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When art history turned modern (and it wasn’t in modern times)

Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro by Florentino Rosso
Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro by Florentino Rosso
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Modern art was born five centuries ago.

If you think of art movements as rebellions against what came before - like the Renaissance break with the Middle Ages – the Mannerists of the 16th century were the upstarts of their time. They railed against the Renaissance canon of balance. They had their reasons. They wanted their art to stand for human struggle and conflict, not perfect perspective and ideal proportions. They wanted to express passion, not repose, and they wanted their viewers to feel the same way. Shakespeare, a Mannerist in his own art form, said as much in King John, when the Bastard declares, “Come the three corners of the world in arms/And we shall shock them.“ (Act 5, Scene VII).

Painters of this era did their shocking best with overstated forms, contorted gestures, upended compositions, and intensified color. In their zeal to evoke feeling by way of exaggeration, Mannerists were accused of affectation, which is how they earned their name. The naysayers were Renaissance sympathizers.

Meet the biggest upstarts of the 16th century: Florentino Rosso and Jacopo Corrucci Pontormo. A two-person show of their work has opened at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

One way to describe Rosso’s paintings is that they look like wreckage from an explosion in Michelangelo’s workshop; although Rosso’s figures are sculptural, muscular and athletic like Michelangelo’s, they’re also distorted, raucously colored and outsized.

Unlike Michelangelo’s monuments to beauty and majesty, Rosso’s figures are shrines to unrest. The raw and angry look to Rosso’s “Moses and the Daughters of Jethro,” full of agitated nude males spilling out everywhere, is made to look all the more upending with the addition of a frightened, half-stripped girl in the background. No pastoral landscapes in the distance for this painter.

And in contrast to so many other renditions of the “The Deposition” through history, Rosso’s shows a harsh light, razor edges, wildly gesturing, rowdy reds and rough-hewn figures clamoring to lower Christ from the cross. The tumult he created fits the subject. He makes you feel what you see and perhaps even question what you know. Rosso’s boldness was so extreme for his time that it scared off one of his patrons.

As for Pontormo, just a glance at his work tells you he’s a Mannerist. There’s such twisting and turning in the peripheral figures of “Joseph in Egypt” that the storytelling figure of Joseph gets lost. What’s more, his fitful, contorted figures don’t seem to be standing on firm ground. Even the statuary looks agitated, not to mention the disrupted space, churning facial expressions and gestures.

Pontormo also used unusual perspective in this painting: a staircase that goes nowhere. Add in his twitchy-looking reds, pinks, and pastel greens, and you get a turbulent atmosphere.

In reply to an arts questionnaire from sixteenth century historian Benedetto Varchi, Pontormo alluded to his departures from nature into his own world. He said that sometimes his work will include things that nature did not produce “to improve things and give them grace.

The modern artist speaks.