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Fiorentino, "Pieta", 1538-40 (image courtesy of the Louvre)

Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino created some of the most graceful and beautiful, and also some of the weirdest, images in Italian art. The whole range of their work is on display at an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence — and if you love painting, then you should go to this show, because there are items here which are as remarkable as anything created anywhere.

The exhibition is entitled Divergent Paths of "Mannerism". The quotes around Mannerism are certainly intentional: the curators don't believe that the word picks out a coherent style. And in this they are surely right. "Mannerism" has become a term of abuse, a way of denigrating the artists who followed in the backwash created by the gigantic supertanker of Michelangelo's genius. The "Mannerists" imitated, it is said, the twisted, unnatural poses of Michelangelo's nude figures and the strangeness of his colours and compositions, without managing to generate the spiritual power of his pictures, with the result that when their creations succeed in escaping downright ugliness, they end up looking silly.

When Michelangelo was viewed as the apogee of Renaissance art, there was a certain logic to the view that the only way for his successors was down. Unable to equal Michelangelo's vision or his skill, the painters who followed could only produce works which were a sort of parody of the great man's output.

The show at the Palazzo Strozzi should dispel that myth once and for all. If anyone needed reminding that Michelangelo's paintings are not the last word in 16th-century Tuscan art, this exhibition provides it. Many of the images you see here have a subtlety and refinement that Michelangelo never achieved, at least when he was painting. They can also be delicately beautiful in a way that Michelangelo's colossal and intimidating frescoes never are.

Yes, both Rosso and Pontormo were powerfully influenced by Michelangelo: every Tuscan painter or sculptor in the 16th century was. But it is not easy to define or even to detect the effects that Michelangelo's pictures had on their work.

Giorgio Vasari, who knew all three men personally, said that Rosso had learned how to draw by copying Michelangelo's cartoons for his unexecuted fresco of the Battle of Cascina. You search in vain, however, for direct quotations from Michelangelo's work in the paintings by Rosso that are in this show, or even for anything that has the same tone and style as Michelangelo. The very few of Rosso's drawings that survive are not Michelangel-esque: the male figures are cruder, less detailed and less anatomically accurate than anything by Michelangelo — and the female ones are better.

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