The Italian painter Il Rosso (1495-1540) was one of the leaders in the development of the mannerist style of painting, which he was the first to implant in France.
Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, known as Il Rosso or Rosso Fiorentino, was born in Florence. He began studying art as a boy but had difficulty finding a teacher to his liking since, as Giorgio Vasari tells us, "He had an opinion of his own in opposition to their styles." About 1512 he entered the workshop of Andrea del Sarto, where he met Pontormo.
Il Rosso and Pontormo brought Florentine mannerism into being. This new style, which contrasts dramatically with the order and calm of High Renaissance art, is well illustrated by Il Rosso's Deposition (1521). In this painting, sharply angular, emaciated figures climbing up and down ladders surround the twisted body of Christ, which has turned green in death. His Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro (ca. 1523) is even stronger. Great muscular nudes (derived from his studies of Michelangelo's cartoon for the Battle of Cascina) fill the crowded canvas. Wildly they lunge and twist, falling in a contorted heap that fills the foreground.
In 1523 Il Rosso moved to Rome, where he met Michelangelo and members of Raphael's circle. In 1527, when the city was sacked by troops under the emperor Charles V, Il Rosso was captured by the dreaded Germans. On his release he fled to Perugia. The next 3 years he spent wandering from town to town in search of commissions. Following a brawl with some priests in Borgo San Sepolcro he fled to Venice, where he was befriended by the writer Pietro Aretino.
Il Rosso "always hoped to end his days in France," wrote Vasari, "and thus to escape the misery and poverty to which, so he said, those who work in Tuscany are exposed." The call to France came in 1530, and he became a success overnight. The king, Francis I, granted him a generous pension, a town house in Paris, and commodious quarters at Fontainebleau (then the chief seat of the French court), "where he lived like a lord."
Il Rosso executed frescoes (1532-1535; destroyed) for the Pavilion of Pomona at Fontainebleau. For the Grand Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau he and his assistant and successor, Primaticcio, created an entirely new style of palace decoration that combined paintings set into the wall with complex stucco reliefs and intricately carved wooden panels (1534-1537). The influence of these two major decorative projects on French art in the following centuries was enormous.
The painter died in Paris. Vasari tells us that, filled with remorse at having mistakenly accused a friend of theft, Il Rosso took his own life.
The only recent study of Il Rosso is in Italian: Paola Barocchi, Il Rosso Fiorentino (1950). By far the best account in English of his work at Fontainebleau is in Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953). Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (many editions), contains a lively biography of Il Rosso. □