Pontormo and Rosso provide good case studies in mannerism because they were both born in 1494 amidst the political and social turmoil in renaissance Florence which is often seen as a cause of the mannerist mind-set. In 1492 Lorenzo the Magnificent had died which resulted in Savanorola growing politically powerful. The two painters made their artistic debut whilist both working for Andrea del Sarto on the fresco cycles at Santissima Annuziata between the end of 1512 and the start of 1513. Just a glance at Pontormo’s Visitation is enough to register his debt to main stream classicists like Andrea and Fra Bartolommeo. As Heinrich Wöfflin enthused about this altarpiece, it raised the “centralised scheme” of Andrea del Sarto “to the level of an architectonic effect.” Yet already we see Pontormo introducing his own singular language; the book-ending figures (saint and amphora-bearing woman) are too stiffly posed and seem to be demonstration pieces rather than elements unifying the composition. Secondly, Pontormo ruffles the calm grandeur with his network of glances across the painting, e.g. the woman on the steps, who looks directly out at the viewer in contrast to the introspective central group. In this altarpiece we also detect the influence of Fra Bartolommeo, though the Visitation also contains signs of how Pontormo would divert from the Frate.
If we turn away from Pontormo and look at Rosso’s Assumption of the Virgin in the same church, we’ll see the echoes of Fra Bartolommeo’s Last Judgement in this fresco. However, like Pontormo, Rosso has his own stylistic idiosyncrasies: the drapery of the apostles falls over the ledge; there is a strange “closed circle” in the rectangular block of the earthbound apostles.
We could continue to chart the careers of the “Dioscuri” (Horsetamers) of Florentine mannerism (Letta), but eventually their paths would divide. Rosso moved further afield, Venice, France- but Pontormo rarely strayed outside Florence where he painted and kept a journal of his digestive maladies. In the words of Freedberg, Pontormo makes Fra Bartolommeo “nervously complex” imposing a psychological immediacy on the viewer in such works as S. Michele Visdomini altarpiece which fills the spectator with excitement, but not necessarily spirituality. Comparing the site of Pontormo’s stylistic rebellion with that of Rosso, the Uffizi Madonna and Saints of 1518, we can see that despite his classical models, Rosso is even more opposed to the classical ideal. Apart from the grotesque faces, the colour, prismatic in effect, dissolves plasticity of form in favour of a more optical than sculptural effect.
Pontormo’s “formal research” (Letta) continues with the London Joseph panels which gleefully warp space and perspective with interesting though disorientating results. However, formal research is not conducted as a means of intensifying the bizarre, but as a means of introducing refinement and even a precious quality linked to sensibility (Freedberg). Paradoxically, the mannerist experiments culminate in a work in which intense expression conveyed through striking colour and swirling shapes are married with a lucidity of line which mirrors Pontormo’s clear thinking- the Deposition, his unqualified masterpiece and coda to his career.
As for Rosso, the latter stages of his career are marked by fervid admiration of Michelangelo culminating in the Moses and the Daughters of Jethro- abstract formalism via the Cascina cartoon- and the Dead Christ, the latter one of the most successful amalgamations of aestheticism with religiosity. With the Sack of Rome in 1627, all Rosso’s paranoia and misery were unleashed; he fled northwards, leading an increasingly nomadic existence. His last years were spent in France, where he played a large role in founding the classical style there.