Doppio ritratto del Nano Morgante (fronte) - main image

At the end of the Renaissance, art and literature in Italy begin to undergo a change that will lead irreversibly to the loss of many of the rational, geometric and chromatic characteristics typical of the 1400s and the first half of the 1500s, effectively paving the way for the Baroque.

If the Renaissance was born, grew and substantially influenced Italy starting from a single city, Florence, Mannerism began to spread and differentiate within each of the individual Italian courts. Many of the artists who had trained in the Tuscan capital at the end of the 1400s began to take root in Rome at the beginning of the 1500s, under the protection of patron popes such as Julius II and Leo X. The workshops that greats such as Raphael and Michelangelo began to found, thus how the inspiration that their works in the papal city generate in young people will be of fundamental importance for the formation of subsequent generations of artists.

The Great Manner: the origins of the term Mannerism

For the art criticism of the 1700s, which in turn owes its birth to the publication of Vasari’s Lives, the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael have reached such a level of perfection that all that have followed them could do nothing but hope approaching such peaks, but never reaching them.

The style of these three artists is in fact defined as ‘the Great Manner’, where manner means precisely style. Sixteenth-century art is perceived by the critics of the following centuries as an inevitable deterioration, a decadence which however attempts to emulate the Manner of the greats of the previous generation. This is the origin of the term Mannerism, a definition that for centuries has had a basically negative meaning. Today, however, art historians consider it a period of further renewal, which manages to lay the foundations for the Baroque and which, more recently, has been praised by the avant-garde of the ‘900. In fact, Mannerist art, although partly truly inspired by the three great figures of the Second Renaissance, brings with it great innovations and unique characteristics.

The sack of Rome and the artistic diaspora

In 1527 Rome was besieged for the first time since the barbarian invasions of the 5th century which had marked the end of the Roman Empire in Italy. The culprits are the Landsknecht troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg. This Sack of Rome took place during the pontificate of Clement VII, pope of the Medici family who had gathered around him many of the artists who would later be defined as Mannerists. In the aftermath of the battle, many of these promising young men decide to leave the city to settle in many courts of central and northern Italy. Some of the names we find fleeing the city are Benvenuto Cellini, Giulio Romano, Sebastiano del Piombo and Parmigianino.

However, the first hints of this artistic and cultural change date back to about a decade earlier, in Florence. Around 1515, artists such as Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino and Andrea del Sarto began to break with the classical schemes typical of the Renaissance. Restless personalities, convey their inner unease with their works, but not without having been influenced by Michelangelo’s recent enterprise: the Sistine Chapel. Rosso Fiorentino himself, in 1523, moved to Rome and brought with him this innovative will to break and the desire to compete with the greats of the time.


In Mannerist painting, artists instill hidden meanings, enigmas, cultural puzzles that only the most educated were able to decipher. The literature is equally complex, an exercise in style for the few. The refinement and elitist character of this current received great approval from the ruling classes and the courts of Europe at the time, which welcomed the artists fleeing Rome. But if on the one hand we have the courtesan art of Bronzino, a pupil of Pontormo and official portraitist of Cosimo I de’ Medici, meticulous and graceful, on the other we find works that move further and further away from the classical models of their predecessors. This new generation of intellectuals, painters, sculptors and writers of all kinds begin to speak to a very small circle of cultured and wealthy patrons who want works for themselves and not to raise the glory of their city. Art wants to amaze, intrigue, upset. It is no coincidence that this period will see the creation of paintings, frescoes and sculptures focused on the grotesque and the perspective illusion. Entire rooms are painted from floor to ceiling, creating imaginary and fantastic architectures and landscapes. A great example of this approach to decorative painting is the cycle of frescoes by Giulio Romano, one of Raphael’s most famous pupils, at Palazzo Te in Mantua.

In sculpture we have a similar situation. Statues such as those of Giambologna or Benvenuto Cellini show the evident intention of the artists to show their talents. The famous Rape of the Sabine women is a single and continuous twisting of bodies, while in Perseus with the head of Medusa Cellini’s extreme attention to the most meticulous details is evident. Both statues, the original of the first and the copy of the second, can be admired at the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria. While the original Perseus is kept in the Bargello National Museum, the original clay model of the Rape of the Sabine Women is now in the collection of the Accademia Gallery.

A typical feature of Mannerist art is the use of the serpentine figure: the human subjects are depicted in extreme twists, often unnatural, but which convey strength and restlessness. The use of color instead, characterized by strong and bright hues, seems to be inherited from the vault of the Sistine Chapel created by Michelangelo in those years. Reality seen through the eyes of the Mannerist artist is no longer bound to nature or rationality: the figures are often long and sinuous, the subjects cold but at the same time full of a strong sensuality. Art becomes virtuosity, a cultured exercise and very difficult to read for non-experts.

The heir of this period will be the love for the funny, for the unexpected. The goal is always the same: to amaze. The Double Portrait of the Dwarf Morgante, by Agnolo Bronzino and preserved today in Palazzo Pitti, is perhaps one of the most relevant works in this sense. The painting is done on both the front and back of the canvas, showing the nude subject from both points of view. Here the artist wanted to reaffirm the superiority of the pictorial art over the sculptural one, not bowing to the general belief that the typical three-dimensionality of the statues made them somehow artistically superior.

Photo: Double portrait of the Dwarf Morgante, 1552, Agnolo Bronzino

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