The arts had come under grave suspicion as offenders against dignity, restraint and decorum. The tide was running toward a new puritanism in the Roman Catholic Church when the council of the church fathers, originally summoned to set the Church’s own house in order in the face of Protestant attacks, reopened at Trent in 1562. There was even a movement to suppress all harminic music in church, for the complicated polyphonic masses seemed less designed to express genuine religious emotion than to display the technical skill of the composer to best advantage.
Similar criticisms were levied against the modern style of painting. Even the ”divine” Michelangelo came under scrutiny and censure for the naked limbs of his posturing nudes. Sensuality and superfluous elegance in images and altarpieces were solemnly condemned. In tune with the spirit of the times, Pope Pius V saw to it that nudes in Michelangelo’s ”Last Judgement” were decently adorned with drapery. It is not surprising then, that a new sobriety and sternness of purpose are to be found in the religious painting of the later sixteenth century. Younger painters like El-Greco found fresh springs of inspiration in the new religious climate.
But this did not mean that Mannerist techniques and innovations had to be abandoned. Those corkscrew shapes and elongated bodies, could be used, as Tintoretto and El Greco were to prove, to dissolve the earthly form of saints and martyrs and to infuse them with a strange, incandescent spirituality. The troubled years that followed the conclusion of the council of Trent were for many a period of uncertainty and doubt. Religious wars in France and genral widespread conflicts between Catholics and Protestants presented a perturbed and hazardous world to those not swept away by the prevailing extremism.
One answer was to arm oneself, like Montaigne,with the weapons of irony and skepticism, and remain aloof from the battle. Another was to search the cosmos for hidden allusions, for the secret of concordances of the stars and the planets that held the key to the reconciliation of mankind in some sublime religious synthesis. Each of these reactions was, in its way, conducive to the survival of Mannerist forms in literature and the arts. If the elegant irony of the Mannerist style made it less and less appropriate for religious purposes, it remained well suited to the more secular needs of those who lived a life of refinement far removed from conflict. Mannerist art helped perpetuate the illusion of detachment from a world that was tearing itself to pieces in religious frenzy.
In a mental world where symbolism and the inner vision of the artist found themselves at a premium, it is no accident that Mannerist art enjoyed its final flowering at the very end of the sixteenth century, in the court of the emperor Rudolf II at Prague. Rudolf was obsessed and melancholic. He precariously treaded a line between sanity and madness, expressed in his own person many of the aspirations and tensions of his age. Shut away in his castle in Prague, he brooded on the secrets of the universe in the company of a few kindred spirits who had come from all over Europe, drawn by the magnet of his patronage and strange reputation. These included scholars, cranks and the ingenious from alchemists and dabblers in the occult to mathematicians and astronomers including John Dee, Johannes Kepler and Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
It was a strange twilight world that these men inhabited, at once cosmopolitan and intensely private. And at the heart of it sat the Emperor whose mysterious personality posed as deep a riddle as any that he himself attempted to resolve. His picture gallery gave full rein to his penchant for the allegoric and erotic; Leda and the swan, Hercules and Omphale, Vulcan and Maia, old men making advances to coyly bashful girls.
The mystery remains that of Mannerism itself. One thesis is that it was an elaborate private game of defeated men in retreat from the world. Another holds it was an attempt to draw on the inner vision of the artist-magician, who alone was endowed to se
rough the multiple fragments of a shattered universe to the underlying harmony. Finally, it may have been a confidence trick perpetuated on gullible patrons by artists of dazzling virtuosity. Likely, some combination of the three, permitting Mannerism to be, at least, a permissible paradox. A clever joke that became something very serious; an artistic expression full of implied meaning, yet saying little.