a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

the late renaissance


people, terms, and concepts: Savonarola, the Bonfire of the Vanities, Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation

The so-called ‘Mannerist’ or Late Renaissance style is somewhat odd and difficult to account for.  Starting around 1520 the stable, naturalistic, confident, and idealized art of the Renaissance is rejected all across Europe in favor of an unstable, distorted, artificial, and frequently anxious style. For example, in the Pontormo and Parmigianino below we see tortured, twisted poses; scattered, unbalanced compositions; poorly-defined space, frequently with figures jammed up against the picture plane; awkward proportions, like elongated bodies or massive torsos; anguished facial expressions; scattered gestures and unharmonious groupings; lack of coherent light and consistent gravity; unnatural, strident colors; and so on. Even Michelangelo turned away from the confident, idealized humanism exemplified in his Sistine Ceiling for a more anxious and pessimistic message when he returned to the Sistine Chapel some twenty-five years later to paint the Last Judgment.

The reason(s) for this shift in style and attitude are not entirely clear, but many scholars consider it to be related a religious backlash against the Renaissance.  For example, in the 1490s the Dominican friar Savonarola preached in Florence against what he saw as the paganism (Classicism), worldliness (naturalism), and human-centeredness (humanism) of the new art and literature, and demanded that artists and their patrons to burn such works in a huge Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497.  Michelangelo is known to have attended Savonarola’s sermons, and Botticelli is reputed to have contributed some of his own works to the fire.  Along these lines, then, Mannerism can be seen as a deliberate rejection of worldly naturalism in an attempt to make a more spiritual art.

Savonarola’s influence was primarily confined to Florence, but later a massive, Europe-wide religious upheaval coincides with and can be seen as contributing to the new Late Renaissance or 'Mannerist' style:  the Protestant Reformation.  With his Ninety-five Theses of 1517, Martin Luther attempted to reform the Catholic church of corruption (including the selling of ‘indulgences’ and the saying of masses for the dead, for example, both of which Luther saw as ways of making money rather than saving souls). When the Catholic church rejected Luther's reforms, he and other reformers started their own Protestant churches (Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and so on). The religious controversy and wars between Protestants and Catholics caused enormous social, economic, and spiritual angst that can be seen as contributing to the anxiety and pictorial instability of much Mannerist art.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, Italian Mannerism, c. 1540

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, Italian Mannerism, c. 1540

Pontormo, The Entombment, Italian Mannerism, c. 1530