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Rosso Fiorentino's captivating Holy Family is the centerpiece of new exhibition at The Morgan
Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1573), Rearing Horse, ca. 1546–48. Black chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photography: Graham S. Haber.

NEW YORK, NY.- The emergence of Mannerism in Florentine Renaissance art as exemplified by the brilliant painter Rosso Fiorentino is the subject of a new exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum, opened on November 16, 2012. The show includes the artist’s extraordinary painting, Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, as well a selection of drawings, printed books, letters, and manuscripts by other Florentine masters. The Holy Family, on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, is one of only three paintings by Rosso in the United States. Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing will remain on view at the Morgan through February 3, 2013.

Born Giovanni Battista di Jacopo di Guaspare in Florence, Rosso Fiorentino (1494–1540)—so known because of his distinctive red hair—was one of the foremost exponents of the late Renaissance style known as Mannerism, or the maniera. Characterized by extreme artifice, effortless grace, and refinement, and given to displays of inventive fantasy, spatial ambiguity, and strange beauty, this style developed about 1520 simultaneously in Rome (in the circle of Raphael) and in Florence (in the work of artists associated with Andrea del Sarto).

Using the Holy Family as a starting point, Fantasy and Invention traces the Florentine iteration of Mannerism through some twenty drawings from the Morgan’s collection; five autograph documents and letters from leading artists of the day, including Michelangelo; two printed books; and a rare drawing by Rosso, on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Together, these works speak to the fundamental role of disegno—the Italian word for drawing that carries broader, theoretical connotations of artistic skill and invention—in the formulation of Mannerism The exhibition begins with the style’s antecedents in the High Renaissance as seen in major examples by Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto. It then moves on to Mannerism’s early stirrings in the art of Rosso and Jacopo Pontormo and its elaboration by their younger contemporaries Francesco Salviati and Giorgio Vasari. Finally, Mannerism’s more formal, frozen codification later in the century is explored through the work of Agnolo Bronzino, Giovanni Battista Naldini, Alessandro Allori and others, many of whom were employed by the Medici rulers of Florence.

“Fantasy and Invention offers museum-goers a sharply focused look at the development of Florentine Mannerism,” said William M.Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “With Rosso’s brilliant Holy Family as its centerpiece, supplemented by a carefully chosen selection of drawings and related material, the exhibition explores how the artist and his contemporaries approached the discipline of drawing, creating some of the most extraordinary and beautiful works of the Italian Renaissance.”

In his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568), Giorgio Vasari described Rosso as always showing “the invention of a poet in the grouping of his figures, besides being bold and well-grounded in draftsmanship, graceful in manner, sublime in the highest flights of imagination, and a master of beautiful composition.” The artist’s drawings, Vasari went on, “were held to be marvelous, for Rosso drew divinely well.”

A gifted painter, draftsman, print designer, and master of stucco, Rosso was also a notoriously quirky and difficult individual—he kept a pet monkey; had trouble with patrons; acknowledged his own arrogance; ran afoul of and was blacklisted by the powerful cabal of artists in Rome who had worked with the recently deceased and revered Raphael; and may have committed suicide by poison. Something of that personality seems to have left an imprint in the disturbing undercurrents of his style, resulting in highly original, emotionally expressive, and at times bizarre works of art—including one altarpiece that the patron judged so unsettling upon first seeing it that he fled the room in horror.

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