A rare chance to contemplate Renaissance painter Rosso Fiorentino at The Morgan

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'Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist,' by Rosso Fiorentino. ()
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A mother stares out at you, her face and fingers graceful and elongated, her eyes piercingly sweet and also dark with sadness. She holds close her toddler son who peers into the distance, his chubby face seemingly innocent of the harrowing end that awaits him—though the longer you observe him, the more his fathomless eyes give you pause. To their right, an old man and a cherub-like boy gape with anguish and awe.

Rosso Fiorentino’s unfinished Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, executed around 1520, is one of only three paintings by the 16th-century Florentine master that are in the United States. It is the centerpiece of a compelling new show at the Morgan Library and Museum, Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Drawing, open now and on view through February 3, 2013.

A student of Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino (1494–1540) worked in Florence, Rome, and (after the 1527 sacking of Rome by Habsburg mercenaries) at the French court of François I. The Morgan show epitomizes the artistic movement known as mannerism, of which Rosso is a celebrated practitioner.

Derived from the Italian word maniera or “style,” mannerism burst forth in Florence and Rome in the early 1500s. It was an offshoot of Renaissance art that, in the words of the critic Arnold Hauser, marked “the first time [that] art deliberately diverged from nature” and reached back to earlier works in a calculated display of rivalry or divergence. Encompassing some 30 cannily selected objects in a single gallery, Fantasy and Invention exemplifies mannerism’s hermetic quality and its delight in erudition and exquisite detail.

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These qualities come to the fore in the exhibition’s major works, Rosso’s Holy Family (on loan from Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum) and his chalk and ink Bust of a Woman with an Elaborate Coiffure (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The painting, richer and more vivid than the digital image suggests, is both wrenching and unreadable. The figures are crammed into the pictorial space in an utterly contrived arrangement, yet for all their oppressive closeness, they do not interact or even exchange glances. The tender, domestic subject thus takes on something of the disquieting quality of Rosso’s most famous painting, the Volterra Deposition from the Cross, in which mourners seem largely alone in their grief even as a maelstrom of desolation surrounds the passive and sallow Christ.

As for Rosso’s virtuosic drawing, it patently harks back not to a flesh-and-blood woman but to earlier works by Michelangelo: the allegorical statues in Florence’s Medici Chapel, for example, or Eve and certain sibyls from the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Rosso’s fastidious rendering of the figure’s coiling braids brings to mind seashells, coral, and ram horns, thereby evoking a favorite conundrum of the era: If the Almighty, who wrought the natural world, is the optimus artifex or “supreme artificer” (as Pico wrote in his Oration on the Dignity of Man), then where precisely lies the boundary between nature and art? And how does an artist differ from the Creator of all things?

Many works in the Morgan exhibition inspire such questions. Veins throb on the belly of an electrifying Rearing Horse in black chalk by Agnolo Bronzino, a younger contemporary of Rosso. Bronzino, though, drew the animal not from life but after one of the ancient marble statues of horse tamers on Rome’s Quirinal Hill, themselves Roman copies of earlier Greek figures. A moody Study of a Bearded Man by Francesco Salviati (like Bronzino, an artist in the Medici circle) may depict a living model or simply a distillation of melancholy or some other quality. Gossamer cross-hatching dissolves into a velvety cloud of red chalk in Bacio Bandinelli’s ravishing Head of a Woman. Known primarily as a sculptor, Bandinelli created on paper an image that could vie with the paintings of Raphael or Leonardo for delicacy of sfumatura (“nuance” or “gradation”) and that captures a statue’s sense of volume and dimensionality.

The age of mannerism, learned and self-conscious, was also the era in which art history emerged. The Morgan exhibition includes one of the discipline’s founding texts, the landmark second edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, along with a volume of Benedetto Varchi’s Lezzioni (“Readings”) that encompasses a sonnet by Michelangelo and a debate on the relative merits of painting and sculpture. There are also autograph documents by several of the artists represented in the show as well as the ebullient goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who writes in a slashing, energetic hand.

The “invention” evoked in the exhibition’s title is more complex than today’s understanding of the term suggests. We think of “invention” as creation, but its etymology (from invenire, “to come upon”) implies encounters with things that already exist. And “fantasy” derives from Greek words for “visions” and “bringing to light.” All around us in “Fantasy and Invention” we see images that hover between nature and artifice, reality and dreams: hollow-eyed figures by Del Sarto and Francesco Morandini; Pontormo’s weirdly androgynous nudes, both fleshy and weightless; a shepherd by Bacchiacca that somehow both recedes and pivots towards us; and studies of David and Goliath by Michelangelo that roil and seem ready to rupture their tiny pictorial frames. They are the fruits of the contradictions that informed the enigmatic art of Rosso Fiorentino and his contemporaries.

‘Fantasy and Invention’ is on view at the The Morgan Library & Museum through February 3, 2013. For tickets, hours, and other information, visit www.themorgan.org or call 212.685.0008. Exhibition curator Linda Wolk-Simon will give a gallery talk on ‘Fantasy and Invention’ on Friday, November 30.

Images, from top: 'Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist' (ca. 1520), by Rosso Fiorentino, photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; 'Bust of a Woman with an Elaborate Coiffure' (1530s), by Rosso Fiorentino, image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 'Rearing Horse' (ca. 1546–48), by Agnolo Bronzino, photo by Graham S. Haber; Rosso Fiorentino, from 'Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori' (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) (1568), by Giorgio Vasari, Florence, photo by Graham S. Haber.