by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Farnese, Rome
Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani at Palazzo Farnese in Rome by Francesco Salviati, 1549-56

A Tale of an Unknown Mannerist

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 7 March 1998


For art lovers, to be alive in the age of Michelangelo and Raphael was no doubt bliss, but to be a young Italian artist, very near heaven. The problem for the coming generation of practitioners was where to go from there.

For eager disciples of the titans the tendency was to follow the directions indicated by these High Renaissance masters through to their logical conclusions. This gave rise to that exaggeration and elongation of form, particularly of the nude, that boldness of color, and deliberate oddity and exoticism of composition that has come to be called, in the present century, Mannerism.

The term Mannerism ultimately derives from 'maniera,' as copiously and imprecisely used in a multitude of contexts by Giorgio Vasari in his epochal 'The Lives of the Artists,' published in an enlarged edition, in which Salviati appears, in 1568. For Vasari the work of none of his contemporaries represented 'la bella maniera' - everything that was accomplished, studied, graceful, stylish and beautiful in art according to the 'mannerist' tastes of the times - better than that of his childhood and lifelong friend, Francesco Salviati.

Vasari, in his account of Salviati, offers a warts-and-all portrait of his friend - an exceptionally obstreperous and quarrelsome character even by the elevated standards of bad behavior achieved by some other artists of that period - but champions him wholeheartedly as an artist. This was not enough to gain for Salviati the posthumous reputations secured by, for example, Pontormo, Rosso and Parmigianino.

Thus, 'Francesco Salviati, or La Bella Maniera' is the first exhibition to be devoted entirely to this artist. The show, hosted by the Accademia di Francia at the Villa Medici (until March 29), travels on to the Louvre (April 30-June 29), which, thanks to a royal acquisition in the late 17th century, has the most extensive single collection of Salviati drawings.

Drawing was not only the absolute bedrock of every endeavor in the Florentine artistic world into which Salviati was born in 1510, but had won the status of an art form in itself. Indeed, Vasari at one point declares a drawing of Salviati 'the best and truly the rarest thing' he ever did. The show's 50 drawings from the Louvre, supplemented by others from far-flung collections, including 18 new attributions, confirm Salviati as a front-ranker in this medium.

His portraits, too, reveal enormous skill, a perceptive eye and an arresting realism, blended with the arcane symbolic props beloved of his era.

The artist's striking and distinctive works in other media - from designs for tapestries, metalwork and book illustrations - are also well represented, along with his religious, mythological and allegorical oils.

Of Salviati's major frescoes, only those in the Audience Chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence are generally easily accessible, a situation that has prevented Salviati from being as appreciated as he might be. Two Roman cycles - at Palazzo Farnese, now the French Embassy, and at Palazzo Sacchetti on Via Giulia - mark the acme of that adventurous composition, elegance combined with vigor, and 'most capricious and ingenious invention,' which Vasari so praised in his sometimes rival and friend.

The daring conception and teeming complexity of these frescoes, with their brilliant trompe l'oeil architecture, wonderful color, and series of elaborately framed scenes, amid riots of figures, vegetation and exuberant decoration, create an impression of simultaneous, multiscreen action, impossible to take in at a single glance. Palazzo Farnese, Palazzo Sacchetti, and the three other Roman interiors with Salviati frescoes can be visited on various days of the week for the duration of the Rome exhibition by pre-booking in the entry hall of the Villa Medici show.

Disillusioned by his fellow countrymen's failure more fully to appreciate his genius, Salviati early in 1556 took up an invitation to go to France. But the artist could not thereby leave his excessively abrasive character behind him and the experience merely fueled his paranoia, as Vasari (in George Bull's translation) makes all too clear: 'Francesco was never much liked in France, because he had a nature completely opposed to that of the men of that country; because there, just as happy and jovial men, who live free and easy lives and adore parties and banquets, are loved and cherished, so equally those who are by nature melancholy, abstemious, sickly, and morose, are, I do not say shunned, but less well liked and treated.'

Salviati died a broken man in Rome in 1563, 'a grievous and damaging loss to the art of painting,' lamented by a small group of friends who, despite every-thing, never ceased to admire him and seemed genuinely fond of him.

In the end Salviati failed to scale those pinnacles which his abundant talents and dedication to his calling otherwise so well equipped him to conquer, above all perhaps because in an age where patronage meant everything he managed to alienate even his most long-suffering customers. And yet, as this important exhibition highlights, Salviati still left much for us to savor and enjoy.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024