While it would be easy to wax poetic on the beauty of Pontormo’s Visitation and the attractive red walls that so nicely complement the paintings in Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, diverging paths of Mannerism,” the show made me feel the need to deal with a difficult question: what’s up with Rosso?

Detail of Rosso Fiorentino, Spedalingo Altarpiece (Uffizi)
Detail of Rosso Fiorentino, Spedalingo Altarpiece (Uffizi), top half

Curators Antonio Natali and Carlo Falciani force us to look closely at the works of these two Florentine contemporaries, highlighting their differences and in the process informing a more general public of recent scholarly consensus that the overarching label of Mannerism provides no more than a chronological framework. Suddenly we’re faced with an almost jarring comparison between two artists who were born in the same year, received the same initial training, but had different political alliances and would take divergent stylistic paths. While Pontormo’s work is graceful and luscious (no wonder the Medici loved him), Rosso Fiorentino’s ragged awkwardness is hard for the modern viewer to digest. Yet something must have made Rosso appealing to contemporaries, enough to be hired by numerous patrons, including the French king.

Struggling with Rosso Fiorentino

I am not the only one to find Rosso Fiorentino hard to understand. I went through the press preview with my friend and colleague Alexandra Lawrence (editor at large of The Florentine and licensed guide to Florence), who is a patient and informed viewer. Together we tried to get to the bottom of Rosso’s stylistic quirks, doggedly reading wall text and taking our time to work things out. She admitted that she’d hoped to gain some insight into this artist that would help her explain it to visitors at the Uffizi, where the Spedalingo Altarpiece and other works by Rosso are displayed.

Comparison between works by Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino at Palazzo Strozzi.
Comparison between works by Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino at Palazzo Strozzi.

Author Jasper Rees reviews the show in a way that reveals his undying love for Pontormo, and we got talking on Twitter about our reactions to Rosso:

Jasper explains his discomfort with Rosso: “Where Pontormo’s strangeness is always alluring, Rosso’s grows ever more alienating. Where one never loses sight of human gracefulness, the other’s austerity and self-absorption are revealed in jagged forms, hectic energy and dark-eyed occlusion.” Part of this stylistic issue stems from the fact that many of these works are unfinished, and it seems that Rosso’s working technique involved building up layers that started out pretty scary looking but improved with time.

I wanted to know why so many of Rosso’s works appear unfinished, so I asked for help on Facebook, where my network includes more art historians per square meter than your average art library. Yale professor Joost Keizer helpfully suggested, based on work published by David Franklin, that Rosso was looking at the unfinished paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, or, conversely reacting to the style of Michelangelo (who was also known for not finishing his works, though this is my own conjecture). Other helpful contributions came from Rebecca Zorach (UChicago), who has written about Rosso’s career at Fontainebleu in her book Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold, and from Bruce Edelstein (NYU), an expert on Medici patronage.

Rosso Fiorentino, Villamagna Altarpiece, Volterra (top half)
Rosso Fiorentino, Villamagna Altarpiece, Volterra (top half)

Not everything can be solved on social media: although these conversations have been very useful in my research, the 370 page exhibition catalogue provides more room for explanation, and beyond that, certain scholarly articles do help. I am not at the moment able to access two books that would also be useful, Carlo Falciani’s Il Rosso, and Franklin’s Rosso in Italy.

Combining social media and traditional research, I’ve come up with a few observations about Rosso and some hypotheses that might lead to a better understanding of why his paintings look so downright weird to us – but why he was admired by his contemporaries and sought out by important patrons. I have focused on his earlier works, where his style seems most at odds with that of his contemporarries. These observations are as unfinished and rough as Rosso’s paintings, intended as a learning process that I hope is useful to share.

I’m not done with that

Rosso Fiorentino, Spedalingo Altarpiece (Uffizi)
Rosso Fiorentino, Spedalingo Altarpiece (Uffizi)

Some of Rosso’s works really are not finished. Vasari’s anecdote about the Spedalingo Altarpiece, now in the Uffizi, is oft repeated, and I shall make no exception since it’s highly relevant. The patron, Leonardo Bonafede, saw the painting before it was finished, and not only did he refuse to accept it, but he ran away:

 The Saints appeared to him like devils; for it was Rosso’s custom in his oil-sketches to give a sort of savage and desperate air to the faces, after which, in finishing them, he would sweeten the expressions and bring them to a proper form. At this the patron fled from his house and would not have the picture.

So we’re not alone in finding this painting scary. I have always called it the “Madonna of the runny mascara,” and figured it was an exceptional and incomprehensible work until I saw the Deposition in Volterra about a decade ago, at which point I concluded that Rosso is simply incomprehensible.

The dark eyes and transvestite-rouged cheeks are such a break from the classical realism that we are used to in this period, yet this is combined with what scholars have been pointing out lately about stylistic references to early Quattrocento relief sculpture. These then-archaic elements can be seen in the figures’ poses and in the way space is filled.With an additional layer of paint, would the disturbing effect of this painting be less strong?

Deliberate Nonfinito

Bruce Edelstein’s comment on Facebook reminded me that the unpolished aspect of Rosso’s works may have been a conscious choice:

Rosso has been in Rome, and then he goes to France. He’s been exposed to new ideas about open brushwork … after being in France for a year and seeing Leonardo’s late works. … Venetian artists like Sebastiano del Piombo have made great headway before Titian himself arrives. I think he [Rosso] “gets” that what looks unfinished to us under gallery lighting will look dynamic and shimmering under the low light conditions of most churches at the time.

To be totally honest, when I saw the Holy family with the young St. John the Baptist from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, I thought it was a uniquely bad work of art. I don’t want to further offend the artist by saying it would look better in the dark!

Rosso Fiorentino, Holy family with the young St. John the Baptist, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore
Rosso Fiorentino, Holy family with the young St. John the Baptist, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

Although for private devotion rather than for a church, this painting appears deliberately unfinished (though we need to also account for some damage over time). David Franklin writes that “the work was probably not brought to a higher state of finish by the artist, who seems to have completed the painting with a certain degree of impatience that is also reflected in the discordant design.” (Catalogue III.7) The brown wash colouring recalls the first layer of paint that Leonardo used in his Uffizi Adoration, while the level of finish makes it little more than an oil sketch.

Did the artist intend this as the final version of his painting, or did he abandon it due to frustration with its unsuccessful spatial composition, in which he had to stick little John between Mary’s legs? Art historical precedents exist for both hypotheses, if you believe Vasari: Donatello was said to keep his sculpture rough since from a distance it looked just fine, while Michelangelo attacked his Florence Pietà/Deposition because of an awkward leg problem.

Rosso Fiorentino, Ginori Altarpiece
Rosso Fiorentino, Ginori Altarpiece

Less than a decade later, Rosso seemed to have resolved some of his youthful confusion into the eclectic mix of styles we see in the Ginori Altarpiece for San Lorenzo (1523). This large oil painting controversially shows a very young St. Joseph taking the hand of Mary. Made for church display, it is not highly polished, yet the movement, poses and colour rival Pontormo and start to anticipate the latter’s student, Bronzino – just look at the figure in a cangeante dress in the left middleground, doesn’t she look like a predecessor of those in Bronzino’s Christ descending into Limbo at Santa Croce? The colours would stand out in its religious context, while the lack of finish would likely help rather than hinder.

Fast forward to his period in France, Rosso has lost all the hurried uncertainty of his youth; in the exhibition is a gorgeous oil painting made for the gallery at Fontainebleau around 1535-9 (Catalogue IX.2).

It’s grotesque

Stephen Campbell (AB 2002) suggests that Rosso’s almost grotesque figures, like the Uffizi Study for a female nude (Cat. V.2.2.) may be reactionary to Michelangeloesque and Petrarchan ideals of beauty, following some contemporary expressions by poet Francesco Berni. Both Berni and Rosso lived in Rome in the 1520s and Rosso may have painted a portrait of Berni (suggested by Natali, Catalogue IV.2.2.). Both artists show an ironic understanding of the deterioration of the human body, shown in despairing faces and hanging skin of some of Rosso’s figures.

Rosso Fiorentino, drawing of a female nude (Uffizi)
Rosso Fiorentino, drawing of a female nude (Uffizi)

If Berni churned out metaphoric gems like “a face sweeter than boiled grape juice,” which are meant to be humourous, can Rosso be understood as tongue-in-cheek? Campbell suggests that Rosso parodied the classical tradition defined by Michelangelo. Could this have made him unpopular in some circles, but appreciated in others?

It’s political

Vasari’s anecdote cites style as the reason that the Spedalingo Altarpiece was refused by its patron, but the catalogue essay by Carlo Falciani also brings up the fact that Leonardo Bonafede was “close to the Medici family” and instrumental in the choice of Pontormo to paint frescoes at the Certosa del Galluzzo. Could it be that style was used as an excuse to get rid of a politically undesirable commission? After this episode, while Pontormo stuck close to home, probably because he was successfully employed by the Medici family and their supporters, Rosso sought his fortune elsewhere.

In the catalogue, Antonio Natali questions the stylistic evolution between the Spedalingo and the Volterra altarpieces (the latter not lent for the show), citing the artist’s time in Naples and his encounter with Spanish artists there as a possible abstracting influence. What Rosso saw in Naples, Rome, Piombino, Arezzo, Sansepolcro and Paris unquestionably provided a lot of artistic input. This travel can be added to Rosso’s political point of departure. The first decades of the Cinquecento are characterized by a push and pull between Republican and Medici rule, and the curators make clear that these two political leanings differentiate Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino.

Rosso Fiorentino, portrait of a man (Pitti)
Rosso Fiorentino, portrait of a man (Pitti)

Although Rosso was only four years old when the fiery preacher, Savonarola, was hung and burned in Florence in 1498, he was a follower of the Savonarolian movement, which saw a rise in strength again in 1517 (the same year as Luther posted his 95 theses). The combination of subject and style connected to this movement shows in Rosso’s portraits, which Elizabeth Cropper describes in her catalogue essay:

“The intense, close-up framing, without reliance on detail, establishes a sort of brusqueness that might indeed be associated with the manners of a class of stoic characters, including such men as Filippo Strozzi and Carlo Ginori…” (p. 121).

In Rosso’s portraits, “archaizing style may have held particular pro-republican connotations.” (p. 150) The few portraits attributed to Rosso demonstrate that he was capable of naturalistic rendering of the human figure, though there is an urgency to his brushstrokes and a seeming difficulty with hands that connects these works to his altarpieces. An unquestionably eclectic style begins to emerge.

In sum

So if we were to conclude what being anti-Medici and pro-Republican looked like in the second and third decades of the Cinquecento, we’d see: references to sculpture of the first Florentine Republic; some elements of classical sculpture; yet a deliberate anti-classical critique of perfection that manifests itself in hurried brushstrokes and a lack of finish. In some ways, I’d be tempted to associate this style with “turbulent times,” but this would be a return to a reactive conception of Mannerism that the curators are so careful to refute.

Politics, poetry, purpose and circumstance all provide a framework within which to approach Rosso Fiorentino’s early career. These details provided in the exhibition catalogue are truly essential to understanding this artist, but they are hard to make visible in the context of an exhibition. The simplified version communicated in the museum space makes clear the differences between Pontormo and Rosso, but left me with the need to do a lot more reading and looking in order to come to terms with Rosso’s style.

Experts will surely have more to add, and are encouraged to do so in the comments in order to extend this conversation that began, after all, in a social context. But I’d also like to hear from non-experts – if you’ve seen this exhibition, did you feel the same about Rosso? Did this blog post help you approach him better?

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