapel in Florence. The two versions
differ in colouration.

60 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives Of the most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 5, trans. Mrs. Foster,

Jonathan (London: H. G. Bohn, 1885-91): 470.

Ibid., 472.

Ibid., 474.

Often Vasari criticised Pontormo’s character as well as his paintings. However, the relation between the
master and the apprentice was seen by Vasari as harmonious:

"Bronzino was much favoured by Jacopo [da Pontormo] for his tractability, good humour and diligence in
imitating his master, and he designed and coloured in a way that was an earnest of his future perfection,
seen in our own day." [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 3, (London:
Everyman’s Library, 1963), 151 ("The Life Of Lappoli").]

63 Ibid., 469, Emphasis Added.

Duke Cosimo de Medici to employ him as a painter at his court. According to Vasari, the

Duke perceived “that he [Bronzino] was particularly successful in painting from life,

which he executed with the utmost care and fidelity.”64

One particularly interesting comment on Bronzino’s style, which we would suggest

should be seen in connexion with the notion of sprezzatura, was offered by Vasari in his

life of Battista Franco. Vasari here compared Bronzino’s and Franco’s paintings in the

following terms:

"But in spite of his diligence he [Franco] was surpassed by Bronzino and the others, who
were inferior to him in design but who excelled him in invention, vigour and the
treatment of grisaille, for, as we have elsewhere remarked, paintings must be executed
with ease and the things disposed with judgement, too much effort making them appear
hard and crude."65

When considering Bronzino’s style one should keep in mind these lines by Vasari. They

suggest that the notion of effortlessness was central to the value judgement of sixteenth-

century art, and this, we would claim, at least in this case, for Vasari66, reflected the

domination of one criterion over another, namely, the domination of style over form.67

64Ibid., 470-71.
65Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vo876521l. 4, (London: Everyman’s
Library, 1963), 18, Emphasis Added.

66 Here we would like to remind the reader that in spite of the Acts of the Council of Trent, Vasari did not

make concessions in his narratives that would seem as necessary after what was the dispute in the artistic
arena became available to harsh criticism from the Church. One famous example is that he did not change in
his depiction of the decline of Roman art the negative role that Christianity had in stylistic change to Early
Christian art which needless to say led to further decline in the Middle Ages.
67 Such an interpretation is unacceptable for certain authors who interpret maniera as the “working method” 

and not as “style.” Cf. Miedema, Hessel, “On Mannerism and maniera,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quaterly for the 
History of Art (1978‐79), 19‐45. 

As all this shows, Vasari did not intend to evaluate Bronzino’s art in connexion with the

general notion of the decline of style that was only hinted at in his work. Nevertheless,

such an interpretation was to appear in the same century in which Vasari wrote Le Vite

when the notion of decline seemed further opened, that is, in Raffaello Borghini’s book Il

Riposo published in 1584. Influenced by the suggestions for artists introduced by the

Tridentine Council, Borghini condemned the religious paintings of Bronzino on the basis

of their lasciviousness. In her recent book After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the

Sixteenth Century Marcia Hall explained Borghini’s attitudes towards Bronzino’s

paintings in great detail. She claimed that Borghini “criticizes the same faults [as Gilio

and Paleotti, whose writings on art were under the influence of the Tridentine Council],

such as a Christ who is shown without sufficient evidence of his suffering or the

addition to a narrative of people who were not alive at the time.”68 We would agree here

with Hall, who saw the reason for Borghini’s condemnation in the shift of aesthetic

criteria influenced by the Tridentine Council. She claimed that “[t]he aesthetic [of the

Book II of Il Riposo] is distinctly post-Maniera, and it is as if Borghini wants to prove that

paintings that fail as arte sacra also do not meet the standard as good art.”69 Most

importantly, Hall informed us that “[t]he exquisitely sensuous angel standing next to

Christ [in Bronzino’s Resurrection of Christ] was condemned as lascivious, of course, but

then it was praised as a work of art that one would love to have in one’s home – a

position we do not find articulated by his clerical counterparts.”70 Here the words

sensuous and lascivious are of a particular importance. If we recall Gombrich’s accounts,

68 Hall, Marcia B., After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge; New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1999), 247
69 Ibid., 247. Questionable here, however, is whether Borghini was indeed an exponent of post-Maniera or of

Maniera theory. Quite a different interpretation of Borghini's writings can be found in Blunt, Anthony,
Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1940).
70 Ibid., 247, Emphasis Added.

we will know that in classical antiquity the art which panders to the senses (like the

Asianism in rhetoric) is seen as inferior. Hence, Borghini’s comment is a valuable proof

of the usage of the dictionary of critical terms related to the notion of the development of

style and its decline.

And to turn again to Borghini: he claimed that one of the figures in Bronzino’s

Resurrection of Christ (1552, Santissima Annunziata, Florence) could arouse the viewer in

an inappropriate manner. Thus, Borghini did not criticise Bronzino’s style itself but its

inappropriate application71. An anticipation of such criticism can be found in earlier

texts: Shearman quoted a very useful example from Bishop Cirillo Franco’s letters

(written in 1549 and eventually published in 1567) regarding Michelangelo’s nudes

painted on the Sistine ceiling. Shearman related Bishop Franco’s condemnation of the

nudes to the then contemporary theory of decorum, which is perhaps a better framework

to use when discussing Mannerist art than that which derives from the Modernist

dichotomy of form and content. To conclude: in Borghini’s criticism we can trace today a

sense of a mild condemnation; However, what is important for us in Borghini is that the

critical terms borrowed from classical rhetoric make their appearance again. We shall

return to Borghini and his comments later when analysing in greater detail Bronzino’s

religious paintings after the 1550s.

71 An anticipation of such criticism can be found in earlier texts: Shearman quoted a very useful example

from Bishop Cirillo Franco’s letters (written in 1549 and eventually published in 1567) regarding
Michelangelo’s nudes painted on the Sistine ceiling [Shearman, Mannerism (Harmondsworth, Middlesex,
Eng.: Penguin, 1967), 168]. Shearman related Bishop Franco’s condemnation of the nudes to the then
contemporary theory of decorum, which is perhaps a better framework to use when discussing Mannerist art
than that which derives from the Modernist dichotomy of form and content.

A century later Giovanni Pietro Bellori, in his book The Lives of Annibale and Agostino

Carracci published in 1672, was significantly harsher in his evaluation of this art than

Borghini, identifying Mannerism and condemning it en général. Bellori claimed that the

Mannerists abandoned “the study of nature”72 and produced art which was dependent

on “the fantastic idea based on practice and not on imitation.”73 From Bellori's position,

which can be defined as arguing for what has been called an "empirical eclecticism,"74

Mannerism was seen as unnatural and artificial.

The comments of Bellori continued to haunt later art-historical discourse on Mannerism

and there are several examples from the nineteenth century which show both the impact

upon later art criticism of the model of decline and of Borghini's and Bellori's comments.

Yet before this, we need to add that these nineteenth-century commentators on

Cinquecento art did not offer detailed accounts either on Bronzino or on the Mannerist

painters, rather generally condemning all of Italian art after High Renaissance.

In his book The History of Painting in Italy; The Period of the Revival of the Fine Arts to the

End of the Eighteenth Century Luigi Lanzi grouped the Italian painters into regional

schools: Accordingly, Pontormo75 belonged to the second period of the Florentine school

72 Bellori, Giovanni Pietro, The Lives of Annibale and Agostino Carracci, trans. Enggass, Catherine (University
Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 5.
73 Ibid., 6.
74 Enggass, Catherine, “Foreword,” Ibid., xvi.

75Lanzi wrote of Pontormo as of “a man of rare genius.” [Lanzi, Luigi, The History of Painting in Italy; The
Period of the Revival of the Fine Arts to the End of the Eighteenth Century, Volume I, transl. Roscoe, Thomas,
(London: Henry G. Bohn, Covent garden, 1852): 159] Within Pontormo’s paintings at the cloisters of Certosa
del Galuzzo monastery, Lanzi distinguished four different styles. It was the second style, in which “the
drawing is good, but the colouring somewhat languid,” [Ibid., 160] that, on Lanzi’s view, “became the model
for Bronzino and the artists of the succeeding epoch.” [Ibid., 160.]

which included Leonardo and Michelangelo, while Bronzino belonged to the third

period which began with the painters Lanzi defined as the imitators of Michelangelo

and to which Lanzi ascribed certain qualities of decline. In his terms, painters of this

period merely imitated sculptural works of Michelangelo, paid more attention to design,

and neglected the other aspects of painting. Finally, they became “[c]ontented with what

they imagined grandeur of style,”76 which led them to neglect “all the rest.”77 The

decline, according to Lanzi, “commenced about 1540”78 and lasted for two to three

generations. About the painters of this epoch Lanzi concluded: “Few of them were

eminent as colourists, but many in design; few were entirely free from mannerism...."79 We

can see in these comments by Lanzi how Mannerist interest in style was turned against

the art itself, becoming a foundation for all later art-criticism based as this was merely

on formal analysis.80

In Chapter XXIV of Handbook of Painting: The Italian Schools (1837) another nineteenth-

century scholar, Franz Kugler, elaborated on what he saw as a decline of Italian art after

Raphael. This he attributed to the superficial and formalist imitation of earlier works,

rather than seeing it as demonstrating a change of the concept of imitazione which

76 Ibid., 177, Emphasis Added.

77 Ibid., 177.
78 Ibid., 177.
79 Ibid., 177, Emphasis Added. Clearly Lanzi is ascribing a negative connotation to the term mannerism here.

80Bronzino was, according to Lanzi, “enumerated among the more eminent artists, from the grace of his
countenances, and the agreeableness of his compositions.” (Ibid., 191, Emphasis Added.) In Lanzi’s
description of Bronzino’s religious paintings, the traces of Borghini’s criticism as well as of the dictionary of
decline are evident:

“Some of his altar-pieces are in the churches of Florence, several feebly executed, with figures of angels, whose
beauty appears to soft and effeminate.” (Ibid., 191, Emphasis Added)

occurred in the late sixteenth century. We can quote here much from the paragraph in

which he explains the process of decline that he saw in Italian Cinquecento art:

“The merely external characteristics of the great masters became, therefore, the objects of
imitation; first with due modesty, and then with gradually increasing boldness, till the
greatest exaggerations ensued.”81

The notion of originality appears to be central for Kugler’s evaluation, but it seems to me

that his account was awkward, since he did not think of the Mannerists as inferior to the

painters of the past. Instead, he merely criticised them for being latecomers,82 or what we

always can call epigones. In his view, portraits were spared from the taint of maniera83

because they were seen to be focused on representing natura naturans:

“Many of the [Mannerist] painters in question would, fifty years earlier, have done great
things; they now, for the most part, fell into repulsive mannerism, because no longer
supported by those principles of harmony and beauty which, at the beginning of the
sixteenth century, had inspired even mediocre talent to noble purposes. Where immediate
truth to nature was required – as, for instance, in the portraits – great excellence was,
however, displayed.” 84

The decline of art was in Kugler’s terms the result of a certain moral decline which befell

both the artists and the patrons:

“It is melancholy to observe how from this [Mannerist] time painters and patrons
contributed more and more to demoralize each other; the one playing the part of the
courtiers and intrigants, the other that of capricious tyrants.”85

81 Kugler, Franz, Handbook of Painting: The Italian Schools, Volume 2 [Originally ed. by the late Sir Charles L.

Eastlake, P. R. A] (London: J. Murray, 1887), 641.

82 In other words, Kugler criticised them because they were epigoni. Cf. Infra, Chapter IV on the Epigoni
83 We refer to the pejorative connotation of the term maniera.
84 Kugler, Op. Cit., 641, Emphasis Added. The Emphasis refers to the notion mentioned in the main body of

the text earlier of the latecomers or epigone. The lines in italics can be seen as echoing Bellori’s
condemnation of Mannerism. Infra, 152 -226.
85 Kugler, Op. Cit., 641.

Kugler's conclusion is very important, because he activated another variation of the

model of decline here, the decline in terms of moral corruption. This construct, in turn,

could be seen as having serious implications vis-à-vis portraits, for even by these

demoralising and demoralised painters, they had some formal artistic values (based on

their naturalistic qualities), yet still in Kugler's terms they would have been seen as

manifestations of a corrupt and decadent society.

Kugler briefly referred to Bronzino:

“Angiolo di Cosimo, called il Bronzino, was another intimate friend of Vasari, and a
scholar and imitator of Pontormo. His portraits are fine, though his colouring is often

Jakob Burckhardt’s lines on the state of Italian art after Raphael in his book The Cicerone

(1860) expanded the application of the traditional model of decline, which as in a

passage like this seems infused with certain philosophical, theological and biological


“The time of full bloom is indeed but short, and even then those who failed to reach the
goal still continued in their old way; among them some excellent painters. We may say
that the short lifetime of Raphael (1483-1520) witnessed the rise of all that was most
perfect, and that immediately after him, even with the greatest who outlived him, the
decline began. But this perfect ideal was created, once for all, for the solace and
admiration of all time, will live for ever, and bear the stamp of immortality.”87

86Ibid., 645, Emphasis Added..

87Burckhardt, Jacob, The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy for the Use of Travellers and Students, transl.
Clough, A. H., (London: T. Werner Laurie, n. d), 111-112, Emphasis Added.

Burckhardt’s account of Bronzino was brief and expressed a typical nineteenth-century

attitude towards his art, according to which his portraits, on the basis of their realistic

qualities, were not perceived as belonging to Mannerism in its negative sense:

“Angelo Bronzino, 1502-1572, pupil of Pontormo, must, as historical painter, be placed

among the mannerists. But, as a portrait painter, he is inferior to none of his
contemporaries, not even the Venetians, far as they surpass him in colouring, which in
him is always somewhat chalky.”88

A little later Giovanni Morelli commented succinctly on Bronzino’s portraits, which for

him were not seen as being comparable to “the best”89 ones by Leonardo, del Sarto and

Correggio, for the critical terms, used mainly for describing Bronzino’s religious

paintings, now also were applied to his portraits:

“[T]he elegance displayed in the portraits of the Tuscan Bronzino and of the North Italian
Parmigianino is not spontaneous, but artificial and external, standing in no relation to the
inward personality. This new tendency marks the first period of decline in art.”90

Morelli's argument against Bronzino here almost seems Modernist, for it was the

discrepancy between the form and the content that made Bronzino's painting seem


Bernard Berenson’s views on Bronzino and Mannerism as expressed in his book

Florentine Painters of the Italian Renaissance (1896) are so negative that they read as the

88 Ibid., 134. It is not immediately clear what Burckhardt meant by the term “historical painter.” We can only

suppose that it could mean the painter of the istoria, a term that would then embrace all of Bronzino’s
paintings except his portraits.

89 Morelli, Giovanni, Italian Painters: Critical Studies of Their Works, vol. II, tr. Foulkes, Constance Jocelyn,

(London, J. Murray, 1892-93), 52.

90 Ibid., 52, Emphasis Added.

continuation of the nineteenth-century critical discourse about Mannerism. He

characterised Bronzino as having “none of his master’s talents as a decorator;”91

fortunately, on the other hand, he had “much of his power as a portrait painter.”92 For

Berenson, Bronzino’s nudes were deprived of any other but formal meaning, because he

painted “[t]he nude without material or spiritual significance, with no beauty of design

or colour.”93 In Berenson’s terms, however, most of Bronzino’s portraits can be seen as

“works of art,”94 though they are “hard, and often timid.”95

Let us now turn to more recent and lengthier art criticism. By now Walter Friedlaender's

role in re-evaluating Mannerism is well known96. Friedlaender's scholarly work on

Mannerism was highly influential and from the nineteen-twenties onward, a number of

studies concerned with Mannerism appeared; this change of attitude can be noticed in

the appearance of a few monographs on painters of the period, including one on


But to present this material clearly, the pattern of the narration needs to be changed.

Firstly, we will give a brief outline of the twentieth-century model of rise and decline as

applied to Mannerism and to Bronzino’s opus, and then, secondly, address the recent

interpretations of Bronzino's paintings based on a typological model, that is, one which

groups these comments according to the genres of Bronzino’s paintings. This is

necessary in order to separate the general from the more specific accounts, and yet to

91 Berenson, Bernard, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980), 72
92 Ibid., 72.
93 Ibid., 72
94 Ibid., 72.
95 Ibid., 72.
96 We will address his general model of stylistic development within Mannerism in Chapter III, Infra,

avoid separating them to such an extent that the general accounts could be seen as not

communicating with the specific ones, for we believe that the pattern established within

a broader art-historical narrative was often projected onto the work of the artists (i.e.

that the model of decline was applied both to Mannerism and to the opus of Bronzino).

After Friedlaender's work it was not possible to see the entire period of Mannerism as a

decline. Yet the notion itself did not disappear, for now it merely was transferred from

general to particular, that is to say, from the entire period of Mannerist art to its different

sub-periods. This means that if there was seen to be a peak of art within Mannerism

itself, there was then a point of stylistic development from which Mannerist art itself

was seen to decline. We have identified two different models of stylistic evaluation in

the current art criticism of Mannerism so far. The first model is based on Friedlaender's

accounts, and it interprets the early stage of Mannerism as the peak of the period, after

which the art declined to what is seen as a stage of stylisation and academism. The

second model positions the middle period of Mannerism (that which can be called High

Maniera) as the peak after which the decline began. The exponents of the former model

evaluated positively what were seen as expressive, unrestrained, rebellious, even

nervous qualities of early Mannerism, which were seen as being similar to the

contemporary art of Expressionism, whilst the exponents of the latter model sought to

find certain classical qualities within Mannerism and to promote this particular

classicising and courtly stage into a pinnacle of artistic and stylistic development. It is

obvious that both models could not evade the evaluative judgement of their

predecessors. Therefore, these contemporary approaches to Mannerism stand as

examples of the inevitable application of the model of decline, a model that indeed is

crucial to any kind of normative stylistic evaluation.

Here we should address briefly Friedlaender's accounts of Bronzino. In his essays

Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting Friedlaender included Bronzino, as

Pontormo’s follower, in the second generation of the Florentine Mannerists. In

Pontormo’s later art Friedlaender saw a certain decline, which occurred during his

“Michelangelesque period, which for a time brings him into direct dependence on that great

man,”97 and which led him to finish his opus with “his strange frescoes for San

Lorenzo.”98 Friedlaender also saw Bronzino as carrying on his master’s original style:

“[I]n his pupil Bronzino his trend is carried on, not only in the portrait, but above all in
the figure and space composition."99

More recently Arnold Hauser included Bronzino’s work in the first, initial phase of

Mannerism. That is to say that Bronzino, in Hauser's terms, painted before the

Mannerist movement became maniera, (that is, before “the style gave itself to

academicians,”100 and therefore lost its initial “revolutionary spirit of the avant-

garde”101). However, when comparing Bronzino with Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino,

Hauser concluded, in a somewhat derogatory manner, that he appeared as “cold, stiff,

97 Friedlaender, Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, (New York: Columbia University Press,

1990), 41, Emphasis Added..

98 Ibid., 41.
99 Ibid. For Friedlaender, continuing Pontormo’s style in the realm of space and figure composition meant

achieving the effects of depth “through adding up layers of volumes” [Ibid., 8] whereas the bodies “more or
less displace the space, that is, they themselves create the space.” [Ibid., 8.]
100 Hauser, Arnold, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art, trans. Mosbacher,

Eric (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1965), 198.

101 Ibid., 198. These lines also show us that Hauser followed Friedlaender's model of decline within


and pedantic.”102 Also, he drew a stylistic parallel between Bronzino and Parmigianino,

both of whom, according to Hauser, “cling to certain formulas.”103 In addition, Hauser

saw Bronzino as an imitator of Michelangelo, and the manifestation of this phenomenon,

which Hauser called “Michelangelism,”104 was seen by Hauser in the “emphasis on

physique and the muscular system, sculpture-like modelling, marble-like coldness and

smoothness of surfaces.”105 By applying such derivative practices, Bronzino, in Hauser’s

terms, was opening the way for what he pejoratively could call Vasarian academism.

Craig Smyth writing in 1963106 can be seen as representing the group of art historians107

who did not dismiss the second phase of Mannerism on the grounds of a decline related

to issues of morals and politics. Instead, he (and other historians who followed his views

on Mannerism) tried to establish Mannerism’s value by assigning to it certain elements

of classicism.108 The importance of Smyth’s interpretation of Mannerism was clearly

102 Ibid., 199.

103 Ibid., 199.
104 Ibid., 199.
105 Ibid., 199.
106 Smyth, Craig Hugh, Mannerism and Maniera (Locust Valley, N. Y.: J. J. Augustin, 1963)
107 We refer to the following art historians and their works: McCorquodale, Op. Cit., Cox-Rearick, Op. Cit.,

Cecchi, Alessandro, Bronzino, transl. Evans, Christopher (New York: SCALA/Riverside, 1996), and Hall, Op.

108How did the classical elements come to be fused with Mannerism? According to Craig Smyth, the
Mannerists of the classicising (second) period were influenced by ancient sarcophagi relief and statuary. [In
a formalist study of Bronzino’s drawings titled Bronzino as Draughtsman; An Introduction, With Notes on His
Portraiture and Tapestries Smyth related what he saw as distinctiveness of Bronzino’s portraiture style to his
experiences outside of Florence. As particularly influential in forming Bronzino’s classicist style Smyth
found the Idolino (a Greek or a Roman sculpture discovered near the Villa Imperiale outside Pesaro in 1530).
[Cf. Smyth, Craig Hugh, Bronzino as Draughtsman; An Introduction, With Notes on His Portraiture and Tapestries
(Locust Valley, N.Y.: J. J. Augustin, 1971)]

However, in Smyth's view, Mannerism declined exactly because of the inspiration it drew from another
artistic medium, that is from sculpture and relief. Smyth claimed that this led to “dehumanization, loss of
vitality and sensuous plastic power, the acceptance of slack structure, bland surfaces, de-individualization,
monotony, and the relief-inspired disruption of painterly coherence.”108 [Smyth, Craig Hugh, “Mannerism
and Maniera,”, in Readings in Italian Mannerism, ed. de Girolami Cheney, Liana (New York: P. Lang, 1997), 93]

recognised by Elizabeth Cropper in her introduction to the re-issue of his study. Here

Cropper argued for Smyth’s “critical analysis of its [Mannerist] virtues”109 and also for

his concept of Mannerism’s “potential decay.”110 Accordingly, “Smyth not only defined

a style, but also created for it a history that separated its own decline from the notion of

post-classical decline in general, and gave it an origin independent of a reaction against

the classicism of the High Renaissance.”111 Yet perhaps Smyth did not succeed in

interpreting Mannerism in a fundamentally new way, because he too fell subject in his

judgement of this art to the same criteria that formerly had been used for evaluating the

art of the High Renaissance.

An example of the interpretation and evaluation of Mannerist art which followed

Smyth’s opinions can be seen in a paragraph from Alessandro Cecchi, who claimed that

in some of his later work Bronzino either returned to the enfeebled version of

Pontormo’s style112 or imitated Michelangelo:

Whilst Smyth saw elements of classicism in Bronzino’s work, especially in his religious paintings, Shearman
argued for a certain ambiguity of Bronzino’s style vis-à-vis classicism. Also, he observed certain stylistic and
compositional similarities between Bronzino’s religious and allegorical paintings:

“Bronzino’s erotic Allegory is, as a whole, undifferentiated in appearance from his contemporary Christ in
Limbo and both pictures have the same cold, polished and unreal colour. Bronzino employs expression in the
same way as Marenzio in madrigal...; it is an artifice, an ornament, a component of style, and not, as in truly
classical works, a factor that controls all these. It illustrates wider Mannerist paradoxes, for it is in another
sense classical, being based on antique precept; and while its function is partly to add internal varietà its
effect is to induce a superficial sameness.” [Shearman, John K. G., Mannerism (Harmondsworth, Middlesex,
Eng.: Penguin, 1967), 101]

109 Cropper, Elizabeth, “Introduction,” Smyth, Craig Hugh, Mannerism and Maniera (Vienna, Austria: 1992), 1.
110 Ibid., 13
111 Ibid., 14.

112Here Cecchi in a way agreed with Fritz Goldschmidt, who also saw Bronzino's last twenty years as
stylistically anachronistic. [Cf. Goldschmidt, Fritz, Pontormo, Rosso und Bronzino (Leipzig: Klinkhardt, 1911),

“Even paintings of a small size…with its forced and affected treatment of the
limbs…confirm that the artist’s vein of creativity had partially run dry. Now
conditioned by his admiration for Buonarroti, his work was increasingly distant from
the balance and harmony he had achieved at the peak of his career, in the fifteen

Yet still there were other possible comments voiced at this moment. It may be of use

here to consider briefly a unique view on Mannerism of Sir Kenneth Clark114 writing in

1967. First and foremost, his view is unique in the chronology of Mannerism, because it

limits the process of the disintegration of High Renaissance and the formation of

Mannerism (a term which Clark seems to be reluctant to use) to only fifteen years.

According to Clark, the years between 1520 and 1535 (which we recognise today as the

initial phase of Mannerism) constituted a brief stage of progressive artistic development

that he viewed similarly to Friedlaender as a period of art marked by anxiety and

nervousness (the latter perhaps reflects a pun in the title, a failure of nerve, as if

Mannerism failed because it could not maintain the nervous quality of its initial phase).

Accordingly, after 1535, academic art prevailed and this stylistic turn was seen by Clark

as a period of decline (though he does not use the term decline but failure). The most

interesting conclusion that Clark proposed was about Michelangelo’s Last Judgement,

claiming that it was the last Mannerist painting finished in a period in which Mannerism

already had ceased to exist.

113 Cecchi, Op. Cit., 58.

114 Clark, Sir Kenneth, A Failure of Nerve; Italian Painting 1520-1535 (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1967)

Sydney Freedberg’s book on Mannerism may appear as itself an exercise in style which

led Freedberg as a writer to adopt a kind of literary mannerism. Despite this (or because

of it), Freedberg produced compelling and idiosyncratic insights on Bronzino in

particular and on Mannerism in general.

Freedberg in his 1968 book situated Bronzino’s style within the High Maniera (a second

style within his subdivision of Mannerism), a style which was, in his terms, based in

“Pontormo’s first Maniera.”115 Within Bronzino’s pictorial opus, Freedberg saw a

tendency towards stylisation, which he described in the following terms:

“The quota of stylization increases rapidly, however; the native gift for observation that
inclined Bronzino towards reality yields to the authority of the example set him not by
Pontormo but also by Michelangelo’s sculptures….”116

Freedberg constructed here a rather complicated relation of style and form (a relation

which demonstrated Freedberg’s own indebtedness to Modernist theory):

“His [Bronzino’s] imposition of high style upon a form consists more nearly in arranging
the objective facts until they almost of themselves begin to yield the effect of a styled
pattern, then intensifying this effect by only restrained arbitrary means, including a
brilliant yet measured exploitation of the possibilities a form may hold of complicating
ornamental rhythm.”117

John Shearman’s views on Mannerism as seen in his 1967 book were different than those

of most of the other authors,118 for he favoured the art of the second generation of

115 Freedberg, Sydney Joseph, Painting in Italy, 1500-1600, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 295
116 Ibid., 296.
117 Ibid., 297.

118For a detailed comparison of Shearman’s, Smyth’s, Freedberg’s, and other twentieth-century

interpretations of Mannerism, Cf. Miedema, Op. Cit.

Mannerists, which, for him, truly represented the qualities of what he called the “stylish

style.”119 He rejected all the notions of tension and anxiety that Friedlaender had

detected in early Mannerism. Instead, he opted to interpret all Mannerism as a

continuation of High Renaissance art and for this reason he preferred the early

Mannerism of Rome over that in Florence. The qualities which other authors saw in

Mannerism as demonstrating decline, Shearman was ready to celebrate as what he

described as the silver-tongued language of Mannerist art. Thus, he may be seen as

similar to Freedberg in his ambivalent evaluation of Mannerism.

Most recently Paul Barlosky gave a complex discussion on what he saw to be the

narratives on Bronzino, in which he also included the comments on Mannerisms itself.

He started his argument by confirming that his portraits remained admired from

Bronzino’s time until today.120 The first part of Barolsky’s article addresses the term

Mannerism, which, for him, should be recognised as a historical fiction. According to

Barolsky, “[a]lthough useful in the classification of sixteenth-century painters who

similarly aspired to high degree of artifice, this term [Mannerism] is nonetheless not true

to the sixteenth century itself in that it is not a word Bronzino and his contemporaries

would have understood.”121 This of course comes directly from Vasari who did not mark

any stylistic shift within the third (and most perfect) stage in the development of the arts,

which began with Leonardo and finished (in the 1550 edition) with Michelangelo.

119Shearman, John, “Maniera as an Aesthetic Ideal” in Readings in Italian Mannerism, ed. de Girolami Cheney,
Liana (New York: P. Lang, 1997), 212.

120Barolsky, Paul, “Bronzino Fictions,” SOURCE: Notes in the History of Art Vol XXV No.2, (New York, Ars
Brevis Foundation, Winter 2006), 23-25.

121 Ibid., 23.

More important for us now is that according to Barolsky Jacob Burckhardt “describes

one of Bronzino’s devotional pictures with contempt, but like Berenson after him, who

dismissed the painter’s excessive display of dexterity, he acknowledges the excellence of

the court artist’s portraits.”122

For Barolsky, Bronzino aspired to paint in a highly artful, graceful manner, the attribute

“graceful” being mentioned as important for sixteenth-century theory by Anthony Blunt

earlier in the twentieth century. It was in Walter Pater’s book The Renaissance that,

according to Barolsky, descriptions of the sixteenth-century manner could be found that

passed into twentieth-century art history. Pater did not write on Bronzino in The

Renaissance, but in his writing there Barolsky saw the descriptions that seem to be as if

made of Bronzino’s paintings.

The most important terms for Barolsky here when indirectly referring to Bronzino via

Pater were “’grace which comes of long study and reiterated refinements’”123 and for

Pater such French taste was “’naturally akin to that of Italian finesse’”124 which Barolsky

then related to Bronzino’s finezza.

Barolsky’s analyses the famous London Allegory, which is liked by contemporary

viewers because of its abstraction. “As we often say, in the modern parlance of the

122 Ibid.
123 Ibid., 24
124 Ibid.

‘Maniera’125 [a term now preferable to mannerism, according to Barolsky, but still not

historically grounded], abstraction is one of the defining features of such art.”126

After having analysed in detail what historical and contemporary sources have

postulated on Mannerism and on Bronzino, we may turn now to a more recent source

that comments on contemporary art by using Mannerism as a style of reference. Such an

approach may seem as leading to a digression, since for these writers Mannerism is a

style which is well established and thus ready to use when describing and evaluating

twentieth-century works of art. However, we used these comments which establish

connections with contemporary art and Mannerism out of this particular reason: because

writers on art not specialised in Mannerism use somewhat fixed, paradigmatic, even

crystallised definitions connected with Mannerism, and thus they present the most

acceptable and most simplified opinion of the audience on Mannerism and Bronzino.

Our exemplar text here, an article titled “Bronzino in the Valley of the Dolls” by Karen

Lehrman, comments on Stephen Meisel’s fashion campaign which was eventually

turned into an art show for the fashion house of Versace, by evoking similarities

between Bronzino’s portraits and portraits of the famous fashion photographer, who

crossed the border between high and low art by exhibiting “Four Days in L.A.” at the

“White Cube” Gallery in London. Meisel’s “Mannerist-portrait style”127 exhibition

features segments from the Versace campaign, which the owner of the gallery, Jay

Miedema alike Barolsky dismisses both Mannerism and maniera as applicable for sixteenth-century art, Cf.

Miedema, Op. Cit.

126 Barolsky, Op. Cit., 24

127Lehrman, Karen, “Bronzino in the Valley of the Dolls,” Art & Auction (2001), 98-105.

Jopling, commented as “’images [that] exude a kind of ‘50s filmic glamour and recall the

rarefied beauty and iconic distance of Italian Mannerist paintings.’”128 The photographs

capture iconic models (Amber Valetta and Georgina Greenville) dressed up in Upper-

East-Side suits and perhaps more importantly – their dresses, items which are highly

stylised and recognisable to any fashion and many art connoisseurs. Lehrman assures

us that though these images are initially meant for fashion presentation, they have a

quality which stands out. The special status or value that these photographs assume is

due to the fact that they do not celebrate fashion, but instead celebrate themselves,

which may betray a well-known trope related to Mannerism as the style that celebrates

style itself. What these images also celebrate is their own complexity, “their artistry and

allure.”129 According to Lehrman:

“They [Meisel’s photographs] are disturbing, and not only because the women seem to
have just popped a Valium. …Staged to the point of seeming mannered and not just
Mannerist, Meisel’s Versace images can certainly be read as a droll commentary on
American-style luxury.”

And yet, according to the author, they present iced luxury. The iced and sedated (these

words almost call the inevitable – dead) images are also incredibly sophisticated and

evoke a period room at the museum:

“You can’t help feeling that Meisel is having fun with not just the women and the
clothes but with Mannerist masters like Bronzino and Pontormo.”130

128 Ibid., 99.

129 Ibid., 100.
130 Ibid., 103.

What is most interesting here is that the journalist is not in any way prejudiced against

images of Bronzino, which usually were criticised for their coldness and

inapproachability. She finds in them a quality rarely used when discussing Bronzino in a

more professional way:

“The only way we can talk about beauty after the triumph of anti-beauty, in art as in life,
these photographs suggest, is with a knowing (and maybe loving) ambivalence.”131

We may now turn to a synthesis of our arguments here. If we analyse the sequence

which runs from Vasari's Le Vite to the most recent studies on Mannerism, it seems that

Bronzino’s position within the emerging art-historical discourse was very complicated.

As we have seen, nineteenth-century critics of Mannerist art and then many in the

twentieth century regarded Bronzino’s paintings as better than those of the other

Mannerist painters. Sometimes they were even seen as equal in artistic value to the

paintings of the High Renaissance, and this positive evaluation was based chiefly on

certain qualities seen to inhere in Bronzino's portraits, which were celebrated for their

realism and attention to detail. Following the increased interest in iconographical studies,

the next genre of Bronzino’s work to receive critics’ attention in the late nineteenth and

throughout the course of the twentieth century was his allegorical pictures. Today, it

seems, art historians132 are focusing on Bronzino’s religious paintings, which were

overlooked earlier. Additionally, Bronzino’s portraits and allegorical pictures continue

to be discussed.

132Here we refer to works by Cox-Rearick, Hall and Nagel. All of these authors saw certain classicising
qualities in Bronzino’s religious paintings.

Before we proceed with an analysis of the texts focusing specifically on Bronzino's

paintings, we would like to classify Bronzino’s pictorial opus. We would suggest that all

of Bronzino’s paintings might be grouped according to their different subject-matter in

the following genres: religious paintings, portraits, and allegorical/mythological paintings.133

The aforementioned classification we decided to include here not only because of the

shift in scholarly attention from one genre of Bronzino's painting to another, as we

explained in the previous paragraph, but also because the commentators of Bronzino’s

pictures within the same epoch, as we will see, expressed significant differences in

attitudes towards these particular genres. To be more specific, portraits were almost

always highly regarded, the allegorical and mythological paintings were rarely

subjugated to a stylistic evaluation134, whilst Bronzino's religious paintings always

provoked the harshest critiques. There is another reason for classifying Broznino’s art in

different genres – in the following chapter we will address the issue of stylistic diversity

within his opus and attempt to show that even within one genre Bronzino was able to

apply different styles.

133Like every classification, the one we propose here is based on a certain generalisation. Hence, Bronzino’s
Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune, (1533, Pinacoteca Brera, Milan) and Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (1539,
Philadelphia Museum of Art), for example, resist the model we have decided to apply, by virtue of
combining the realms of real and mythological.

134Bronzino’s allegorical paintings personally we found to be of most interest, probably because of the
chances they offer for different interpretation. The powerlessness of a contemporary art historian to define
the allegorical signification of the figures in such an intricate composition as in the London Allegory
represents was also a source of inspiration for the critics who indulge in explorations of the sixteenth-
century philosophy and iconography. Such paintings also signal the taste of the elite audience they were
painted for, and their intellectual pretensions and abilities. It was probably due to this indecipherable
representational character that Bronzino's allegorical paintings rarely received harsh critiques in the past,
since the art historians were preoccupied with solving the riddle of their meaning.

We will begin with religious paintings. In twentieth-century art criticism Bronzino's

religious paintings were treated in a manner that seems to correspond to the more

general accounts about this particular genre and in this particular period (i.e. in

Mannerism) made by art historians. The followers of Friedlaender favoured the first

phase of Bronzino’s work, that in which the traces of his master’s style were still

apparent. Smyth and his followers, on the other hand, usually saw the frescoes at

Eleonora Chapel (1541-45, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) – a work which, according to them,

belongs to the second and the best of the three phases in Bronzino’s stylistic

development – as the peak of Bronzino’s opus, emphasising the classical qualities of

those images. However, both groups of art historians were unanimous in their

evaluation of the later religious paintings by Bronzino: Those, in their terms, were seen

as indicating a decline. Here we see the stages of reallocation which the model of decline

underwent: It firstly was applied to the whole period starting with the end of the

Renaissance and finishing with the beginning of the Baroque, then it was projected on

certain phases within Mannerism itself, and then, finally, it was applied to the opus of a

particular Mannerist artist.

Critical for understanding the opinion of the art historians vis-à-vis Bronzino’s religious

paintings is the periodisation of this genre. Therefore, we will attempt to make a succinct

periodisation of Bronzino’s religious paintings, and we will parallel it with twentieth-

century comments.

Bronzino’s early religious paintings are similar to those by Pontormo135. It is usually

claimed that the Adoration of the Shepherds136 (1535-1540, Szépművészeti Múzeum,

Budapest) marks the point of Bronzino’s departure from his master’s style. What is

evident in this painting is that Bronzino was less of a Mannerist (at least on

Friedlaender’s account) than his master: The balanced composition of this painting, as

well as the treatment of the background and the classical features of the figures, are

indebted to the achievements of the High Renaissance. Thus, Bronzino’s Adoration can be

defined as more classical than we might expect a painting of this period to be. However,

we would argue that art historians often neglect the elements of Mannerist style in this

particular painting, most notably the postures of the figures, which would be seen in

their account as somewhat derivative and distorted137.

135 We refer to the frescoes representing two Evangelists in the Capponi Chapel of the Sta. Felicita, Florence.

136The shift in Bronzino’s style occurred, in Freedberg’s terms, in 1540. The Adoration of the Shepherds marked
this change: “It is at once descriptively more normative – more like average expectation – and more classicist
than anything within Bronzino’s earlier, Pontoromoesque mode.” [Freedberg, Op. Cit., 298.]

This painting is often seen as similar to Jacopo Pontormo’s The Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1530, Uffizi,
Florence; a painting sometimes attributed to Brozino), in which the serpentine poses of the bodies recall
Michelangelo, while the background landscape has a certain Northern quality, for which Pontormo was
criticised by Vasari. Also, the terrestrial scene in The Martyrdom of St. Maurice is seen similar to Bronzino’s
previous painting, namely St. Benedict (mid-1520s, Badia, Florence) and The Dead Christ with the Madonna and
the Magdalen (1528-29, Uffizi, Florence), while the group of angels and the whole celestial section of this
painting reflect the influence of Raphael.

137 In our opinion, a painting which received little attention from the art historians, The Madonna and Child
with Saint John the Baptist and a Female Saint, probably Saint Anne (1538-39, National Gallery, London, fig. 26),
is a more important landmark in Bronzino’s opus: It opened up a way for the stylistic change (in terms of
composition, background, and spatial relations between the figures) which later fully emanated in his
frescoes for the Chapel of Eleonora de Toledo. In The Madonna and Child the figures have a porcelain quality
to their complexion (a quality which will in our opinion culminate in the London Allegory) the composition
is compressed and layered, and the background is treated as less important comparing to the one in
Budapest Adoration.

Bronzino’s frescoes for the private chapel of the Duchess Eleonora138 give us a full taste

of courtly (and thus what Smyth would call classicised) Mannerism in Florence. The

influence of Michelangelo is evident in the modelling of the figures. The colouration, on

the other hand, calls to mind the vibrancy of Pontormo’s palette, especially in the scene

titled The Brazen Serpent. The Deposition of Christ, the central altarpiece of the Chapel,

seems to have the most balanced composition, and its calm palette is contrasted to the

bright tones of the frescoes on the other three walls.

In Charles McCorquodale’s terms, it was in the frescoes in the Chapel of Eleonora (1541-45,

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) that Bronzino's style reached its zenith. This happened owing

to Bronzino's ability to incorporate successfully within his complicated compositional

scheme certain classical elements139, namely those derived from antique statuary.

Furthermore, these classical elements were in this particular painting subordinated to

138A detailed study of Bronzino’s frescoes for the Chapel of Eleonora can be found in Cox-Rearick, Janet,
Bronzino's Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). When it
comes to the issues of style, the notion we mostly were interested here, Cox-Rearick applied in the
Introduction to her book Shearman’s phrase “the stylish style” [Cox-Rearick, Op. Cit., 1] to Bronzino’s work
in Florence. Whilst Shearman based his accounts of Mannerism on the art of the second generation of the
Mannerists, Cox-Rearick named Pontormo and Rosso as exponents of this style, thus making Shearman’s
phrase more inclusive.

Of particular importance we found Cox-Rearick’s analysis of the models that Bronzino used while painting
the frescoes in the Chapel – they included Michelangelo’s statuary, the Idolino, the reliefs from the antique
sarcophagi, etc. This in Cox-Rearick’s terms also illustrated the Medicean preference for sculpture as a mean
of propaganda, which also can be seen in relation to the paragone.

When it comes to her critical dictionary, Cox-Rearick used a standard repertoire of terms for Mannerism, as
we see in the following paragraph:

“The frescoes are painted in a grand manner rooted in the style of the Roman High Renaissance [this again
is a Shearmanesque interpretation], but they are characterized by a Maniera taste for artificiality, abundance
and ornamentation....” [Ibid., 138-140, Emphasis Added.]

139At the beginning of his book McCorquodale admitted that some of his accounts are derivative - he was
indebted mostly to Smyth's model of stylistic development within Mannerism as well as to his
interpretation of Bronzino's position within this scheme/model. That is to say that McCorquodale followed
Smyth when assigning classical qualities to those paintings that he considered to be the best works of

Renaissance compositional norms: In McCorquodale’s own words, in the Eleonora Chapel

"Bronzino brings all of the High Renaissance's experiments with pyramidal composition

to their fullest resolution."140 The Deposition of Christ in the Chapel of Eleonora is therefore

seen as a work of "rare stylistic and formal unity"141 and of "perfection previously

unrivalled in Italian painting.”142

Needless to say that after such a rise, at least as presented in the critical accounts of the

Eleonora Chapel, a decline was to follow. The final years of Bronzino's are described by

McCorquodale in clearly pejorative terms: "[O]nly by applying the most rigorous

objectivity can one avoid the boredom of many late Bronzino paintings."143

Almost all of the religious paintings Bronzino painted after the frescoes in the Eleonora

Chapel were treated uniformly in the contemporary art criticism: the Descent of Christ into

Limbo (1552, Soprintendenza alle Gallerie, Florence), the Resurrection of Christ (1552,

Santissima Annunziata, Florence), and Noli Me Tangere (1560-65, Louvre, Paris) are

usually seen as overtly stylised and not appropriate for the subject they represent.

Several examples of such criticism will follow.

In McComb’s terms, Bronzino's Descent of Christ into Limbo "ushers in the decline”144 as

evidenced in the “unpleasant, cold, contorted nudes, [in] this apotheosis of academic

draughtsmanship at the expense of any sense, let alone of paint, -- for that Bronzino

140 McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 86.

141 Ibid., 87, Emphasis Added...
142 Ibid., 85, Emphasis Added...
143 Ibid., 145.
144 McComb, Op. Cit., 25

never had, -- but even of colour.”145 McComb referred to the figure of Christ in this

painting as to a “curled and perfumed Christ…a favourite model of Bronzino’s.”146 Also,

he claimed that “[i]n the second half of the decade we must place the absurdly mannered

‘Noli me tangere’ in the Louvre.”147

Cecchi described Bronzino’s Deposition of Christ in the following terms:

”[S]igns of Agnolo’s progressive decline have been recognised in it [in The Deposition of
Christ, 1565]. And it is true that the overcomplicated composition, with its exaggerated
pathos and the desperation of the figures standing around Christ’s body, is a long way
from the Olympian assurance of the forties.”148

Freedberg also made some comments apropos Bronzino’s later paintings. In his eyes,

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo and Resurrection evidence a “dislocation between

the picture’s subject and its content, which consists of its effects of artifice.”149

The fresco that even today remains most notoriously criticised is The Martyrdom of St.

Lawrence (1569, San Lorenzo, Florence). This monumental composition, although done

under the influence of Michelangelo, signalled, in our opinion, a shift in Bronzino’s

stylistic development. Instead of as a signifier of decline, we would like to interpret it as

a peculiar example, if not of syncretism, than of eclecticism (that which combines

elements of Renaissance-based Classicism with ones taken from the Mannerist stylistic

repertoire), anticipating the later paintings of the classicised Baroque.

145 Ibid., 25
146 Ibid., 27, Emphasis Added..
147 Ibid, 31, Emphasis Added..
148 Cecchi, Op. Cit., 58, Emphasis Added..
149 Freedberg, Op. Cit., 315, Emphasis Added..

However, McComb saw this fresco as “empty in all significance, devoid of taste, crassly

Michelangelesque.”150 Cecchi claimed that the composition of The Martyrdom of St.

Lawrence "has a disjointed and artificial appearance," and that the painting itself is

"thronged ... with naked figures in affected poses in the manner of Michelangelo, with

strained foreshortening and mannerist twistings against a backdrop of classical


In the aforementioned accounts, terms used to elucidate the stylistic decline in

Mannerism prevail: Bronzino's figures in religious paintings are, according to these

authors, seen as effeminate, artificial, divorced from nature and spiritual significance, overtly

emotional, and forced into unnatural postures. Not only the representations, but also the

actions they perform are seen as artificial, as if these actions were devised to produce a

decorative effect rather than to tell a story.

To conclude: Twentieth-century art historians criticised in Bronzino's later religious

paintings what they saw as their inappropriateness for this particular genre, and this

critique obviously can be traced back to Borghini’s Il Riposo. Also, art historians saw

present in these images the notion which Gombrich defined as pandering to the senses,

and it was this notion, which earlier in classical antiquity was condemned to

opprobrium, that the critics negatively referred to when forming their evaluative and

critical language. Additionally problematic in Bronzino's religious paintings was the

domination of the artist's bravura in representing artificial and contorted postures over

150 McComb, Op. Cit., 31

151 Cecchi, Op. Cit., 77, Emphasis Added...

the natural and probable positions of the human body. Finally, we have seen in these

comments that the notion of artificiality was sometimes interpreted within a Modernist

framework and seen as discrepancy between form and content. All these layers of

critical language remain, as if they were compositional and spatial layers in a High

Maniera painting, compressed within these texts so as to constitute the art-historical re-

presentation of Bronzino's religious paintings that we have discussed.

Let us now turn to Bronzino’s portraits. Praised from the time they were painted until

the present, for reasons which differed according to the taste of the age, Bronzino’s

portraits came to be stained indirectly with the notion of decline, and therefore in a

different way than his religious paintings: It was due to the sitters and their manners

that these portraits became associated with the notion of decline. In order to understand

fully the social implications of Bronzino's portraits, we need to emphasise that they

depicted members of the Italian, especially Florentine, aristocracy, haute bourgeoisie, and

intelligentsia (that is, the literati who were in the service of the aristocracy and who

occupied positions similar to those of the courtiers). As a result of complicated changes

within the social structure and ideology of nineteenth-century Europe – changes which,

in large part were a result of the French revolution, the industrial revolution, and the

later nineteenth-century bourgeois revolutions – these portraits then came to be

interpreted as representations of what was seen as the decline of sixteenth-century Italian

society, according to the social, political, and cultural standards of bourgeois, post-

revolutionary Europe.

Thus a distinction needs to be drawn here: Whilst Bronzino's religious paintings were seen

as representing a decline in his opus (and such a claim was then supported by extensive

formal and stylistic evaluative analysis), Bronzino's portraits were seen as representing the

decline of the society. Hence, the chronological and stylistic evaluative pattern (which was

of such importance for the criticism of the religious paintings) was abandoned by art

historians when they commented on Bronzino's portraits. Moreover, portraits were seen

as somehow spared from the decline of Bronzino’s later style, and often they were

described as possessing a constant stylistic (as well as artistic) value within Bronzino’s

opus. However, the construct of decline of Italian society in the Cinquecento was an

inevitable issue for the critics, and it seems that Bronzino's portraits always provoked art

historians to make judgements that would move from stylistic and formal issues into

issues revolving around politics, history and culture. Several examples of such criticism

will follow.

McComb’s accounts of Bronzino’s portraits were significantly influenced by his negative

evaluation of Florentine social history in the second half of the Cinquecento. This

attitude was blatant in the following passages:

"It is an aristocracy alike of the intellect and of the senses that Bronzino has
immortalised for us. These men of the Florentine decadence are no representatives of a
thin refinement of culture. They have known everything and felt everything. They are
beyond good and evil."152

"Now, it is the aristocratic quality of the portrait which immediately strikes one. ... They
have about them, as time goes on, an increasingly Spanish gravity153, for the Renaissance

152 McComb, Op. Cit., 9, Emphasis Added..

153By virtue of making accounts like this, McComb transferred to the realm of pictorial representation
conclusions he adduced from political history. We would suggest that McComb's accounts could be
interpreted in relation to the historical construct of Spain as Other to the United States, and this construct

is ending; Spain and the Counter-Reformation will have conquered before Bronzino dies.
These people of his are withdrawing from their counting-houses, beginning to live on
their unearned income, copying the haughty manner of the hidalguia. Following Charles
V's appearance in black at Bologna, they will dress quietly in dark clothes, with a touch
of wine-red, perhaps, but no more in the gay colours of the quattrocento. For there is no
longer any gaiety, humour, intimacy, but only this all-pervading, incredibly sad elegance.”154

In Hauser’s view, social conditions influenced the Mannerist style and Bronzino’s

portraits. Under princely rule, Mannerism gained courtly refinement, which Hauser

associated with the tradition of the classical style. In Hauser’s view, in Florence this

classicism fused with the Spanish “ideal of cool and unapproachable grandezza,”155

which eventually resulted in what Hauser called alienation. The following paragraph

from Hauser echoes previously quoted lines from Kugler and Burckhardt, interpreted

here through what we would denote as a Marxist framework:

“The painters of the Renaissance did not doubt their ability to portray men truly and
completely by their physical and in particular their physiognomical features, and their
models had not the slightest objection to being portrayed as they really were. Now the
possibility of such true portraiture was neither believed in nor aspired to, the less so as
both artist and model seem to have felt that the soul is just as alienated by its physical shell
as it is by any other material medium, and that consequently in the last resort the face is
just as alien to the soul, just as external and material as, say, a man’s clothes, jewellery,
or weapons.”156

was analysed in great detail by Richard Kagan. According to Kagan, "America's identity may still depend on
national histories that are both conceived and constructed as antithetical to its own." [Kagan, Richard L.,
“Prescott's Paradigm American Historical Scholarship and the Decline of Spain,” Imagined Histories:
American Historians Interpret the Past ed. Molho, Anthony and Wood, Gordon S. Wood (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 1998.), 342.]

154 McComb, Op. Cit., 6-7, Emphasis Added... However, in his final evaluation of Bronzino’s portraits

McComb concluded: “We will not see the like of these portraits again till Dominique Ingres.” [Ibid., 37].
Eventually, it seems that issues of form were more important to McComb than those of ethics.

Hauser, Op. Cit., 199. Perhaps Hauser’s negative attitude reflects Burckhard’s views on the Spanish

Empire which, according to Burckhardt, acted as a negative agent in Italian Cinquecento history and art.

156 Ibid., 199-200, Emphasis Added...

Bronzino’s sensibility, according to Freedberg, did not involve passion. Thus, Bronzino

was different from Pontormo, “in whose paintings we are beset by the assimilation

made between the matter of the work of art and his [Pontormo’s] consuming self.”157 In

Bronzino’s portraits, his “contact with the sitter is a confrontation only; communication

is deliberately sealed off.”158 According to Freedberg, this maniera of the artist was

paralleled by the maniera of the sitters: “Their behaviour is according to a precisely

controlled, willed, personal maniera, of which the high artifice serves as a mask for

passion or as an armour against it.”159 For Freedberg, both of these manieras expressed

“the refusal of involvement.”160 These lines by Freedberg echo Kugler's views on

Mannerists and their patrons.

For Shearman, Bronzino's portraits reflect the specificity of the Florentine sixteenth-

century Zeitgeist:

“In Florence, especially, the new court led to a new and therefore artificial aristocracy,
and very artificial is the poise of the courtiers that Bronzino reveals to us.”161

We would suggest that before we take these accounts (as well as the evaluations they

imply) for granted, we need to take into consideration the presumptions upon which

they are based. To achieve this, we may begin by thinking about the complicated

relations of history162, politics, ethics, sociology, culture and visual representation that

157 Freedberg, Op. Cit., 297

158 Ibid., 297
159 Ibid., 297
160 Ibid., 297
161 Shearman, John K. G., Mannerism (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1967), 175-6, Emphasis


It may seem that some of the issues we have listed here have little to do with the notion of decline and the

evaluation of Bronzino’s portraits. However, a careful reader of this thesis will not fail to remember that it

were implicit in the aforementioned comments. Nineteenth-century as well as

contemporary art historians often based their interpretation of Mannerism on historical

accounts163, claiming that the age of Mannerism was a period of political decline in Italy.

This political decline, according to them, then inevitably led to a moral decline, and it seems

that only the members of the aristocracy became exposed to it164. This conclusion the

critics transposed to the realm of art by virtue of interpreting Bronzino's portraiture as a

medium that had captured this moral decline, and then conveyed it to us today. Rarely,

however, did these art historians discuss or even consider whether it was indeed

Bronzino’s intention to portray the decline of Italian states in the Cinquecento through

his representation of the aristocracy.

We believe that the aforementioned presumptions can be challenged easily. However, it

is necessary to be concise here: Regarding the political situation in sixteenth-century

Italy, it was often claimed that the Sack of Rome and the presence of Spanish and French

troops signalled the end of Italian independence. Also, the historians saw the

Cinquecento as the age in which autocratic regimes (such as the Medicean regime in

Florence) were founded in Italy. In his famous book Civilisation of the Renaissance Jakob

Burckhardt demonstrated that the glorious times of the Renaissance and High

was not just the rhetoric that was seen as in decline in classical antiquity; The decline of rhetoric was, in fact,
a consequence of the political and moral decline which followed the fragmentation of Alexander the Great’s

163By virtue of making such a claim, these art historians assigned to the Hegelian notion of Zeitgeist the role
of the main agent in the process of artistic development, and thus preferred what Suzi Gablik called an
"external" to "internal" model of history of art. [Cf. Gablik, Suzi, Progress in Art (New York: Rizzoli, 1979),

164Interestingly, this socio-political relation is rarely questioned by (art) historians. Rather, it is taken as a
given (or, in other words, it was treated in the same a priori manner as the whole causative/correlative chain
of historical and sociological events we explained above).

Renaissance were by no means peaceful. During the Quattrocento the Italian city-states

were also under foreign influences, and often were governed by autocratic tyrants or by

feuding clans grouped around powerful aristocratic families165.

As for the images of the aristocracy as, namely, representations of the decline en général,

we would claim that these images were later interpreted manipulatively so as to serve

the specific purposes of the art historians. That is to say that the political agenda

ascribed to these images is of a later date and that this agenda is not an inherent quality

of the portraits themselves. This, we would claim, becomes clear if we realise that

Bronzino had no conscious intention to paint these portraits as a critique of a society as,

for example, William Hogarth did later.

As we have seen in the aforementioned paragraphs, however, a number of critics

ascribed to Bronzino the intention of capturing the spirit of Medicean sixteenth-century

absolutism, as well as of depicting what were seen as notorious qualities of gravitas and

grandezza, vices which conquered Italy via Spanish political influence and military

presence. This interpretation clearly exposes a hidden anti-aristocratic attitude on the

part of bourgeois art historians, who, in a post-revolutionary age, constructed a

stereotypical model of the decadent aristocrat (as seen, that is, through the social and

political framework of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe).

The morals of the Mannerist age are even more difficult to interpret, and we will withdraw from

commenting on this issue.

Thus, we would suggest that interpretations of Bronzino’s portraits of the Medici court

such as we have discussed reflect a particular construction of the idea of aristocrat as

Other, at least in the eyes of nineteenth-century bourgeois writers and readers of history

(just as, later, the image of Marie Antoinette, for example, was used as a canvas upon

which the abject of French society was to be projected166). As a result of this post-

revolutionary bourgeois Weltanschauung, the viewer today is prevented from looking at

representations of the monarchs and aristocrats without importing into them pejorative

notions of stiffness, emotional remoteness, decadence, etc. and is more likely to

sympathise with the representations of non-aristocrats (or commoners).

Another issue may be of interest here: The influence of a negative moral evaluation of

the sitters upon the formal and stylistic interpretation of the portraits. We have noticed a

dichotomy within the interpretation of these images: Whilst Bronzino’s portraits are

ascribed artistic and formal value, also they were seen as portraits of the decadence of

Florentine aristocratic society. This judgement may be viewed as having led the

bourgeois art historians to see these portraits in allegorical terms, that is, as allegorical

representations of decline. This, in turn, may have served to deprive the portraits of

individual (or individualising) traits, in the eyes of commentators, which may have

forced these commentators to fall back on a limited dictionary of adjectives (such as:

cold, aloof, mineral-solid, stylised etc.) when describing these paintings. Several

examples of such criticism will follow.

Cf. Thomas, Chantal, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, transl. Rose, Julie,

(New York: Zone Books, 1999).

In her brief account of Bronzino, Linda Murray offered comments on portraits she

viewed through a critical prism of social, political, and psychological facets. She

described Bronzino’s portraits as representing “cold, haughty faces, studied detachment,

and aloof nobility,”167 adding that they betray “the watchful repression of emotion and

the deadened sensibility resulting from life under a violent and capricious tyrant.”168

Also, John Pope-Hennessey in his book, The Portrait in the Renaissance, introduced an

interesting interpretation of Bronzino’s portraits as still lives169:

“What commended Bronzino to Cosimo I was that he approached the human features as
still life. If the ducal physiognomy had to be reproduced in painting and not just in the
impassive art of sculpture, this style was the least undignified.”170

We will finish with Guiliano Briganti, who described Bronzino’s portraits in the

following terms:

“The gelid, precious stylism of his alabaster and mineral portraits; his patient solidification
of a lunar world, inhabited by an aristocratic and reserved humanity, untouched by
passing of time; his illusive, magical realism: all this may surely be seen as part of a
wider picture.”171

According to Briganti, Bronzino was different from Pontormo by virtue of “his search

for a more lucid objectivity, and for a mineral-hard solidity in the material which

crystallizes the highly-wrought formal content.”172

167 Murray, Linda, The High Renaissance and Mannerism: Italy, the North, and Spain, 1500-1600 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1977): 159.
168 Ibid., 159, Emphasis Added..
169 The Dictionary of Art Terms defines still life as a representation of inanimate objects
170 Pope-Hennessy, John Wyndham, Sir, The Portrait in the Renaissance, (Princeton: Princeton University

press, 1979), 186

171 Briganti, Giuliano, Italian Mannerism, transl. Kunzle, Margaret (Leipzig: VEB Edition, 1962): 36, Emphasis

172 Ibid., 36.

We saw in the art-historical discourse on Bronzino’s portraits the prevalence of words or

terms such as stylised, elegant, refined, artificial, stiff, icy, lunar, and inhuman. By virtue

of applying such a critical dictionary to these portraits, they are seen as unified in

representing inhuman (even, perhaps, extraterrestrial) creatures who control their

emotions, fully give themselves to artificiality and, thus, may be equated with inanimate


However, not all of the adjectives used to describe Bronzino's portraits can be taken as

signifiers of decline. The emotional aloofness that is seen in the portraits is quite the

opposite notion to the emotional intensity which was seen as intrinsic in his religious

paintings. We would claim that the descriptions of these portraits address, negatively,

two qualities seen to inhere in them, those qualities being the (purported) artificiality and

maniera of the sitters. These comments also show a certain inability, or even a refusal, to

communicate with these portraits themselves (and such a communication would require

a full understanding of sixteenth-century court culture as well as of the notion of

sprezattura). We would like to see this refusal as a continuing form of class struggle

against the aristocracy, and we would claim that this ideological issue has led

contemporary (art) historians to use Bronzino's portraits in their anti-aristocratic

propaganda, long after such propaganda has become obsolete.

To return to the issues of form: Bronzino’s portraits are usually done in minute detail.

They depict the members of the Italian, especially Florentine, aristocracy, intelligentsia,

and haute bourgeoisie. In these portraits special attention is paid to the costumes of the

sitters. Also, the poses they assume and the objects they are surrounded with (such as

books or statues) are chosen so as to signalise sitters’ intellectual abilities and their

position in the social hierarchy. However, this Bronzino achieved with a certain

nonchalance, which could be best understood in relation with a somewhat ambiguous

term of sprezzatura. Disputable here is the psychological interpretation of these portraits;

if we were to seek in them not for the character of the sitter, but for his status, we should

perhaps take into account elements which are usually considered less important, for

example the clothes, jewellery and background173.

What we found of particular interest is the background in Bronzino’s portraits. Whilst

his master Pontormo applied an elimination of the background which he turned into an

almost abstract space, Bronzino was less radical regarding this compositional issue. His

sitters are usually depicted against a remote landscape or imaginary architectural setting.

We will provide several examples here. In The Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo-Medici with

Giovanni de’Medici (1546, Uffizi, Florence) the landscape which forms the background is

so remote (and such a treatment calls into mind the portraits of Piero della Francesca,

that of Federigo da Montefeltro, for example) that the viewer often perceives it as a

monochromatic blue wall. In Bronzino’s Portrait of Bartolomeo Panciatichi (1540, Uffizi,

173Such an approach to analysing Renaissance paintings was suggested by Rosalind Jones and Peter
Stallybrass in their book Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. These authors claimed that it is the
contemporary audience who put a special value in the sitter’s face and the painter’s psychological insight.

The following conclusion made by Jones and Stallybrass regarding the layers of signification in a
Renaissance portrait can be useful when approaching Bronzino’s court portraits:

“A painting that would become for a later period a form of psychological revelation could oscillate in the
Renaissance between being a representation of a person, a genealogical record, a portrait of clothes, and a
valuable object (frame, curtain) in its own right.”
[Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Stallybrass, Peter, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000), 194]

Florence), what looked to us as a faux architectural setting in the background and the

vista that appears in the far left appear as of secondary importance. Instead, the single

detail that actually attracts the viewer’s attention is a peculiar heraldic console (placed

underneath the vault to the right of the picture) which is said to represent the coat of

arms of the Panciatichi family.

In most of the portraits of the Medici family the background is eliminated. Often

Bronzino used drapery as a background so as to achieve a more dramatic effect, as in

Stefano Colonna (1546, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome), Portrait of a Lady (1555-7,

Galleria Sabauda, Turin), and Portrait of a Young Man (1550-52, National Gallery,

London). To conclude: Bronzino’s focus was on the sitters and their costumes rather

than on the details of the entire composition; by virtue of such a choice in representation,

the minute details of the sitters become juxtaposed to the somewhat abstracted

background and thus the former becomes accentuated.

Bronzino’s mythological paintings (apart from his sketches for the tapestries hung in the

Medici court, which remain difficult to interpret) form a rather small group which

comprises Pygmalion and Galatea (Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, 1529-30) and The Story of

Apollo and Marsyas (Leningrad, Hermitage Museum, 1531-32). These paintings differ

considerably: The former is a well-balanced, almost Raphaelesque composition, in which

only the proportions of Galatea’s body, especially the expression of her eyes, betray the

influences of Parmigianino and Pontormo, whilst the latter painting is a narrative cycle,

which depicts two scenes linked by an intricate iconographic construct.174

Bronzino’s allegorical paintings personally we found to be of most interest, probably

because of the chances they offer for different interpretations. The powerlessness of a

contemporary art historian to define what one would call an 'exact meaning' of the

figures in such an intricate composition as in the famous Allegory of Venus and Cupid

(1540-45, National Gallery, London) is on the other hand a source of inspiration for the

critics who indulge in perplexed explorations of sixteenth-century philosophy and

iconography175. Such paintings also demonstrate the taste of the elite audience they were

painted for, as well as of their intellectual pretensions and abilities. It was probably due

to this unsolvable representational character that they rarely received a harsh critique in

174According to Edith Wyss, by virtue of merging two mythological scenes, depicting Apollo and Marsyas
and King Midas, Bronzino juxtaposed the realms of nature and art. In Wyss’ terms, Apollo and Minerva (the
latter was depicted in the scene of Midas) can be seen as “paradigmatic for ars, as the maniera understood it:
derived from revered models of classical or recent art and perfected in tireless practice of disegno;
responding less to observed nature [the nature was seen here as represented by Marsyas] than to an inner
image, a shared ideal.” Wyss concluded that Bronzino’s Apollo and Marsyas became a representation of the
“superiority of art over nature” which was “a constant topos in the art criticism of the cinquecento.” [All
quotations refer to Wyss, Edith, The Myth of Apollo and Marsyas in the Art of the Italian Renaissance: An Inquiry
into the Meaning of Images (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London; Cranbury, NJ: Associated
University Presses, 1996), 110]

175The most famous interpretation of this painting can be found in Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology.
Panofsky’s chapter, titled “Father Time,” was a study of an iconological type; thus, it dealt primarily with
the pictorial transfer of an allegorical representation, in this case that of Time. Panofsky traced its
transformations from the period of classical antiquity, via the Middle Ages, into the Renaissance and post-
Renaissance era. Though there was little formal analysis in Panofsky, we can still find certain signals of the
author’s attitudes regarding the style of the Allegory by Bronzino (the National Gallery, London). Panofsky
referred to its composition as to a “crowded arrangement” [Panofsky, Erwin, Studies in Iconology (New York:
Harper Torchbooks, The Academy Library, Harper and Row, 1962), 86] and to its iconography as “peculiar”
[Ibid., 86]. The allegorical representation in Bronzino’s Allegory which he identified as “Fraud” [Ibid., 94] was
for Panofsky “the most sophisticated symbol of perverted duplicity ever devised by an artist, yet curiously
enough it is a symbol not rapidly seized upon by the modern viewer” [Ibid., 90, Emphasis Added.. ] {All
quotations refer to Panofsky, Erwin, Studies in Iconology (New York: Harper Torchbooks, The Academy
Library, Harper and Row, 1962)}

the past, since the art historians were preoccupied with solving the riddle of their


Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1545, National Gallery, London) is by far the most complex

of all pictures representing allegories by Bronzino, and we will not make an attempt to

give a new iconographical interpretation of it here. Stylistically, it is an excellent

example of courtly Mannerism, that in which the initial tremor of early Mannerism was

calmed and classicised. The porcelain quality of the complexion of the figures, the

asymmetrical yet balanced composition, the elimination of the background, the light but

not vibrant colouration, and a certain compression of the figures, all indicate this stylistic

shift within Bronzino’s opus that is usually said to have occurred in 1540. Less

frequently analysed allegorical paintings by Bronzino are Venus, Cupid and Jealousy (1550,

Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest), Venus, Cupid and a Satyr (1555, Colonna Gallery,

Rome), and Allegory of Happiness (1567-70, Uffizi, Florence). The first two are stylistically

similar, and they appeared to critics as variations of the London Allegory. Allegory of

Happiness, which was done in Bronzino’s last years, we would like to see as stylistically

akin to the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. In this particular painting, the composition is

almost symmetrical, the figures are less distorted and the colouration is light. Owing to

all these qualities, perhaps this painting would be another example of the shift in

Bronzino’s style we mentioned before in connexion with the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,

the shift which would have led Bronzino (had he got the time to continue to work in this

manner) to Baroque classicism.

Chapter III.

Maniera, Style and Mannerism; The Style(s) of Bronzino

Now we turn to the complicated relation between the terms maniera, Mannerism and

style and the historical variations in cultural value attributed to each of them that is

present even today, which need to be discussed in such a study that is focused on style

or styles of an artist, Bronzino, and also on style(s) of the period in which he worked.

The term maniera had a long history before Mannerism itself came into being defined

historically as a style or as a period. The most useful historiographical account of maniera

has been given already by Marco Treves, but what needs to be added here is what is

often (and perhaps, even deliberately) neglected: that maniera had and still has several

meanings, not all of which can be connected successfully with another ambiguous term

we still use today: the term style.

To define and connect the terms maniera, style and Mannerism, and to offer an

interpretation of at least a few of their complex correlations, we can still turn to the text

by Treves entitled, we may note, quite modestly: “Maniera, the History of a Word”176,

published in 1941. There has been no recent study about Mannerism that goes into such

detail. He was extremely scrupulous in tracing the term maniera and its changes in

meanings, which he achieved by analysing a number of important if unfamiliar texts

from the Renaissance to his own time in Italian as well as in French and in English. Also,

we find his model of interpretation, which assigned the central position to the term

maniera when discussing the Renaissance, mannerism177 and later artistic periods useful

for and similar to our methodology here. Unlike other authors who discussed the

relation of style and Mannerism, Treves presented a complex and layered model when

approaching the terms maniera178 and Mannerism, a model that can accommodate the

diversity of styles within the term style, today so often taken to mean just a period in art

history. Treves, more than many authors today, took seriously the different and often

inconstant connotations of the term maniera, which he analysed not only as matter of

language, but also as a fundamental element of the artistic and art historical discourse

and evaluation of the periods he analysed.

176 Treves, Marco, “Maniera, the History of a Word,” Marsyas I (1941), 69-88

177 We need to explain here that Treves did not spell Mannerism as we do today with a capital M (but
preferred “mannerism”), because in 1941 when his article was published it was not a widely accepted style
and period in art history. Thus we will use Treves’ spelling when quoting here from his text or when
paraphrasing his arguments.
178 Of quite different an opinion about the meaning of the terms maniera and Mannerism was Hessel

Miedema, who dismissed all the accounts on the use of these terms in today’s art history. Cf. Miedema, Op.

From the very beginning of his text Treves saw the term maniera and all of its meanings

as issuing from the gradual development of the arts and from the criticism that followed


“The word maniera has in Italian many meanings, several of which are especially
connected with the Fine Arts. … These various meanings were not introduced through
arbitrary decisions and abrupt innovations of individual writers, but evolved naturally,
gradually, and logically from one another….”179

Such a view of the development of the term reminds us of the biological metaphors

often used to describe the Renaissance.180 He then distinguished between various

common meanings of the word: “The most usual and ancient meaning of the word

maniera in Italian is the manner, way, or fashion, in which the work is done, a person

behaves, a problem is solved.”181 Then there was “[m]aniera as the painter’s term”182 and

here Treves relied upon Cennino Cennini.183 Yet Treves also noted that there seem to

have been two different meanings of the word maniera in the Renaissance: the individual

style of the artist and the common style of a nation or of an age. And after referring to

several quotations from Cennino Cennini (writing in 1390), Lorenzo Ghiberti (writing in

1450), and Antonio Filarete (writing between 1451 and 1464) in which the word maniera

appeared, he quoted a letter written by Raphael in 1519 to Pope Leo X, in which Raphael

179 Treves, Op. Cit., 69.

180 Infra, 114.

181 Treves, Op. Cit., 69.
183 Cennini, Cennino, Il Libro dell’ Arte, ed. D. V. Thompson, Jr. (New Heaven, 1932), 15. According to Treves,

Cennini’s view was criticised by L. B. Alberti and by Leonardo da Vinci.

“mentions also the decline of sculpture from the perfetta maniera of the early Emperors to

the malissima maniera of Diocletian and Constantine.”184

After this general account of the use of the term in one of the lengthier sections in his

article Treves discussed maniera in the text by Giorgio Vasari:

“In Vasari’s Lives, maniera has a special importance, because the evolution of styles of art
is one of the chief connecting threads that link together the vast number of factual data
contained therein. … He [Vasari] intended to explain the causes of the improvement and
decline of the arts, which he conceived as an alternation of good and bad styles.”185

It was style, or maniera, that Vasari used to evaluate each artist’s merit, and here we

could agree with Treves who in Vasari’s Lives assigned special organising and

evaluating role to the notion of style, which otherwise is seen just as one of the five

criteria that Vasari named in his Preface to the last book of Le Vite Lives (and those were :

rule, order, proportion, design and style/maniera).

In analysing Vasari, Treves identified three categories of maniera that Vasari employed:

as styles of periods or countries, as styles of individual artists, and as styles with various

qualifications186. However, Vasari, writing on style in three different and stylistically

unsynchronised activities187 , namely about painting, sculpture and architecture, was

flexible when applying the word maniera to different periods: Thus, for example, by

maniera moderna he once meant the style in the arts since Giotto, and at another point in

184 Treves, Op. Cit., 71.

185 Ibid., 71-72, Emphasis Added.
186 Ibid., 72
187 And we need to note here that Vasari’s work was in the form of biographies, or narratives on the lives of

the most famous practitioners of those three arts, notwithstanding the fact that then the term “art” was not
an operative one.

his text the style in the arts since Masaccio. Despite such chronological slippages, the

teleological development of maniera as an organising model was always present in

Vasari’s thinking and when he was to qualify and evaluate stylistically the practices of

painting, sculpture and architecture, he always chose the old manner of the Middle Ages

to represent a constant low point in his linear model of stylistic and artistic development.

Therefore in Vasari the maniera vecchia (whether he meant by that the maniera of Giotto,

or that of mediaeval architecture) almost always was to signify a style slightly to

moderately inferior to the maniera moderna.

The most complex of his uses of the term maniera is the third category when this word is

accompanied with “various epithets which qualify it critically or rhetorically.”188 Some

of these epithets are descriptive, and convey value judgements which often are

expressed by words borrowed from the literary critical discourse, or from history and

rhetoric. Other epithets derived from the language of the painters were operative only in

their professional jargon or technical language. However, in Vasari such imported

words are removed from such a private, professional and perhaps more hermetic

discourse by being used in a public document, and distributed to far wider an

audience189 than the one of the bottega. The origin and the transfer of these epithets are

complex and are not the topic of our research here, but it is important to stress that the

new vocabulary of terms was made public and perhaps standardised then by Vasari and

other writers on art. And if Renaissance paintings were complex and composite, such a

188Ibid., 73
189Lisa Pon’s article on Michelangelo’s biographies touches upon this difficult subject, when she discusses
the number of volumes that The Lives had, the number of copies, and the audience Vasari had in mind whilst
writing his books. Cf. Pon, Lisa, “Michelangelo’s Lives: Sixteen-Century Books by Vasari, Condivi, and
Others” in Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), 1015-1037

vocabulary to speak of them was used almost always for a few simple aims: to describe,

to praise (as well as to criticise) the works of art, the procedures of the artists, and their


Treves referred here also to another rare and important meaning of maniera, by which

the word simply denotes absolutely good in style. Again, this exception can be seen as a

confirmation of the importance of the term itself, which in this case took the meaning of

what in Latin literally stood for “appearance and shape”190 and actually meant “beauty

and beautiful.”191 Here we see that the most difficult term of the five that Vasari used

when he spoke of a perfect art at the beginning of the third section of Le Vite (rule, order,

proportion, design and style/maniera) assumed the central evaluative position in his

work. Thus, all authors who today condemn the term “Mannerism” to be pejorative

because of its relation to maniera which only later, and only in some instances, became a

negative word, consider neither the authentic documents from the period, such as

Vasari’s Lives, nor the complex and fair analysis offered by Treves. It needs to be stated

finally here that before the Baroque period maniera never was a pejorative term by itself,

but a flexible denominator of value, detached from the taints and shades of the quality

of art itself. In his article Treves also quite successfully demonstrated that if maniera

appeared by itself as a word, it was to signal excellent, and not bad works of art.

However, the future negative burden of the term maniera can be seen to have arisen from

within the lines of the treatises on art written in the Renaissance. Once the term maniera

190 Treves, Op. Cit., 74

191 Ibid., 74

became seen as a personal expressional device implying stylisation that an artist can and

should attain (by imitating others and then even himself), the significance of art as truth

was called into question. In Vasari we still cannot detect the binary opposition between

the practices of imitating nature (that is, depicting the truth) and imitating art, since he

advised that both other artists and nature should be imitated by an apprentice artist in

order to obtain good maniera. He allowed both practices to coexist unless he needed to

make some evaluative judgement. However, Vasari suggested obtaining a good balance

between these two procedures of practice. Yet, as often, he is ambiguous: The artist who

only followed his master and did not look at nature end up badly, because he did not

follow the teleological path of art “’[f]or it can be clearly seen that that he seldom passes,

who always walks behind.’”192 In Vasari’s words, the opposite of such a procedure, that

of looking only at nature and imitating her is also wrong, because it is impossible by

such simple imitation alone to surpass nature herself193. It is implied by Vasari that both

the imitation of nature and of other artists are equally useful for becoming a good artist,

but what this development depended on was an exercise of judgement between these


Here Treves suggests that the opposition between the idea of works of art based on

imitating nature and works of art based on imitating other artists (or the artist’s own

style) may have derived from the two different practices of tirar di practica and tirar di

maniera194. These two Italian phrases in Vasari Treves used to contrast what he called the

192 Here the question can be raised if this is Vasari’s anticipation of the pejorative term of After-comers or
Epigoni, Infra,
193 Treves, Op. Cit., 75
194 Ibid., 76.

Mannerist method, by which artists worked “swiftly and boldly,”195 focusing on their

“practice and stylistic habits,”196 to the Renaissance method in which artists were praised

for their “diligence and scientific naturalism.”197 Pace Treves, the terms “Mannerism”

and “Mannerist” (but not maniera) were invented in much later times then 1520-1600

(hence there can be no historical difference between the practices of Renaissance and

Mannerist artists), and we by now have numerous proofs that the Renaissance artists

did not look at nature only but also strove to imitate the ancient artists because for them, to

imitate the Antique, was to imitate Nature herself198.The application of such a term as

“scientific naturalism” when referring to Renaissance art is avoided in the more recent

critical texts because it may mislead the reader, who by now may know that not all

Renaissance artists followed the preparatory and painterly practices of Leonardo, the

two practices leading to what may be seen as a dichotomy between his intention to

capture the natural world seen in his preparatory work (which then was not seen as

belonging to the then inexistent style of naturalism, but was known to be based on close

observation, even vivisection, of the bodies of nature) and his final pictorial renderings

in which stylised plants and often abstract backgrounds can be observed.

That the opposition between natura and maniera was not as clear and crystallised then it

was to be for the writers on art of the late sixteenth century may be verified in the quotes

from Raphaelle Borghini’s Il Riposo (1584) and G. B. Armenini’s De veri precetti della

pittura (1587). This opposition became important only later when what Treves called

195 Ibid.
196 Ibid.
197 Ibid.
198 Cf. Bredekamp, Horst, The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution

of Nature, Art, and Technology, trans. Allison Brown (Princeton: M. Wiener Publishers, 1995)

“[t]he antimanneristic reaction”199 had started. Treves linked this reaction against

mannerism to the work of Caravaggio, who became the major exponent of the manner

of painting that was considered to be based on looking at nature (what we may today

may call a realistic approach, although it did not result in paintings which today appear

as pictorial copies of nature to us) as well as to the approach of the school of Bologna,

which sought their maniera in an eclectic practice of looking at and imitating both nature

and the works of other artists, claiming these two sources to be of equal importance.

And here we can note that even within such a deliberately eclectic approach of the

Bolognese painters, which could have been evident to the painters themselves, a

discomfort was felt with the term imitation, which was then seen as very negative one,

whereas earlier in the Renaissance imitation was as positive a term as the term emulation.

It may also be argued that the painters as well as seventeenth-century writers on art

projected their own insecurities about the process of imitation onto the previous period,

that is, onto Mannerism. In such a way they rhetorically (if not actually) purified

themselves from the habit of pure artistic imitation, that is, they positioned their

composite practice of painterly imitation in the equilibrium of the mutually dependent

opposition between art and nature, which they themselves have constructed. Although

the Mannerist practice of imitating other artists was later to be seen as a fault, the

Bolognese painters of the later sixteenth century did not fully abandon imitation, but

continued to use it and advised their followers to do so as well. Hence today we could

claim that by keeping operative and by imitating this allegedly ‘faulty’ practice of imitating

other artists, the seventeenth-century painters of Bologna committed yet a greater level of

imitation, and thus became the first true mannerists, in the negative sense of that word.

199 Treves, Op. Cit., 76-77

And to return to the word itself: it was after this complex (and in many ways –

contradictory) reaction to sixteenth-century paintings that the word maniera became a

narrower term, used to define disparagingly all previous art that was seen to be based

on pure imitation of art itself. The art that was then criticised was not what now we call

Mannerist, but referred to a group of works that immediately preceded the rise of what

we call today Baroque art and Bolognese Classicism. Whereas the Mannerists thought

of themselves as belonging to the tradition of Renaissance art and its practices (since

there was no chronological boundary set between Mannerism and Renaissance), the

artists of the Seicento made a deliberate differentiation between the art of the immediate

past and their works, claiming that their art was better according to standards they

collected from the Renaissance treatises and then unified into a new system of

evaluation. In Treves’ terms, in this new system of evaluation of art, the seventeenth-

century writers of art claimed to have obtained a new balance, that between realism and

mannerism. The Seicento artists and writers on art then claimed that they acquired such

perfect balance in the process of choosing the sources for imitation: between what

ambiguously was believed to have been negative (mannerist art) and positive (nature) a

source. Such a complex procedure resulted in art that was to be designated (and perhaps

styled or stylised) by a new and mostly positive term from philosophy, namely

eclecticism. The artistic methods of emulation, which was so highly praised in the

Renaissance, became for the Seicento artists more ambiguous and dangerous a process,

because it involved a certain freedom to look at nature as well as at art (both

contemporary and Antique). And yet, in a way, this method of choosing the best

elements from the visual sources available for new art, the method that Vasari himself

recommended, was preserved, in a less explicit form, in the term eclecticism.

It was this newly disparaging connotation of maniera then that gave birth and spread its

meaning to derogatory neologisms or derivates such as “ammanierato, manierista,

manierismo.”200 In such a way, the Seicento classicists constructed a new term, which will

continue to haunt their own work, as well as all previous and future art works based on

imitating previous style or styles. The consequences of this are obvious even today in the

critical discourse, since the term style is used by many contemporary scholars as a

pejorative term per se necessarily associated with artifice in art. Thus maniera, which in

the Renaissance was an inclusive and descriptive term not only limited to the field of

evaluating the arts, was forcefully, artificially, and strangely (even paradoxically)

transformed into a new yet hauntingly familiar evaluative critical term, which later was

used to attack its makers and its etymological parent or predecessor: the artists and the

word style.

And now we need to return to the history of Mannerism: As Treves and other writers

have recognised it was Gian Pietro Bellori who was the first writer to give the word

maniera a negative meaning in 1672:

“And the artists, abandoning the study of nature, corrupted art with the maniera, or (if
you prefer) fantastic idea, based on practice and not on imitation [of nature].”201

200 Ibid., 77
Treves here referred to Bellori, Gian Pietro, Le vite de pittori, scultori e architetti moderni (Roma, 1672), 20

With such a statement Bellori transformed a general term, that applicable to all artists as

a measurew of quality, and turned it into a source of inspiration for a group of bad

artists, who, by relying on maniera, produced works of art inferior in value.

Filippo Baldinucci202 in 1674 called the Mannerist painters di maniera or ammanierati and

blamed them for painting “’faces according to their whims,’”203 which he saw as

contrary to the proper process of imitating nature. It is of particular interest that

Baldinucci projected his notion of Mannerism back to the history of the Renaissance

though excluding Raphael, Michelangelo and del Sartro from all the others who

evidently had fallen into Mannerism, those in who “’we may notice now and then some

of that fault which is called maniera or ammanierato , that is to say, weakness of the

understanding and more of the hand, in obeying reality.’”204

Baldinucci defined maniera as “’[w]ay, fashion, mode of working.’”205 This seemingly

benevolent definition is compromised by his further explanation of maniera: At first he

admits that for painters, sculptors and the architects to acquire a certain manner is a

necessary step in their artistic development. However, if they follow only their own

maniera, which even the most eminent painters do, they fall into “’a certain departure

from the strict imitation of reality and nature,’”206 which is a great fault. To position the

following of one’s own style as superior to the idea of the imitation of nature condemns

202 Treves referred to Baldnnucci, Filippo, Notize de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua, IX (Firenze, 1667-
74), 164
203 Treves, Op. Cit., 78
204 Ibid., 78, Emphasis Added.
205 Ibid., 78.
206 Ibid.

such a painter “’never [to] be a good painter,’”207 although it allows developing different

styles which are recognisable, and which are not based on the mere repetition of another

artist’s style. Thus, even if all of the Mannerists produced particular works of art, all

different in style and models of imitation, all of them would be at fault because their

pictures were not conceived by looking at nature, which is the best and the single source

of the real material for the good artist to imitate. Baldinucci surmises quite gloomily that

not too many artists escape the vicious lure of Mannerism and almost all of the artists

apply this “’universal vice’”208 as a practice.

Like Baldinucci, F. Milizia209 saw in maniera a style that derives from an artist’s

individuality, but he then claimed that it is common for young artists to believe that

their master’s style is glorious, and that by the imitation of the master’s style their work

would become glorious as well. Here we see a shift in the idea of imitation – whereas in

the Renaissance the imitation of other artists was a practice which could enrich the style

of the young artists, for Milizia imitating previous artists’ styles was repeating a

procedure which was already then faulty. In Milizia’s words: “’The aim of art is

beautiful nature, and beautiful nature is to be sought in the productions of the arts

[generally] and not in the particular practice of the artist.’”210 This is a complex

argument, because it seems to imply two contradictory statements. Firstly, Milizia

claimed that art can produce nature, and then that the result of any art is faulty, because it is

always depends on the manner of the painter. The manner of the painter derives from

individuality, and thus it never allows any art production (even that which has a great

207 Ibid.
208 Ibid., 79.
209 Here Treves quoted Milizia, F., Dizionario delle belle arti del disegno (Bologna, 1797)
210 Here Treves quoted Milizia, F., Dizionario delle belle arti del disegno (Bologna, 1797), 209

or grand manner, beautiful by itself) to be “’exactly beautiful nature.’”211 Finally, if a

young painter imitates the great manner of his predecessor, he imitates something

which already was faulty in its necessary distinction from truth, and creates even greater

a fault. Milizia resolved this contradiction by peculiar advice: new artists should imitate

neither one master nor one manner, but look for beauties in many works of different

artists. In Milizia, the belief that art can imitate212 and even surpass nature is gone,

whereas the representation of beauty in art excludes application of any manner, and it

seems difficult to understand where then beauty can be found except in nature, of

course. For such statements as the qualification of maniera as “’contagion’”213 Milizia,

following Treves, may be called a “rigid objectivist.”214

Neither Roger de Piles215 nor Diderot216 saw anything positive in the term maniera, which

they translated in French as manière, and which they considered to be “’vice.’”217 From

these derogatory meanings, the adjectives manieroso, ammanierato, and maniéré appeared

in works by Malvasia, Baldinucci, and Milizia as well as in Furetière218 (1694) and

Denise Diderot (1767), all of which were to mean mannered in the negative sense of the


211 Treves, Op. Cit., 79

212 If this was applied to the general idea of attaining knowledge by looking at art and nature, previously in
the Renaissance seen as comparable, such a claim would segregate automata, minerals, plants, sculpture and
paintings that previously coexisted within the same spatial and mental niches of the Studiolo of Francesco I
de’ Medici (and later of the Kunstkammern).
213 Ibid., 79.
214 Ibid.
215 Treves quotes from Piles, R. de, Cours de peinture par principes, (Paris, 1708).
216 Here Treves referred to Diderot, D., ‘Essai sur la peinture,’ chap. I, Oeuvres, (Paris, 1821), VIII, 412-417.

and to Diderot, D., ‘Salon de 1767,, no. 235, Oeuvres, (Paris, 1821), X, 102-110
217 Treves, Op. Cit., 79.
218 Furetière, A., Dictionnaire universel, (La Haye et Rotterdam, 1694), II, 69.

According to Treves, the substantive maniériste firstly can be found in works of Fréart de

Chambray219 (1662) and later in Roger de Piles. This word then appeared in English from

John Dryden’s translation of de Piles published in 1695220 and in Italian interestingly via

A. M. Salvini’s 1809 translation of Fréart de Chambray.221 In Italian two words related to

maniera appeared in Luigi Lanzi’s 1809 book on Italian art222: he used manierista and

man\nierismo.223 In Italian eighteenth-century architectural criticism, the words manieristi

and manierismo, respectively, were used to describe Baroque style. Needless to say,

Baroque in the eighteenth century was also a pejorative term, and here again we can

note a strange operation of exchanging negative terms between critical discourses about

different arts.

Treves’ conclusion which he titles ‘Manner and Mannerism in recent usage’ is an

extremely valuable expression of the position of Mannerist art and also of the term

Mannerism in the 1940s. Treves named first the styles in European art which occurred

after the Baroque: neoclassic, romantic, and finally realist, and under which Mannerism

still remained an unfavourable term. The theoretical work of Alberti, according to

Treves, deeply influenced all of the European Academies, and those institutions formed

standards based on comparing art with nature. But what Treves did not analyse were

the positions vis-à-vis maniera and Mannerism that appeared in art and art criticism

opposing the Academies and Academism of the later nineteenth century. Since here we

219 Fréart de Chambray, R., Idèe de la perfection de la peinture, (Le Mans, 1662), 120.
220 De Arte Graphica, The art of painting by C. A. Du Fresnoy with remarks, translated into English… by Mr. Dryden,
(London, 1695), pages 151 and 310.
221 Idea della perfezione della pittura di Mr. R. Freart, tradotta dal francese da A. M. Salvini, (Firenze, 1809), 86
222 Lanzi, Luigi, Storia della pittorica dell’ Italia, (Bassano, 1809).
223 According to Treves, despite some complaints of the linguists, the word mannierismo was better suited as

it was less ambiguous about mannerism than the term maniera.

will turn to such discourse, or the lack of it, it is not necessary here to say more about

this. Yet what is very important is Treves’ statement about the contemporary position of

Mannerism :

“Recently, in connection with a fairer appreciation of the art of the sixteenth century,
mannerism and mannerists have become the historical denominations for a certain school
of artists, without any implication of demerit.”224

It is important to note here that Treves does not delineate mannerist art chronologically,

but fixes it in a very general period in the sixteenth century. Although it may seem as a

minor issue, throughout the text Treves never capitalised “M” in “mannerism,” which

may signal that he did not found it to be as established a term as the “Renaissance” and

the “Baroque,” which he used with capital first letter. However, it was a brave statement

on Treves’ behalf to place M/mannerism then within art history, thus helping it regain

its positive meaning as a style and period.

In his conclusion, Treves introduced three distinct or as he wrote “principal” meanings

of the term maniera: “(a) way or mode, (b) style, (c) mannerism.”225 He added that the

fourth meaning of maniera that denotes “good manner”226 was not included here

because of its rarity in historical discourse, where such a meaning was “merely an

occasional trope.”227 These three meanings of maniera that Treves lists are to be found

often in later discourses on style, although many of the authors who followed Treves

failed to refer to him and presented it often as their own classifications. It is not just

224 Treves, Op. Cit., 81, Emphasis Added.

225 Ibid., 81.
226 Ibid.
227 Ibid.

because of such neglect that we decided to present Treves’ arguments in length, but

because he also introduced a historical development of the sense that maniera had within

history. The use of the term maniera to describe a way or a mode dates back to the

beginning of the Italian literary discourse. Maniera as style appeared in Cennini and

according to Trevis it was then also a word common in the contemporary language of

the painters. The development of maniera into a pejorative term, due to changes in art

practice and theory, occurred in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, culminating

in Bellori.

Treves also concluded that even though many words similar to maniera were introduced

afterwards, perhaps even in order to avoid the negative connotation of maniera that he

saw mostly issuing from French literature, maniera is still preserved and often used in

the Italian language. He has a reason for this: “Italian is a conservative language, based

on literature and not on fashion, and a good word used by good writers is not likely to

become obsolete.”228

There is another important yet unexplored notion here in what Treves wrote: the fact

that his ideas were based on philosophy as well as on linguistics allowed us to follow his

remarks and understand them better as well as other writers who employed such a


To be more specific: one particular phrase in Treves is of great importance for our

further speculation and we believe – our general conclusion about style. When

228 Ibid., 81

discussing the development of the term maniera, Treves claimed that the new, narrower,

and mostly negative connotation assigned to it, became later its exclusive meaning, for

the writers in the late seventeenth century. And it was from this position vis-à-vis

maniera, according to Treves, that Bellori, Malvasia, Baldinucci, and Félibien applied a

“dialectic explanation of the history of painting.”229 The choice for these writers, Treves

wrote, was between methods based on what may be called unresolved and resolved

dialectics, i.e. between methods that recognise binary oppositions and that which strive

to bring the binaries into a new and qualitatively higher resolution of Hegelian

synthesis.230 And for many Seicento writers, according to Treves, it was the Carraci who

achieved a good style by avoiding the faults that constitute the dialectics: mere

imitation or total neglect of nature.

229 Ibid., 77. We need to add here that these writers used dialectics without striving for synthetic resolution.
This particular and complex parallel between the method of Seicento artists and writers on art and
philosophical method defined by Hegel was introduced earlier in Treves’ text, and although at first it
seemed it could create a new ambiguity if developed further, we decided to follow it as well.
230 Since we will further develop the interpretation of style or styles and their development according to

Georg Friedrich Hegel’s model of dialectics, it may be useful to include some basic explanations of it here.
Hegel’s model is firmly set in the teleological belief of the development of the idea, which is primarily set in
binary oppositions: as thesis and antithesis. These two antipodes are resolved and overcome in a synthesis,
which is to constitute a new thesis on the next level of dialectical development. The thesis and antithesis
exist until the synthesis that resolved them is not abolished.
There were three stages in the dialectical development according to Hegel, which can be termed by three
words from Latin: negare (at which the limitations of the existent dialectical level are abolished), conservare
(at which the seed of the forthcoming dialectical development is kept) and elevare (at which that seed is
elevated to a higher and more perfect quality).
Hegel himself did discuss the sequence of styles in art by relating it to the development of the world spirit.
According to Carl J. Friedrich, for Hegel art was, “along with religion and philosophy, the embodiment of
the absolute spirit; he refers all art to the spirit it ‘expresses.’” [Friedrich, Carl J., “Style as the Principle of
Historical Interpretation,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism XIV (December 1955), 146]. Hegel divided
the epoch of stylistic development into: “the symbolic, the classic and the romantic” [Ibid., 146] and these
roughly “correspond to the oriental, the Greco-Roman and the Christian-Germanic.” [Ibid., 146]

Although it might have been more reasonable to use the common term eclecticism and

not involve yet another term from a later philosophical discourse, in his text Treves

preferred to create a new and more specific comparison. Thus, if not consciously, he

followed what seems to be a basic procedure by which art historians acquire new terms

from other sciences or disciplines – here he used philosophy – in order to define their

perceptions or thoughts, which otherwise cannot be articulated by the words available

in the usual art-historical vocabulary. An early writer on art, like Cennino Cennini, had

considerable difficulties when writing about art, and he relied often on sources from

literature and rhetoric that were available from antiquity. Yet, as Martin Kemp has

observed, the main shortcoming of Cennini and other early writers was their inability to

be able to distinguish between individual styles, and also the fact that, in fourteenth-

century Italy, writers writing about different arts often used the same words but with

different meaning. For example, Cennini used aria and maniera for style, whereas aria for

Petrarch “in this sense is somewhat different from Cennino’s individual style, which

was particular for one artist … [since] it refers to a shared quality between a master and

followers – much as we might refer to the Leonardesque style of Luini in Milan.”231

Although we attempt to avoid terms that may be even more complicated, we still need

to follow this difference because it may lead us to a valuable conclusion; hence we

include a full quotation from Kemp here:

“This sense of ‘air’ as peculiarly visual property, allusive of definition, may also suggest
a further reason why the early Renaissance experienced difficulty in articulating the

Kemp, Martin, “‘Equal Excellences’: Lomazzo and the Explanation of Individual Style in the Visual Arts,”
Renaissance Studies, Vol. I, (1987), 5.

features of individual style. Petrarch implicitly acknowledges that it is a matter for
‘sensing’ rather than verbal formulation. We may go further and say that when the early
Renaissance writers on the visual arts looked to their favourite literary models for
adaptable criteria, they would find only the most limited guidance in pinning down the
elusiveness of individual style.”232

We see in this example how two writers – Cennini and Petrarch – writing on different

arts seemingly resolved the problem of describing the same topic. And it seems that for

the lack of better terms, they used the same ones which bore different meaning for them.

Hence, it may be concluded that in the beginning of the discourse on art there was a lack

of more specific terms to speak of art, and this was resolved by borrowing external

terms which seem to articulate better the initial thought, and enrich the general

dictionary of terms. As one may imagine, these observations, that which Kemp

described as allusive of definition and which Petrarch called ‘sensual,’ signalling thus

that they cannot be easily verbalised, came from looking and belong to the perceptual,

and thus not fully rationalised realm. As such they often seem as if they are a priori

inadequate to be used as legitimate terms in art-historical discourse (even if one applied

rhetorical tropes such as comparison and metaphor). It can be said here that such art-

historical art of endless expansion of critical vocabulary defers more definite resolutions

within the present art-historical discourse, whilst simultaneously creating new ways of

speculating on and writing about art233.

233Kemp thinks, and we can follow his argument to a degree, that style in writing is less recognisable than
the style in painting:

“I think that it is eternally unlikely – computers or no computers – that discrimination of literary style will
ever be able to achieve the level of nuanced refinement that can define the graphic styles if, say, Raphael,
Guilio Romano and Francesco Penni around 1520s….” [Ibid., 5]

Kemp also realised and explained convincingly the struggle of the early Renaissance artists to create a new
language and a new framework for the next century:

If we were to follow a Hegelian dialectical model (which Treves used when explaining

Seicento speculation on art), we could conclude that such an art of endless deferral of

definitions used to articulate more precise thoughts on art is not necessarily an

irresolvable obstacle in art history. We could separate two simultaneous and contrary

actions that constitute this obstacle: the action of attaining definitions by virtue of

articulating statements composed of terms chosen from the limited existent vocabulary,

and the additional actions of acquiring new words which in turn expand the critical

vocabulary and offer more words, which can enrich the articulation and result in a fuller

definition. Yet in the end, what appeared at first to be an irresolvable antithetical status

quo is resolved.

This view may require further explanation. We may recognise firstly as operating within

every discourse on art one simple, unattainable, yet necessary intention: to choose

specific words to form a language of the discourse. The words used in a specialised

discourse on art (ever since it emerged) can then be said to constitute a minimal

intelligible vocabulary applied to articulate and communicate all the individual

speculations about art, these terms being inter-subjective and more refined. These

discrete and specific terms enable the discourse and allow it to operate fully, which may

lead to obtaining fixed and consensual meanings, and also to differentiating qualities

“To a larger degree than usual, Renaissance writers on the visual arts had to invent their own new
framework for the analysis of the individual styles. When we turn more systematically to our three themes –
recognition, description and explanation – we find that the classical authors and the humanists who looked
towards them in the fifteenth century provided limited guidance.” [Ibid., 5, Emphasis Added.]

and values in the arts. However, this basic intention, which is necessary for any

discourse, is constantly undermined by the second aspiration: to introduce new critical

terms which would serve to enable even better and more exact discourse on art. These

different intentions we may also interpret as inseparable: the former intent as motivated

by the quest to assign fixed meanings to the works of art, the latter as motivated by the

urge to broaden the seemingly imprecise vocabulary of terms and optimise the discourse

of art history, both such intents issuing from normative and rational speculation.

The interaction of these two antithetical processes (or intentions) defers their aims: fixed

meanings cannot be reached because of the constant inclusion of new terms, and thus

the discourse lacks a discrete and definite vocabulary necessary to reach its optimal

function. However imperfect the result of this interaction may seem, it also facilitates the

renewal of the language used for describing and speculating on art by constant

additions and changes. And then the new terms, imported, as they are, from different

speculative areas, through application and repetition, become legitimate (if still not

fixed, commonly accepted and easily defined) terms of the discourse, indirectly then

influencing (or even redefining) our perception of art in ways that lead to changes in our

mode of vision, that then influences the arts themselves. Such a dynamic in creation,

description and perception of the arts, based on rational speculation, which is constantly

balanced, thus paralysing the final rationalisation of art through a stabilised and

optimised discourse, may be seen as related to changes in specific preferences for art,

which are based on style, manner and taste. In turn, these changes in taste for art foster

shifts in artistic creation , its visualisation and its style, as well as changes in articulation

of the thoughts they induce, reflecting the shifts from obsolete to contemporary

definitions used in art historical discourse for evaluating the works of art. Eventually

this fosters the flux of the terms that are at that moment selected to describe art. Such a

negation of the negation, to use Hegelian language, leads to the creation of the new

modes of representation, that is, of new style or styles. We believe that art exists through

the process of perpetual change of its styles as well as of the styles in writing about art.

Consequently, in a synthetic way, such a dialectical process enables art and style, as well as

vision, to change in time, and thus to acquire their own histories.

After introducing the concept of maniera and its historiography, and speculating on the

development of art and its discourse, we can turn to the concept of style, which, as we

have already discussed in the Introduction, we need to address here, yet not in ways to

distract our attention from Mannerism and Bronzino. It seems that today style is less

important a subject for art historians than in years past. This refusal to discuss the

concept of style has developed because scholars see style as an organising element in

Modernist art history, which they rejected as structured around the range of repressions

that occurred during the reign of rigid patterns of critical thought in art history,

teleological views of development in the fine arts, discrete periods that can be seen in

stylistic progression of high (or fine) arts, iconological analysis, and so forth. For

scholars now, style has often became an instrument of repressive and eventually

inscrutable mechanisms, that have led to an endless organisation of selective narratives

in art history, and the repression of alternative narratives of race, gender, and feminism.

The lack of clear definition of the notion of style led some authors to dismiss it

completely, and to call the art historians who still preserve stylistic analysis the

alchemists of art history. Such a negative view of style, still operative in we might call

Post-post-modern scholarship, has influenced recent studies of Mannerism which avoid

discussing style as an issue, concentrating on other more specific issues of patronage,

race, body and gender in these paintings, in order to avoid disussing a more complete

account of this art, which would connect their specialised interpretations with the

period or style as a whole. We will not attempt here to resolve the complex position of

style in contemporary art-historical discourse; for those who now think that art history

can operate without style, suffice it to say that the very term Post-modernism might be

seen itself as a style or period in art, containing, of course, in its very name, the previous

stylistic period of Modernism.

For our purpose here we will continue to use the term style which, we believe, still can

be used in historiographical accounts. And now we will attempt to approach it by

looking at materials available to us today. There are numerous works in art history as

well as in other disciplines that have attempted to define style and delineate its

development. To present a brief history of the notion of style here we first will approach

Meyer Schapiro’s influential text, which summarises different views of the notion of

style within art history. Schapiro began by introducing the distinction between style

which can vary within the opus of an artist and style as a period denominator. From

such a model the definition of style in Schapiro appears:

“By style is usually meant the constant form – and sometimes the constant elements,
qualities, and expression – in the art of an individual or a group.”234

Schapiro, Meyer, “Style,” Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society (New York, N.Y.: George

Braziller, 1994), 51.

Later he increases the number of criteria when analysing a singe style, in order to refine

the stylistic analysis. According to Schapiro, one should consider within one style

“regional variations,”235 “the process of historical development from year to year,”236

“the growth of individual artists” and “the discrimination of the works of master and

pupil”237 for example.

Schapiro saw stylistic analysis as a positive framework for approaching the work of art,

as in his view it leads to organising both the parts and the whole of the work of art. Yet

in such a view, the application of the idea of style is not meant to form normative


“There is no privileged content or mode of representation (although the greatest works

may, for reasons obscure to us, occur only in certain styles). Perfect art is possible in any
subject matter or style. A style is like a language, with an internal order and
expressiveness, admitting a varied intensity or delicacy of statement.”238

These definitions of style are followed by a survey of models of stylistic development.

Schapiro distinguished two different views within the first model of stylistic

development which he called the organic conception of style: the cyclical (that which views

the succession of styles as a repetitive pattern of rise, maturity and decline) and the

evolutionary (that which sees the stylistic development as a constant process leading

from primitive to advanced). In Schapiro’s view the most refined cyclical model is

presented by Heinrich Wölfflin, its advantage being the exclusion of all value

235 Ibid., 56
236 Ibid.
237 Ibid.
238 Ibid., 57-58.

judgements.239 The example of the evolutionary model of stylistic development Schapiro

saw in Alois Riegl’s model of constant movement between haptic and optic viewing of

the object which in turn, and equally without any terms of value, results in constant

change in style in art.

When discussing views of style vis-à-vis content of the work, Schapiro noted that

sometimes style is associated with a distinct body of subject matter. Certain writers240

viewed style as “the objective vehicle of the subject matter or of its governing idea,”241

which then means that style pre-existed as an adequate formula for a certain genre

which then in time was selected and developed into a form most suitable for the subject


The second group of ideas about style that Schapiro distinguished included the theory

based on what he called the world view (or Denkweise)242 of a period or culture. In his view

such interpretations of the connection of style, art and time were valuable, because they

introduced a practice of interpreting the style itself as an inner content of art. Here again

we see the conflict between two views that Schapiro presented: that of style as a pre-

existent and governing factor of art and of style as a factor which develops as an inner requisite

of art itself.243

239 Infra, 115-16.

240 Paul Frankl and Emanuel Loewy are mentioned here by Schapiro, Cf. Schapiro, Op. Cit., 73-77.
241 Schapiro, Op. Cit., 77.
242 Ibid., 84-85
243 We have chosen Schapiro’s interpretation here because there a brief history of the models of stylistic

development can be found. Naturally, not all authors who wrote about style agreed with Schapiro. We will
quote here a compelling view of Willibald Sauerlaender, who defined style in different terms, as one
example of numerous speculations which cannot be classified within Schapiro’s model:

Finally, Schapiro addressed the problem of duality within the same style244, a

phenomenon that is usually simplified by dividing the same stylistic period into two

stylistically different groups, which, he believed, might have existed within the same

work of art deliberately, and not due to negligence.

Schapiro’s thoughts on style and art are very useful for us here for his classification of

models of stylistic development reflects two different interpretations on the

development of the arts and styles. The first group he distinguished as sharing the

metaphor of organic development, seen as analogous to changes in art and style. This

group includes models of development otherwise quite different, those by Johann

Joachim Winckelmann (1717-80), Alois Riegl (1858-1905), Emmanuel Loewy (1857-1938),

Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), and Paul Frankl (1878-1962). Some of these do include

evaluative judgement, signalled even from the words used to describe stages of style.

For Winckelmann there was the older, the grand, the beautiful and the style of the

imitators. For Frankl there were the style of Being and the style of Becoming, both of which

included three phases he called preclassic, classic, and postclassic. For Riegl and other

writers influenced by his work, evaluative judgements can and should be abolished, as

the changes of styles are seen as a teleological process of evolution. We can see that

“Style ceases to be Gadamer’s ‘undiscussed self-evident concept’ and presents itself as a highly conditioned
and ambivalent hermeneutical ‘construct,’ worked out at a distinct moment in social and intellectual history
and corresponding to a very peculiar and alienated attitude towards the arts of the past as the aesthetic
mirror of bygone civilization. Style is the mirror which makes all the buildings, the statues, the images of the
past accessible to aesthetic historicism, for its dreams and for its files. It detatches from these buildings,
statues and images what may have been their original message and function and above all their inherent
conflicts, the stamp of superstition and cruelty, the token of suffering or the signs of revolt, reducing them to
patterns, samples, to the aesthetic irreality of the labelled mirror image.” [Sauerlaender, Willibald, “From
Stilus to Style: Reflections on the fate of a Notion,” Art History, Vol. 6 No. 3, September 1983, 245]

244 Schapiro, Op. Cit.,95

Schapiro favoured such an approach, and yet he also notes that such models could not

explain certain shifts in style. Yet our position regarding value-judgement is quite

different, for we agree with Ernst Gombrich who claimed that writing about art

necessarily includes value-judgements,245 that inherent in the preference for one topic

over another is indeed the writer’s value judgement.

The second group of models Schapiro presented were based on the connexion between

the worldview and development of the arts. It is clear that such models of stylistic

development, originating from Hegel’s notion of the development of the world-spirit,

cannot escape value judgement as well. Yet we would like to present a conclusion that

leads us to a new argument that is important for understanding both the development of

styles and the position of Mannerism within any such developments. Although very

different their metaphors, none of the models presented by Schapiro successfully

escaped the consequence of the classification they introduced. The terms used to

describe different stages of stylistic development, the metaphors which evoked

biological stages of youth and death, the teleological views by which the movement is

constant yet towards higher stages in development, all resulted in a hierarchal

organisation within the models themselves, thus assigning different artistic value to

different styles they included, and opening the possibility of value judgements246. This

245“Every preference, one might argue, implies an aversion” Gombrich, Ernst H., The Preference for the
Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, (London; New York: Phaidon, 2002), 7.

246 Again we will return to Sauerlaender who reminds us of the origin of the word style, the Roman word
stilus, which is usually translated as the pen or tool for writing. In Ancient Roman rhetoric, “’[s]tyle’ in this
sense cannot be forged without respecting and obeying rules and norms. Style asks for discipline, control
and polish. And stilus is not only a normative, it is also a value-charged and even an elitist concept.”
[Sauerlaender, Willibald, Op. Cit., 254, Emphasis Added..]

hierarchy is a result of the governing model of viewing the development in arts and

styles: the model of rise and decline.

To explain this model further and understand its importance for interpreting Mannerism,

we can now turn to the more specific speculations and opinions that have grown around

the notions of Mannerism and style. The scholars who have addressed Mannerism often

openly favour certain groups of works of art, or period, or works by a particular artist,

and dismiss the ones they see as inferior. Such a transparent preference may appear as

strange to the contemporary reader, cultivated in the pluralism of the late twentieth

century. And it seems now that even those periods which previously were considered

inferior in artistic value247 gain new attention. This, in turn, precipitates the re-

evaluations of such periods, resulting then in re-establishing their legitimacy. Some art

historians say that this leads to a relativism in all art-historical judgement, as expressed

by Steven Best:

“Artistic forms have proliferated to such an extent that they permeate all commodities
and objects so that by now everything is an aesthetic sign. All aesthetic signs coexist in a
situation of indifference and aesthetic judgement is impossible: 'We are all agnostics when it
comes to art: we no longer have any aesthetic convictions, we do not profess any
aesthetic doctrine or we profess them all. '"248

As Schapiro already suggested, such relativism was not easily attained in the discussion

and classification of styles and their development, as we can see in arguments that

Wölfflin, the author who attempted to abolish value-judgement in writing about art and

247 A good example for such a negative evaluation is fin-de-siècle Academic style, which was denigrated by

some Modernists.

248Best, Steven, Kellner, D., Postmodern Theory, Critical Interrogations, (New York: The Guildford Press, 1991),
136. Best quoted Jean Baudrillard here.

style, presented in the “Preface” to his influential book Principles of Art History: The

Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art:

”The ‘Principles’ arose from the need of establishing on a firmer basis the classification
of art history: not the judgement of value – there is no question of that here – but the
classifications of style.”249

Wölfflin, in other words, felt compelled to argue against the role of mere taste in the

discrimination of style250. Yet he did not entirely escape the model of evaluation that

establishes a hierarchy while discussing styles in art history and in the end leads to a

development in art based on the notion of rise and decline. This is evident from his

words later in the “Preface”:

“We know primitively immature modes of vision, just as we speak of ‘high’ and ‘late’
periods of art.” 251

When discussing the periodisation of the stylistic sequence that is seen to start with the

Renaissance and end with the Baroque, Wölfflin’s lines echo again his indecisiveness

regarding what one may call the objective and subjective accounts of art history:

”We denote the series of periods with the names of Early Renaissance, High Renaissance,
and Baroque, names which mean little and must lead to misunderstanding in their
application to south and north, but are hardly to be ousted now. Unfortunately, the
symbolic analogy bud, bloom, decay, plays a secondary and misleading part. If there is in
fact a qualitative difference between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the sense
that the fifteenth had gradually to acquire by labour the insight into effects which was at

249 Wölfflin, Heinrich, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, transl.

Hottinger, M.D., (New York: Dover, 1950): vii, Emphasis Added. [Wölfflin's Principles were published first
in 1915.]

250Additionally, Wölfflin seems to argue here against the model of decline that his mentor Jakob Burckhardt
used when referring to the Italian art after Raphael, we shall see when commenting on Burckhardt's model
of stylistic development later in this dissertation.

251 Ibid., vii, Emphasis Added.

the free disposal of the sixteenth, the (classic) art of the Cinquecento and the (baroque)
art of the Seicento are equal in point of value. The word classic here denotes no judgement
of value, for baroque has its classicism too. Baroque (or, let us say, modern art) is neither
a rise nor a decline from classic, but a totally different art. The occidental development
of modern times cannot simply be reduced to a curve with rise, height, and decline: it has
two culminating points. We can turn our sympathy to one or the other, but we must
realise that that is an arbitrary judgement….“252

Reading this paragraph, we might conclude that Wölfflin does not acknowledge the

existence of Mannerism. However, if we investigate his model of rise and decline, which

in this paragraph he simultaneously seems to reject and to accept, we will see the

following: Mannerism is both present and concealed as a point of decline253 between what

Wölfflin calls “two culminating points,”254 that is, between the points at which, in his

terms, Classical and Baroque art are seen to culminate.

It was not until Walter Friedlaender’s work between 1914 and 1924255 that Mannerism

was accorded a recognition by its being included in the pantheon of styles of art history.

One would expect that Friedlaender who re-established the period which had been

condemned for so many years as decadent would resist the notion of decline that had

252 Ibid., 13-14, Emphasis Added.

Interestingly, Wölfflin was harsher in his critique of the Mannerist period in art in his previously published
book The Art of the Italian Renaissance; A Handbook for Students and Travellers (London: W. Heinemann, New
York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1903). Though he did not acknowledge Mannerism as a stylistic entity, Wölfflin
described it in a short chapter called “Decline” and used a standard repertoire of accusations against
Mannerism, which included imitation and exaggeration.

253In his essay “What is Baroque?” Erwin Panofsky expressed a similar opinion apropos Wölfflin's
interpretation of Mannerism. [Cf. Panofsky, Erwin, Three Essays on Style, ed. Lavin, Irving, (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1995): 23]. Meyer Schapiro also noted that Wölfflin in his interpretation failed to explain
Mannerism as a style. [Schapiro, Op. Cit., 72.]

Wölfflin, Heinrich, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, transl.

Hottinger, M.D., (New York: Dover, 1950), 14. Obviously, this is an evaluative phrase.

Friedländer, Walter, “Die Enshtehung des antiklassischen Stiles in der intalienischen Malerei um 1520,”

Reportium für Kunstwissenschaft 46 (1925), 49-86.

made Mannerism so invisible to previous critics. But in his second essay on Mannerism,

called “The Anticlassical Style,” Friedlaender suggests there was a decline within

Mannerism itself and marks this decline in the following words:

“[T]he noble, pure, idealistic, and abstract style, lasting approximately from 1520 to 1550,
was transformed in the succeeding phase (about 1550 to 1580) into a manner; it became
‘di maniera’ by repetition, cleverness, and playful exaggeration on the one hand, by
weak concessions on the other.”256

Thus, on in his account, the subjectivism, lyricism, spiritualism and abstraction of early

Mannerism gave way to an “artistic concept which, through exaggerations of its original

nature, and even more through endless repetitions, betrayed unmistakable signs of

overbreeding, and hence of sterility.”257

If we were to construct a stylistic chronology of Italian Mannerist art following

Friedlaender’s accounts, it would consist of the following periods: Early Mannerism

(1520-1550), late Mannerism (1550-1580) and pre-Baroque (or Neo-Renaissance, or Neo-

Classicism, 1580/90-1600). Thus, not only does Friedlaender construct a decline within

Mannerism, but also he cannot resist re-establishing a classical order based on the model of

the Renaissance within the period of Mannerism. This is an important point for our

investigation, since we intend to show this aspect of Friedlaender’s model is present still

in the contemporary criticism of Mannerist art and Bronzino.

256Friedlaender, Walter F., “The Anticlassical Style” in Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting,
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 48. Though this particular paragraph does not constitute a
negative account, later in Friedlaender's essay it became evident that he did not have a high opinion on the
later Mannerist art, as we will see in the quote that will follow.

257 Ibid., 47, Emphasis Added.

We have used these two examples from the writings of twentieth-century historians to

illustrate how deeply the concept of decline from a classical norm or ideal is rooted in

European thought. Yet this concept of decline is embedded in a far older tradition,

traceable back to classical antiquity258. Thus, before examining further how the model of

decline entered Renaissance and post-Renaissance art criticism, we will have to turn

briefly to the ancient Greek and Roman sources.

Numerous scholars259 have discussed the ancient models of cultural decline. For our

investigation, it will be important to emphasise that the ancient models of decline were

not originally devised to describe the fine arts, but that by virtue of using examples from

art to illustrate the notion of decline in other fields260 they became associated with the


258 We need to emphasise again here that in antiquity the art criticism did not exist in the sense we know it
today. According to Pollitt, the ancient authors who wrote about art and artists may be broadly classified
into four groups: the compilers of tradition (such as Pliny, the earliest author in this group is Duris of Samos
(340-260 BC)), the literary analogists – “rhetoricians and poets who used the visual arts as a source for stylistic
analogy with literature and who sometimes used works of art as subjects for literary exercises” (Cicero,
Quintilian), the moral aestheticians (Plato, Socrates) and the professional critics (who were often artists). The
second tradition was essentially an offshoot of literary criticism and was concerned mostly with the question
of style, and thus it is to these works that we will refer most often here. [Pollitt, J. J., The Ancient View of Greek
Art: Criticism, History, and Terminology (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1974), 9-10]
259 Weisinger, Herbert, “Renaissance Theories of the Revival of the Fine Arts” in Italica XX, vol. 3,

(September 1943), 163-170, Gombrich, Ernst H., “The Debate on Primitivism in Ancient Rhetoric” in Journal
of the Warburg and Courtlaud Institutes (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1966), 24-39,
Williams, Gordon Willis, Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1978), and Donohue, Alice A., “Winckelmann's History of Art and Polyclitus” in Polykleitos,
the Doryphoros, and Tradition, ed. Moon, Warren G., (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 327-357.

260Here we refer to Gombrich’s interpretation of Cicero’s arguments against Asiatic style in rhetoric, which
used examples from the visual art. In Gombrich's own words, “[i]t is in this gathering of evidence that he
[Cicero] draws in the visual arts, thus establishing or fortifying a link between the criticism of rhetoric and
art which made this debate so memorable for both traditions.” [Gombrich, “The Debate on Primitivism in
Ancient Rhetoric,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtlaud Institutes (London: Warburg Institute, University of
London, 1966), 27.]. Cf. Cicero, Marcus Tullius, Brutus, transl. Hendrickson (London, W. Heinemann;
Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1952), xviii 70 (page 67).

The model of decline can be traced back to two groups of textual sources in classical

antiquity. One lies in texts which described the decline of ancient Roman literature of the

first century AD; the other in the texts which contrasted Attic and Asiatic style of

rhetoric, arguing always against the latter.

According to Gordon Williams, for the Roman scholars who criticised the literature of

the first century AD, there were three explanations of decline: ”there was the

explanation in terms of morals; there was the explanation in terms of political change;

and there was the explanation that posited a fundamental law of growth followed by

inevitable decline.”261 On the other hand, the classical authors, arguing for the Attic

style in rhetoric, usually saw a single reason for decline – namely, the political anarchy

of the Greek states following the death of Alexander the Great.262 Regarding both the

literature and rhetorical styles in classical antiquity these authors argued against what

they took to be the decorativeness, effeminacy, abundance, affectation, and imitation of the

earlier authors. These terms as we will see will be invoked often in later art criticism, and

they form what we would like to call here a dictionary of critical terms, which, appearing

in later texts in all their ways can be seen as signalling the notion decline.

261Williams, Op. Cit., 7.

One could also claim that it was the notion of progress (also taken by the Renaissance scholars from classical
antiquity) that necessitated the emergence of the model of decline. Gombrich claimed that “[t]he main
historiographic pattern which classical antiquity bequeathed to the Western tradition is that of progress
towards an ideal of perfection,” as seen in Aristotle, Cicero and Pliny. Also, according to Gombrich, this
very idea of progress was tied to what one could call its binary opposition, since in “the nature of this
conception of the gradual unfolding of an ideal [is] that it must come to a stop once perfection is reached.”
Once this peak had occurred “the subsequent story can only be one of decline.” However, there was a rescue
from this model - “the idea of rescue and restoration, the return of the golden age.” [All citations refer to
Gombrich, Ernst Hans, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London; New York: Phaidon,
1978), 100, Emphasis Added.]

262And here we can see a useful link to our speculation about the Epigoni which follows this chapter: It
seems that not only the political actions but also the language of the Epigoni was inferior to that of their
great ancestor.

Additionally important for us here is to stress that the classical tradition (from which the

notion of decline derived) “contrasted the idea of perfection with the dangers of

corruption and denounced striving for outward show that pandered to the senses.”263 This

can also be seen in connexion with Williams' concept of self-according as well as of self-

evaluation, because, as he claimed, “classical civilisation is the first, as far as we can tell,

in which this idea of progress became articulate and elicited in its turn a critical

examination of its value.”264

We also noted that most of the authors who made use of the model of decline tended to

explain it by applying what one may call biological metaphors to the process of artistic

development. Indeed, the classical idea of progress as a development of skills became

fused with what Gombrich has called “the concept of organic growth.”265 This happened

as a result of the philosophical speculations of Aristotle, who was first and foremost a

biologist and, therefore, as Gombrich notes “conceived of the growth of any organism as

the fulfilment of its inherent purpose.”266

263 Gombrich, Ernst H., “The Debate on Primitivism in Ancient Rhetoric” in Journal of the Warburg and
Courtauld Institutes (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1966), 24, Emphasis Added...
264 Williams, Op. Cit., 7, Emphasis Added.
265 Gombrich, Ernst Hans, The Ideas of Progress and Their Impact on Art (New York: Cooper Union School of

Art and Architecture, 1971), 8.

266 Ibid.

John Steadman also commented on the different origins of the metaphors that were used to describe the
stylistic sequence from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century:

“The period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries has usually resisted attempts to reduce it to a
formula – a Cartesian ‘clear and distinct idea’ – or to assign it a definite beginning, middle and end, like an
Aristotelian tragedy. In the absence of viable definitions, literary scholars have usually found metaphorical
descriptions more attractive – biological images of rebirth and adolescence or maturity, chronological
images of dawn or spring or return to a Golden Age, psychological images like reawakening after long
sleep, or (pejoratively) metaphysical images like the descent of the mind from the goods and evils of the
afterlife to those of this life, and from the glories and torments of the Other-world to the delights and pains

Now if we make a chronological leap and turn to the period of the Renaissance, we can

see that it was then that ancient texts, and firstly those on rhetoric and history that

incorporated the model of decline, began to be translated and studied. And indeed, as

has been shown by Herbert Weisinger, Renaissance authors began as early as the

fourteenth century to construct the narrative of the decline of arts. By this account, the

decline occurred either after the fall of the Roman Empire or even at the dawn of ancient

Greek civilisation, as Filippo Villani noted, writing in the 1390s, “the art of painting

reached its height with the Greeks, then declined for many years until Cimabue and

later Giotto restored it to its natural style….”267

At this point, we note that nature, in addition to the term decline, becomes an important

term for our examination268. In a paragraph taken from Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks

both of these terms appear:

of this world – from caelestia to terrena.” [Steadman, John M., Redefining a Period Style: "Renaissance,"
"Mannerist," and "Baroque" in Literature (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1990), 15.]

Cf. Cast, David, “On Leonardo Not Finishing: Then and Later,” Word and Image, Vol. 20, No. 4 (October-
December 2004), 231-239.

267Weisinger, Op. Cit., 164. [Weisinger’s reference here is to Villani, F., Le Vite d’Uomini Illustri Fiorentini
Scritte da Filippo Villani, ed. Mazzuchelli, Giammaria (Firenze, 1847)]

268This also can be seen in connexion with the revival of the classical antiquity, which resulted in the
acceptance of its evaluative accounts of art and nature. As Erwin Panofsky demonstrated, the classical
antiquity set two opposing motives concerning art side by side (“exactly as happened later during the
Renaissance”): “There was the notion that the work of art is inferior to nature, insofar it merely imitates
nature, at best to the point of deception; and then there was the notion that the work of art is superior to
nature because, improving upon the deficiencies of nature’s individual products, art independently
confronts nature with a newly created image of beauty.” [Panofsky, Erwin, Idea; A Concept in Art Theory,
transl. Peake, Joseph, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968), 14]

“’The painter will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the works of others as his
standard; but if he will apply himself to learn from the objects of nature he will produce
good results. This we see was the case with the painters who came after the time of the
Romans, for they continually imitated each other, and from their age art steadily

Hence, “the natural style is taken to be the classical style and by implication the art of the

Middle ages is disregarded as being unnatural.”270

The re-emerging of the model of decline in the Renaissance was not only an important

aspect of the contemporary humanist revival, but it was also, more significantly, of

seminal influence on the future of European art-historical discourse. In order to explain

this further, let us analyse what it is that we see issuing from this revived model of


In the Renaissance view, the art and civilisation of classical antiquity (Greek and Roman)

re-assumed a high position in the scale of progress seen retrospectively. Thus, the

paradigm of Classicism as meaning “’of the highest class,’”271 had been established. This

Weisinger, Op. Cit., 164. [Weisinger here refers to Da Vinci, Leonardo, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Note-Books, ed.

Mc-Curdy, Edward (New York, 1923).]

270Ibid.,164, Emphasis Added.

 Freedberg, Sydney, Joseph, Painting in Italy, 1500‐1600, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 1. 

It may be of interest to add here that by virtue of the etymology of the word the term classical was connected 
with the idea of return (which always may be seen as a decline) to the works of the previous artists. To 
explain this further, we will quote a paragraph by Gombrich: 
“The derivation of the world classical itself throws an amusing light on the social history of taste. For an 
auctor classicus is really a tax paying author. Only people of standing belonged to one of the tax paying 
classes in Roman society, and it was such people rather than ‘proletarians’ who spoke and wrote a type of 
educated language which the aspiring author was advised by the Roman Grammarian Aulus Gellius to 
emulate. In that sense the classic is really the ‘classy.’” [Gombrich, Ernst Hans, The Ideas of Progress and their 
Impact on Art (New York: Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, 1971), 10 

idée fixe, which was based on antique classicism, will continue, we suggest, to haunt

European culture until the present, postmodern time.

But Renaissance scholars did not present what they thought to be the high standards of

classical antiquity as unattainable. That is to say that by virtue of imitation272 the

standards of classical antiquity could have been reached, even surpassed.273

272From a Platonic point of view, an interesting inversion in the Renaissance philosophical concept may be
seen to have occurred: Nature as a domain of manifestation of the divine ideas was contrasted with art,
which appeared to the Renaissance authors as closer to the Ideal. As Steadman noted, “with art and nature
alike imitating the ideas in the divine intellect, and with the example of the ancients providing the best
evidence for the rule of nature and hence the most reliable rule for art – an idealised image more perfect
than the actual creations of nature and closer to the divine archetype or universal idea of species” was
created. [Steadman, Op. Cit., 81.]

This new construct created a parallel world to the Platonic world of ideal forms. Unlike the Platonic one, this
world, constructed by Renaissance thinkers dealing with art, by its character was mundane. It was a world
of ideal art materialised and set in the ancient past, a world which can be attained by sight (or through texts),
imitated and eventually overcome. Let us quote here another useful paragraph from Steadman:

“The remoteness from antiquity in time enhanced aesthetic distance; Renaissance writers could imitate or
evoke antiquity because they had been separated from it by so many centuries of ‘barbarism.’ The forms of
classical civilisation, detached from their original historical context, now possessed (it seemed) an ‘ideal’
reality of their own, a metaphysical validity independent of the historical processes.” [Steadman, Op. Cit.,

This bringing down to the Earth of something that previously belonged to the elevated divine sphere
corresponds with Renaissance humanism. Even when the Renaissance artist was concerned with God,
according to David Cast, “it was the God who became man, the Word as Flesh, rather than God as mystery,
a God whose nature could be approached only through the paradox of the Trinity.” [Cast, David,
“Humanism and Art” in Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy, vol. 3, ed. Rabil, Albert, Jr.,
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 416.]

For more on the concept of imitation in classical antiquity and Renaissance see Ackerman, James, "Imitation"
in Antiquity and its Interpreters, ed. Payne, Alina, Kuttner, Ann, and Smick, Rebekah (Cambridge, U.K. ; New
York : Cambridge University Press, 2000), 9-17

273In the Prologue to his book On Painting Leon Battista Alberti argued against the presumption that Nature
lost her ability to produce the “geniuses or giants” so numerous in the antique days. It was in Florence, after
encountering the giants of his time, that Alberti realised that “the power of acquiring wide fame in any art
or science lies in our industry and diligence more than in times or in the gifts of nature.” Thus, in Alberti’s
view, the geniuses from classical antiquity could be overcome. Also, Alberti thought that the classical
predecessors had an easier task than his contemporaries, because of the availability of the models the
Ancients had learned from and imitated, the models that, according to Alberti, were lacking in the present.
He concludes: “Our fame ought to be much greater, then, if we discover unheard-of and never-before-seen
arts and sciences without teachers or without any model whatsoever.” [All citations refer to Alberti, Leon
Battista, On Painting, transl. Spencer, John R. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 39-40.]

In this model, Renaissance artists and humanists appeared to be the restorers of an art

and culture, which, according to them, had declined for so many centuries. In addition,

by introducing a simple (or simplified) model of decline, according to which mediaeval

art was treated monolithically and represented through a metaphor of decline (that is to

say, as a decline between two culminating points of Classical and Renaissance art),

Renaissance authors were able to ignore all of the previous attempts to restore the art of

classical antiquity.274 Thus, the Italian Renaissance was positioned as (or declared itself

to be) the single agent of classical revival. We would agree here with Panofsky, who

claimed that fifteenth-century artistic theory in Italy primarily sought “to legitimize

contemporary art as a genuine heir of Greco-Roman antiquity.”275 To achieve this revival,

the Renaissance went through a particular process which he called self-realisation, as in

this passage:

It seems interesting to compare these thoughts to those of Herodotus, who “found the original source of
everything in the Orient and especially in Egypt, and the category of borrowing became to him a magic
formula.” [Edelstein, Ludwig, The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1967)
32, Emphasis Added.]

Here we refer to the Carolingian Renaissance, the attempts to restore the art of the classical antiquity

made in the Byzantine Empire under the reign of the Palaiologos dynasty (later also called Palaeologi
Renaissance; the style of this particular renaissance can be seen in the fresco called Anastasis (1310-20) in
Kariye Camii, Istanbul), etc. This issue was extensively commented on in Panofsky, Erwin, Renaissance and
Renascences in Western Art (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1960).

Also, by virtue of selecting classical antiquity as a preferable model for artistic revival, the art of classical
antiquity became unified for the first time in history under a single rubric. As Panofsky remarked apropos
Renaissance self-definition:

“And in addition to defining and naming what it [the Renaissance] believed to have left behind, this present
conferred a style and title, so to speak, not only upon what it claimed to have achieved,..., but also and
perhaps even more surprisingly, upon what it claimed to have restored: the world of the Antique” which
was not “designated by a collective word before.” [Panofsky, Erwin, Renaissance and Renascences in Western
Art (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1960), 8]

If we agree with Panofsky here, we may extend this claim and suggest that by virtue giving a name to it,
Renaissance created the world of the Antique as we perceive it today.

Panofsky, Erwin, Idea; A Concept in Art Theory, transl. Peake, Joseph, (Columbia: University of South

Carolina Press, 1968): 51.

“This memorable process of [the Renaissance’s] self-realization (‘realization’ in the
double sense of ‘becoming’ and ‘becoming real’) has been described so often and so well
that it would seem superfluous to summarize it once more were it not for the fact that
the art historian, for whose benefit these notes are written, has a special stake in the
matter. While the Renaissance produced his ancestors, the artistically-minded humanists
and the humanistically-minded artists of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and the sixteenth
centuries, these ancestors of his took an important part in shaping the concept of the

From this paragraph it can be suggested here that the Italian Renaissance is defined as a

period which consciously declared itself the agent of historical change and revival. In

addition, not only by its claims, but also by the process of artistic change, the Italian

Renaissance was different from what Panofsky called the previous “’renascences.’”277

This, he added, “amounted to what the biologists would call a mutational as opposed to

evolutional change: a change both sudden and permanent.”278

By virtue of accepting the classical model of rise and decline, Renaissance authors may

be seen as re-activating the dictionary of critical terms that the ancient authors had used

to describe the cycle of rise and decline. These terms came to constitute a powerful set of

arguments that could be directed later against any art seen as deviating from the revived

and reformulated classical norm established in the Renaissance.279

276 Panofsky, Erwin, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1960): 9
277 Ibid., 162.
278 Ibid.
279 John Shearman noted that the critics of the post-Renaissance period made use of critical terms such as

epiphoneme (language that adds ornament rather than carrying sense) and ostentatio artis, concluding that “it
was in these terms too that Aretino attacked Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in his notorious letter of 1545.”
According to Shearman, those critics “all relied upon a mode of attack used in ancient criticism of the Asiatic
school of rhetoric (cultivating style at the expense of its expressive function); but they must all have been
reacting to a kind of Asianism that was real around them.” [Shearman, John K. G., Mannerism
(Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1967), 164.]

One other important implication is present also in this construct, though it may not have

been made explicit by the humanists: Once art was restored to a peak, then a new

decline was sure to follow. As bequeathed by the Renaissance, this cyclical notion of rise

and decline eventually doomed Mannerism280 to neglect.

Vasari also recognised this tradition when he acknowledged a decline, one that in his

eyes occurred after the fall of the Roman Empire281. However, he did not offer a clear

evaluation of the art of his day, and before we examine his evaluative accounts, it is

important to note that he seems not to have made what today one would call a stylistic

distinction between the art of his time (which today we would call Mannerism) and that

of the Renaissance282. However, this was not a result of Vasari's negligence or lack of

280 Craig Hugh Smyth reflected upon this issue in the following paragraph:

“The decline was inevitable and involuntary. It was inevitable that artists should imitate style like
Michelangelo’s and inevitable that decline should follow the early Cinquecento, when the problems of
technique and composition had been solved – like a biological law, as Muentz thought.” [Smyth, Craig
Hugh, “Mannerism and Maniera” in Readings in Italian Mannerism, ed. De Girolami Cheney, Liana (New
York: P. Lang, 1997), 70.]

281 In the Preface to the Lives Vasari invokes the model of decline in the following terms:

”But as Fortune, when she has brought men to the top of the wheel, either for amusement or because she
repents, usually turns them to the bottom, it came to pass after these things that almost all the barbarian
nations rose in divers parts of the world against the Romans, the result the speedy fall of that great empire,
and the destruction of everything, notably of Rome herself.” [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters,
Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1963), 9.]

Gombrich also claimed that Vasari adopted the model of rise and decline based on the opposition between
Asianism and Atticism. Accordingly, in Vasari’s construct, “[t]he part of the Asian villains is taken by the
Goths, and once more Italy came to the rescue and allowed a new cycle towards the perfection to begin.”
[Gombrich, Ernst Hans, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London; New York: Phaidon,
1978), 101.]

282Bearing in mind that Vasari neither used the word Mannerism nor consciously advocated for Mannerist
art, it is surprising to read the following lines by Liana de Girolami Cheney:

“Vasari promotes the Maniera style in two ways: as an artist in his paintings and as a historian in his writings
of the Vite.” [de Girolami Cheney, Liana , “Vasari’s Position as an Exponent of the Maniera Style” in
Readings in Italian Mannerism, ed. de Girolami Cheney, Liana (New York: P. Lang, 1997), 17, Emphasis

stylistic perception. It is more likely a consequence of the fact that Mannerism was not

conceived as an art movement in the modern sense of the word and thus did not have a

programme or a manifesto.283

Since also the Renaissance was seen as the pinnacle of post-Classical artistic

development and the art of Vasari’s age was a continuation of the Renaissance, it is

probable that he saw the process of artistic development as a constant linear rise to

perfection, as in the claim by Alex Potts, who concluded that “Vasari’s intention is to

celebrate the art of his own age, an aim that yields not so much a cycle of rise and

decline as a chronicle of steady progress to a plateau of continuing achievements.”284

283Some authors saw Vasari’s time as heroic, yet burdened by immediate past. Fehl writes:
“But if we will read on in the Lives we shall see that Vasari’s philosophy is by no means naïve. He [Vasari]
lived at a time when he could say with conviction that the arts had risen to a point of perfection at which, for
cause, they were a treasured possession of mankind. In the works of the founding fathers and, above all, in
the art of Michelangelo, the world could see that there was something like perfectibility, in the visual arts,
on the moral scale as well as on the technical, and that the perfection was a source, if not for the
improvement of mankind then of its consolation in adversity, and a source of delight in the sharing of our
virtuous inclinations. Such an art, as Vasari in his gratitude is fond of reiterating, is a very special art and it
takes, at once, good fortune, the hard work of generations of highminded artists, and enlightened
sponsorship to accomplish it. He looks upon it as a blessed discovery, demonstrable almost like discoveries
in science, developed through time but also generated by the vicissitudes of time, in which right and wrong,
and good and bad, have their logic. At the heart of Vasari’s vision of the excellence of art, of its redeeming
quality, are the concepts of disegno and virtù.”
[Fehl, Philipp, P., “Vasari and the Arch of Constantine” in Giorgio Vasari : tra decorazione ambientale e
storiografia artistic : Convegno di Studi (Arezzo, 8-10 ottobre 1981) a cura di Gian Carlo Garfagnini, Firenz :
Leo S. Olschki, 1985), 31, Emphasis Added.]

Donohue, Op. Cit., 333. Professor Donohue included the opinion of Dr. Potts though she did not agree

here with his opinion. We use her book here as a source for a quote from Potts.

Alex Potts commented on the issue of decline in Vasari in the following terms:

"Vasari did not seek to integrate his systematic history of the phased development of art to classic
perfection with some larger cyclical pattern of rise and decline." [Potts, Alex, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann
and the Origins of Art History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 40.]

Also Potts wrote of Vasari's model: "Vasari's schema is in part designed as a celebration of the classic
achievements of the famous Italian masters of the sixteenth century, who, according to him, effected a crucial
change from mere correctness, and the hardness and rigidity of style that goes with this, to free virtuoso
artistry -- from diligence to effortless mastery and graceful refinement, from an art that made display of the

Yet in a single, very important, sentence in the Preface to the Second Part of Le Vite, we

can see the inherited trope of decline compromising this model of linear progression and

anticipating the forthcoming decline. Thus, when describing the third generation of the

Renaissance painters, Vasari remarked:

“This praise certainly belongs to the third period, of which I may safely say that the art
has done everything that is permitted to an imitator of Nature, and that it has risen so
high that its decline must now be feared rather than any further progress expected.”285

work that went into it to one that effaced all obvious signs of effort and constraint." [Ibid., 75, Emphasis

285Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, (London: Everyman’s Library,
1963): 203, Emphasis Added...

We decided to include the Italian original of this paragraph here, because it seems that Potts used a different
translation to support his argument:

“Questa lode certo è tocca alla terza età; nella quale mi par potere dir sicuramente che l’arte abbia fatto
quello, che ad una imitatrice della natura è lecito poter fare, e che ella sia salita tanto alto, che più presto si
abbia a tempere del calare a basso, che sperare oggimai più augumento.” [Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de' più
Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori (Novara: Istituto geografico De Agostini, 1967): 81, Emphasis Added.]

The phrase calare a basso which Vasari used here (the verb calare usually is translated as “to lower, to bring
down,” but also can be translated as “decline” and “decay” (Cf. Reynolds, Barbara, The Cambridge Italian
Dictionary (Cambridge: University Press, 1962)) can be translated literally as “to fall down.” The editors of
the Novara edition added a footnote to this sentence, suggesting that the notion of “fatal decadence”
(“decadenza fatale”) should be construed in the sense of “’epigonicità.’” [Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de' più
Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori (Novara: Istituto geografico De Agostini, 1967): 81, Footnote 1.]

{The word epigonicità has several meanings: it indicates the dispute between the successors in general; more
specifically, it refers to the dispute between the successors of Alexander the Great. Epigonicita derives from
the Greek word epigone, which in classical tradition denotes a person born afterwards. [In Italian, the word
epigono means “one of a succeeding (and less distinguished) generation; imitator, successor or a follower of a
genius.” (Reynolds, Barbara, Op. Cit.).] Therefore we would conclude that in the sixteenth-century context,
epigonicita refers to a dispute about the artistic supremacy between the artists who lived in the time after the
peak of art was reached with Michelangelo, and who were thus seen as inferior to their predecessors. [Also
compare to the definition of epigono in Battaglia, Salvatore, Grande Dizionario Della Lingua Italiana (Torino:
Unione Tipografico - Editrice Torinese, 1961]}

To support our argument against Pott's interpretation of Vasari, we will quote here another paragraph in
which the anticipation of decline also can be found:

"For having seen in what way she [art], from a small beginning, climbed to the greatest height, and how
from a state so noble she fell into utter ruin, and that, in consequence, the nature of this art is similar to that
of the others, which, like human bodies, have their birth, their growth, their growing old, and their death;
they [Vasari's contemporaries, the craftsmen] will now be able to recognize more easily the progress of her

Such an anticipation of decline is in a way suggested by another factor that appears in

Vasari’s critical evaluation of his contemporaries, that being the position he assigns to

Michelangelo. For when choosing the artist to represent the pinnacle of Italian art,

Vasari did not choose any of his younger contemporaries but Michelangelo, who, it

could be said, elevated the Italian art to the highest point :

”[T]he divine Michelangelo Buonarroti….surpasses not only all those who have, as it
were, surpassed Nature, but the most famous ancients also, who undoubtedly surpassed

Yet, what were the criteria that Vasari used to evaluate Michelangelo’s art and were they

in any way different from those of the High Renaissance? In the Preface (or Proemium) to

Part III of Le Vite, Vasari names the following: regola, ordine, misura, disegno, and

second birth and of that very perfection whereto she has risen again in our times." [Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of
the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects, vol. 1, transl. by du C. de Vere, Gaston (London, Macmillan;
Medici Society, 1912-15): lix.]

Denis Mahon claimed that the notion of decline found in Vasari can be interpreted as an emanation of the
disillusioned Zeitgeist of the end of Cinquecento:

“All who were interested in the arts towards the end of the Cinquecento had become painfully aware of the
fact that painters of the very highest calibre had been few and far between after the era of the giants of the
High Renaissance, and that the progress of art as it had been laid down by Vasari -- a process of growth
from infancy to maturity -- seemed to have run its course, leaving the prospect of eventual decay looming
up over the horizon. The feeling in the air that an epoch had ended led to considerable pessimism and
disillusionment.” [Mahon, Denis, “Eclecticism and the Carracci: Further Reflections on the Validity of a
Label” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v. 16, (July 1953), 325.]

286Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, (London: Everyman’s Library,
1963), 154.

In Gombrich’s opinion, “Mannerism comes to its climax at the moment when the inherent ambiguities of the
Renaissance idea of artistic progress become apparent -- at the moment when, by common consent,
Michelangelo has achieved ‘perfection’ by realizing the highest potentialities of his art. On this reading it is a
crisis in the conception of art rather than one rooted in the ‘spirit of the age.’” [Gombrich, Ernst Hans, Norm
and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London; New York: Phaidon, 1978), 9.]

Mahon also noted that the general form of Vasari’s Le Vite is “an impressive edifice in which art is shown
evolving to its culmination in Michelangelo.” [Mahon, Denis, “Eclecticism and the Carracci: Further
Reflections on the Validity of a Label” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v. 16, (July 1953), 311.]

maniera287. According to Anthony Blunt, “at first there seem to be many remains of High

Renaissance theory in Vasari, but when they come to be examined it appears that all the

elements surviving have been altered and given a new meaning.”288 Vasari’s concept of

maniera (style) was indeed new and it can easily be seen how much importance Vasari

attributed to it289:

“Style [maniera] is improved by frequently copying the most beautiful things, and by
combining the finest members, whether hands, heads, bodies or legs, to produce a
perfect figure, which, being introduced in every work and in every figure, form what is
known as fine style.”290

Also, according to Vasari, it was the lack of finish that made the painters of the second

generation appear as inferior to the ones from the third:

“[I]f they had possessed this finish, which is the perfection and the flower of arts, they
would have also possessed a resolute boldness in their work, and would have obtained a

287Translated as: rule, order, proportion, design and style [Cf. Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters,
Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1963), 151.]

288 Blunt, Op. Cit., 88.

According to Blunt, the central term Vasari used was not style but grace; grace was “distinguished from

beauty and even contrasted to it.” Blunt claims that in Vasari’s Le Vite one can see that “beauty is a rational
quality dependent on rules, whereas grace is an indefinable quality dependent on judgement and therefore
on the eye.” [Ibid., 93]

Philip Sohm, on the other hand, demonstrated that style was not only an important criterion for Vasari's
artistic evaluation, but, moreover, that it was a crucial factor for Vasari's ordering of art history. [Cf. Sohm,
Philip, "Ordering History with Style: Giorgio Vasari on the Art of History," Antiquity and its Interpreters, ed.
Payne, Alina, Kuttner, Ann, and Smick, Rebekah (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press,
2000), 40-57]

290Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, (London: Everyman’s Library,
1963), 151.

These lines of Vasari can be seen in connexion with those of Socrates, who, according to Panofsky, claimed
that “the painter should be obliged and enabled to combine the most beautiful parts from a number of
human bodies in order to make the figure to be represented appear beautiful....” [Panofsky, Erwin, Idea; A
Concept in Art Theory, transl. Peake, Joseph, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968), 15]. Before
Vasari, it was Alberti who suggested such an approach to painting [Cf. Blunt, Op. Cit., 17].

lightness, polish and grace to which they did not attain…. That finish and assurance
which they lacked they could not readily attain by study, which has a tendency to render
the style dry when it becomes an end itself.”291

In this paragraph we can see the emergence of two important concepts: the concept of

turning away from the simple study of nature,292 and even more importantly, the

concept of acknowledging a particular artistic quality, that quality being style,293 as

equal, or indeed more important than the notion of study of nature.

We would suggest that Mannerist artists might have turned to such an idea of style as a

field for artistic experimentation, exploring a new domain for art – the domain of art

itself, that is, style. To go back to Vasari, the first four aspects of the work of art he

mentioned (that is, all aspects except maniera) can be used to convey another, non-artistic

signification to the viewer. Maniera was, on the other hand, a requisite of art itself. As

conducted by the Mannerists, stylistic experiments allowed them to reflect on the formal

qualities (qualities which, we remember, rested on the first four criteria in Vasari’s

291Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, (London: Everyman’s Library,
1963), 152, Emphasis Added.

Vasari’s Le Vite signalled that nature had been exhausted as a source of inspiration; this we can see in

Vasari’s comment on Titian (quoted in Blunt, Op. Cit., 89) where Vasari advised the painters against copying
only from nature; instead, he proposed the study of ancient and modern works of art.

293According to Blunt, it was in Michelangelo’s late opus that the departure from the first three criteria
mentioned by Vasari (rule, order, and proportion) occurred. Blunt claimed that “Michelangelo in his later
period relied on imagination and individual inspiration rather than on obedience to any fixed standards of
beauty.” [Blunt, Op. Cit., 75]. However, Blunt does not fail to make a difference between the paintings of
Michelangelo and those of the other Florentine Mannerists: “Florentine Mannerism, as represented in the
painting of Vasari and Bronzino, has neither the rationalism of early Quattrocento Florentine painting, nor
the emotional intensity of Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement,’ nor the organized didacticism of Taddeo
Zuccaro.” [Ibid., 87, Emphasis Added.]

writings) of Mannerist art which resulted in what one scholar has called a “phase of

formal disintegration.”294

However, it was not only the reaction against the disruption of formal aspects,

precipitated by Mannerism, that led to later negative evaluation of this moment based

on the model of decline. It seems that in the sixteenth century art had a number of other

functions to perform before being allowed to turn introspectively to itself. As soon as the

Counter-Reformation started, the studious exploration within art that started in

Mannerism was abandoned, only to be started again in the second half of the nineteenth

century in the form of Art for Art’s Sake movement.

Yet these later movements that strove to make art its own purpose seldom remembered

and evoked the sixteenth-century attempts that were driven, if less programmatically,

by the same desire. Thus this earlier moment, today called Mannerism, was not

registered appropriately in the history of art. Mannerism now is still often mentioned in

recent accounts on style; such a connexion between Mannerism and the word maniera –

here understood as style – only worsened its reception in the post-post-modern age,

which has attempted to denounce completely the term style. According to Philip Sohm:

“Style’s demeaned status lingers behind the reluctance of art historians to define it as a
concept. It persists in the modernist prejudice that unfairly associates style with effete
connoisseurs, totalizing Hegelians, and the florid prose of aesthetes.”295

294 Sypher, Wylie, Four Stages of Renaissance Style: Transformations in Art and Literature, 1400-1700 (Garden
City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), 106, Emphasis Added.
295 Philip Sohm, Style in the Art Theory of Early Modern Italy, (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge

University Press, 2001), 8, Emphasis Added.

As a result, after the 1980s, “the best scholarship on Mannerism either denied its

existence [of style] or made it a subject of historiographic rather than historical

importance.”296 Accordingly, Mannerism in recent scholarship also lost its “dominance

over historicized studies of maniera where style was defined as a pretext to define


This complex statement, we believe, is a polite invitation for us to explore and revise

concepts of maniera, Mannerism and style that within history are forever intertwined.

Our previous speculation was focused on complex connexions between the words

maniera, style and Mannerism. We also attempted to present the complex origins of

models of stylistic development, most importantly, that of rise and decline, which still

influences the value-judgement and the whole reception of Mannerism. We need to turn

now to our particular topic here, that of style or styles that existed within Mannerism,

and of their application in Bronzino’s work. In the Second chapter which introduced the

chronology of Bronzino’s work we already have included a classification of his paintings

according to their subject-matter (or genre), as well as the historical reception of these

different groups of works. In this chapter we will not comment on the portraits as they

always have been seen as the best group of works within his opus. Instead of them, we

will turn to his allegorical paintings (of which not too many survived thus resulting in

less stylistic diversity) and most importantly – to his religious paintings, which are

important both for their number and for the difference in styles they display.

296 Ibid., 8
297 Ibid.

We now return to the title of the dissertation: The existence of several modes of

representation or styles in Florence under Cosimo I has been carefully explained and

analysed by scholars298. The arguments here are firmly based on the cultural

opportunities and restrictions that followed the Medici restoration, by which all of the

Academies formed and supported by Cosimo I were governed by rules that would

prevent the academicians from creating any art that could be seen to be against his

regime. Cosimo I also had a more personal reason for presenting himself as a legitimate

initiator of the projects related to Medici aggrandisement, for he came not from the main

branch of the family and yet aspired to be a protégée of Emperor Charles V, which led to

the need for him to incorporate his personal lineage into that of the older, and by then

unrivalled history of the Medicis. Thus Cosimo I “stressed the historical and

astrological connections between himself and his fourteenth- and fifteenth-century

ancestors and attempted to trace the Medici lineage to ancient Etruscan kings.”299 And it

was as a part of this connexion with the earlier Medici that the art and the style(s) of the

previous fifty to one-hundred-fifty years were revived under Cosimo I.

If look at the work of the artists who influenced Bronzino’s development, we can see

that many worked in several styles that can be recognised in what they did. Raffaellino

del Garbo, for example, can be seen to have used several styles, including that of

298 We will rely here most often on Larry J. Feinberg’s arguments about the several styles in the sixteenth-
century Florentine art he explained in From Studio to Studiolo: Florentine Draftsmanship under the First Medici
Grand Dukes, ed. Feinberg, Larry J. (Oberlin : Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College ; Seattle :
Distributed by University of Washington Press, 1991).
299 Ibid., 9

Botticelli300. The generic sixteenth-century Florentine style was mainly influenced by the

art of Pontormo, Bronzino’s master, and Andrea del Sarto, but was only one amongst

several artistic modes301 or styles, that were available to late sixteenth-century painters in

Florence. The very practice of imitation as defined then resulted in a new and specific

awareness of the distinct styles302 in works of other artists studied and copied, and often

such specific styles were seen as being most decorous for distinct subject matters, or, as

Feinberg concludes:

“Certain artistic styles became associated with particular genres of art, and painters
could choose from a small repertory of styles, or modes, depending on the
circumstances of a specific commission.”303

Most of these styles associated with particular genres came from works of the most

respected Florentine artists, including Michelangelo, Pontormo (who was probably as

influential an artist as Michelangelo), Bronzino, and Allori. The styles varied not only

according to the genre of the painting, but also as reflections of the demands and artistic

views of the patrons. As Feinberg has put it:

300Here Feinberg referred to Carpaneto, M. G., ‘Raffaellino del Garbo, I. Parte’, Antichità viva, vol. 9 (1970), p.
13, fig. 13

301 Feinberg used the words modes and styles because as he claimed the “acceptance of the Horatian dictum

of ut picture poesis – the equivalence of word and picture – easily led to corollary the principles of rhetoric in
speech and literature, including their systems of modes, could be applied to art. ” This influence of rhetoric
we have already explained when addressing the models of artistic development earlier in this chapter. It can
be added here that the artists from the period who were also poets such as “Agnolo Bronzino and
Michelangelo, would have been well acquainted with the literary criticism of Aristotle, ‘Demetrius’ of
Phaleron, and Horace, and with the Ciceronian modes for public speaking and writing.”[Feinberg, Op. Cit.,9]

302According to Feinberg “[t]he systematization of styles was in some respect a practical outcome of
contemporary [sixteenth-century] art theory, which had organized the abstract principles that lay behind the
practice of the arts into the doctrine of disegno.” Feinberg, Op. Cit., 10. For Vasari’s comment on imitation
see Supra 93.

303 Feinberg, Op. Cit., 9.

“For Medici propaganda and other secular histories, many late sixteenth-century
Florentine artists would employ a very legible and prosaic Sartesque or Pontormoesque
mode …; for a pious, old-fashioned patron, an archaistic and uncomplicated arte sacra
style …; for a sophisticated nobleman, an extravagant and complex maniera (cat. No. 42
[Bronzino, drawing for the Martyrdom of St Lawrence]); and so on.”304

As an example of extravagant and complex maniera mentioned here is the Martyrdom of

St Lawrence, painted for a nobleman of sophisticated taste, thus suggesting the style of

Bronzino’s fresco, which we will analyse later. We do not know what the Duke thought

about it, but judging from the negative reactions to it from the literati, it seems that the

suggestions Cosimo I gave to Bronzino about it, if there ever were any, were not

understood well or were not carried out in a satisfactory manner. This example raises

another issue: whether the painters themselves knew, by the previous commissions and

the status of the patron, what style to apply, or whether there was a specific suggestion

from the patron that then they followed. This issue now for the lack of evidence will

have to remain unresolved.

What we can tell though is from this process of applying styles previously used new

paintings by often less known painters could be misattributed to the very painters

whose style they adopted. Thus when Pontormo later was so highly praised in the first

decades of the seventeenth century, many portraits by Andrea del Sarto and Bronzino305

were attributed to him. It has also been claimed that Vasari preferred Bronzino to

Pontormo306: the latter he criticised for adopting the German manner, a change which

could be said of many other painters of the period, like Baccio Bandinelli, or del Sarto,

304 Ibid., 10.

305 The problem of attribution still exists with paintings like A Lady with a Dog (1529-30, Städelsches
Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt).
306 This is not a new claim: Cf. Pilliod, Op. Cit.

who also studied Dürer’s etchings.307 It is important to mention this problem here

because of the very notion of epigonicity that will be discussed in the next chapter. This

is a difficult issue, and again one that cannot be resolved easily: we have noted earlier

that in his first works Bronzino was influenced by Pontormo, as Vasari confirmed308,

perhaps a direct result of his deliberate decision to imitate the style or mode of his

master, who was so highly regarded at that time in Florence. On the other hand, it was

this very similarity in styles between master and pupil that led Vasari to attribute certain

works by Bronzino to Pontormo:

“Vasari said that the Evangelists painted in tondi on the Capponi Chapel ceiling were
executed in Pontormo’s ‘maniere di prima.’ Ever the skilful diplomat, Vasari knew that
Bronzino was responsible for one or two of those pictures.”309

Pontormo influenced not only Bronzino’s style but also the way in which he made

preparatory drawings, and this way then affected his followers:

“As senior academician and an artist who, according to Vasari, encouraged serious
study in his workshop beyond proficiency in practical matters, Bronzino may have been
a strong advocate of the study of Pontormo’s drawings and working methods. In
accordance with the institution’s statutes, he and other consoli (chief officers) were given
much of the responsibility for guiding younger artists. Bronzino himself followed
Pontormo’s procedures and was faithful to the Florentine procedures of scrupulous care
in the preparations for a work of art. In his numerous detailed studies, he showed little
concession to the speed in execution for which Vasari praised the painters in the third
quarter of the century…. When, at mid-century, the old practice of studying figures from
the model was being abandoned by Florentine artists, Bronzino was one of the few who
held to traditional ways.”310

307 Feinberg, Op. Cit., 14.

308 Supra, 21-86
309 Feinberg, Op. Cit., 15.
310 Ibid., 21.

Let us now turn to a specific analysis of Bronzino’s paintings now. We have seen that in

the genre of the portrait his style did not move significantly between stylistic extremes.

Certainly, changes in his skill, or degree of finish or most importantly – in colouration,

are evident, and the style or modus he applied could vary widely according to the status

of the patron. Some such portraits were to be displayed more publically, but at the same

time, many of the portraits exhibited publicly also may have been intended for private

viewing, especially those copied and sent to the various courts of Europe. However,

whatever the differences in style in these portraits, the general attitude and judgement of

these works is consistent, that they are praised as his highest achievement throughout


Far more troublesome for critics are his allegorical and religious works. We have seen

earlier that the small number of such allegories that have survived – and their thematic

resemblance – has led many historians to see them essentially as a variation of the one

allegorical picture considered the best, namely the Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540-1545,

National Gallery, London). The other allegories painted later, Venus, Cupid and Jealousy

(1550, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and Venus, Cupid and a Satyr (1555, Colonna

Gallery, Rome), for all difference in composition, colouration and style, can be seen as

very similar311 since they reflect, in a less complicated way, the same theme of the

311However, both of the paintings differ significantly from London Allegory and between themselves: Venus,
Cupid and Jealousy is painted on vertical and Venus, Cupid and a Satyr on horizontal format. Venus, Cupid and
Jealousy does not include as many allegorical representations as the London Allegory, and we would argue,
presents a different moment in the story of Venus and Cupid (if we accept Panofsky’s interpretation),
presumably the moment before the Time and Truth unveil the actions of Deceit, who is symbolically present
(yet invisible) in the form of her abandoned masks. Also, Venus, Cupid and Jealousy is executed in darker
colours, and its composition is less crowded. Although the members of the bodies in the painting often
interlap, there is a clear depiction of space between them as well as of the space behind them, and thus the
effect of Mannerist compression and layering of the space in this paintings is lessened. The view that
Jealousy opens in the upper left corner is to what appears to be landscape, unlike that in the London

London Allegory, that is the playful relationship between Venus and Cupid, undeniably

recognisable by their attributes. The last of these allegories, the one now in Rome, Venus,

Cupid and a Satyr (1555, Colonna Gallery, Rome) displays a rather vivid choice of colours,

though this may be the result of its recent restoration. Finally, the horizontal format of

this painting is in direct connexion with Pontormo’s rendering of Michelangelo’s now

lost Allegory, and it may be difficult to prove it to be a deliberate change in styles of

Bronzino’s allegories.

The most interesting and the least studied allegorical painting remains one picture

known under three different titles: the Allegory of Fortitude, or the Allegory of Happiness,

or the Allegory of Fortune. This was executed between 1565 and 1570 and the support

here, unlike any other of Bronzino’s works, was metal, in this instance – copper. For all

its small scale, it is was a significant painting, since it was intended to be part of the

complex program of pictures commissioned by Duke Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-87)

for his Studiolo312.

Allegory. The composition of Venus, Cupid and a Satyr follows more strictly the composition and the format
of Pontormo’s Venus and Cupid (1533, Accademia, Florence). Whereas in Pontormo’s Venus and Cupid the
background opens up into a full landscape to the left of the entangled bodies of Venus and Cupid, the
background of Bronzino’s is again hidden by drapery and hence the whole image suggests an interior rather
than exterior space, a satyr, a mythological creature unseen in the earlier two allegories, perhaps presenting
the nature instead.
312 Located in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the Studiolo which is now acknowledged as his principal

legacy was a small hidden vaulted room where the Duke stored his collection of small, precious, unusual, or
rare objects and materials, which reflected his interests ranging from alchemy to zoology. For Francesco I de’
Medici this Studiolo constituted a private cabinet of curiosities where by meditating on the content and their
allegories, the Duke would attempt to attain universal knowledge. The program for the images in the
Studiolo was devised by famous artists and learned men of the time, namely by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74),
Vincenzo Broghini (1515-80) and Giovanni Battista Adriani (1513-79). For reasons now unknown the
Allegory of Happiness, though initially displayed there also with Bronzino’s portrait of Eleonora of Toledo (1545,
Uffizi, Florence), was removed from the Studiolo.

Yet before we continue with this analysis, we find it necessary to say again that the

speculation here is important for our main topic, that is, for understanding of how

Bronzino applied different styles even when making paintings of the same genre. For

the lack of a proper and widely accepted account of this image, we will present here a

brief analysis based on visual and iconographical evidence plus a single article by

Graham Smith, and we regret that we cannot offer more than one interpretation in

contrast to our own. In “Bronzino’s Allegory of Happiness”313 Smith gave a convincing

iconographical interpretation based on considerable research and parallels with other

allegories by Bronzino, and part of his interpretation remains unarguable. However, we

will disagree here with Smith and claim that the composition of Allegory of Happiness

does not in that respect resemble Bronzino’s previously painted allegorical paintings –

the London Allegory and the two which followed it. We would rather see this particular

composition as centralised and symmetrical, and further, we would not classify this

composition as “compressed.”314 We would agree here with Larry Feinberg who

concluded that Bronzino’s “Allegory of Fortune (c. 1565-70; Uffizi) [is] indebted to

Pontormo’s works in the San Lorenzo choir.”315

313 Smith, Graham, “Bronzino's Allegory of Happiness, “The Art Bulletin, Vol. 66, No. 3. (Sep., 1984), 390-99.

314Ibid., 390.
315Feinberg, Op. Cit., 16
We included the information about this important yet neglected Brozino’s allegory that does not relate
directly to the issue of its style in the footnote here:

There are at least eight major and recognisable figures in the Allegory of Happiness (and here we do not
include fragments of bodies which Smith recognised) and we will try now to identify some of them. Before
we proceed, it needs to be said that, according to many writers on the sixteenth-century allegorical painting
and apparati, the artists creating them were not always entirely positive about the meanings of all the
allegories they represented. Moreover, they mixed various gods and goddesses as well as their attributes,
using different representation of those from different sources available to them from the antiquity. Often
these complicated allegories involved several representations of deities were devised by literati, and it was
to their programme that the sophisticated audience was to turn when decoding the subject-matter. However,
since we are not entirely positive what was the original intent that resulted in the commission of the Allegory
of Happiness, it remains difficult for us to determine who devised its programme, if anyone indeed did. If it

The composition of the Allegory is divided clearly into three vertical and three horizontal

segments. The central vertical segment of the Allegory of Fortune, accommodating the

figure of Fortune, is also the largest (compared to the lateral ones, in which the figures of

Janus (to the left) and Justice (to the right) are placed) and it thus suggests that here

Bronzino applied the tripartite composition which is the governing principle of

composition in the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1564-69, San Lorenzo, Florence), a fresco

Bronzino executed in the same period, as well. Unlike the earlier allegories that were

asymmetrical due to their composition and dispersion of colours, the centrality in this

painting is achieved both by the composition and by the concentration of the colourful

fabrics in the figure of Fortune. Although the space in the painting is somewhat

compressed, especially laterally, between the ‘subsidiary’ allegories, there is in the

Allegory of Happiness a clearer sense of spatial relationships, since some of its surface is

given to the background, and also since figures and their members do not overlap to the

extent they did in Bronzino’s previous allegories. Unlike in the most famous three

allegories representing Venus and Cupid, the background here is not partially hidden by

an expensive fabric but rather open, allowing a greater recession in the picture space,

which is another similarity between this painting and the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence.316

was commissioned by Francesco de Medici, and if it was executed in 1567, then it could have been a part of
the programme for his Studiolo. The other possibility is that the painting was commissioned to
commemorate the wedding ceremony of Francesco de’ Medici to Joanna of Austria, perhaps, as Smith
informs us, similar to other apparati Bronzino had “designed for a façade of the Palazzo Ricasoli.” [Smith,
Op. Cit., 390]
316 We will include our more detailed description and analysis of the Allegory here in the footnotes, so as not

to fall into a digression from our main narrative.

The upper horizontal portion of the Allegory of Happiness is given to the skies and to two winged creatures,
one of which, presumably Glory, crowns Happiness with a wreath of laurel leaves whilst the other,

Absent from this painting is the dramatic compression and layering of the space and

figures. Whereas in the Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540-1545, National Gallery, London)

the compressed composition resulted in often unclear identification of the members of

identified as Fame, announces her by blowing in two fanfares. Both of these allegories are in accordance to
iconographical programmes used in the Renaissance, and here Smith remains very accurate in his analysis.
However, one needs to think sometimes beyond mere identification – we should perhaps remember that
Fame did not have exclusively positive connotation in Antiquity, as it was said to double the news it
spreads: it announces things that happened as well as those that did not happen.

Sitting on the throne supported by carved upper body of Hercules, holding a cornucopia in her left hand
and caduceus and her right hand, is Happiness, here represented with attributes of other gods and
goddesses, caduceus, for example, being the usual attribute of Apollo, Mercury and Aesculapius. The
colours of her dress may suggest Christian iconography, especially bearing in mind that next to her a child
is represented, easily identifiable as Cupid, though. Smith goes further than this and identifies Happiness as
Felicitas publica, a specific kind of the allegorical representation of Happiness that can be traced to Roman
coins from Roman Imperial period, and as such known and described in great detail by both Vasari and
Vincenzo Cartari.

The female figure to our right clearly represents Justice, for she holds a sword in one and a balance in her
other hand. What is not in accordance with the usual representation of Justice is that here she is half-naked,
whereas she is usually depicted as dressed. Also, the balance is not held freely by Justice, but rather it is
shown as resting on stone base resembling a cube, which for Smith symbolises stability and constancy.

Most difficult for iconographical identification is the figure symmetrical to Justice, placed on the left section
of the painting. This creature’s head is composed two halves of two different frontal heads, separated bi-
laterally by a thin scarf. The face on the right is female and it gazes at the Justice, whereas the one of the left
is male, and it looks away from it. The lower part of this composite creature’s body is female, holding in its
lap a terrestrial globe. A snake encircles its left underarm, yet this does not seem to arouse its reaction;
rather the snake appears as an attribute of this mysterious allegorical creature. Smith easily identifies this
god or goddess as Janus or Prudence, completely ignoring the gender difference in its face. For Smith this is
a minor issue, whereas we believe that his entire interpretation based as it is on an analogy with Bronzino’s
previous allegories, is undermined by this dubious attribution. Instead of Smith’s interpretation we would
suggest that this figure should be identified with the offspring of the ancient goddess Cybele or Magna
Mater [Cf. Roller, Lynn E., In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (Berkeley, 1999)].
According to Arnobius, Jupiter attempted and yet never succeeded to rape the oldest of the gods – Cybele –
while she slept on Mount Agdos in Phrygia. As his attempts failed, he poured out his semen on the
mountain, which became pregnant and gave birth to Agdestis, a creature wild and uncontrollable,
possessing the genitals of both sexes. This dual sexuality and vivid libido threatened the gods themselves,
and eventually they chopped off the male genitals of Agdestis. Other sources suggest that Cybele was
represented with attributes of both genders. Mercedes Rochelle defined Cybele as the “Phrygian goddess,
half male/half female until castrated by gods.” [Rochelle, Mercedes, Mythological and Classical World Art
Index: A Locator of Paintings, Sculptures, Frescoes, Manuscript Illuminations, Sketches, Woodcuts, and Engravings
Executed 1200 B.C. to 1900 A.D., With a Directory of the Institutions Holding Them (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland,
1991), 70]. The cult of Cybele was known in Rome in the form of Magna Mater, and she was represented
earlier in Renaissance by Andrea Mantegna. Guy de Tervarent in his account of objects which are associated
with different allegories and mythological subjects lists globe as an attribute of Cybele.316 According to
Tervarent, the globe is also associated with: Supremacy over the World (used by the Emperors of the Holy
Roman Empire), War – associated with Caesar armed, Justice, Love, Geometry, Attribute of the Day, Cybele,
magna mater (personification of the Earth, appeared in Andrea Mantegna’s “Triumph of Scipio” in
National gallery, London), Saturn, Philosophy and many more. [Tervarent, Guy de, Attributs et symboles dans
l'art profane, 1450-1600; dictionnaire d'un langage perdu (Genève: Droz, 1958), 199-203]

the body and allegorical figures, in Allegory of Happiness all of the allegories are distinct

from one another and, more importantly, arranged so as to emphasise the central figure

in the picture, a feature that presents the third similarity in composition of the Allegory of

Happiness with the Martyrdom. Such an arrangement in both of these images can easily

be seen as connected with the demands for clarity and simplicity in pictorial

representation, as stated in the Acts of the Tridentine Council.

As we have seen, the identification that Smith presented is possible, and if so, Bronzino’s

last, unusual allegory remains open to further interpretation. As interesting as task this

may appear to us now, we will not attempt to decipher the most difficult allegories in

this particular painting, namely the ones located on the left and in the centre of this

picture, which need to be studied further if we accept that Smith’s explanation requires

changes due to differences in identification of allegories. We believe that we proved that

Bronzino had applied here a different mode or style, one that clearly corresponded to a

particular purpose of this allegory, if we are to believe that it was meant to be a part of

the programme for the Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici. This new and different style

in our opinion can be seen as quite similar to that of Bronzino’s Martyrdom of St.

Lawrence which was executed in his final years and which reflected the painter’s

awareness of the changes in art fostered by the Council of Trent.

Finally we come to Bronzino’s works in religious subjects, among which are paintings

that have carried the harshest criticism. This group of Bronzino’s pictures is also the

most diverse in style. The paintings included here range from depictions of single Saints

(St. Sebastian, St. John the Baptist), in which the whole treatment of the features and the

background evoke his style in portraits, to compositions on a vast scale (Christ in Limbo,

the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence) with grandiose and complicated backgrounds and

many figures, composed often in different styles, as the painter progressed in his

stylistic development. Needless to say, there were some religious pictures in his opus

that cannot be classified in either of these groups, but here we will limit ourselves to a

few examples for our purpose, all of undisputed authorship. Since our intention here is

also to show the richness and flexibility of Bronzino’s style or styles, it is necessary to

present these pictures chronologically, to show how they follow the general pattern of

Bronzino’s stylistic development. Such diachronic presentation will be used here to

question the stylistic unity of the paintings executed in the same period of Bronzino’s

development. At the same time, we will see these religious pictures as individual works,

their particularities being reflected in the different styles that Bronzino chose to apply in

each of them, which are not necessarily following the chronological model of stylistic

development in his work. Finally, we hope that such an approach will show these works

in a new light and shield them from stylistic generalisations emanating from the notion

of rise and decline in his style.

Bronzino’s early works such as the Holy Family with SS Anne and John (1526-27, National

Gallery, Washington), the Dead Christ with the Madonna and the Magdalen (1528-29, Uffizi,

Florence), and the Holy Family with St. John (1535, Uffizi, Florence), stand as a group that

can hardly be seen as stylistically uniform. Whereas the composition, proportion and

facial features of the actors in the Holy Family with SS Anne and John show strong

influences of Pontormo’s style, The Dead Christ with the Madonna and the Magdalen echoes

the balanced and stable compositions of the Renaissance. The Holy Family with St. John is

executed in what we would like to see as fully developed Mannerist style, or containing

many of the elements of style that make this work easily recognisable as Mannerist, and

yet not recognisably executed by Bronzino. Such a stylistic diversity in these early works

of Bronzino is difficult to explain, since it resists the usual model of teleological

transition from derivative and old fashioned to original and then contemporary style.

Perhaps such a pattern of stylistic development can be dismissed as the result of an

artistic inexperience that led to a chaotic choice of styles, as many critics who cannot

recognise Bronzino’s style as different from Pontormo’s in this period claim. But in the

celebrated Adoration of the Shepherds (1535-40, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest), a

small painting commissioned by Filippo d’Averardo Salviati, what we have is a slightly

old-fashioned manner, evoking the popular, geometrically simple, and stable

compositions of the High Renaissance. However then anachronistic such a stylistic

choice, this painting was very well received by contemporaries (including Raphaelle

Borghini), and liked then and now for its restraint and the absence of Mannerist


The next work in this genre was the Eleonora Chapel, (1541-45, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence)

consisting of the fresco cycle and an altar centrepiece, both important and particular for

a number of reasons. Though the frescoes were executed in a private space which

limited their size, they still successfully presented a complex yet clear programme. Yet

here, it seems, Bronzino made a stylistic division of the pictures based on their position,

painting the walls of the chapel in a fully developed, rich, and complex Mannerist style,

while in the design for the ceiling he showed restraint that signalled even the

forthcoming simplicity and clarity of Baroque Classicism. The third fragment of the

Eleonora Chapel – the altar centrepiece representing the Deposition (1541-45, Palazzo

Vecchio, Florence) – was executed in a slightly old-fashioned manner. And it was the

more conservative manner of this painting that allowed it to be received in a warmer

fashion, making it a highly suitable gift for a high foreign dignitary. Though

undoubtedly influenced by the Mannerist preference for contortion of the bodies, and

the layering of the space, the frescoes that form this complex, yet small-scale programme

on the walls of the Eleonora Chapel were always highly praised, since the private

character of the Chapel seem to have excluded the judgements based on the issue of

decorum. To be more clear: the fact that the images in the chapel in the end remained

private spared them from the standard critique that could have been raised had these

same frescoes appeared in a chapel of a Florentine church.

We can now return to the simple cause which initiated condemnation of later religious

works by Bronzino executed in churches: for these were exposed publically, and the

nudity in them, even if considered beautiful by the standards of disegno, disturbed the

critics after the Council of Trent, since any such aesthetic appeal disturbed the religious

narrative of the painting, that was to be easily accessible to the spectators. Thus it seems

that the differences in styles in Bronzino’s religious pictures in this period, all of which

defy notions of linear and teleological development, can easily be distinguished and

then attributed not to his lack of experience, but to a conscious decision on his part

which resulted in a style that was then flexible and even decorous. This flexible style or

styles transcended the simple boundaries of chronology and periodicity revealing a new

quality in Bronzino’s religious works, never truly recognised or praised, and his

sensibility and care towards his patrons and the environments in which his pictures

were to be placed. Such attention, if not completely in accord to the new demands

established by the Tridentine Council, show Bronzino as a deeply versatile painter who,

in his own manner, completely respected the notion of decorum, then understood to

stand for appropriateness.

Now we turn to the last phase in Bronzino’s religious works, one that is stained by

criticism that perhaps came as a consequence of the acts of the Council of Trent, which

stressed certain aspects in religious paintings which needed to be clear and easily

accessible to the viewer (the Saints and the Martyrs being represented in a clear way,

with their recognisable attributes), and yet which never accumulated a number of

systematic rules that were to be followed in late Cinquecento and Seicento religious

works. To such criticism the last grand commissions Bronzino received were exposed.

We will mention here his most important paintings the Descent of Christ into Limbo, (1552,

Soprintendenza alle Gallerie, Florence), the Resurrection of Christ (1552, Santissima

Annunziata, Florence) and Noli Me Tangere (1560-65, Louvre, Paris). The Ressurection and

the Descent were harshly attacked, and although we have the authentic reactions to these

pictures by Borghini, those are often ambivalent and cannot serve as a reliable source of

what stirred such a negative reaction. And since our concern in this chapter is with the

style of Bronzino’s pictures and not with their reception, we can easily classify them in

two groups. The Descent of Christ into Limbo and the Resurrection of Christ clearly belong

to the group of works that developed from the earlier Deposition – they display many

figures in difficult postures, the composition is crowded with naked bodies, the vertical

figure of Christ presenting the central and focal point of the action depicted. In both the

Descent and the Resurrection, the scenes represent clearly one moment in the narrative (or

sacred history), and the richness of the composition is achieved by numerous

interactions between the figures. By their grandeur and focus on the form of the body

these paintings can be compared to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. We will note here

again one important feature – that Bronzino, although representing many figures in

different and difficult postures, organised the composition of these two pictures by

using a simple, symmetrical, one could say polygonal- or oval-shaped layer of bodies,

that served to accentuate further the hierarchically larger and centrally positioned figure

of Christ. This compositional quality makes these two paintings significantly different

from all of Broznino’s earlier religious pictures, except from the Budapest Adoration

(1535-40), the ceiling of the Eleonora chapel (1541-45), and the first version of the

Deposition for the Eleonora chapel (1541-45), the very images in which he found the most

successful mode or style, at least judging by the reactions of his contemporaries. We can

then conclude that perhaps Bronzino was not as inflexible as he was often presented, but

that he here, in his later religious works, instead of following strictly the early

Mannerist style of his previous works, made concessions to the taste of his audience and

attempted to follow the demands for clearer representation.

Noli Me Tangere (1560-65), finished almost ten years after them, shows differences in

composition and modelling of the bodies. Most importantly, there are only four figures

represented in the foreground, whereas the background is used to narrate the story

which preceded the encounter of Mary Magdalene with Christ. This asymmetrical

composition in which the centre of the picture is not given to the figure of Christ but to

the space that divides Christ from Mary Magdalene, cleverly restates the title of the

painting: the impossibility of any contact between Magdalen and the resurrected Christ.

What makes this picture essentially different from the Descent of Christ into Limbo, (1552)

and the Resurrection of Christ (1552) is the way the body of Christ was represented. In

Noli Me Tangere the figure of Christ occupies an asymmetrical – and by virtue of its

brightness – highly accentuated position in the picture plane. More importantly, Christ’s

figure in this particular Biblical scene had never been represented as almost completely

nude, as Bronzino did here, probably following Michelangelo’s image of Christ in his by

then famous and notorious Last Judgement.317 The serpentine modelling of Christ’s body

in Noli Me Tangere, instead of following the Biblical narrative and continuing the

pictorial tradition of this scene, rather served to express Bronzino’s abilities to depict

such difficulties of anatomy and posture. And although the scene is made clearly

recognisable by the attributes that Christ and Mary Magdalene have, these concessions

to the notion of decorum could hardly have eliminated the main issue that made

Michelangelo’s figures in the Last Judgement unacceptable to the Counter-Reformation:

the nakedness of the bodies and their inappropriateness for a sacral building. Thus in

Noli me Tangere, one of the last great commissions entrusted to Bronzino, one perhaps

can see his style as inflexible when representing a specific subject matter.

Having analysed three main religious pictures from his later period, we would extend

this statement to claim that Bronzino was fully aware of issues of decorum when

painting different religious scenes, to which attest differences in his work in this genre,

which to us seem not accidental, but carefully planned. If we were to assign different

styles to these three paintings according to Feinberg’s proposition, the Descent of Christ

into Limbo and the Resurrection of Christ would belong to the group of works in which the

Infra, 178-79.

style was old-fashioned, the composition of the whole image based on principles of the

earlier Renaissance, whereas the modelling of the particular figures was still clearly

Mannerist. This same stylistic assessment is applicable to Bronzino’s less famous

commission of the period – the Nativity (1564, Church of the Cavaliers of S. Stefano, Pisa).

The style of Noli Me Tangere (1560-65) on the other hand, may be called in Feinberg’s

terms extravagant and complex, and for that reason it remained understandably the

least liked of these three paintings.

By using these well-known examples from Bronzino’s later allegorical and religious

opus (with the exception of the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, which we intend to study in

greater detail in the next chapter), we hope we were able to show that Bronzino style did

not change merely because of his own artistic improvement or its decline, but that even

in his last works, he was observant of different influences that were reflected in his

works, which made them a fine example of a number of styles that many great

Mannerists were able to apply.

Chapter IV.

It is now time to turn to the last term and cultural concept of this dissertation, namely to

the notion of epigonicity. The term epigonicità (from which the aforementioned English

word derives) appeared rather late in Italian – in the nineteenth century – and to our

knowledge, it is used rather infrequently. We encountered it first in the editor’s

commentary on the 1967 Novara edition of Vasari’s Le Vite318 and there it was used to

clarify a paragraph in Vasari on the painters of the third epoch.319 To be more specific:

the editors of the Novara edition, referring to Vasari’s notion of decline that is to be

feared after art has reached such heights, suggested in a footnote that his notion of “fatal

decadence”320 (“’decadenza fatale’”321 in their words) should be construed in the sense of


318 Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de' più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori (Novara: Istituto geografico De
Agostini, 1967).
319 We already commented in great detail on this particular sentence about decline that Vasari foresaw when

analysing the development of the arts of the third epoch supra, [the reference is to: Giorgio, Le Vite de' più
Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori (Novara: Istituto geografico De Agostini, 1967): 81]
320 Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de' più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori (Novara: Istituto geografico De

Agostini, 1967): 81, Footnote 1, Our Translation.

321 Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de' più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori (Novara: Istituto geografico De
Agostini, 1967), 81, Footnote 1.
322 Ibid., 81, Footnote 1.

We then traced this reference and realised that epigonicità itself was a term, if not

frequent, then useful for our purposes, since it brought us back in yet a new way to the

notion of decadence (or rise and decline) which already was a topic of our discussion.

Whilst the editors of the Novara edition used epigonicità in its general and contemporary

meaning, which refers to the problem of the ‘late-born’ or ‘after-born’ artists or artists-

successors who worked after great masters, we wanted to explore the whole range of the

meanings of this word. Our primary research on the term epigonicità ended with a few

short definitions: epigonicità indicates the dispute between successors in general; also,

more specifically, it refers to the dispute between the successors of Alexander the Great.

The etymology of the word in Italian is more illuminating: the word epigono means “one

of a succeeding (and less distinguished) generation; imitator, successor or a follower of a

genius.”323 More importantly, we found a Greek origin of the term: epigonicità derives

from the word epigoni, or epigonoi, which most generally in the classical tradition denotes

a person born afterwards. However, when we looked into the term epigonoi from which

the term epigonicità derives, new layers of meanings emerged, and it became clear that

this complicated history needs to be introduced here, so that we can apprehend the

ambiguities arising around it and giving birth to various meanings of the word.

323 Reynolds, Barbara, The Cambridge Italian Dictionary (Cambridge: University Press, 1962).

In his book Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources Timothy Gantz gives

a very clear account of the emergence of the term epigonoi324, and we quote here Gantz in

order to show the complexities associated with its original meaning:

“From Herodotos we learn that there was also an epic Epigonoi, at times attributed to
Homer (Hdt 4.32). From this title, and the fact that in the poem Manto, daughter of
Teiresias, was sent to Delphi from the spoils by the Epigoni, …, we assume that the
work related to the sack of Thebes by the children of the Seven, who were known as the
Epigonoi, or ‘After-born.’ The successful attack is, of course, well known to the Iliad:
Sthenelos, son of Kapaneus, boasts of how he and the other sons succeeded in assaulting
Thebes (with fewer men) where their fathers failed (Il 4.405—10).”325

In the fifth century the Epigonoi were mentioned in Pindar’s Pythian 8, which “offers a

prophecy from the dead Anphiaraos while the Epigonoi (so named) approach Thebes in

this ‘second march’ (Py 8.39—55).”326 The works of later Greek dramatists seem not to

provide more information on or about the myth: for Aischylos’ Epigonoi we really know

nothing beyond the title, and “[w]ith Sophokles we do scarcely better on story lines”327

in Gantz’s words.

The Epigonoi are mentioned later in Asclepiades, Thucydides, and in Pausanias, yet

these sources are fragmentary, Pausanias, for example, merely mentioning the

monument of the Epigonoi at Delphi, “placed by Argives next to that of the Seven and

commemorating the same event, the victory over the Spartans at Oinoe (10.10.40.).”328

324 We need note here that the spelling for the term we will use as “epigone” differs from author to author,
depending, we believe, on the phonetic transcription of the original term Επίγονοι in Greek. Additionally,
the spelling differences appear in names of ancient writers such as Herodotus, Sophocles, etc., and we will,
when making a citation, keep the spelling that was in the original text to which we refer as to a source.
325 Gantz, Timothy, Early Greek Myth: A guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, vol.2, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1996), 552

326 Ibid., 552.

327 Ibid., 553

328 Ibid.

According to Edward Tripp, the story of the Epigoni can be seen as a part of a larger

group of Greek epic poems, the Epic Cycle, which “was loosely applied by some ancient

writers to a considerable number of epic poems, some of which were already lost in the

Hellenistic era.”329 The authors of the poems were forgotten or the poems themselves

came to be attributed to several writers, and only fragments of the whole cycle survive.

However, the poems of the Epic Cycle can be divided in two groups: one that depicts the

war against Thebes, and the other that depicts the war against Troy and its aftermath.

The Theban epics include: Oedipodeia (history of Oedipus), Thebaïd (war between Thebes

and Argos), and the Epigoni (the story of the avenging of the Argive champions by their

sons). Tripp gives the following account of the Epigoni:

“These sons [of the Seven against Thebes], some of whom were eager to avenge their
fathers, became known to legend as the Epigoni, because they were ‘born after’ (than the
Seven). The Delphic oracle assured them that they would succeed in destroying Thebes
if Alcmeon led them.”330

However, the victory of the Epigoni was foreseen by the Theban seer Teiresias, who

advised his men to send emissaries to the Epigoni and discuss surrender before the

battle. In the meantime, during the night, some of the Thebans escaped from Thebes,

and the victory of the Epigoni was over a semi-deserted city. There in Thebes they

established one of them, Thersander, as the king, and from there they sent some of the

spoils to Delphi. Most of the Epigoni returned home to Argos, while most of the

Thebans seem to have evaded the battle with the Epigoni and have survived by moving

to Illyria and Thessaly. The tale of the Epigoni ends with the beginning of another myth:

329 Tripp, Edward, Crowell's Handbook of Classical Mythology, (New York : Crowell, 1970), 225.
330 Ibid., 226, Emphasis Added.

“Most of [the Epigoni] eventually distinguished themselves fighting with the Greeks at
Troy under Diomedes’ leadership.”331

All of the accounts found in books on classical mythology agree with this version of the

myth, the differences appearing only in the attitude towards possible historical proofs of

the pillage of Thebes, which usually are not considered accurate and thus not

mentioned332. Although Michael Grant and John Hazel give a similar version of the

myth of the Epigoni, they differ in the translation of the term itself. Whereas Tripp’s

translation of the term was born after, Grant and Hazel suggested the word epigoni to

mean either “’successors’”333 or “‘second generation.’”334

Those are the accounts found in the classical sources that dealt with poetry and myths.335

However, if we look into the history of the post-Alexandrian world we can find a

different meaning of the word Epigoni, which then came to be applied to actual

historical personae. This new meaning depended perhaps on the previous mythological

and literary tradition, yet if it did so, it also brought a more negative connotation to the

term which can be explained in the historical accounts describing the state of the empire

of Alexander the Great in his final years and after his death. Most of the sources agree

331 Ibid., 227.

332 See, for example, a brief account in Grimal, Pierre, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, transl. Maxwell-
Hyslop, A.R., (Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York, NY : Blackwell, 1986), 147-48.
333 Grant Michael and Hazel, John, Who's Who in Classical Mythology, (New York : Oxford University Press,

1993), 122
334 Ibid.

335Both the mythology and the history of the city of Thebes are given in great detail in The Oxford Companion
to Classical Literature, and there the political connexions of Thebans with Persians and Macedonians are
explained. Cf. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. Howatson, M. C. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press), 562.

that the Epigoni of Alexander the Great could also be called Diadochi or Successors.

These were a number of Macedonian generals who were rival successors to Alexander

the Great. Although Alexander made significant efforts to preserve the unity of his

empire after his death, firstly by adopting Persian court etiquette and secondly by

fostering marriages between Greeks and Persians, these cultural changes were not

warmly welcomed by his fellow Macedonian generals. After many wars (the so-called

Diadochian wars), the empire of Alexander the Great was divided into several

kingdoms which were ruled by the dynasties formed by the Diadochi. The main

kingdoms or states that thus emerged included territories in Asia Minor and Syria under

the Seleucids, the territory of Egypt under the Ptolemies, and the territory of Macedonia

under the Antigonids. Gradually these kingdoms were merged in the Roman Empire

and although some of the states that the Diadochi formed outlasted the Empire of

Alexander by centuries336, these were smaller kingdoms and the fact that this second

generation could not maintain the Empire they inherited from Alexander as a whole

made them appear as inferior rulers. Thus it is clear how the complex term Epigoni, the

genesis of which lies in the traditions of ancient Greek plays, acquired a new pejorative

meaning, which may in a way have suppressed the original one. And since, as we have

seen, the epic cycle which included Epigoni was lost, the more recent, post-Alexandrian

term assumed greater importance than the earlier connotation.

It would be too great a task to explain the changes in the connotation of the word epigone

that occurred from antiquity to the present, so we are forced to make a great leap here,

and to rely on the sources available to us today. It is quite interesting that a full

336 The Ptolemies, for example, ruled in Egypt from IIIrd century BC to Ist century AD.

definition of the term epigonoi can be found in an old-fashioned Serbian Lexicon of

Foreign Words and Idioms by Milan Vujaklija first published in 1920, where several

different senses of this term are conveniently organised according to the different

contexts in which they appeared:

“Epigonoi (έπι–γόνοι)337
mythology: descendants, especially sons of seven Greek heroes who died in the first war
against Thebes, who, ten years after their [fathers’] death, revenged their fathers and
destroyed Thebes;
history: the sons of the heirs of Alexander the Great (the Diadochs); children from the
second marriage; after-comers in general; especially after-comers [or successors] of a
great epoch;
literature: the generation of writers who, because of the lack of their own power of
creation, work by following in the spirit of the ideas and forms of their great
figurative meaning: imitators.”338

After we presented the notion of epigonicity in all of its various meanings, before

applying the concepts of epigonicity and epigoni specifically to the Renaissance and

Mannerism, it is necessary to make another clarification. We need to address

chronology which is connected closely with the classification of periods (and styles) in

cultural history – namely, in order to apply the notion of epigonicity, we need to

differentiate between the generations of artists belonging to either the Renaissance or

Mannerism. In order to attempt to establish this distinction, we need to determine the

date of the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of Mannerism. If we consider the

chronological development of art in Cinquecento as presented in historical discourse,

there are three different dates which are taken to segregate the Renaissance from

337 Transcribed as “ Έπιγόνοι” in Grimal, Op. Cit., 147.

338 Vujaklija, Milan, Leksikon stranih reči i izraza (Beograd: Prosveta, 1954), 300, Our Translation.

Mannerism. This periodicity, it must be recognised, also deeply influences the position

of the Mannerists, who were often described as continuing the practice of art after the

end of the High Renaissance, working after the death of Raphael, and living still in the

shadow of Michelangelo. In the historical account in the previous sentence two distinct

moments were used. One of the two is simply the date of the death of Raphael – 1520 –

which, for many scholars can be seen as the end of the High Renaissance. The other

historical moment, the end of the High Renaissance, is more difficult to determine

chronologically, and we now shall not attempt to make a contribution in this particular

problem of periodisation. Both of these moments (the end of the High Renaissance,

needless to say, being quite arbitrary), along with the third which we have not yet

mentioned here – the year of the Sack of Rome (1527) – are used often as convenient

temporal demarcations between two epochs – that of the (High) Renaissance and that of

Mannerism (this, of course, refers to historians, in general, as well as those of art and

culture, who recognise the High Renaissance and Mannerism as periods in (art)

history)339. Since a consensus on the date of the end of the Renaissance has not been

reached so far, we need to note here the existence of a transitional period – the years

between 1520 and 1527 – which only a few scholars who have constructed a timetable of

history have addressed (and we shall not mention it here just to acknowledge its

339 Although we usually think of High Renaissance as that brief period of art in which the perfect harmony
of form was reached in the arts, only to be disrupted by Mannerism, different views appear today.
Alexander Nagel for example saw the High Renaissance (and not Mannerism) as the age of anxiety: “In
contrast to the progressivist view, which sees it as a culminating period of harmony and classical perfection,
this view of the period reveals a more anxious art of disjunction, compensation, projection, and desire – and
as a result casts a sharper light on the new forms of artistic and historical self-awareness that mark the
period as a whole. It helps explain why what we call the High Renaissance was such a brief episode and was
so quickly followed by the strange experiments of the art of the 1520s and after. The career of Michelangelo
makes it necessary to see this history as a continuous one.” [Nagel, Alexander Michelangelo and the Reform of
Art (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 19, Emphasis Added.]

existence). It is to these seven years in Italy and especially in the history and culture of

Rome that we need to turn. Since almost all scholars addressing the transition from the

High Renaissance to Mannerism believe that it was connected to the development in art

in Rome, we can translate our period into the succession of the Popes who influenced

the two most important artists of the High Renaissance – Raphael and Michelangelo.

Thus our interim period comprises the years of the pontificate of Leo X (1513-21), Adrian

VI (1522-23) and most importantly – Clement VII (1523-34), ending before the Sack of

Rome (1527).

To approach this complex problem in history, it is necessary to turn to another subject

concerning mythology and influencing history, and also related, as we will see, to the

story of the Epigoni, if we are to compare the art of the Renaissance and that of

Mannerism (both of which here, to express our conviction again, we accept as concepts

and as cultural periods). In order to decide whether these seven years are better

included in the Renaissance, in Mannerism, or in neither of these periods, we are led

inevitably to think about the earlier period chronologically, about the early Renaissance,

and about how it was seen to emerge as a concept and period in contemporary historical

accounts. In other words, to begin to approach Mannerism at its beginnings we need to

speak of the Renaissance, and if not of its end or such a date, as of the ways it was

represented and remembered. Essential here to the self-representation of the

Renaissance is another myth from antiquity, namely that of the Golden Age, a

mythological epoch often invoked during and after the Renaissance.

In order to access the myth of the Golden Age as it was conceived in Antiquity, and as it

was appropriated later in the Renaissance, we will rely on the account of Harry Levin in

his study The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance. Levin begins by declaring that for

many living afterwards, the Renaissance was the Golden Age. However, very soon,

writes Levin, a shadow marred the mirroring of the Renaissance as the rebirth of

Golden Age:

“[T]he mythical golden age would have been the absolute antithesis of the Renaissance
in several important aspects. The former distrusted elaboration and favored simplicity.
It looked upon art, with considerable suspicion, as an upstart antagonistic to nature.
Most ironic, it had little use for knowledge.”340

According to Levin, the myth of the Golden Age from its earliest origins in antiquity

displaced what was then seen as a past utopia, and merged it with what we call the

traditions of the pastoral. The choice of the attribute golden signifies that of the highest

excellence, a connotation we can trace back to Homer, who, for example characterized

the beauty of Helen as golden, just as in Latin the attribute “aureus comes to be

equivalent of optimus.”341 Levin then explained the further development of the myth:

“[I]t seems to have been Hesiod who linked the age of perfection itself with the golden
metaphor, and plotted the progression of succeeding ages.”342

In Hesiod’s account, the first generation to emerge was a golden race, while Kronos still

reigned in heaven. This race died to become benevolent spirits, and in turn were

succeeded by the silver race, “inconsiderate toward fellow men and neglectful of the

340 Levin, Harry, The Myth of The Golden Age in the Renaissance, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1969),

341 Ibid., 12.
342 Ibid.,14.

immortals.”343 Zeus replaced the silver generation with the brazen – stronger and

warlike – which destroyed itself. Zeus then created the next generation; it was the

generation of heroes who, by performing great exploits at Troy and Thebes, became

demigods, and who then survived in the far island of the blessed, where Kronos was re-

established as their ruler. We may note here that this might have been the moment in

which the two myths, that of the Epigoni and that of the Golden Age, coincided. Such a

process by which the self-destructive brazen race was followed by the heroic race

seemingly contradicts what Levin called “the larger pattern of degeneration”344 present

in the myth. Ultimately, the pattern of decline continued, as the end of the Greek version

of the myth of the Golden Age introduced the fourth generation that Zeus created, made

of iron and by far the worst of all.

The Romans developed and extended the myth further. Virgil for one made significant

alterations, introducing Roman deities, and even switching their roles, turning Kronos

into the allegory of time. According to Virgil, Zeus (Jove) exiled Kronos to Crete. Here the

identification of Kronos with Saturn (the Roman god of planting) was formed. Then,

Virgil writes, the god Saturnus fled to Latium, hiding from the wrath of Jove. It was in

the Fourth Eclogue that Virgil introduces a reversal of the myth, i.e. the idea of the rebirth of

the Golden Age. Accordingly, the iron race will thus drop, and the golden race will

descend from heaven. As Levin informs us, upon this reestablishment of the Golden Age

“Apollo will be king, and presumable sponsor of an efflorescence in the arts.”345

343 Ibid.
344 Ibid.
345 Ibid., 17, Emphasis Added... Levin here anticipated another re-enactment of the myth of the Golden Age:

“Yet the age perforce will likewise witness acts of heroism; it will have to launch a second Argo and to fight
another Trojan War” [Ibid., 17] which in later history was attempted by Philip II of Spain (Cf. Tanner, Marie,

As we demonstrated briefly, the myth of Golden Age became a topos in antiquity, and

yet it remained open to different interpretations. According to Levin, “during a long-

drawn-out course of reiteration, the topic was to display a fascinating capacity for

adapting itself to changed viewpoints and new situations.”346

Now it is the appropriate moment to recapitulate these accounts of mythology and see

what parallels between these two myths – the myth of the Epigoni and the myth of the

Golden Age – can be reached. The myth of Epigoni is based on the reiteration or

continuation of a war started by the fathers in Seven Against Thebes347. The succeeding

generation, the Epigoni, continued where their fathers failed, but achieved only partial

success: as a result of their attack, Thebes was almost completely destroyed, and most of

its citizens escaped. The leader of the Epigoni – Adrastus – was the only survivor from

the original Seven, and not related to the original ruling house of Thebes established by

Oedipus348. One of the Epigoni remained to rule over the ruined city, and without

success he asked the Thebans to return to his kingdom. In a way, the victory of the

Epigoni was not complete, or rather, if compared to the earlier achievements of their

heroic fathers, it could have been seen as incomplete and less admirable. The Epigoni

were not as successful as their fathers who, having died a heroic death, set a high

standard for their sons (and we should note here that only one of the Epigoni died in

The Last Descendant of Aeneas: the Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1993))

346 Levin, Op. Cit., 25.

347 Hepta epi Thebās, a tragedy by Aeschilys, produced in 467 BC.
348 We need to note here that the failure of the Epigoni was in a way a result of a number of curses: the first

one was put on Laius by Apollo, the second two by Oedipus on his sons (who were also his brothers), which
doomed their attempt ever to rule the city. Cf. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. Howatson, M.
C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 390-391.

battle of Thebes), and it was only some time afterwards, during the war against Troy,

that the Epigoni proved themselves finally as true heroes. Perhaps their heroic deeds

there at Troy persuaded Zeus to include the Epigoni in the generation of demigods that

he eventually sent off to an island where Kronos ruled, but this will remain for us a

speculation. Thus the end of this myth remains open and in a way leaves the reader with

the feeling of incompleteness and imperfection, if not even failure.

The myth of the Golden Age presents a succession of generations or races, the

succeeding one always being less perfect than the previous. In its original Greek version,

it implies that the general course in the development of the God-created races is that of

decline (with the exception of the heroic race to which the Epigoni might have belonged).

In its later Roman version, as in the story of Epigoni, the myth anticipates (and

enunciates) a possibility, if not yet ever achieved, of reversing the process of decline by

the rebirth of the Golden Age.

It appears that both of the myths rely on the notion of a temporal displacement of the state

that was more perfect – that of heroism (and its consequent failure) in the story of the

Epigoni, and of utopian and pastoral perfection of the golden race (and the decline of

that races that followed from this stage) in the myth of the Golden Age. Additionally,

both myths more or less openly signal the possibility of reparation. In the Epigoni myth,

the outcome of the action of the second generation is known to us as readers, and we

could conclude that such an ending of the story of the Epigoni still appears as

unresolved and perhaps even unfavourable to their heroes, whereas in the myth of the

Golden Age, the Roman authors allowed the outcome to remain open to future historical

and mythological interpretation. Hence the reason the term Epigoni, applied, as it was,

later in Hellenistic times to particular historical personae, gained its negative

connotation, and continued to be used as a pejorative term. On the other hand, it is not

surprising that the myth of the Golden Age, and its possibility of being re-established,

became popular in the Renaissance, and especially in Florence, a city that claimed to be

the origin of the Renaissance, where “allusion to the golden age became its particular

trademark.”349 There was indeed a grain of truth in the Florentine claims to this myth:

“The conception of a Renaissance itself, the metaphor of renascence, was derived from
the evangelical doctrine of rebirth and had its harbingers in Dante and Petrarch. It came
into its own when it was blended with the Vergilian rhetoric of congratulation at the
Medici courts. Vasari seems to have been responsible for introducing it into the
vernacular when he spoke of the revival in the fine arts as a rinascitá.”350

As we have seen here, the members of the house of Medici suggested to the humanists

that they borrow from the Fourth Eclogue in art produced under their patronage. Soon

indeed the artists were commissioned to represent the myth themselves:

“When Lorenzo’s second son was elected to the papacy (as Leo X), in Florence
celebrations were given, described in detail by Vasari. The decorations were devised by
Nardi, and executed by Pontormo. The gilded infant died shortly after the

Vasari described the last chariot in this trionfo (triumphal procession) in Pontormo’s Vita:

“After them came the car of the Golden Age, richly made, with. many figures in relief by
Baccio Bandinelli and beautiful paintings by Pontormo, among which the four cardinal
Virtues were much admired. In the midst of the car was a great globe, upon which lay a
man, as if dead, his arms all rusted, his back open and emerging there from a naked
gilded child, representing the Golden Age revived by the creation of the Pope and the
end of the Iron Age from which it issued. The dried branch putting forth new leaves had
the same signification, although some said that it was an allusion to Lorenzo de’ Medici,

349 Levin, Op. Cit., 38.

350 Ibid., 145.

351 Ibid., 39.

Duke of Urbino. The gilt boy, the child of a baker, who had been paid 10 crowns, died
soon after of the effects.”352

About the fact that while celebrating the elevation of Leo X the Medici sought to

represent the Golden Age allegorically in the form of a golden (i.e. just born) child, the

consequences of such an action and the year in which it was performed, we may make

the following points. Firstly, that the careless, tragic, and literal re-enactment of an

allegory of the rebirth of the Golden Age ended in the death of its living representation

whether or not this was a troubling outcome for the patrons. Yet this celebration

occurred in 1513, just more then a decade before the High Renaissance gloomily

anticipated the end of a period – of the Renaissance – which never was what it

pretended to have been. This we know from numerous historical accounts which testify

that the Renaissance hardly could have been called a utopian, peaceful and idyllic

period in history. Thus the myth of the Golden Age remained but a myth, an

aspiration353 or a utopian locus that was never then reached or re-established. Perhaps

the idea of the Renaissance indeed had died in 1513 as had the allegory of the Golden

Age, long before the claims that the Renaissance had restored the idyllic age came to be


To this we may add that such re-enactments of pagan mythology, and the significant

artistic and cultural achievements inspired by antiquity, seen as pagan and thus Anti-

Christian especially in Northern Europe, may have fostered the very arguments that led

352Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. IV, trans. Mrs. Foster,
Jonathan (London: H. G. Bohn, 1885-91), 164.

And if we were to go back to the sources in Antiquity, we may find in the accounts of the work of their

dramas the claim to restore an age that only Gods created often led to a punishment, based on the notion of

to the idea of the Reformation in 1517, opening the path that led eventually to the Sack

of Rome. Thus, the intricate and often joyful spectacles for which the Renaissance was to

be remembered also contained the unseen, yet tragic seeds of their own destruction.

Nevertheless, for those who experienced both the years of the pontificate of Leo and the

Sack of Rome in 1527, the darkness of the later historical period that unravelled

negatively may have brought back to light the glitter of gold of the previous Renaissance,

even if such reflections were to be found on the corpse of the child sacrificed in an

allegorical play.

After the Sack of Rome the idea of rebirth of the Golden Age became a concept that

began to seem less possible or even desirable. One of the reasons for this change being

that the Vatican formulated new positions on art and its references to antiquity. Yet the

myth itself survived elsewhere, as Levin confirms:

“If we trusted the panegyrics of the courtly poets, we should have little doubt that the
golden age had been reborn in the Renaissance. There would be some disagreement
among them, however, as to whether that rebirth had taken place under the Medici or
the Valois or the Tudors or the dynasty of Spain and Austria.”354

In our pursuit of the age of the Epigoni, we turn now to history and to the short yet

important period between the death of Raphael in 1520 and the Sack of Rome in 1527,

that is to the years in which three different Popes ruled the Vatican. After Leo X died in

1521, the Dutch Pope Adrian VI was established briefly from 1522 to 1523, to be

succeeded by Clement VII, previously known as Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. Since the

pontificate of Adrian VI was brief and focused on negotiating with the Protestants rather

354 Ibid., 112.

than on establishing the cultural programme, we will concentrate on the pontificate of

Clement VII in which again, in a brief retrospect, attention was turned to the artistic and

cultural interests pursued by Leo X.

Because the Sack of Rome occurred while he was pope, Clement’s pontificate is

considered disastrous. However, we think it is important to re-examine the early years

of his pontificate, between 1523 and 1527, and see how he influenced history, art355 and

culture of the period. What we seek to show here is that the simplistic and purely

negative valuation of the reign of Clement VII can be challenged, and that the Pope in

this period played a considerable role in history and in the development of the arts. It is

clear that at first the immediate reactions to his election were positive. Not only that

Clement’s elevation promised a politically strong and successful papacy, but the Pope

himself was seen by artists and literati as destined to restore the new Golden Age.356

The election of Leo X opened chances for advancement for Giulio de’ Medici, who had

become a Cardinal in 1513. He was in the first group of cardinals to be elected by Pope

Leo X. In 1517 he became the Vice-chancellor of the Pope, to be elevated as a pope

himself in November 1523. Although such elevations of cousins into Vice-chancellors,

who were later to become Popes, were usual in the Renaissance, Giulio de’ Medici was

the first to become a Pope in such a short time after the death of the preceding Pope

355 When investigating this period we do not wish to engage in an interpretation of artistic development
based on the notion of Zeitgeist, although, it must be recognised, for one reason or another, art did change in
this short historical period significantly.
356 See Gouwens, Kenneth, “Clement and Calamity: The Case for Re-evaluation,” The Pontificate of Clement

VII, History, Politics, Culture ed. Gouwens and Reiss, (Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 3-

from his family.357 Although the funds available to him from the papal treasury were

limited, due to the extensive spending of Pope Leo X, Clement VII still managed to

support artists and literati, who in turn created stylistically distinctive works of art

under his patronage. As André Chastel noted, “there were many new developments in

the Rome of 1525: in the field of painting alone an original style had begun to emerge,

marked by subtlety, grace, and sophistication.”358 This style may be seen to be a

consequence of Clement VII ‘s “program of high culture, a mandate to the art and

sciences.”359 This programme was carefully devised – as a Florentine and a Medici,

Clement VII initiated a “trend within the Clementine circle [that] coincided with a

‘Tuscanization’ of the general style, taste, even the manners of Rome.”360 This

Tuscanization, as Chastel called it, also signalled Clement’s ability to recognise subtle

distinctions in the styles of Roman and Florentine art which by then often intersected, as

artists moved from one city to another, and prints representing what were believed to

have been the main artistic achievements circulated between the artists. According to

Chastel, while the Florentine style was formed after Michelangelo moved to Florence, a

certain classicism still was maintained by the Roman circle headed by Raphael and

Giulio Romano361. Most important for our re-evaluation of Clementine art is Chastel’s

statement on Jacopo Pontormo, who “was the one who took the decisive step, and his

elegant, limpid, finitely subtle style concurred with Michelangelo’s interests: the term

Cf. Stinger, Charles L., “The Place of Clement VII and Clementine Rome in Renaissance History” The

Pontificate of Clement VII, History, Politics, Culture ed. Gouwens and Reiss, (Aldershot, England; Burlington,
VT: Ashgate, 2005), 165-184.

358 Chastel, André, The Sack of Rome, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 3.
359 Ibid., 149.
360 Ibid., 153.
361 Ibid. Here is seems that Chastel juxtaposed Michelangelo’s style to the classicism of the style prevalent in

Rome earlier than 1520, without stating clearly what we would suggest here: that Michelangelo’s style
deviated from what was seen as classical style in Rome at that moment.

‘proto-Mannerism’ may not be the worst way to describe it.”362 Finally, Chastel

introduced a new term to describe the style in Roman art between 1523 and 1527:

“The notion of a ‘Clementine’ style is being offered here to account for a certain number
of traits that were common around 1525, and a particular trend that managed to keep
the artists of the time from too slavish an attachment to modi raffaelleschi or too great a
submission to la maniera michelangiolesca.”363

We find Chastel’s claim for a new style – the Clementine style – that lasted for a brief

period (1523-27) significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it addresses the vexing

question of the end of the Renaissance by postulating a transitional period in which

artists worked in a plurality of styles. Secondly, in such a transitional style two great

masters of Renaissance and Mannerism are invoked, without arguing for a clear division

between their followers in terms of style. That anticipation of the Mannerist style can be

found in the works of Raphael as well as in those of Michelangelo need not be argued

here; what is important though is that neither artist gave birth to a generation of

imitators of their art in the transitional period, i.e. before the Sack of Rome. Instead, a

new Clementine style emerged, a style that announced Mannerism, and yet did not

denounce the Renaissance.

Most importantly, the main artist of the Clementine style was said to have been Jacopo

Pontormo and, indeed, when we now look at his works from the Clementine period we

perhaps may recognise him as an eminent painter, admired in the transitional period

362 Ibid., 154, Emphasis Added.

363 Ibid., 155.

before the Sack of Rome, as well as a true innovator and a figure nearly as important, we

suggest, for the development of art, as Michelangelo.

We will return to Michelangelo’s role in the development of Mannerism later. Here we

want to stress again how important for us is Chastel’s invocation of the Clementine style.

This new stylistic period will be very useful for us, because it avoids the simplified

segmentation of the temporal flux into value-laden divisions of early (good), high (best)

and late (decadent or even degenerate) style. Thus it resolves many difficulties about the

periodisation of the High Renaissance as well as those about the emergence of


That the cultural programme Clement VII implemented had a powerful character is

suggested in the following statement about the general condition of cultural life in Rome.

According to Charles Stinger, in Clementine Rome, there was in the ideology of the

curial humanists what he calls “a certain cultural myopia,”364 before and even after the

Sack. For better or for worse, this notion, based in different mythological interpretations,

did not allow the citizens of Rome to enter the arena of ‘real history’ in the sense that

perhaps Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) signalled. Instead, Rome imagined itself as

Roma Aeterna, which meant that Rome myopically veiled itself in a semi-mythological

supernal vision. This can be seen in Christoforo Marcello’s Christiad, an epic poem

written between 1518 and 1532, during the turmoil of the Reformation and the Sack of

Rome. Here Rome was represented both as a New Jerusalem and the caput mundi.

Stinger, Charles L., “The Place of Clement VII and Clementine Rome in Renaissance History,” The

Pontificate of Clement VII, History, Politics, Culture ed. Gouwens and Reiss, (Aldershot, England; Burlington,
VT: Ashgate, 2005), 176.

According to the Christiad, Rome ascended to a level that cannot be attained by profane

but rather by sacred history, since Rome’s “mission is not just to the earthly world but

rather to the surpassing and ultimate goal of leading humanity to its heavenly destiny,

the realization of which will bring history to its end.”365 This literary source of the period

allows us to understand the specificity of the position that under Leo X and Clement VII

Rome assumed within sacred and profane history, that of the city where time would

come to an end and the new age, in this case – that of the New Jerusalem, would begin.

Such beliefs and speculations about Rome’s chosen status may have been derived in part

from earlier Hermetic speculations fostered by Pope Leo X – speculations which were

accumulated syncretically from disparate sources in antiquity, the Cabala, and the

pseudo-Egyptian Corpus Hermeticum. To illustrate the mythical element inhering in

Rome’s self-representation, we will refer to a poem by Zaccaria Ferreri which used as its

main fabric the dream-visions of Pope Leo X. Thus, Rome was “envisioned as being

transplanted to the sphere of Jupiter, where the popes, Jove-like in their authority,

formed the font of just law for all humanity.”366 Such poetic works did not remain the

only field in which references to antiquity were exercised, since in their writings the

humanist-courtiers gathered around the Pope discussed more serous profane issues,

such as whether the Pope could be identified with Caesar. Such speculations and the

cultural programme of Leo X in general were not received in the same way in Rome and

outside of Italy. It seems now as if the narratives created by the literati in Rome

365 Ibid., 178, Emphasis Added. This notion is closely associated with eschatological speculations of the
366 Ibid., 179.

constituted an image of the city and of the Papacy itself367 that was almost deliberately

antithetical to that constructed in the Protestant North, where Rome was seen as a city of

debauchery, avarice, nepotism and eventually – as the seat of Antichrist, who was

identified with the Pope himself.

Such were some of the cultural and historical narratives that Clement VII inherited

when he ascended the throne of St. Peter. Perhaps he would have nourished these

further had the Sack not happened. Though we cannot stress enough the impact of such

a devastating and terrifying event on Italy as well as on the other Catholic and

Protestant countries, we will not address the Sack of Rome here since Chastel has

presented an outstandingly multifaceted view of the historical and cultural constellation

that accelerated in these years.

Though often seen as weak and unskilled in politics even after the Sack, Clement VII

seemed to have learned some lessons while he was imprisoned at that moment in Castel

San’ Angelo. He came to recognise that it was Emperor Charles V who had the power to

help him re-establish himself as Pope, and not less importantly to help his cousins in

Florence to suppress the newly established Florentine Republic. The rise of the republic

in the years of 1527-1530 meant a double loss for Clement, since the Florentines did not

recognise either his family as their rulers or him as a Pope. Thus, with great caution and

367Another useful example of such speculation we will include here: “This stress on the exemplary is
apparent also in the repeated image of Rome as speculum (mirror). When, for instance, Paris de’ Grassus,
papal Master of Ceremonies under Julius II and Leo X, describes the quadrangular seating pattern for the
pope and the College of the cardinals meeting in Consistory or in the papal chapel, he claims that it forms
the earthly reflection of the throne of God and the 24 elders, the setting for heavenly liturgies described in
the Book of Revelation.” [Stinger, Op. Cit., 178]

care, Clement VII negotiated, and formed an alliance with the Emperor Charles V, who

in turn helped him regain control of the Papal States. With the intervention of Imperial

troops, the Florentine republic came to its end. This secured the return of the Medicis to

Florence in 1531, and allowed them to establish themselves there as a ducal dynasty. It

may be of importance here that Clement VII was compared with Constantine when

attacking Florence in 1529, as if by engaging in this military action he reclaimed the

territories that once were given to Pope Sylvester by Constantine. Such a claim is

reflected in the imagery in the Sala di Constantino which was started under Pope Leo X

and finished during the papacy of Pope Clement VII. Finally, Clement VII also was

aware of the rivalry between France and Spain, and even though he used the Emperor’s

troops to conquer Florence, in 1533 he secured the marriage of Catherine de’ Medici to

the future King of France, which was a very successful diplomatic decision. In spite of

all of his attempts to secure the position of the Vatican and the Medicis after the Sack of

Rome, Clement VII in history has been portrayed as an unsuccessful successor to Pope

Leo X, if not even seen as his epigone.

Since we have already given an historical account of Florence368 when we described the

life and opus of Bronzino, we will now turn from history to art history and continue our

analysis of the notion of epigonicità, or more specifically, our attempt to determine when,

how, and why it may have been established (if not termed as such) in discourse on the

arts. We have demonstrated earlier here that the whole age of Mannerism could be seen

as an age of the epigoni, of those who came after the great men of the Renaissance who

Supra, 25‐29, 129. 

had raised the arts and culture in Italy to such a high level369 that these successors had a

difficult task to maintain the conditions they inherited or to better the state of art already

established in the previous age. We must however make a distinction here between a

notion that is closely related to epigonicity, but that cannot be equated with it

completely – the notion of rise and decline, explained earlier in this dissertation. Indeed,

it may appear that these two ideas can be equated, and hence we now will define the

difference that we find central for our further speculation. The notion of rise and decline

as a topos in rhetoric, in the development in the arts and in history relates usually to a

whole period or style, and does not imply an attempt of the late-coming artists to restore

or continue the tradition they had inherited from their masters. The notion of epigonicity,

on the other hand, depends on an idea of continuity, that which the ‘sons’ of the ‘father-

artists’ of the previous generation attempted to achieve by maintaining the principles

and quality in art, and by finishing what was left undone, always having in mind the

greatest achievements of their predecessors. The epigoni often can be successful and

even good artists (and we should remember here what Kugler wrote on artist late-

comers370), but they never can avoid remaining in the shadow of the achievements of

their predecessors, their main failure (which indeed came from the historical and

chronological circumstances) being that they were the late-comers. If we were to be

more generous to the epigoni, we could claim that they had the chance to repeat, and

even improve the artistic practices that they inherited (though here the problem of

imitation would emerge), yet they remained haunted by the earlier works that they

Supra, 123. 
370 Supra, footnote 82.

looked upon as their canon, which by their very position were destined to limit their

achievements and thus remain unattainable to them.

After these numerous shifts between mythology, certain notions from antiquity, and

from the Renaissance, mixed, as they are here, with historical circumstances, we can

now be less abstract, as we unveil the future trajectory of our argument in this chapter.

We will begin with looking at the artists active between 1520 and 1600. They did not

recognise that they were either Mannerists or epigoni (since both of these terms were

applied to them only later) and they believed (as we saw in Vasari) that they lived in the

age of the Renaissance. Thus they had as a point of reference the most successful artists

of the earlier period, most of them dead by then, yet Michelangelo, very importantly,

still alive. And soon these artists (who we now may call Mannerists) had at their

disposal something that the artists of the previous period did not have: a document of

great relevance and seriousness in its intention, which opened up a new way of

communicating about art, and in such a way that contested individual speculations and

stories that were passed verbally between the artists themselves. Moreover, amongst

many levels of narration, this text was focused on biographies of those famous and

excellent men who had preceded them, of the best architects, sculptors and painters,

classified and represented in chronological order, including comments and evaluations

of their works. Most importantly, this book was written by one of the artists of this very

generation – by Giorgio Vasari.

The problem of commenting then on contemporary art was perhaps as troublesome and

acute as it is today. A courtier, a painter, an architect, a writer, and a person who can be

seen as possessing a significant level of diplomatic reasoning, Vasari may have sensed

the difficulties in writing about living artists, and he evaded this somehow dangerous

path in the 1550 edition of Le Vite. Such a decision resulted in a book which read as the

genealogy of the generations that came before Vasari (as well as the description of three

ages, or eta, in which they had created). Needless to say here, drawing the stylistic line

between the Renaissance and Mannerism did not appear in his model of the

development of the arts. However, there was one exception to the post mortem veil that

concealed the lives of artists of whom he wrote – the 1550 edition of Le Vite included the

biography of one living artist – that of Michelangelo Buonarotti.

It is time now to speak of Michelangelo and Vasari, of the exquisite self-awareness of

Michelangelo and of the actions he took in order to interfere with his biographies (and

biographers), and of Vasari’s willingness to accommodate Michelangelo’s demands.

Such an interaction, dominated by the great Michelangelo, resulted in a few texts, and

we may imagine, also in numerous private and public conversations that those caused,

establishing Michelangelo as the best amongst the most excellent artists of the past and

of the then present, living or dead. Most importantly for us, such a position that

Michelangelo assumed with Vasari’s help rendered his opus transcendent for the

Mannerists, who, by virtue of comparison of their work to it, were doomed to be seen as


In order to understand the complicated process which resulted in the biography, or

rather, biographies of Michelangelo, we will rely here on accounts by Michael Hirst and

Lisa Pon who have both written seriously on the complicated and controversial

relationship between Michelangelo and Vasari. The facts with which the two scholars

operate show an interesting diversity. According to Hirst, Vasari claimed he knew

Michelangelo since 1542-43 and in those years Michelangelo encouraged him to pursue

his career as an architect. Yet, so he says, this was a story fabricated by Vasari who in

fact first met Michelangelo only in 1547. Michelangelo was then in Rome, despite all of

the attempts Cosimo I had made in the 1540s to persuade Michelangelo to come back to

Florence371. If his emissaries failed, then Vasari was more successful in a way in bringing

Michelangelo back to Florence, at least in the form of the biography which was the

culmination of his first edition of Le Vite published in March 1550, the very same month

as Michelangelo’s seventy-fifth birthday. We must stress here, as has Pon, the

importance of Vasari’s biography of Michelangelo:

“A biography of a living artist was a new thing, and with this book Michelangelo
received a tribute that was, as Johannes Wilde puts it, ‘a birthday present like of which
was never given to any other artist.’”372

Yet it seems that Michelangelo was not entirely satisfied with what Vasari wrote about

him, as many facts of his life were not included or wrongly dated. Hirst mentioned

many mistakes Vasari made in his 1550 biography of Michelangelo: he failed to

recognise that Michelangelo was in Bologna 1494-95, he chronologically misplaced

Michelangelo’s flight from Rome to coincide with his painting of the Sistine ceiling, thus

371 These attempts of Cosimo resulted in Michelangelo’s reply to the Duke in a form of a letter, in which he
justified his absence from Florence by his engagement with constructions on St. Peters, which, if stopped
due to his absence, would have been the greatest sin.
372 Pon, Lisa, “Michelangelo’s Lives: Sixteen-Century Books by Vasari, Condivi, and Others,” Sixteenth

Century Journal, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), 1017. To be completely accurate in our claims, we need to refer
here to Pon again: in footnote 11 on page 1017 we find that Vasari did include yet another living artist in his
1550 edition, Benedetto da Rovezzano, who, being blind, was dead for the art and alive for the life, to
paraphrase Vasari. This is an interesting antipode to characterisation of Michelangelo, the artist who Vasari
saw as sent by God himself to rescues the arts.

totally obscuring the “prelude to the tragedy of the papal tomb.”373 Further, Vasari also

wrote that Michelangelo returned to Florence after the siege ended in 1530, whereas we

know that he was in the city then and that Clement VII personally forgave Michelangelo

for his anti-Medicean role in this short-lived republican escapade.

With all these errors in Vasari, Michelangelo in what is usually seen as an attempt to

correct him, instructed Ascanio Condivi374 to write and publish his own version of the

life of Michelangelo in 1553. This deliberate intention on Michelangelo’s part to rectify

Vasari’s accounts was mentioned, though without Vasari being named in Condivi, who

explained in the following way the reason for writing a new biography of Michelangelo:

“’[B]ecause certain persons who wrote about this great man without knowing him as
intimately as I do, partly related events that had never occurred and partly omitted such
as would be very much worthwhile noting.’”375

What is important here is that if indeed it was Michelangelo himself who was correcting

Vasari, then we can see how concerned he was with the way he was represented, and

with the accuracy of the stories that were written about him. Although he was highly

praised by Vasari even in 1550 edition, Michelangelo decided to create another textual

account of his life, indicating how well aware he was by then of his special status, as an

artist important not only because of his work, but also because of what was seen as his

divine nature. Here we can turn to Condivi’s biography, for there, in the unpaginated

Hirst, Michael, “Michelangelo and his First Biographers” in Proceedings of the British Academy, (London:

Published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press, 1994), 69.

374 Hirst suggested, judging by the style of Michelangelo’s Life, that it was probably written by Annibale
Caro, and not by Condivi. Ibid., 71.
375 Pon, Op. Cit., 1020.

Preface, he equated Michelangelo’s words to the metaphysical pronouncements of the

Ancient Prophets, since he claimed that “he [Condivi] had collected his material for the

biography ‘with deftness and with long patience from the living oracle himself’.’”376

Hence by 1553 there were two biographies of the then living Michelangelo, a fact that

may shed a new light on his behaviour that was often described as arrogant and

nonchalant. For the very artist who occasionally quarrelled with Popes, Princes, and

Cardinals alike, was also made to appear as more organised and rational: the fact that he

took such an effort in the course of his ever-overbearing devotion to art to dispute minor

facts from a biography that put him at the pinnacle of the Italian art of the period may

show him as a more calculated and self-aware character, even if his particular

sprezzatura would not have allowed him to lower himself by criticising Vasari openly.

As another actor in this stylised and perplexing play we can see Vasari, who between

1550 and 1568 made numerous advances to Michelangelo, (and we may recall here even

from anecdotes told by Vasari himself that Michelangelo was seldom nice to him even if

Vasari remained his faithful admirer even after his death), and out of this

communication came a new version of Michelangelo’s biography, in which his position

as the most important artist of the time remained unchanged, if not even bettered by

Vasari’s praises of his more recent works. Michelangelo died before this revised edition

of Le Vite appeared, but in it Vasari, although including the biographies of a number of

living artists, by virtue of compiling their biographies into a single chapter on the

376Ibid., 1020, Emphasis Added. The cited segment of Condivi’s sentence in Italian is: “con destrezza e con
lunga pazienza dal vivo oraculo suo.”

Florentine Academicians (beginning with Bronzino), secured still a special, prominent

and individual place for the life of Michelangelo, incorporating not only Condivi’s

biography, but all the stories he acquired from conversation with Michelangelo, his

anecdotes and perhaps suggestions about how to represent him.

In his forthcoming book about Vasari David Cast analysed Vasari’s comments on

Michelangelo. Vasari, Cast reminds us, used Michelangelo as an exemplar-artist who,

unlike many others, was able to approach difficult issues such as style and imitation:

“Out of many styles, as Vasari noted, he was able to form a single style that was his and
which will always be considered his own and was most highly esteemed by artists. As
ever in this, as in everything, the great example was Michelangelo who understood
imitation completely and also, it was recognised, its limits. For as Vasari put it, he was able
to remember all he had ever seen and all he had ever done and this enabled him … to be
careful never to repeat anything he had done before; and if he used the work of others,
he did so in ways almost no one noted. Before him, as Michelangelo himself so willingly
acknowledged, there were the models of the works of Donatello and Ghiberti and all the
examples of art from antiquity that Vasari could mention as having influenced the artists
of the second age, the Laocoon, the Hercules and so on.”377

However, imitation was not often understood properly by Michelangelo’s fellow artists:

“Thus, as he said, alluding perhaps to Bandinelli and the use he made of the Laocoon, he
who follows others never passes ahead of them, and he who is not able to do well by himself
cannot use the works of others well. Thus also the danger of another unnamed artist, as
Michelangelo is also recorded saying, for in copying too many others, he took so much
in his work from other pictures, that when it come to judgment day there would be
nothing left, all the bodies having taken back their limbs.”378

Here Michelangelo made a very glum prediction of other artists who worked after his

own models, and in an uncanny manner referred to his own work that caused him so

many troubles, to the Last Judgement. Michelangelo of course knew that he was copied

377 Cast, David, Delight and Forthcoming work on Giorgio Vasari, 223, Emphasis Added.
378 Ibid., 224.

by then, and Vasari recognised that the cartoon of the battle of Cascina was “studied so

much … by so many artists who became excellent painters themselves.”379 However,

Michelangelo was said never to have underestimated nature as the source for imitation,

and then retroactively criticised many artists who, by following his style, made art that

was stupid (or, as we may put it, were doomed to become his epigoni):

“And this Michelangelo could say for reasons he knew well from the experience of his
own art, which had been copied so much, and, as he put it, made stupid, the word
stupid here, as Armenini recorded this remark, being one Vasari had so often used to
criticise the art of the ages before Cimabue and Giotto. This style of mine, an even later
source cites Michelangelo as saying, will make many into clumsy artists.”380

We can finish the story of Michelangelo’s life acknowledging the success of his own

efforts and those of Vasari, which found its expressions in the stories that surrounded

his death and burial. Immediately after his death in Rome on 18th February 1564,

Michelangelo’s remains were taken back to Florence and according to Pon “his death

and the events just after it were shaped into a narrative of an almost hagiographic nature

by various written accounts.”381 Michelangelo’s body, transferred from Florence after

being dead for twenty-two days, was described in some of these accounts as not decayed,

as of the same appearance, without any smell, “’resting in sweet and most quiet

slumber.’”382 This description, and the way the body was removed from Rome strongly

indicate a certain attempt of the canonisation of the great artist. He was buried with

great honours, and a funeral booklet was published on the occasion of his funeral

(Esequie del divino Michelangelo), a highly unusual endeavour, reserved then only for

379 Ibid.
380 Ibid., 224.
381 Pon, Op. Cit., 1021, Emphasis Added.
382 Ibid., 1021.

Emperors. In addition, Vasari decided to produce what may have been a first offprint in

the history of printing and to publish a booklet La Vita del gran Michelangelo, a reprint of

the segment which addressed Michelangelo’s Life, done in such a hasty manner that

Vasari did not even change the page numeration in this newly published book. Yet,

Vasari was still firm in his intention to champion Michelangelo and thus present him as

a supreme being, different from the artists of the past as well as those of the present by

virtue of his superiority. It was in the 1568 version as well as in its offprint that Vasari

wrote his second biography of the most revered artist of his day. Vasari remained

faithful to preserving Michelangelo’s unchallenged position amongst artists even when

the criticism influenced by the Council of Trent seriously attacked some of his works,

one of the more troublesome being the Last Judgement (1535-41, Sistine Chapel, Vatican).

As Pon informs us:

“Vasari comments in 1568, though not in 1550, the he will not discuss the composition of
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment at length ‘because it has been copied and printed so often,
both in large and small format, that it doesn’t seem necessary to lose time in describing

We will now turn to the position of Michelangelo which changed in the course of his

long life, in order to represent the contemporary comments and opinions on his works

that often differed from those in Vasari. We have decided to include comments on his

later works here so as to question what was to Vasari his impeccable judgement at the

time when the new Mannerist style appeared. This we found to be a necessary

evaluation that may finally reveal to us whether Michelangelo was seen as an arbiter of

383 Ibid., 1033.

art universally and if such a position would have produce a whole generation of epigoni

who followed the artistic models and paths he had created for them. As an example we

will concentrate on a work that suffered the most from criticism – the Last Judgement,

and yet became for the Mannerist artists a major source of inspiration, even borrowing,

and perhaps because of that, the implicit reason of the condemnation of their works

under the Counter-Reformation.

Michelangelo began the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1533.

The first subject was that of the Resurrection and it was only in 1535 that it was noted as

the Last Judgment, and, as such, unveiled officially in 1541. This monumental fresco was

one of the last major pictorial works that Michelangelo executed384. It was and still is one

of those works that constantly initiate contrasting opinions and discussions. Yet in order

to approach and to comment such a work, one needs to be very careful when using

accounts of it that emerged in history, as some of them (as Leo Steinberg demonstrated

using the example of an image in the fresco which was incorrectly identified and then

repeated through history385) became false topoi which we use inadvertently when

making new accounts.

Vasari’s opinion was a contrast to that of other writers of the period. He praised in the

Last Judgment the depiction of the human forms in different and difficult well-

384 After the Last Judgement, Michelangelo executed only one pictorial work – the fresco decoration of the

Pauline Chapel. There between 1542 and 1550 he painted two frescoes – The Conversion of St. Paul and The
Crucifixion of St. Peter. These last works of Michelangelo remain troublesome in terms of their style, and
more interestingly, these images did not cause too many art historians to write on them. Cf. Steinberg, Leo,
Michelangelo's Last Paintings: The Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cappella Paolina,
Vatican Palace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

385 Steinberg, Leo, “A Corner of the Last Judgment,” Daedalus 109, (1980), 207-273.

proportioned attitudes, as well as the expression of the emotions. According to Vasari,

Michelangelo represented “the human form, in the absolute perfection of its proportions,

and the greatest possible variety of attitudes, with the passions, emotions, and

affectations of the soul, expressed with equal force and truth: it was sufficient to him to

treat that branch of art wherein he was superior to all, and to lay open to others the

grandeur of manner that might be attained in the nude form, by the display of what he

could himself effect in the difficulties of design, thus facilitating the practice of art in its

principal object, which is the human form.”386 This was not however the first time in his

biography that Vasari claimed that Michelangelo created a work that was to become a

source for artists in the future, for he had said the same of the Cartoon of the Battle of

Cascina. We will include here one example, in which Vasari comments on artists who

imitated the style of Michelangelo. Not all imitators of Michelangelo’s architectural style

of the Medici Tomb necessarily succeeded in creating good art: some of them committed

“an injudicious imitation”387 that led them to creating images which according to Vasari

“belong to grottesche rather than to the wholesome rites of ornamentation.”388 However,

even if some of the artists might have been misled by Michelangelo, artists in general

need to be thankful to Michelangelo:

“Artists are nevertheless under great obligations to Michelangelo, seeing that he has
thus broken the barriers and chains whereby they were perpetually compelled to walk in a
beaten path….”389

386 Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. IV, trans. Mrs. Foster,
Jonathan (London: H. G. Bohn, 1885-91), 285-86, Emphasis Added.
387 Ibid, 272.
388 Ibid.
389 Ibid.

In a similar manner Vasari commented on the repertoire Michelangelo created in his Last


“…but Michelangelo, taking firm ground on the most recondite principles of art, has
made manifest to all who know enough to profit by his teaching, the means by which
they may attain perfection.”390

Thus, in Vasari’s terms, Michelangelo created a canon of the human nude from which

other artists could only profit by looking, and perhaps by copying. In Vasari’s accounts,

Michelangelo becomes a God-like artist/creator who is also capable of creating

something which was never seen or felt before, and in this particular fresco Michelangelo is

praised not only for having surpassed the other painters who decorated the Sistine

Chapel, but also himself:

“…Michelangelo was found to have surpassed not only the early masters who had
painted in that Chapel, but himself also, having resolved, as respected the ceiling which
had rendered him so celebrated, to be his own conqueror; here, therefore, he had by
very far exceeded that work, having imagined to himself all the terrors of the last day
with the most vivid force of reality.”391

However, the reactions to the Last Judgement that came from other viewers, courtiers,

humanists, and members of the clergy were not as positive as Vasari’s claims. There was

ambiguity even in the first recorded reaction to the Last Judgment, in the letter of 1541

by Nino Sernini, an agent of the Gonzaga which reads: “’The work is of such beauty that

your Excellency can imagine that there is no lack of those who condemn it.’”392 Many

later commentators were viewing the Last Judgment from a position of the new doctrines

390 Ibid., 286.

391 Ibid., 287.
392 Nagel, Op. Cit., 189.

of the Counter-Reformation. In order to approach these reactions we will rely here on

the detailed study by Bernardine Barnes called Michelangelo's Last Judgment: The

Renaissance Response. Having in mind previous accounts of this immensely important

fresco, Barnes at the very beginning introduced her framework for viewing it – she saw

the Last Judgment as displaying certain “deliberate attempts to make a simple statement

much more complex.”393 And we need to remember here that the very location of the

fresco in the Chapel reserved for liturgy performed solely by the Pope and the Cardinals

made it less accessible than many other public works in Rome. We may surmise that

Michelangelo was well aware of these circumstances (which were also true for the

Sistine ceiling): owing to its unique and privileged position in the Vatican, the Last

Judgement would be seen by a different audience than any other pictorial works executed

in the many churches and chapels of Rome, and perhaps even that this incomparable

position that the Last Judgement acquired from its location and historical as well as

liturgical significance may have allowed him certain licence. Michelangelo may have

thought that all of these factors would influence the elite audience to see his Last

Judgement with a different and, if we may say – specialised mode of vision, that which

can be obtained only under that special illumination of the Sistine Chapel itself, which

reunited the diffracted metaphysical lights emanating from the images of the sacred

history with those of gleaming torches and candles used during daily services

performed by the highest members of the clergy. Barnes also agreed on this issue, and

claimed that Michelangelo applied the well known representational scheme of the Last

Judgement in the Sistine Chapel quite loosely.

393 Barnes, Bernadine, Michelangelo's Last Judgment: The Renaissance Response (Berkeley, Calif.: University of

California Press, 1998), 3.

According to the traditional depiction of the Last Judgment the intercessors Mary and

John the Baptist flank the image of Christ. Also common was that this group was then

surrounded by the Apostles seated on thrones. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgement the

positions of the Saints are changed: instead of St John, we see St Peter; St John is

represented opposite from St Peter. The Apostles are not represented at all, and we may

guess that it was because “the cardinal bishops … were considered the successors of the

apostles.”394 Michelangelo was not following the usual representational canon when

depicting the Saints as well.

Some of the peculiarities in the Last Judgement can be seen as Michelangelo’s reaction to

the Sack of Rome for Pope Clement VII would have approved of the inclusion of St

Michael, who saved him, so he believed, during the Sack of Rome395. The inclusion of St

Lawrence again would not be troublesome for Clement VII, since he was the Medici

patron-saint, and Barnes indeed concluded that the inclusion of some saints in the Last

Judgement may have echoed the recent history of Rome and the Papacy; and indeed

some Saints were depicted because many relics associated with them (such as the head

of St Anthony, for example) were desecrated during the Sack of Rome.

When describing the fresco Barnes made a use of the term “the Clementine style”:

“Clement actively supported Florentine artists like Benvenuto Cellini and Rosso
Fiorentino, and their presence in Rome helped form a style that combined the classicism
of Raphael’s school with the more imaginative mannerism of the Florentine.”396

394 Ibid., 47.

395 Ibid., 56.
396 Ibid., 57.

According to Barnes, the Clementine style survived the Sack of Rome, which, as an

event in history however imposed on it a certain sobriety. Barnes also claimed that if it

was probably Pope Clement VII who allowed certain peculiarities in the Last Judgement,

the fresco was to be finished under a Pope who had quite a different taste:

“In the visual arts he [Paul III] preferred works that were classically inspired and
elegant but cool and unemotional. To see the Last Judgement as a reflection of his tastes
is to see it as a work of highly wrought artifice – a mannerist work. Despite efforts to
resuscitate the reputation of mannerism, there is still great reluctance to associate
Michelangelo’s art with that style.”397

The first troubling comments came from Piero Aretino. The citation of Aretino’s

description that can be found in Barnes includes allegories not found in Michelangelo’s

fresco, such as “Nature terrified, sterile, crouching in her decrepit old age;… Time

withered and trembling, for his end has come... Life and Death both oppressed by the

terrifying conclusion….”398

In a letter from 1537 Aretino still praises Michelangelo’s Last Judgement:

“’For in your hands there lives hidden the idea of a new nature, so that the difficulty of
outlines – the highest science in the subtlety of painting – is so easy for you that you
bound within the outlines of the bodies the end of art, a thing which art itself confesses
to be impossible to bring to perfection, because the outline (as you know) should
surround itself in such a way that, in showing what it does not show, it can suggest the
things that the figures of the Sistine Chapel suggest to those who know how to judge
them rather than merely gape at them.’”399

The accounts of the Last Judgement that followed Aretino’s are to be found in Lodovico

Dolce’s L’Aretino published in 1557 (not surprisingly, Dolce was a member of Aretino’s

397 Ibid., 53.

398 Ibid., 75.
399 Ibid., 77.

circle in Venice) and in Giovanni Andrea Gilio’s Degli errori de’ pitorri published in 1564.

In Gilio’s account, Michelangelo did not make the sacred figures devout, but instead

“’they have made them strained, it seeming to them a great accomplishment to twist the

head, the arms, the legs, so that it seems they represent acrobats and actors rather than

those who stand in contemplation.’”400 Hence these figures are immodest, and like those

that should be painted in taverns and bathhouses. The criticism ends with a cynical

remark that the poses of the figures must have been amusing “to all but the


However, Dolce did not think that the style of the Last Judgement is not good, but that it

is “too unvarying, too unclear, and too extreme.”402 Thus the condemnation of the fresco

was never declared without a commentary that would praise some of the many of

Michelangelo’s achievements. We will provide one example here:

“Dolce’s interlocutor, Fabrini… says that Michelangelo is like Dante because his work is
full of significance, and a little later he says that Michelangelo’s invention in the Last
Judgment is far superior to Raphael’s because it contains ‘profoundly allegorical
meanings understood by few.’”403

Even Gilio, who was seen as Michelangelo’s most rigid critic, saw a positive aspect in

the Last Judgement – he claimed that Michelangelo in his second fresco at the Sistine

created a new way of painting that he called metaphorical:

“‘Michelangelo, like one who has a lively ingegno, is always intent on returning art to
the proper images of the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity, so he has

400 Ibid., 85.

401 Ibid., 85.
402 Ibid., 94.
403 Ibid., 95.

discovered a new manner, which being pleasing, has been accepted and put into use,
both in pure istorie, and in poetic and mixed paintings.... Now a painter can use
metaphor and metonymy charmingly and many other figures as well, provided that he
knows how to order them well.’”404

Later in 1582 Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti condemned Michelangelo’s Last Judgement

because of what he saw as the somewhat obscure ways of representation. He claimed

that “’it is the duty of the painter to represent things naturally as they are shown to

mortal eyes, he must not go beyond his limits, but rather leave to the theologians and

the holy doctors the expansion of them to other higher or more hidden meanings.’”405 In

a way, Paleotti summarised in his judgement the critiques of his predecessors. And here

Barnes summarised it for us quite conveniently:

“Like the earlier critics, Paleotti acknowledges that certain high religious themes require
special treatment to preserve their majesty; like Dolce he cites the ancient idea that
allegory serves this function, assuring that great mysteries are not exposed to the
unworthy; like Gilio he would like to remove the invention of the subject matter from
the hands of the artists and place it in the hands of Church authorities; and, like Aretino
and many others he finally attributes the obscurity to the pridefulness of the artist,
rather than to any higher motivation.”406

As much as the comments of different critics of the period may appear today as

balanced, the final valuation that grew out of more or less important individual accounts

of the Last Judgement was not a positive one. Michelangelo’s fresco was seen as an

exemplar of bad art, and according to Leo Steinberg the Last Judgment became “the only

work of art to which special reference was made in the final instructions issued by the Council of

404 Ibid., 98.

405 Ibid., 99
406 Ibid.

Trent: it was decreed that the fresco’s offending portions, the so-called nudities, be

painted over....”407

And here we come to a somewhat curious conclusion about Michelangelo and his role as

a father to the artists who came after him: what was supposed to become his opus

magnum turned into a troublesome, and quite soon – harshly criticised image that came

to be the only picture that was officially mentioned and condemned in the Acts of the

Council of Trent. Yet, this very fresco was studied by many Mannerists; moreover,

copies and renderings of it appeared in churches in Italy long after its condemnation,

one of the more famous executed by Alessandro Allori.

After considering Michelangelo’s role in Vasari’s narrative of the development of the

arts, as well as after summarising the reactions of critics from the period who obviously

disagreed with Vasari in his judgement of Michelangelo’s work that was said to have

influenced Mannerists the most (that is, of his Last Judgement), we will turn to perhaps

the most difficult question when considering Michelangelo’s art: namely, to the question

of its style. This is the last necessary step in our analysis of the notion of epigonicità, and

we need to explain here why such a stylistic examination is needed. We are well aware

that a simple answer to the question we posed here may not be possible to produce and

maintain. For one, many scholars before us have dealt with the issue of Michelangelo’s

style or styles, more or less successfully dividing Michelangelo opus and assigning

certain groups of his works to the given stylistic categories of Renaissance, High

407 Steinberg, Leo, “A Corner of the Last Judgment,” Daedalus 109 (1980), 208, Emphasis Added.

Renaissance and Mannerism. When analysing these accounts it can be noted that very

rarely any of Michelangelo’s work was seen as belonging to Mannerism. A number of

art historians saw the opus of Michelangelo as transcending the limitations imposed by

stylistic and temporal categories, thus assigning to it attributes of a work of a genius,

that which was incomprehensible in his own times and often not even intelligible today.

In such account, for example, the late statues of Michelangelo were seen as an expression

of his return to spiritual realms of mediaeval art, his earlier David (1500-05, Galleria dell’

Academia, Florence) was interpreted as an anticipation of Baroque art, and so forth. Our

task here is not to present a historiography of all these various stylistic accounts, since

we have decided to take a critical and methodological position different from those

described earlier. The question of epigonicità that Michelangelo’s work created becomes

even more complex if we take into account that he continued to work after the 1520s,

that is after the High Renaissance on most accounts ended. We then may see him from

the 1520s to 1564 acting as a living father for those artists who then and even today

remain in his shadow, namely to his Mannerist epigoni.

If Michelangelo had many epigoni, then Michelangelo’s works were the preferred source

for further stylistic development. Thus we may need to seek in his work those qualities

which made him the most admirable (and for some art historians simply the best) artist

in the period of the High Renaissance (and perhaps of Mannerism). This is an issue we

have discussed earlier in this chapter yet only en passant: we saw that Michelangelo

acquired his high status amongst fellow artists thanks to his artistic endeavours, perhaps

from his character, or from Vasari, and, of course, from his longevity.

The second part of our problem here is more difficult: if Michelangelo’s opus was

indeed a pinnacle of the development of (High) Renaissance art, though it was partially

produced, as it were, after the Renaissance ended as a stylistic period, then within it,

even if we decide not to call later works of his Mannerist, there existed certain qualities

that attracted the following generation of the Mannerists, and that made them look into

Michelangelo’s art – to borrow an image of imitation familiar to Petrarch – as into

flowers that contained the pollen they particularly liked to collect and emulate, while

producing their new art. In other words, there were the formal or stylistic qualities in

Michelangelo’s work that accommodated desires and projections of the Mannerists for

what their art should have been. Those qualities, as well as the character of

Michelangelo as a person himself, made him if not the ideal, then at least the ever-

present father to the after-comers, with repercussions that affected his position and

theirs in the history of art since the Cinquecento.

What the previous paragraph brought to our attention was another issue that was

considered often ever since Mannerism entered the art-historical discourse, the issue of

stylistic comparison and differentiation between the Renaissance and Mannerism. In

many recent accounts Mannerism was interpreted as a style that reacted against what

was seen as the classicism of the High Renaissance, as when Friedlaender early in the

twentieth century408 established Mannerism as an ‘anti-classical’ style. More recently,

some authors approaching differently, argued that Mannerism was a style that could

accommodate both the reaction against and assimilation of classical art, classical art

We discussed major interpretations of Mannerism earlier in this dissertation, yet we thought it may be

useful to mention two major views on Mannerism here again.

already having had occurred in the Renaissance. This is one of the most important issues

for considering Bronzino’s opus as well, which most often was seen as belonging to the

academic stream of the second generation of Mannerism, or as containing what Craig

Hugh Smyth called the ‘classicizing’ elements of Mannerism which emerged in Florence.

Hence, for example, if we are to question whether in such late a painting as the

Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence Bronzino can be seen as an epigone of Michelangelo (which is

the final and the most specific purpose of this chapter, directly connected to the general

issue of epigonicity that may have existed in Bronzino’s work when compared to

paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo), we again need to go back to Michelangelo’s

opus and detect the classical and mannerist elements in his works or in their style.409 Such

a general account on the existence of one or more styles within the High Renaissance

and Mannerism, as well as a specific account on Michelangelo, can be found in

Cornelius Vermeule’s account of European art and the Classical past. Perhaps at first to

our readers the attention with which we have decided to discuss Vermeule’s speculation

may appear as arbitrary, since we might have chosen another account, which would

cover similar topics, or another more recent author who would grant our speculation a

more considerable support. Yet it is not for the accuracy of the claims that Vermeule

presented that we turned to him. We chose his narrative which establishes a connexion

between the classical art of Greco-Roman past and later European art (for us most

importantly – with the Renaissance and the different styles he detected in it), because of

the particular and, to our knowledge, unique way of representing these connexions,

which resulted in opening yet another level to the phenomenon we have as our main

409We will not concern ourselves here with Bronzino’s style in the same respect, since the analysis of his
work in these terms we have already presented. Earlier we also demonstrated that within Bronzino’s opus
several styles can be detected, all of them possessing stylistic references to both Mannerism and Renaissance.

issue here – the notion of epigonicity. Thus we did not use Vermeule as a source earlier

when discussing Bronzino’s styles, because we found it more appropriate for this

chapter, due to the author’s acknowledgement of the role that Michelangelo played in

both the High Renaissance and Mannerism. In the subchapter “The Age of Raphael and

Michelangelo,”410 which even in its title suggests the notion of epigonicity of the

following artists regarding these two great artists, Vermeule ascribed to the High

Renaissance in the following way the quality of an integration of the Antique models:

“Yet, unlike other periods, the High Renaissance and its integration of ancient models
could not be explained by the rediscovery of certain antiques, the doctrines of a single
historian, or the sudden advent of new political forms. It produced and it was a part of a
new synthesis of form and content, based on classical ideals; it could absorb antiquity into
itself without the conflicts of excerpting and of medieval mannerisms, or the problem of
limited access to antiquities.”411

The vocabulary in this paragraph is influenced by the Hegelian notion of tripartite

development,412 which Vermeule used here to present the High Renaissance as a new

synthesis of form and content, which by this account became a new thesis on the higher

level of dialectical development. If this indeed is the case, it is not difficult to surmise

that Mannerism is seen as an antithesis of the High Renaissance, or even as a phase in

which form and content disintegrate. Yet more importantly for us, Vermeule claimed

here that not one, but a variety of styles, was distinguishable and available even in the

High Renaissance (and importantly – not in the previous decades of the Renaissance),

and that such a diversity was paralleled by the absence of any direct references to the


410 Vermeule, Cornelius, European Art and the Classical Past (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964).
411 Ibid., 60, Emphasis Added.
412 Used by Treves too, as we have noted.

“The homogeneity of styles and the preciseness of perspective and balance in High
Renaissance compositions, so far as antiquarianism was concerned, were result of a near
elimination of excerpting or quoting from ancient works of art in contemporary
creations of nonclassical style.”413

This quote confirms what we have seen in earlier speculation: that in Vermeule’s

account the High Renaissance was homogenous due to its ability to absorb and unify (or

perhaps – to emulate) various influences from the art of antiquity, all of this achieved

without obvious borrowings or quotations. Moreover, again according to Vermeule, this

stylistic unity is achieved through a selective process of approaching the past,

eliminating what he called medieval mannerisms, for example, and allowing almost

unmediated access to a variety of styles of the Antique. And hence for him, as for many

other authors, the High Renaissance was a moment of equilibrium between then

contemporary and historical sources for creating art, or, as some even may have

claimed – the ultimate triumph of the Renaissance over antiquity, anticipated as early as

in Alberti. Consequently in such accounts it seems that unlike the Renaissance, the High

Renaissance developed into a unified yet distinguished set of styles which have become

independent, if still respectful, of the Antiquity.

Before we continue with this analysis, we need to remind ourselves of the two myths

from antiquity we evoked earlier and of their application that is evident even in the

twentieth-century speculation on art as seen above. We have seen earlier in this

dissertation how in Renaissance texts on art, antiquity was seen as the best model to

imitate or emulate, and based on such a view, the artists from the Renaissance could

413 Vermeule, Op. Cit., 60, Emphasis Added.

model and then compare their works to those of the best artists in antiquity. Such

models of valuation and comparison could have led the Renaissance artists to see

themselves as mere epigoni of antiquity, who, even if they successfully continued the

work of their ‘fathers,’ will never be as good as they had been. However, since the

Renaissance had (or declared to have had) a period of long decline in art between itself

and its sources for emulation, the myth that seemed more appropriate here was the

Roman renewal of the Golden Age, by which after a long stagnation and decline, an initial

state of perfection is restored. The burden of epigonicità thus was left for those artists

who came after the best ones in the Renaissance, in this case – for the Mannerists.

By such development within the period of Renaissance, fostered by the then

contemporary writers who made use of the myth of the Golden Age, the High

Renaissance became a moment when perfection and harmony finally were reached.

However, this moment was brief, and for most historians two paths for the development

of future art or styles of art were set in the 1520s, both of which were under the influence

of the two most excellent artists and their connexion with Antiquity: Raphael and

Michelangelo. Vermeule claimed that Raphael and his followers “looked past the

fluttering of Neo-Attic reliefs and classicizing frescoes to the Greek art of the fifth

century B.C.,”414 whilst Michelangelo, on the other hand, inclined “towards styles which

were to replace the High Renaissance with Mannerism, gravitated to the Flavian and

414 Ibid., 60

Antonine baroque sculptures which preserved the grandiose, dramatic ideas of the

schools of Pergamon and Rhodes in the Hellenistic period.”415

And here, the dichotomy that Chastel’s notion of the Clementine style416 avoided is

established by Vermeule – in his account it seems that the High Renaissance was

preserved in Raphael’s opus, and that Mannerism was signalled in Michelangelo’s work.

Leonardo da Vinci is excluded from Vermeule’s binary model of stylistic development,

because “classical antiquity had surprisingly little influence on his work”417. To return to

the two main sources for further development in this model: for Vermeule, there was an

ease in which Raphael assimilated influences from classical antiquity, which were

reflected in his style here characterised as gentle and graceful and thus seen as related to

“the age and tradition of Praxiteles.”418 He also saw Raphael as the artist who “dominates

antiquity”419 while in Michelangelo’s pictorial and sculptural works “Antiquity was

bent to the demands of a spirit and a style too great for the age in which [it]

developed.”420 The latter statement about Michelangelo is far too complex to be

explained in detail here – suffice it to say that Vermeule glorifies both Raphael and

Michelangelo, whilst acknowledging one shortcoming of Michelangelo: the greatness of

his spirit and style which tragically emerged ahead of the time that could have

415 Ibid., 60. Even by making this statement Vermeule condemned the followers of Michelangelo – by his
time the value of Helenistic art was established as inferior to the Classic art of the Vth century.
416 The Clementine style as a model of development of art between the High Renaissance and Mannerism

has been presented earlier in this dissertation; we may reiterate here that Chastel saw Jacopo Pontormo as
the progenitor of Mannerism.

417 Vermeule, Op. Cit., 61.

418 Ibid., 62.
419 Ibid., 66. The notion presented here, that of domination over the Antiquity, slightly undermines

Vermeule’s attitude towards Raphael who was seen as graceful, and perhaps implies two simultaneous
qualities present in his work: his mastery and domination over Antiquity, which he, we may speculate,
applied with a sprezzatura so as to achieve the quality of grace or venustas in his art.
420 Ibid., 67.

accommodated it421. More important for us here is that the choice the Mannerists made

between these two paths was according to Vermeule mediated by their perception of

Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s use of Antiquity:

“Mannerist artists saw Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s uses of the antique and wrongly
thought they had gone far beyond the former and could understand only the forms, not
the content, of the latter.”422

To understand the citation above properly we need to follow Vermeule’s intricate and

often contradictory model of the development of styles in the Cinquecento. His model is

based on estimating the level of absorption of the Antique, detecting the influence of

Antiquity (through assimilation, subordination or domination) in distinct period styles, as

well as within individual style(s) of one artist. Vermeule used the different ways in which

such integration or emulation of the art of antiquity were achieved to construct an

account that posited High Renaissance style (or styles) as superior both to the earlier

Renaissance and to the following Mannerism. Even if we may disagree with Vermeule,

perhaps now we can understand why for many art historians who followed such

accounts Mannerists had many faults that would qualify them as epigoni. Firstly, it

seems to have been their culpa to come after Raphael and to live in the same age when

Michelangelo had lived. Secondly, since Mannerist art did not depend directly on the

previous High Renaissance, but rather on the relations between Antiquity and the art of

Raphael and Michelangelo, it was their mistake that they failed to see correctly both of these

421 This is a well-known topos about the artist-genius who is ill-suited for, or better: ahead of the time,
history or the Zeitgeist. Such a view of the tragic artist-genius who is misunderstood in his own age was
used frequently in Romanticism. By applying this trope here Vermeule undoes the image of the High
Renaissance as a new Golden age of the arts he has signalled earlier in his text.
422 Ibid., 67. Emphasis Added.

relations, namely the relation between Antiquity and the Renaissance, and the relation

between their Mannerist art and that by Raphael and Michelangelo.

Now to return to Michelangelo’s style. Vermeule is one of the rare scholars to

acknowledge that the style of the early works of Michelangelo contained elements of

Mannerism, especially his Pietà (1498-99, St. Peter, Rome) which “shows the proto-

Mannerism of Michelangelo and manifests his later style in technical terms of Roman

third-century sarcophagi.”423 Later in his career Michelangelo referred to a different

period (or style) in Antiquity, as seen in his Sistine Chapel frescoes, most importantly in

the Last Judgment in which “the isolation of monumental Hellenistic forms in the ceiling

is continued in exaggerated form thirty years later.”424

Finally, Vermeule presented a complete account of Michelangelo’s stylistic development

as related to Antiquity:

“The youthful period was one of the great interest in investigating the antique. ... Very
quickly and for a long middle period Michelangelo was able to and chose to subordinate
antiquity to his own developed styles. He absorbed in these styles the elements of antiquity,
and antiquity came out as an unconscious ingredient. In his later years, Michelangelo
returned to or increased the proportion of more conscious borrowings from antiquity. He
was experimenting with several styles, and direct connection with ancient art, however,
was never more than a limited or controlled manifestation of these experiments.”425

As we have seen here, it seems that in his art Michelangelo oscillated between complete

absorption of Antiquity, its subordination and eventually in obvious borrowings from it.

423Ibid., 68. The footnote that follows this argument claims: “The early Mannerists were much impressed by
the features of Christ and the draperies surrounding Mary.” [Ibid., 68] Interestingly, according to de Tolnay,
this work is the last done in early, highly finished style by Michelangelo, to which he will never return.

424 Ibid., 72, Emphasis Added..

425 Ibid., 72, Emphasis Added.

The pattern here, if not presented openly and clearly, is that of rise and decline: young

Michelangelo almost innocently absorbed the ancient art; the middle-aged artist

integrated what he had learnt from his earlier observation and used this knowledge to

obtain an original style of his own. Thus antiquity was subordinated in this period, and

present only unconsciously. Finally, in his later years, as if re-establishing contact with

his unconscious knowledge, Michelangelo went back to borrowing from Antiquity; and

here we must note that he did this while experimenting in several styles (this is probably

related to what Vasari wrote on Michelangelo’s ability to work with several styles).

Although Vermeule never stated this, it seems that for him Michelangelo in the last

period of his stylistic development lacked the discipline needed to subordinate antiquity,

or simply decided to borrow more openly from it. By doing so he came very close to

committing the practice of imitation, usually associated with Mannerism. And what is

most intriguing for us here is that many historians have seen Bronzino’s stylistic

development similarly: from his absorption of Mannerism through collaboration with

his master Pontormo, via his best middle period when the references to Mannerism and

Antiquity produced an individual style, in which traces of both influences merged

successfully, to his last years in which he returned to his previous styles and resorted to

importing elements of other artists in his work, especially those of Michelangelo.

Of great importance in Vermeule’s narrative is the possibility that although he found

Mannerist art inferior to that of the High Renaissance, he still discussed the connexion

between Mannerism and classical antiquity, devoting a whole chapter to this issue. We

are perhaps well aware that Mannerism did not reject antiquity, but rather inherited its

influence by following those already absorbed in the Renaissance. However, many

accounts on Mannerism present it as an art of anti-classicism, or of sixteenth-century

‘expressionism,’ or, in the most difficult reading, as an unstable art that emerged in an

age of general fear and anxiety, for which classical sources did not offer many models to

absorb. However, if we follow the account of Mannerism as firstly influenced by

Michelangelo who was present throughout its development, and if also we consider

opinions that see the middle period of Mannerism as newly classicised, we can also

include here yet another view by Vermeule of a relationship between Mannerism and

Classical Antiquity:

“By the time of Michelangelo’s death it seems that artists in Rome, Florence, Venice, and
elsewhere have found and used all that Classical antiquity could offer to contemporary
painting and sculpture. This was not so; although there was less borrowing from the
antique, the process took new forms, often difficult to recognize. The Mannerists – to use
the term favored by critics in recent years – had so much to borrow from Leonardo,
Raphael, and Michelangelo that they needed less contact with antique sources.”426

This statement is interesting and troublesome to us for two reasons. Firstly, if follow

Vermeule by not calling Michelangelo a Mannerist, it might seem that those artists,

active between 1520s and 1568, who found and used all the material available from the

classical antiquity also belonged to the High Renaissance (pace Franklin). This constitutes

a clear contradiction, since Vermeule called every artist from that period, except

Michelangelo, a Mannerist. This notion of exceptionalism is transparent in the second

issue of importance here: Vermeule implied that the Mannerists (Michelangelo again

excluded) borrowed from the best and richest sources, those of the High Renaissance,

and in that way perhaps acquired, if not in an obvious way, an indirect contact with the

antique sources. Whether this was viewed by Vermeule as a strategy that the Mannerist

applied to appear as less dependent on classical past and also allow themselves to evade

426 Ibid., 73.

the difficult process of copying the antique sources, by going directly to their emulated

and thus bettered versions, remains unclear. In his account though it is very clear that

the Mannerists’ knowledge of classical antiquity was based on a certain contradiction or

even ambivalence regarding antiquity:

“Three factors made Mannerism a series of styles as much in need of classical

nourishment as those of the High Renaissance. First, Mannerism grew out of the High
Renaissance which was thoroughly grounded in antiquity. ... Second, excavations and
chance finds in the decades after the Sack of Rome (1527) were bringing countless new
antiquities to light which artists could not afford to ignore. ... As Giorgio Vasari was
beginning the study of the history of art, others were collecting and publishing known

Vermeule also claimed and perhaps surprisingly that all these new archaeological

discoveries seem to have had little influence on Mannerist art:

“The Mannerists did not turn to heretofore unexploited monuments. Much the same
sculpture and all the same sculptural types were studied: Praxitelian statues, Neo-Attic
reliefs, Antonine and Severan sarcophagi, and certain striking gems.”428

Unstated yet implied here is Vermeule’s judgement on the Mannerists, which appears

similar to that of the critics who dislike Mannerism for its repetitiveness and its lack of

originality. The heroic model of artistic development by which Renaissance and

especially High Renaissance artists thoroughly explored and studied Antiquity is seen

here to have been abandoned in Mannerism, and the epigoni of the greatest artists of the

High Renaissance, of those artists who either dominated or even bent all they

accumulated from the classical art, remained slavishly concentrated on well known

ancient statuary. Perhaps these Mannerists were better than those mentioned earlier,

427 Ibid., 73
428 Ibid.

who did not even study the new or old sources of Antiquity, but they bypassed these

difficult procedures by borrowing from the art of the High Renaissance, that already had

integrated (and perhaps even overcome) the forms of the classical past. The title of

Vermeule’s chapter signalled a certain organisation of Classical Antiquity that occurred

during Mannerism, and he finished by presenting a final account of the Mannerist

position regarding classical antiquity:

“In short, the ancient world could provide material for the most abstracted, most exotic
design which Mannerist decoration could invent within the framework of a classic
rationality taken over from the High Renaissance. Ancient artists have had often reached
the same degree of calligraphic abstraction of classical nature and proportions which
Mannerists sought as their expression of a new objectivity.”429

Here Vermeule’s dichotomy is set, as he juxtaposed rationality of the High Renaissance

and the abstracted design of the Mannerists. And thus, in a way, Mannerists were doomed

to be trapped within this opposition, their work resulting in cameo-like, abstracted and

exotic designs when juxtaposed to the rational art of the High Renaissance. However,

the analysis of Mannerist art – which one would expect to stop after these lines –

continued, since Vermeule’s account here was to identify classical influences in every

style of European art. And most interestingly for us here, he used Bronzino’s work to

429 Ibid., 74, Emphasis Added. This difficult sentence depends on a few complicated claims that do not
appear as axiomatic to us, but rather require separate and detailed explanation and elaboration before being
used. Firstly, Vermeule here characterised Mannerist design as abstracted and exotic, as if the abstracted
forms can convey recognisably exotic subject-matter. Even more difficult a concept is classic rationality, and
that very phrase deserves a special study, not only because rationality came to be used as a term for a much
later movement, but also because it remains unresolved whether all High Renaissance artists knew and
respected the framework of classic rationality. Classic rationality as a concept thus remains dubious; we can
only surmise that Vermeule saw the developments in philosophy and art during Renaissance as influenced
by the knowledge that can be rationalised [i.e. that is attainable by reason, and thus different from medieval,
that can only be obtained through spiritual exercises, exegesis, etc (though we must note here not all
medieval philosophers dismissed ‘rationality,’ and relied significantly on the studies in logic that reached
them from Antiquity)]. Finally, the intention ascribed here to the Mannerists to represent (or rather to
express) a new reality is another problem, since we do not know whether this was a feature to be found in
all the works from the period, and more importantly, whether any Mannerist recognised the existence of a
new objectivity, and accordingly strove to represent it.

demonstrate how references and borrowings from Antiquity can be found in Mannerism.

Such an account confirms claims that in his best works Bronzino developed a classicised

style, but also fosters speculations about the originality of his work vis-à-vis works from

antiquity. Thus, for Vermeule, two very different tendencies can be distinguished in the

development of Bronzino’s style: one that was dictated by the period in which he

worked, by which his opus is seen as limited by the framework of classical rationality

that all Mannerists took over from the High Renaissance, and a more direct and personal

one, deriving from direct or unmediated borrowings from the then available classical

sources. Hence, Bronzino’s work can be discussed in terms of double epigonicity: to

antiquity and to the High Renaissance, which identifies two distinct possibilities in

Bronzino’s work depending as much on Antiquity as on the Renaissance or High

Renaissance. Such a model of Bronzino’s stylistic development allows us to compare

him to the painters of the High Renaissance and thus establish a special position for

Bronzino’s art, which by relying on earlier sources (even those from the Early

Renaissance) evaded standard Mannerist mistakes. To explain how these influences –

those from antiquity and those from the High Renaissance – intertwined in his work, we

will use as examples a few paintings by Bronzino and follow the comments on them by

Vermeule. In the Panciatichi Madonna (1535, Uffizi, Florence) he saw the figure of the

Madonna as the transformation of the Medici or Vatican Cnidia (Ist century B.C., Vatican

Museum, Rome), by which in Vermeule’s account the classical statue as painted by

Bronzino remained faithful to its original mechanical preciseness and yet gained certain

qualities that betray the polished lucidity of Mannerist art.430 In the costumes in his

paintings Bronzino is generally seen as departing from classical sources. More

430 Ibid., 81.

importantly, in multi-figured paintings Bronzino rather follows the Quattrocento model

of using classical poses without referring to specific models, and thus he is seen as “a

product of the High Renaissance with its latitude of experiment with the Greco-Roman

past.”431 As we already noted, resemblances to Quattrocento art can be seen in

Bronzino’s Nativity or Adoration (1535-1540, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and in

this painting classical sources are precisely listed by Vermeule: while the figure of

Joseph was taken from one of the two Muses, a statue known in the Vatican at that time,

the figure of the shepherd derived from the images of satyrs lighting fire from

sarcophagi, and one of the angels running from the left stems from the image of running

Victoria on Roman coins of the Severan period (about 190-240 AD). In a similar manner

Vermeule analysed what he called two versions of Venus and Cupid (Allegory of Venus and

Cupid (1540-1545, National Gallery, London) and Venus, Cupid and Jealousy (1550,

Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest)), and saw in both paintings a Praxitelian influence

in the proportions of the body of Cupid. The figure of Venus on the other hand has its

basis in the principal figures of the Nereid sarcophagi from the Antonine and Severian

periods. The unusually crowded and sculptural composition of the London Allegory, in

which Vermeule detected three layers of heads,432 is seen in his account as deriving from

the studies of the sections of the Roman sarcophagi from a very close proximity, under a

particular angle and vanishing point.433 As in such complicated an explanation of the

composition of this painting given by Vermeule, we see that his argumentation appears

as indisputable, since in his view all of the Mannerists’ modes of representation can be

431 Ibid., Emphasis Added.

432 We believe that Vermeule included the masks at the lower section of the painting as one of the layers of
heads, such reasoning being arguable. And here Vermeule refused to refer to the particular effect of
‘compression’ of space or its layers, which already was established in scholarly literature and associated
with the Mannerist art.
433 Cf. Ibid., 81.

traced back to their studies of sarcophagi, usually resulting in cartoon format

drawings434. The last example provided here is Bronzino’s Christ in Limbo, in which in

Eve’s drapery Vermeule recognised influences from Praxitelian work such as Orestes and

Electra group in Naples,435 a Neo-Attic eclectic statue from the first century B.C. The

figure of Christ to him appeared as influenced by Bronzino’s sketches of a fragmentary

replica of the Discobolus.

Most importantly for us here, Vermeule concluded:

“For a Mannerist, Bronzino is very classical in his careful, sober approach to details of
antiquity. He paints classical portraits constantly and handles classical form superbly.
He must have spent much time drawing after the antique, and, even in his most mannered
religious paintings, does not conceal this training.”436

This conclusion serves to provide convenient introduction to our last subject in this

chapter, namely the most complex and controversial painting of Bronzino: the

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1564-69, San Lorenzo, Florence). If for many this fresco

belongs to what can be seen as the most mannered group of his works, here we will

agree with Vermeule437 that it rather shows Bronzino’s classical training. Moreover, we

will attempt not to view it as a result of Bronzino’s epigonicity towards the High

Renaissance, but rather to interpret it also, by focusing on its many novelties, as a signal

of a stylistic change in his work that may even be said to anticipate the forthcoming

Baroque Classicism.

434 Mannerist drawings of sarcophagi show this, for they “exhibit for the first time in postclassical study of
the antique a desire to project details of the relief to the surface of the picture plane in a drawing of large,
almost cartoon, scale.” [Ibid., 81]
435 Pasitelean Group, (Orestes and Electra), attributed to Pasiteles, copy, marble (c. late Ist cent. B.C., National

Museum, Naples).
436 Ibid., 82, Emphasis Added.
437 Ibid., 81.

We first need to turn to the basic information about the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,

recognising that its very location and scale within the Church of San Lorenzo – the

parochial church of the Medici – may have made it, by such association and its size, a

masterpiece or an opus magnum in the work of this artist. However, surprisingly little has

been written about the work itself and its relation to other major works in the church

there in Florence, and even today the historians remain rather reticent when discussing

it. The silence that surrounds this gigantic fresco – the only two-storey image in the

nave – is perhaps connected with the lack of positive reception within the critical

discourse. That this fresco was neglected or disliked by writers in art history also can be

seen as an effect of its proximity and relation to another contemporary important work

that was disliked and eventually destroyed in the eighteenth century, namely to

Pontormo’s Last Judgement438 (1546-57, San Lorenzo, Florence). We will follow the

accounts on both frescoes because of the possible connexions, both stylistic and thematic,

between them.

We can start with the most general written accounts of Bronzino’s work, that is, the

material now available at the Church of San Lorenzo. In the English version of the

official booklet Basilica of San Lorenzo439 neither Bronzino’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence nor

the lost, whitewashed Pontormo’s Resurrection in the Choir440 of the same church are

438 This fresco sometimes is called the Resurrection.

439 Translated by Mark Roberts, published by “Opera d’Arte” or “Opera Medicea Laurenziana.”
440 We will use the term “Choir” here for the sake of consistency in our text. However, we need to note that

this same space appears in different texts under different names: Cappella Maggiore, Coro, Choir Chapel or

mentioned. In the Italian version of the pamphlet or prospectus titled San Lorenzo441 a

more detailed plan of the church and paintings is given, and Bronzino’s fresco is

ascribed a location in the plan of the church, although it is not mentioned in the

accompanying text. In the prospectus in Italian only the works of Donatello and

Desiderio de Settignano are mentioned as pictorial highlights of San Lorenzo.

In the earlier and more professionally written study of Florentine churches by Walter

and Elisabeth Paatz, the picture by Bronzino is mentioned indirectly:

“On the wall field behind the side door, Bronzino was to paint a counterpart to his
Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. However he died before [finishing it].”442

Of the Main Choir Chapel Paatz wrote:

“Execution: Pontormo received the commission and there since 1546 he has created his
last work, a cycle of scenes out of the Old and the New Testament; after Pontormo’s
death continued by Bronzino…”443

In a recent book Bruno Santi presented a lengthier account of Bronzino’s work. When

describing the left aisle of the church, which “boasts a series of important works of

441 This publication includes texts by Giovanna Blasi Leoncini and Fortunata Stellacci Adessi, and it is
published by Archiodiocesi di Firenze, 1997, Polistampa.
442 Paatz, Walter and Elisabeth, Die Kirchen von Florenz, ein kunstgeschichtliches Handbuch, Band II, D-L,

(Frankfurt am Main, V. Klostermann: 1955): 512; [“Auf dem Wandfeld hinter der Seitentür sollet Bronzino
ein Gegenstück zu seinem Laurentius-Martyrium malen, starb aber zuvor.”], Our Translation
443 Ibid., 513, [Haupthorkapelle: “Ausführung: den Auftrag bekam Pontormo, der dort seit 1546 sein letzes

Werk schuf, einen Zyklus von Szenen aus dem Alten und Neuen Testament; vollendet nach Pontormos
Tode von Bronzino”], Our Translation. Paatz also claimed here that there was a painting of St. Lawrence
under the window in the lower zone of the central wall of the Coro. [“unter dem Fenster ein hlg.
Laurentius,” Ibid., 513]
We shall see that not too many sources mention the existence of the first Martyrdom of St. Lawrence which
was whitewashed along with Pontormo’s frescoes in the Choir.

art,”444 he begins his account by referring to what he calls “a late work by Agnolo

Bronzino”445 which he sees as “a good indication of the eclectic and erudite Mannerist

style in which borrowings from Michelangelo mingle with influences from classical art.”446

A few years later Licia Bertani gave a similar account of Bronzino’s fresco, with a fuller

and more useful description:

“The scene is set in an idealized square in Imperial Rome, lined by the tall Corinthian
arcades447 of two matching buildings whose perspective converges on a flight of steps,
closed across the top by a balcony rail, behind which looms an imposing central plan
building. In the foreground the saint stretches across the grill (similar to the one
represented in the Church’s Codex K, created in 1484 by Gherardo and Monte di
Giovanni) surrounded by his executioners and a crowd of men and women, a sort of life
studies of bodies in a manifestly academic manner. Citations of Michelangelo can be seen
in the choice of colors, all playing on warm tones of golden yellow, green, and violet,
and in the vigorous bodies.”448

None of the sources here, in their focus on criticising the style and composition of

Bronzino’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, took into account its possible connexion with the

now lost frescoes by his master Pontormo, usually known as the Resurrection or the Last

Judgement. These frescoes were located in the choir of the church, and very close to

Bronzino’s Martyrdom, separated from it only by the transept. And it seems necessary to

discuss both of these works together, not only because Bronzino completed Pontormo’s

lost frescoes, but also because there might have been a more profound stylistic relation

between Pontormo’s and Bronzino’s frescoes executed, as they were, in the same church.

444 Santi, Bruno, San Lorenzo: Guide to the Laurentian Complex (Boston, Mass.: Sandak, 1992), 60.
445 Ibid., 60.
446 Ibid., 60, Emphasis Added.
447 We believe that the depicted architectural elements are colonnades and not arcades.
448 Bertani, Licia, San Lorenzo: the Medici Chapels and the Laurentian Library (Florence: Becocci Scala, 1998), 42-

43, Emphasis Added.

It may seem contradictory that the last frescoes Pontormo painted at San Lorenzo, even

though they did not survive the reconstruction of the Church in the eighteenth century,

have attracted more scholarly attention than Bronzino’s surviving Martyrdom. This is

probably because Vasari commented on Pontormo’s last work in great length, specifying

many mistakes in their style and concluding that despite many beautifully painted

fragments, this picture remained incomprehensible to him due to its strange

arrangement of the scenes and its programme in general. Elena Ciletti described in great

detail this difficult programme of Pontormo’s frescoes painted at the Choir:

“The iconographical programme was a complex one, which included depictions of Old
Testament episodes, the Evangelists, the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, and the Last Judgment
(with separate representations of Christ in Glory, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the
Ascension of the Souls). Our only visual record of any sizeable section of the ensemble is
the rare print of the decorations for the funerary ceremony celebrated in S. Lorenzo for
Philip II of Spain in November 1589.”449

We know clearly why the frescoes did not survive because the Electress Palatine Anna

Maria Luisa, the last of the Medici, started in 1737 to rebuild or rather reconstruct the

Medici church of San Lorenzo, which after her death was left unfinished. Before the

works started, she also asked her architect Ferdinando Ruggieri to estimate the damages

in the architectural construction of the dome. These he found to be considerable and his

solution was to rebuild the lateral walls of the Choir, on which Pontormo’s Deluge and

Resurrection of the Dead were painted. Hence the frescoes on these lateral walls were

whitewashed. However, the frescoes on the upper level of the lateral walls may have

Ciletti, Elena, “On the Destruction of Pontormo’s Frescoes at S. Lorenzo and the Possibility That Parts

Remain,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 121, (Dec. 1979), 766. The rare print to which Ciletti referred is in the
Albertina, Vienna.

survived, since when Ruggieri confirmed that Pontormo’s Guidizio Universale was

destroyed completely because of their unusual programme, he might have not

connected the frescoes on the upper to the ones on the lower walls.

Here we come to the most interesting fact in the analysis of the destruction of

Pontormo’s frescoes. According to Ciletti, it is difficult to conclude anything about the

interventions on the frontal wall of the Choir, since those were never mentioned by

either Ruggieri or any of his contemporaries. However, according to her account,

Pontormo had painted “the Expulsion from Paradise, Christ in Glory, the Creation of Eve,

and the Original Sin in the upper zone and the Ascension of Souls and the Martyrdom of St

Lawrence in the central field of the lower.”450 To conclude: there was a Martyrdom of St.

Lawrence in the Choir that Pontormo started and that Bronzino finished in 1558, a fresco

different from the Martyrdom of St Lawrence (1564-69) by Bronzino, which was painted

later and thus remains visible still on the lateral wall of the nave. And if we are to follow

Ciletti here, since we have no evidence that it was physically destroyed or whitewashed,

the older version on Martyrdom of San Lorenzo may still exist there in San Lorenzo today

under the layer of eighteenth-century colour.

The visual evidence about the form of the fresco by Pontormo is also noted in another

careful study of his last work by Janet Cox-Rearick. She analysed the preparatory

drawings for the Choir of San Lorenzo and also concluded that “the drawing is not only

fragmentary, but contains anomalies typical of Pontormo’s eccentric iconography in the

450 Ibid., 768. Pontormo’s frescoes were lastly recorded to have been in situ in 1604, but it seems almost

inevitable that they were destroyed in an attempt to connect the Capella dei Principi with the church of San
Lorenzo, and experiment executed and abandoned in 1836-7 by Pasquale Poccianti.

cycle.”451 According to Cox-Rearick, Pontormo started painting the Choir in 1546 and he

probably finished the upper zone by 1550. When he died on 1st January 1557 Bronzino

completed the lower sections and the Choir was unveiled on 23rd July 1558. Cox-Rearick

also assigned locations on the Choir walls to the different frescoes that constituted

Pontormo’s fresco-cycle:

“…Bocchi specifies that the Last Judgment and the Deluge were on the left and right walls,
respectively. Vasari places the Ascension of Souls between the windows of the altar
wall …, with skeletons holding torches to either side of the windows and the Martyrdom
of St Lawrence bellow. Pontormo thus painted nine narrative scenes from Genesis, linking
them in an unsystematic typological arrangement with a single non-narrative
representation from the New Testament, the Four Evangelists.”452

Most importantly, Cox-Rearick claimed that Bronzino finished Pontormo’s Last Judgment

and Martyrdom of St Lawrence, and that in the latter he added a portrait of Pontormo.

However, Cox-Rearick argued that the sketches for these two frescoes, believed to be by

Bronzino, instead were by Alessandro Allori,453 since Bronzino summoned him from

Rome in 1557 to help him finish Pontormo’s work.

451 Cox-Rearick, Janet, “Pontormo, Bronzino, Allori and the Lost ‘Deluge’ at S. Lorenzo”, (The Burlington
Magazine, Vol. 134, No. 1069 (Apr., 1992), 239, Emphasis Added... It may be useful to add here that in the
diagram on page 239 the centre is reconstructed with a slight error – the scene “Original Sin,” if we were not
to challenge the accuracy of the rare etching from Albertina depicted above in her article, is in the left, and
not in the right, in the place where “Expulsion” is, and vice versa.
452 Ibid., 241.
453 That it was Allori who finished the frescoes and not Bronzino she concluded from analysing Bronzino’s

style and comparing it to Allori’s:

“Bronzino’s drawing has a rigid composition unlike the curvilinear mode of the Noah drawing, and the
sculptural firmness of the fallen nudes in the foreground – so like those Bronzino painted at San Lorenzo
(known from Allori’s drawing) – has nothing in common with its malleable figure types.” [Ibid., 246]

The most detailed formal and historiographical analysis of Bronzino’s Martyrdom of San

Lorenzo is to be found in an article by Isabella Lapi Ballerini454. According to Lapi

Ballerini, the commission for the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence in 1564 was the second one in

San Lorenzo entrusted to Bronzino referring to his earlier work finishing what Pontormo

started in the Choir, namely three scenes identified by Lapi Ballerini as: the Deluge, the

Resurrection of the Dead, and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence. This cycle of frescoes was

described as the Deluge “with many nudes that were missing in the lower parts,”455 the

Resurrection with “many figures facing frontally in one braccia width,”456 and in the low

part under the window “the naked St Lawrence on a grill with the number of cherubs

around him.”457 What Pontormo had begun was completed by Bronzino in July 1558

and Bronzino’s frescoes were judged by Vasari as of higher quality than those by


Before turning to Bronzino’s second fresco of the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, we need to

acknowledge here a very important possibility that none of the other sources has taken

into consideration: namely, that if Pontormo’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence was really there

in the Choir, then in 1565 Bronzino was painting in close vicinity not only to his late

master’s work, but also to his own (or Allori’s) earlier fresco of the Martyrdom of the

same Saint in the church.

454 Lapi Ballerini, Isabella: “Il ‘Martirio di San Lorenzo’ di Agnolo Bronzino,” San Lorenzo, 393-1993,
l'architettura: le vicende della fabbrica, ed. Morolli, Gabriele and Ruschi, Pietro (Firenze: Alinea, 1993): 184-5

455 Lapi Ballerini here referred to Lapini, A., Diario fiorentino, (1587-96), ed. a cura di Corazzini, O., (Firenze,
1900): 121.
456 Ibid.
457 Ibid.

However, there are important differences: whereas the earlier Martyrdom was a part of

Pontormo’s cycle and also smaller in size, here the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is far

bigger and a separate image. Commissioned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in February

1565458 it is located on the wall of the last left bay in the church of San Lorenzo, although

it seems different plans were also made for the same wall for a fresco Il Martirio dei SS.

Cosma e Damiano (portraying SS Cosma e Damiano, the patron saints of the Medici)459

described as to be executed on the wall by the organ by Vasari. Yet this commission was

abandoned and instead on that wall a new fresco was to be painted, representing the

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. Bronzino, who by then already had fallen out of the Duke’s

favour,460 finished the fresco on 10th August 1569,461 which was one of his last major

commissions, important both for the ambition of its size and for the complexity of its

imagery. It is also significant since, within the critical tradition, this picture so often has

been read as an irrevocable moment in the decline of Bronzino’s art. In our attempt to

see whether this criticism indeed is fair and whether this fresco can be seen as

supporting Bronzino’s position as an epigone of Michelangelo, here we will focus

particularly on what can be seen as a compositional change in Bronzino’s Martyrdom.

And we also will examine if it is indeed – as has so often been said – an artistic homage

to Michelangelo and a Schwanenlied of Mannerism, or whether it would be better to view

458 Cosimo I wrote to Bronzino from Pisa: “The painting you will paint on two walls of St Lorenzo it is fit to
ask to make sketches on the cartoons as to see them and think about them, because the embellishment of
that church is very important to us.” [Lappi Ballerini, Op. Cit., 185, footnote 1]
459 Ibid., 184-85.
460 Bronzino lost his position at the Academia as well as his pension before this commission, Cf. Brock, Op.

Cit., 322.
461 According to the Golden Legend, San Lorenzo was executed on that same date in 258 AD.

it as an attempt by Bronzino to restore, within the Late Mannerist style,462 certain

compositional principles of the earlier Renaissance.

Let us first look at the fresco and its subject matter. The scene of the Martyrdom is set in a

square of Imperial Rome, flanked by two buildings with colossal Corinthian columns,

painted carefully from originals Bronzino may have seen during his stay in Rome in

1548. There is a centrally directed perspective here and the focal point accentuates a

flight of stairs behind which is shown an imposing central plan building not unlike the

Tempietto (1502, Rome) by Donato Bramante.

In Bronzino’s fresco, St. Lawrence, unclad, is represented as being burned at the grid-

iron, surrounded by soldiers, executioners, and groups of men and women, the Saint

and individuals all painted in vibrant colours and in great detail, demonstrating

Bronzino’s ability to represent anatomy persuasively. To the right is the Roman Emperor

Valerian, depicted as delivering his sentence. The upper section of the painting is given

to the sky, the contours of the architecture, and the angels who crown the Saint,

confirming by their very presence that this incident will be remembered as sacred

history in the Golden Legend. In the middle section of the fresco, various portraits in the

background are identified by some scholars as representing Cosimo I, Michelangelo,

Pontormo, Bronzino and Alessandro Allori. In the lower section of the picture three

female allegories of Christian virtues grouped in the immediate foreground mirror the

upper heavenly portion of the fresco.

That style which Walter Freidlaender called anti-mannerist reaction, or Proto-Baroque, or Neo-


The records of the surviving immediate reactions to St. Lawrence are sparse and not

benevolent. Vasari had great expectations for this fresco, claiming that it would confirm

Bronzino as a great painter. But since it was finished after the second edition of Le Vite in

1568, what he said there was but a hope and a prediction. Raffaelle Borghini on the other

hand, writing about the Martyrdom in 1584 in Il Riposo eighteen years later observed that

the dignitaries working for the Emperor were, as he said, not dressed, or had too few

garments, which was inappropriate for “barons who serve such a superb Prince.”463

Borghini also criticized the separation of the three women from the rest of the group.

Thus he condemned the fresco for its lack of decorum, or what we today call

appropriateness, a notion which gained great importance in the years after the Council

of Trent (1545-63) and became a vital instrument in the valuation of religious images.

Hence the Martyrdom, like many other of Bronzino’s later religious paintings, was

burdened by this criticism of Borghini.464 And it was this interpretation that was

463 We will give here Borghini’s comment in Italian original: “…abiti poco convenevoli alle figure, che egli
dipigne… che sentendosi molto valere nel fare ignudi, ha fatto l’Imperatore nella sua istoria a fresco di San
Lorenzo, che fa tormentare il martire, intorniato da’ suoi baroni tutti nudi, o con pochi panni ricoperti: cosa
molto disconvenevole a persone, che servano superbi Principi” [Lapi Ballerini, Op. Cit.,185] We would
suggest here that by stating this Borghini revealed his misunderstanding of the positions and titles in the
Roman Imperial Court as well as of the Roman history itself.
464 Pamela Jones provided us with a useful commentary on Bronzino’s Martyrdom, imagining it had come

from Gabriele Paleotti (1522-97), the bishop of Bologna, who wrote Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane/
Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images of 1582 “in response to Council of Trent’s decree that bishops oversee
the production of Christian art in their dioceses. “
Cf. Jones, Pamela M., “Art theory as Ideology: Gabriele Paleotti’s Hierarchal Notion of Painting’s
Universality and Reception” in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-
1650 ed. Farago, Claire, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 127-140.

According to Jones, similarly to other Tridentine writers, Paleotti chose image or painting, and not the text
or word (as Protestants did) to be a universal language. Paleotti differentiated three stages in the viewing
process of the painting: “delight, instruction and moving.” All of the delights that the images can show were
available only to “’a person who will look at Christian paintings with purged eyes [con occhio purgato]…’”464
[Ibid., 131]

paraphrased or repeated by many later writers on Florentine arts: in 1677 by Francesco

Bocchi and Giovanni G. Cinelli, 465 in 1767 by Giuseppe Richa,466 and in 1816 by

Domenico Moreni.467 Therefore we may find it surprising, in view of the destruction of

Pontormo’s frescoes in the main altar area in 1740, that this fresco survived.468 Perhaps,

as Lapi Ballerini suggested in 1993, the Martyrdom was liked because it was seen as

Michelangelesque, and in a way similar to the Descent into Limbo, in which, to

Although Paleotti never discussed this particular fresco by Bronzino, Jones in her text chose to apply
Paleotti’s views on “an example of maniera art” that is, on Bronzino’s “famous Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of
1569….” What follows is her account which is supposed to mimic Paleotti’s criticism of Bronizno:

“If Paleotti had seen Bronzino’s painting he would have considered it confusing, for the saint is difficult to
find and, once found, to keep one’s eye on, due to the over-abundance of distracting ornament: complicated
poses of nude (read ‘lascivious’) figures, an elaborate perspectival schema, and wild gesticulations that do
not lucidly convey emotions inherent to the narrative. In short, Paleotti would have found Bronzino’s image
indecorous because its pictorial embellishment is inessential, or, in Augustinian terms, its ornament is
merely superficial.” [Ibid., 131, Emphasis Added.]

Nevertheless, in Jones’ account, The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence would not be seen as a dangerous painting
(unlike many other Bronzino’s religious images painted and then critiqued as lascivious) because of its
particular style, which she explained in following way:
“It is implicit that Bronzino’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence would not lead the viewer to sensual cognition. This
is because sensual cognition was dependant on appreciation of a painting’s beauty, variety of colors, effects
of light, and the variety of its figures and ornaments. Accordingly, the hard, dry style and lack of tonal
range (typical of maniera style) of Bronzino’s painting do not qualify as effective sensory stimulants.”464 [Ibid.,

Jones presented here a strange stylistic account, bearing in mind Vasari’s description of the development of
the arts towards less hard and dry style, which hardly can be seen as typical of all maniera. Bronzino was
often celebrated for his beautiful colours and interesting tonal range, which is said to have derived from the
best traditions of the High Renaissance. It may be said here that perhaps Jones produced a harsher
judgement of Bronzino’s painting than Paleotti would have done.

When approaching the subject-matter in the Martyrdom, Jones used a standard repertoire of criticism about
this painting, that is, she saw the content as unclear or rather obscured by the overabundant ornamentation:

“And, although Bronzino’s painting is full of varied figures and ornaments, surely they contribute to its lack
of verisimilitude; that is, the painting’s contorted poses, exaggerated gestures, lack of convincing emotional
reactions, and so forth, would also prevent the viewer from achieving rational cognition, which Paleotti
associated with the close imitation of ‘life and truth.’” [Ibid., 131]
465 Lapi Ballerini referred to Cinelli, Giovanni G., Le bellezze della città di Firenze (Firenze, 1677).
466 Lapi Ballerini referred to Richa, Giuseppe, Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine: divise ne' suoi quartieri, vol

V (1767): 34
467 Lapi Ballerini referred to Moreni, Domenico, Continuazione delle memorie istoriche dell' ambrosiana imperial

basilica di S. Lorenzo di Firenze. - 1816 – 1817, Vol I (1816), 123-124.

468 We need note here that mainly the structural reasons led to the destruction of Pontormo’s frescoes in the

Choir; our parallel here was based on bad reception both frescoes received.

paraphrase Luigi Lanzi, Bronzino was said to be too close to Michelangelo not to imitate

him even in his errors.

Beyond the criticism of decorum, the Martyrdom has been burdened from the times of

Benvenuto Cellini to the present by what is called its Mannerist imitation, its plagiarism

even. According to Lapi Ballerini and Brock, a myriad of visual references exist in the

Martyrdom, either to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (1508-1512, Vatican) to the Pauline

Chapel (1542-45, Vatican) or the New Sacristy (1520-1534, Florence) or to works of art of

Benvenuto Cellini and Giambologna as well as to many from antiquity. It is claimed that

there is an echo of Giambologna’s Mercurio (1563, Museo Civico, Bologna) in the angel

holding a chalice, and from The Triumph of Florence over Pisa (1564, Florence) in the bust

of a female located in the central background of the fresco, both of which references may

support Benvenuto Cellini’s claims that Bronzino used sculptural models of other

sculptors in his study for this work: Cellini’s, Michelangelo’s, Ammanati’s, and


It was this pattern of criticism that survived into modern scholarship. Arthur McComb

in 1928 saw St. Lawrence as "empty in all significance, devoid of taste, crassly

Michelangelesque.”469 Even more recent authors speak similarly. In 1981 Charles

McCorquodale noted that the fresco lacked “didactic clarity”470 and concluded that it

was “a fusion of ballet and Turkish bath,”471 and “one of Mannerism’s most monumental

failures from every point of view.”472 More recently Alessandro Cecchi claimed that the

469 McComb, Op. Cit., 25

470 McCorquodale, Op. Cit., 145
471 Ibid.
472 Ibid.

composition of The Martyrdom "has a disjointed and artificial appearance,"473 and is

"thronged with naked figures in affected poses in the manner of Michelangelo.” It was

only Sydney Freedberg who in 1971, writing in his magisterial account of sixteenth

century painting, saw St. Lawrence as a successful painting, since it “transforms its

violent and tragic theme into a beautifully artificial fusion of gymnasium and ballet,

played upon an antique stage.”474 He concluded by calling the Martyrdom “one of the

most consistent demonstrations of the aesthetic of the high Maniera, and one of the

finest in its whole range of style.”475

Let us now turn to what may have been unclear to Cinquecento viewers, but which

today can be seen in a new light – that is to say, to its success, its novelties in

composition, its narrative devices, its style. The composition here is organised by an

almost symmetrical and highly articulated architectural setting, with the lateral

buildings and the square arranged in a way not unknown to the Renaissance painters.

We can agree here with Maurice Brock476 who saw the preparatory drawing for the

Martyrdom of St Lawrence by Baccio Bandinelli as tripartite and an influence on Bronzino.

Such a compositional preference in Bandinelli’s and Bronzino’s works may appear

remarkable, because tripartite composition, so often used in the Renaissance, was

neglected by the Mannerists, as the depth of the depicted field receded and the spatial

relations in what Walter Freidlaender called their flat and layered paintings became more

473 Cecchi, Op. Cit., 77, Emphasis Added.

474 Freedberg, Op. Cit., 315.

475 Ibid., 315, Emphasis Added.

476 Cf. Brock, Op. Cit., 321.

complex. This is one of the major differences between the Renaissance and the Mannerist

treatment of the idea of the Albertian window: for whereas the depth of the depicted

space of the Renaissance painting was made easily accessible to the viewer, by the

division of the floor pattern, or by mathematically constructed height of each image

which was in accordance with its distance from the viewer, most of the Mannerists

avoided such models of depiction, or vision, and turned in their paintings to more a

complex positioning of the actors and objects. This is not to say that the knowledge of

Renaissance perspective was lost for the Mannerists: think here of Parmigianino’s

Madonna della colo longo (1534-40, Uffizi, Florence), the right-hand segment of the

painting exhibiting virtuosity in perspective, in the depiction of the colonnade with a

prophet. In fact, the Mannerists applied prospettiva to achieve effects which, if seen as

rhetoric, were intended to surprise and intrigue rather than provide information about

the represented subject-matter of the painting. This is certainly true of the abstract

backgrounds we see in Rosso Fiorentino, or Jacopo Pontormo, or Michelangelo, as in

such examples as Moses defending the Daughters of Jethro (1523, Uffizi, Florence), or in The

Visitation (1528-29, S. Michele, Carmignano) and in the Pauline Chapel (Vatican, 1542-


But to go back to Bronzino: We may recall that in his portraits Bronzino seldom used

exterior backgrounds – either in the form of architecture or landscape. Even so, as in the

portrait of Bartolomeo Panciatichi (1540, Uffizi, Florence), the depicted space is illogical

and can be read as a mixture almost of exterior and interior. And in the portrait of

Eleonora of Toledo (1545, Uffizi, Florence) the view of Florence in the background is set at

such a distance that the dominant blue of the sky becomes an abstract veil rather than a

spatial indicator. In Bronzino’s allegorical paintings, the background is usually hidden

by intricately intertwined, bejewelled, yet naked bodies and fabrics of gem-like colours.

It was in his religious paintings that Bronzino was interested in representing space in

fuller detail most often, if still rarely in a way that would have agreed with the rules of

Albertian perspective. Nevertheless, the background was not completely abandoned, as

in such paintings as St. Benedict (1520, Badia, Florence) the Adoration, (1535-40,

Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and in his tapestries and later works like Noli me

Tangere (1560-65, Louvre, Paris) he was willing to focus on it too. The differences

regarding this idea of perspective that appear in his religious works cannot be explained

easily, since there the rule that would help us to establish the groups which show

differences in his approach, cannot be reached easily. Suffice it here to say that from the

detailed spatial representation and from the composition he chose to apply the

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence belongs to neither of the two vaguely recognisable groups of

his religious works: the one in which the background is not represented in greater detail,

and the other, in which more attention is paid to it. Thus in this respect it remains a

unique painting in Bronzino’s oeuvre.

The Martyrdom is also outstanding for its novelties regarding decorum and iconography.

Having said that the architectural frame is so important an element in this fresco, we

would suggest that here, in his way, Bronzino may have taken full note of the notion of

decorum regarding both the moment in which he painted and the historical period

represented in the fresco, since the architecture clearly seems to locate the scene in

Imperial Rome. The rendition of the Emperor’s attire and of his throne seems to reflect

further the respect of historical decorum. The iconography Bronzino chose here deviates

from the Florentine tradition, in which St. Lawrence is represented either as a young

deacon, or as a post-mortem martyr, holding a grid-iron. According to George Kaftal, St.

Lawrence was the “Archdeacon of Sixtus II, M. 10 August 258.”477 He was upon the

order of Emperor Valerian grilled on a gridiron and finally beheaded at Rome, and was

in Florence the “patron saint of bakers.”478 St. Lawrence is represented usually “as a

young deacon martyr, often with St. Stephen... or with St. Sixtus, … holding a censer in a

chain, holding a gridiron, holding a chalice with wafers in it, enthroned, with gridiron,

holding a banner.”479 It was highly unusual that he would be shown on the gridiron, and

only one scene in Florence like that exists, in the Pulci Berardi chapel in Santa Croce.

Instead, in San Lorenzo Bronzino depicted an enactment of the martyrdom, and such a

graphic representation added a Baroque tone to the fresco.

There is another important novelty, not previously addressed, that Bronzino introduced

here, by placing the narrative in what may be called chronological perspective.480 A

comparison with Pontormo’s Christ before Pilate (1523-25, Certosa del Galluzzo) may be

helpful now, for there, the staircase in the background in which the boy is represented,

carrying the vessel with water for Pilate to use after sentencing Christ, has both a formal

and a narrative function. In Pontormo, the event which will occur in the future is being

announced by a figure appearing in the background, and thus the usual tripartite

narrative, set to be read from left to right, is put into chronological perspective. Similarly, in

his painting Noli me Tangere, Bronzino depicted three scenes that followed Christ’s

477 Kaftal, George, Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan painting (Florence: Sansoni, 1952), 614.
478 Ibid.
479 Ibid., 614.
480 Cf. Posèq ,Avigdor, “Chronography of Space In Piero della Francesca,” SOURCE: Notes in the History of

Art, Vol XXV, No. 2, (New York, Ars Brevis Foundation: Winter 2006), 16-25.

Resurrection – two in the depth of the painting and one in the foreground, the main

being the scene with Mary Magdalene. In the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence the centre of the

painting is occupied by the Saint and other actors, and by the Tempietto-like monument.

We would suggest that this temple in the background481 represents the chronological

resolution of the martyrdom, for it stands as the martyrium where the Saint will be

buried, once Christianity prevails over paganism. The central domed structure, which

we can call monopteros or tholos482, can also be interpreted as an architectural allegory

of the inevitable victory of the Early Christian Church, the building here also

representing the Renaissance ideal of a centrally planned edifice.

These references to Renaissance art do not come as a surprise if we consider

Friedlaender’s model of stylistic development within Mannerism,483 by which the works

of the anti-mannerist reaction in 1580s looked back to the stable, clear and symmetrical

compositions of the Renaissance, to constitute a style which he called Neo-Renaissance

or Pre-Baroque. What may be surprising though is that Bronzino, if always called an

early or high Mannerist, here seems in the style of his painting of 1569 to precede the

Neo-Renaissance style by ten years. Such changes in the composition, in the narrative

devices and in the style of this picture may be seen as to anticipate the Classicism that

was to emerge a few years later in Florence and Bologna. Perhaps today this work can be

revealed as looking boldly into the future rather than melancholically recapitulating the

482 Monopteros: A temple consisting of a single circle of columns supporting a roof. (OED) Tholos: A circular
domed building or structure; a dome, cupola; a lantern. Monopteros may be better because tholos need not
have columns.
483 Cf. Friedlaender, Walter F., Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, (New York: Columbia

University Press, 1990).

past. If this painting has not been interpreted this way usually, it was because many

later critics followed Borghini, who himself may have felt uncomfortable with the shift

here in formal or narrative devices, and displaced his discomfort by condemning the

picture as indecorous. We have seen also that this culpa in decorum, as well as the

stigma of imitating Michelangelo – a usual charge against almost every Mannerist

painting – coloured the views of more recent writers on Bronzino. Yet it was the

Promethean hubris contained in the Martyrdom, such an early instance of a new scheme

of representation that made it inaccessible to the viewers of the period. And perhaps,

only today, Bronzino’s Martyrdom of San Lorenzo can be seen not as a work of an epigone,

but rather as similar to works of artists as varied as El Greco or Vermeer, which have

passed from critical failure to critical success only slowly, and with the help of Time, the

mother, as Erasmus reminded us, of all Truth.


In the Introduction to this dissertation we stated that we would address many complex

issues regarding Bronzino’s pictures and their styles, as well as those regarding

Mannerism as a period in art history. Although we believe that at this moment we

cannot establish sufficient critical distance that is necessary for evaluating our work (this

task will be performed more successfully by our readers), we need to present what we

believe are the results of our work here.

Chapter I and Chapter II form a necessary introduction to Bronzino’s varied work as

well as to the reception of it within Mannerism, and we hope that we managed to

present our material clearly, and in a way that is most appropriate and adequate for our

further speculation. Additionally here we followed the accounts on Mannerism as well,

since we believe that the reception of Mannerism as a style was closely related to the

reception of Bronzino’s pictures. The historical reception of particular pictures by

Bronzino varied according to their genre, and thus we decided to introduce here a

genre-based model of reception of his paintings. The results of this very model of

evaluation led us to investigate further in Chapter III the paintings belonging to one

particular genre, which though not stylistically unified, we believe, suffered the most

from almost uniformly negative critical reception – Bronzino’s religious images.

Chapter III addressed the style, or styles, that developed within Mannerism and also

those that can be traced in Bronzino’s opus. We started it with a general account of the

term maniera from which Mannerism originated, mostly relying on Marco Treves’

scrupulous article on maniera in all of its meanings, which, we believe, still remains very

important yet excluded from the general account on Mannerism. His views on the

connexion of the terms maniera and style, based in a thorough analysis of texts from the

sixteenth to twentieth century, we used to establish a relation, which today often

remains arguable: that between Mannerism and the notion of style. Such speculation led

us to a commentary on the term style itself, in which we presented many different

models of stylistic development that can (or cannot) be useful for approaching

Mannerism. However, since all of the presented models of artistic or stylistic

development included value judgement, and especially because Mannerism was so

often presented as a moment of decline that followed the successes of the previous

Renaissance, we analysed a uniform pattern that revealed itself in any such valuation

and which is based, we believe, in the notion of rise and decline in culture, that was

generated in antiquity. By doing this, we hope that we, to a certain degree, managed to

remove the stain of the negative criticism that was so firmly placed on Mannerism by

demonstrating that such negative evaluation it received was in part a result of the

pattern that repeats itself in any history based on a notion of rise and decline, and not an

objective expression of its intrinsic value. Our focus was then turned to different styles

that were available in sixteenth-century Florence and finally – to the choices in style and

modes of representation Brozino made. We hope that in this chapter we managed to

present Brozino’s changes and oscillations in styles, especially in his later allegorical and

religious paintings, not as an effect of a decline, but as a result of his deliberate artistic

choice from the plethora of styles available in Cinquecento Florence.

Chapter IV addressed the concept of epigonicity, which remained one of the most

important issues for us in this work, since Bronzino, like so many other Mannerist artists,

was, in different ways, seen to have been the epigone of his more distinguished

predecessors. This new term led us to explore two myths essential for the Renaissance

and Mannerism respectively: the myth of the Golden Age (and its revival) and the myth

of the Epigoni. We hope that we explained successfully the various points in which these

two myths differed and also the moments in which their narratives intersected. We

returned from mythology to history then to access the moment in which Renaissance

style was succeeded by Mannerism, and this difficult question opened up a new way of

looking at this transition, found in Chastel’s notion of the Clementine style. Continuing

our narrative of the epigone, we first traced their more successful father, that is, we

traced the style and the narratives that emerged around the great Michelangelo. Finally

after analysing in detail the elements in his style, most importantly the accounts of his

Last Judgement, that were to influence the Mannerist the most, we turned to Bronzino’s

important Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, so as to determine its artistic and stylistic novelties

and their value, thus challenging the traditional interpretation of this work as a perfect

example of Mannerist epigonicity.

We cannot flatter ourselves here that such a small and arguable contribution to the

scholarship on Bronzino or on Mannerism as we have presented here will have any

consequence on the predominant academic view on this subject and style. The

arguments we applied here can easily be dismissed as belonging to old-fashioned

scholarship, or as irrelevant to the current debates in art which are far removed from the

notion of style or even Mannerism, as the term Early Modern Art slowly replaces what

we knew as Renaissance. But we hope that in writing about Bronzino, Mannerism and

style we managed to view and represent these old paintings and these old terms by

using different modes of vision and description, those which eliminate the clouds of

past criticism and current negligence, and present to us and perhaps to the sympathetic

reader of this dissertation a new and a clearer view and estimation of Bronzino’s

pictures, and of Mannerism as a style in general.


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