The Relation of Mannerism to Sprezzatura
The notions of grace and sprezzatura are associated with mannerism. One of the connotations of mannerism is "mannered," which means theatrical, dramatic. When described this way, mannerism does not fit well into the conception of grace. In "Maniera as an Aesthetic Ideal," John Shearman explains that two ideas of mannerism existed in the sixteenth century. One easily fit into the rest of graceful Renaissance life, while the other, the traditional idea, seemed imposed upon it. The usual notion refers to Pontormo and similar artists of about 1520, whose new style was a reaction to and a revolt against previous High Renaissance artistic concepts. They depict unbalanced, disproportionate scenes and indicate an extreme self-consciousness. However, Shearman's theory is that the true meaning of the word maniera arose from a different kind of artist, who evolved from previous ideas instead of revolting against them. This maniera was more graceful, less tense, than the usual conception of mannerism. There were two currents of art in the sixteenth century: the well-known group of Pontormo and another, graceful group working at the same time.
Maniera is usually defined as "style." However, it also has an absolute usage: it can be used to describe someone who "has style." "The positive qualities of style are surely a certain poise, cultured elegance, refinement, and perfection of performance; the negative qualities are unnaturalness, affectation, self-consciousness, and ostentation." It seems that Castiglione was a source of inspiration for this group of mannerists, for the inclusion of performance and the absence of affectation in their style relate closely to sprezzatura. The fields of art and society began to overlap. Castiglione cites examples of art in The Book of the Courtier, and an artist was even present at the fictitious Urbino discussions. Vasari's way of using the term grazia, in his Lives, is borrowed from Castiglione. "Maniera, from being an attribute of people, became applied to a similar quality desirable in works of art." Shearman believed that mannerism was not a reaction against the High Renaissance, but was a part it; instead of a revolt, it came into being easily and naturally.
Perino del Vaga and Pontormo depict the two contrasting conceptions of mannerism. Perino's Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand takes Raphael's notion of group painting and makes it even more formalized, structured and poised than the School of Athens. There is no emotion on any faces; it is concealed to create characters that seem noble and unfazed. "Every form is shaped by an ideal, and fundamentally by the same set of values." This set of values reflects those in the Book of the Courtier . The figures show the ideal of composure. In contrast, Pontormo's painting of the same subject is dynamic, passionate. He pushes the limits of affectation, as if he has taken sprezzatura to the extreme, causing it to self-destruct.
Shearman's maniera was a part of all aspects of sixteenth century Italian life. In Maniera and the Mannaia: Decorum and Decapitation in the Sixteenth Century, Samuel Edgerton extends the ideas style and poise all the way to the practice of public execution. Capital punishment was just as much an artful performance as any other action. Not only did the art of the period, such as the sweet St. George and the Dragon by Raphael, insist on style in depicting matters of violence, but the violence itself was sweetened. The Renaissance adapted medieval content to the gracefulness of classical style. "Thus, an essential quality of maniera was the attempt of sheer style to make agreeable even the most unsavory of subjects, to make what was substantially ugly not only palatable but even inventively fascinating and beautiful." The high style of the executioners and artists functioned to separate the public from actual physical violence. The proper condemned man faced decapitation with total composure, acting as if there were no terrified thoughts in his mind. Victims had to express sprezzatura to the extreme; when their lives were about to be terminated, they were expected to act in an unruffled manner.