The Unmerry Prankster

John Haber
in New York City

Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florence

The Morgan Library's Acquisitions

I would love to know why Rosso Fiorentino abandoned his Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, sometime around 1520. Was it not working out? Was there something in the underlying drawing he did not know how to capture in oil and could not bear to lose? Was it too strange even for him—or not strange enough?

More than likely, a commission just fell through, and the painter had to look elsewhere. (Yes, art involved money and was a treacherous way to earn a living even then.) Rosso Fiorentino's Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, c. 1520)Rosso was notoriously difficult to work with. He played pranks on his patrons and kept a pet monkey—which, wrote Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Artists, he treated like a pampered child. Regardless, the painting is already strange enough. At the Morgan Library along with twenty drawings, it also provides a fascinating look at a very strange time, the years right after the High Renaissance.

At The Morgan Library, even a great Renaissance painting is never the whole story. Who needs blockbusters, when it can always show its amazing permanent collection. That is what it does, and it does not come cheap. Just four years before, a display of five years of new acquisitions again shows what fixed resources can do. It also helps explain how a private collection becomes a museum. Related articles ask about museum blockbusters, museum crises, and the Morgan's impressive expansion—with its space to explore public markets and private treasures.

A savage and desperate air

On loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Holy Family has not lost its strangeness. That may sound impossible after so many years. Now that anything goes, plenty of people have needed Robert Hughes to reawaken and then assuage "the shock of the new" even for modern art, much less Renaissance Italy. Rosso, though, lived in interesting times—the birth of what came to be called Mannerism. With the growth of nations and wars between nations, commerce and communications, and the challenges of all these to the church and to city-states in Italy, Mannerism could be the first truly European art movement. Yet it had a startling beginning in Florence.

Rosso Fiorentino in fact means the redhead from Florence. Born in 1494 as Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, he studied with the more workmanlike Andrea del Sarto, alongside Jacopo da Pontormo, and it must have been quite a scene. At the Morgan, Pontormo makes a geometric mess of his mastery. A nude with bent elbow stands in front of and crosses another nude, her knee bent, while a third nude is missing her lower leg entirely. Vasari, too, has a drawing on view, as does Andrea and a clever but dutiful pupil, Francesco Salviati. Not every museum can trot out twenty works from its collection to illuminate a given painting, but this one can with ease.

Counting three shows now for Parmigianino and his portraits, New York has had a full run of that special time and place in just the last few years, and the period in its strangeness looks more and more like the present. Long derided as, of course, mannered, it thrived on conflict and uncertainty. Mannerism turned on the Renaissance, with much the same trickery as Postmodernism on Modernism. I like to think of it as the post-Renaissance. Like Postmodernism, it also quoted and sustained what came before, while pushing against its limits—to the point that Michelangelo and even Raphael got there in their very last years, too.

Rosso sure pushes hard. He starts with a tight-knit family right out of the High Renaissance, as roughly an oval in the picture plane and a firm pyramid in space. Everything centers on Mary, who looks directly at the viewer. Jesus hugs her, and could the infant John be clasping his hands in prayer? Joseph certainly looks up to her, while his full integration into the picture reflects a growing humanism. The one fully secular if not downright extraneous character in the nativity, he was traditionally marginal or a figure of fun.

After that, all bets are off. Only Jesus has anything to stand on, a green cushion way too plush for a manger, while John and Joseph without their lower bodies barely fit into the picture. An insensitive later owner—or a prankster like Rosso—might almost have cropped a much larger composition, but no, this is it. The background is dark, confused, and indefinite, and the foreground is insanely crowded. Jesus clings to Mary for comfort, while Joseph presses up against her in worship and fear. Revision of the past has slipped into subversion.

Their faces have what Vasari, describing the artist's oil sketches, called a "savage and desperate air." Jesus turns away with wild eyes close to tears, and John's crown of grape leaves threatens a more pagan madness. John could also be using his shepherd's staff to poke at them all. Only Mary keeps her cool, by ignoring them all. One can see nipples all too plainly beneath her clothing, often in art a reminder of her role as nurse and mother. Yet this Madonna is not nurturing anyone—in a universe where the child is never quite right, the father is never enough, and the mother is always watching and never there.

A wild ride

Maybe she has seen too far. You know how this child's life turns out. How the painting might have turned out is less clear. Would the faces have taken on a greater sweetness, as Vasari said of Rosso's work from sketches? Would the manic brushwork have settled into place? Could even that nipple amount to nothing more than skilled underpainting, for an artist trained in anatomy?

One will never know what the finished painting might have left behind, but do not count on anything. Joseph's unkempt beard and desperation could come directly from the top figure in Rosso's greatest work (apart, perhaps, from Moses and Jethro's Daughters in the Uffizi in Florence), a Descent from the Cross in Volterra from perhaps the very same year. So could the unnatural edge of shadow across Mary's fingers and nose, as if carved from wood in one stroke. The loose brushwork, foreground crowding, mute background, passionate gestures, and unfulfilled longing for an unearthly mother survive from quite possibly his first complete work, an Assumption of the Virgin in 1517. The Holy Family might well mark the passage between those two early paintings. Maybe he abandoned it because he could not reconcile them.

One can almost forget that the Holy Family truly is unfinished. Even the nipple beneath Mary's drapery appears elsewhere, in a seated Madonna with Four Saints from 1518 and in a Marriage of the Virgin from 1523. It was standard issue, too, for a contemporary in Siena, Domenico Beccafumi, who also veered disquietingly between anatomy as geometry and as bleary wisps of oil. Rosso was closer to the center of the action, in Florence—not to mention the real colorist among the early Mannerists, with an uncanny range of reds, yellows, and violets. Almost none of his color shows here, beyond the green of the cushion and the grape leaves. Looking at the swirling underpainting in brownish red, though, one can imagine so much more.

Rosso himself had only a little more to give. Driven by political turmoil and his own, he was soon off to Rome—and, from there, to the court of Francis I in Fontainebleau. The Morgan displays just one his drawings, from that last period. The only drawing on loan, from the Met, it has the more polished, more obvious, and less emotionally charged distortions of a later Mannerism, which lasted through the century. Not only in France, it had become the international style. Rosso saw only a little of it before his death in 1540.

Otherwise, "Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing" sticks to the city of its title. It includes three small sketches by Michelangelo toward a David and Goliath, with the accent on their struggle, not David's inspired way of ending one. It has a reminder of the High Renaissance, in Fra Bartolomeo's Madonna on not just a throne, but a throne on a pedestal. (Take that, earthlings.) Late in the game comes a last hint of the show's star. An unfamiliar late Mannerist, Il Poppi, has heads all over the place with Father Time beards, almost surely picked up from Rosso in Volterra.

A rearing horse by Bronzino captures the tensions among them all. Drawn in the late 1540s, it is poised between a greater realism and a greater escapism, not to mention between Renaissance majesty and Mannerist mania. It combines the classicism of its source in sculpture, the naturalism of its balls showing, and the sheer fantasy of its flowing tail in black chalk. The horse's almost human face alone embodies all three. The sculpture in question, an equestrian monument first proposed by Leonardo, never came to be, but no matter. Florence was a wild enough ride as it was.

Medium rare

When the Morgan Library sticks to its collection, with new acquisitions since 2004 alone, it is of course a boast. This, it says, is the collection that spans art, manuscripts, music, and books united by quality and rarity alone. From medieval to modern, it sustains J. P. Morgan's vision—or maybe appetite for anything on which he could lay his hands. Boasting aside, though, the show is a useful reminder of what museums are supposed to do, and I mean something much more modest. It is going about its business, and it is treating even business as a matter of public record rather than market manipulation.

The boast is there. The Morgan could well have chosen much of the work for its pomp and circumstance. Irving Penn, perhaps the most extroverted of photographers, greets one from the entrance stairwell, with portraits of such posers as Pablo Picasso and Georgia O'Keeffe. John Singer Sargent among Sargent's artist portraits sketches a French painter sprawled on a coach, his arm raised, like a demand on behalf of both. Jean Antoine Watteau's Head of a Woman (Morgan Library, c. 1717)The public side of art suits perfectly a portrait sketch with voluminous cloak by Anthony van Dyck. Diane Arbus turns her eye away from freaks to such well-known artists as Frank Stella, and of course they look like freaks.

Often enough, the museum earns its right to boast. When it looks for Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, it can still find sketches for Don Giovanni, the slow movement of the seventh symphony, and the Ring cycle. I, too, would take pride in the first issue of James Joyce's Ulysses, even if that meant not getting the sexier final installments, which the magazine hastily withdrew. At other times extroversion provides the acquisition's best excuse, and the defects become all the clearer with forays into contemporary art, despite a lovely Helen Frankenthaler. Red Grooms, better known for funky but accessible sculpture, sketches Rudy Burkhardt, the photographer. He looks like an easygoing dude strutting his stuff, and it only adds to his pride that the two were on their way to Machu Picchu.

The installation relies on half a dozen themes, all too general to pierce this public façade. Much in art, literature, or life has something to do with, say, nature. Instead, the show works best when juxtapositions bring out individuals. When the Paris Review commissioned covers from Lichtenstein and Warhol, it did not get masterpieces, but it did get personalities. In deference to a literary magazine's achievements, Lichtenstein updates modernist poster style for his Ben-Day dots, while Warhol silkscreens his tab for drinks. Oscar Wilde waxes literary on one sheet, hot and heavy on another.

While several sheets will appeal only to specialists in the late Renaissance or Baroque, some artists do share private insights. In a letter, Vincent van Gogh sketches his room and looks forward to time with Paul Gauguin, when conflict still lay in the future. A woman's head in three-quarter turn by Jean Antoine Watteau on his way from Rococo to Revolution or a tiny Book of Hours seems a glimpse past the frame to a fragment of life. Samuel Palmer, the English landscape artist, has a reputation like William Blake as a Romantic visionary and a painstaking printmaker. He chooses a colossal tree trunk on a mound for its strangeness, while lingering over its texture. Its fisheye perspective links it to the novelties of photography and of changing pictorial space.

Museums are spending way too much time boasting and begging. They might be selling off work, like the National Academy, or catering to displays of private collectors. When the Met shows thirty years of acquisitions under Philippe de Montebello, it is advertising its authority and its curators. When museums stick to smaller time intervals, for emerging artists and biennials, they are promoting the latest thing. By comparison, the Morgan's restriction to five years approaches an escape from the hype of the market. This is what we have been doing, it says, so take a look, and see what you think.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing," including the painting from the Walters, ran at The Morgan Library through February 3, 2013. The Morgan exhibited its last five years of acquisitions through October 18, 2009. Related reviews look in more depth at the concept of Mannerism with Parmigianino, Hendrick Goltzius, Michelangelo, and El Greco. My thanks to Holland Cotter in The New York Times for a reminder of the quote from Vasari.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME