Florence may hold the world’s best concentration of Renaissance art, but there is another movement overshadowed by the Renaissance that Florence keeps well hidden. Tucked away in churches around the city are jewels of the Mannerist movement, masterpieces that most people will unknowingly miss in favour of lining up and battling the heat and the crowds at the Uffizi. Although the main museums hold some great examples of mannerist works, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: you can see some of the best Mannerist works for free and with the paintings all to yourself.
Mannerism is a term that comes from the Italian maniera, meaning manner or style. Perhaps a reaction to the classical Renaissance, Mannerists elaborated nature to show invention, emotion, and intellect rather than merely depicting the careful but obvious observation of nature. Characterised by elongated and exaggerated figures, twisting bodies, ambiguous space, and abstract colour, Mannerism was the link between the High Renaissance and the dramatic Baroque period that followed.
The painters best known as the masters of Mannerism were Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557) and his student Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72). In their day they were considered the finest painters in Florence and were court painters for the Medici dukes. The legacy of their work can be found in churches all around Florence, such as Santissima Annunziata, San Michele Visdomini, and Santa Felicita.
At the sumptuous Church of Santissima Annunziata, enter in the door on the left of the church, cross the Cloister of the Dead, and you will find towards the far, left-hand corner a small unassuming door. Step into the quiet chapel of St. Luke, and you will find yourself alone with the frescoes and looming sculptures. In between these sculptures are two wonderful examples of master and student: on the left is Pontormo’s Sacra Conversazione, completed when he was just 19 years old. Opposite this is the Trinity, begun by Bronzino and finished by his student Alessandro Allori. This fresco marks the burial place of Pontormo, and you can see the memorial left to him by Bronzino: two portraits. Bronzino himself is on the right, Pontormo on the left. Before you leave the chapel also take a closer look at the painting in front, St Luke painting the Virgin Mary. This is by Giorgio Vasari, himself a Mannerist, and the face of St. Luke is a self-portrait.
Down the road, a block from the Duomo on via de Servi, is the hidden San Michele Visdomini, a 14th century church filled with 16th and 17th century paintings. The second chapel on the right holds a Pontormo panel painting of the Madonna and child with Saints, commissioned by Francesco Pucci, once a gonfaloniere of the Florentine Republic. Completed in 1518, Vasari said this was the most beautiful panel you would see from this rare painter. But I know another that may beat it.
Saving the best for last, go past the Ponte Vecchio to Santa Felicita. This church is not only a cool retreat from the heat outside but also from other people. Upon entering, to your direct right you will find the Capponi Chapel, a small encaged alcove holding one of the most fascinating paintings in all of Florence: Pontormo’s Deposition, finished in 1528. The Virgin Mary swoons with grief, as two elongated figures hold up the body of Christ; one of them, coloured in a rosy light, crouches on tip-toes. Five other figures hover around the Virgin, while on the edge of the painting looking into this scene (but distinctly out of it), in a brown cloak, is a self-portrait of Pontormo. Everything is expressed through colour, shape, and emotion. Pontormo is searching for something deeper than the description of nature, deeper than the scene itself.
The film La Ricotta by Pasolini, for which he was actually excommunicated, depicts a day in the making of a film of the Passion of Christ. There is a moment when the actors recreate a scene of the Deposition, and in one brief, beautiful instant they exactly re-enact this painting.
Now that you’ve traipsed all over town to find these beautiful works, you can feel a great sense of accomplishment, like you have finished some sort of treasure hunt. And indeed, you will be rewarded at the end of it: your head and your heart will be filled with beauty, expression, and elegance. And you didn’t even have to line up, pay for it, or elbow anyone to have the experience all to yourself.