He maligned his friend Cellini. He disparaged Michelangelo. He so insulted the sweet purity of Raphael's Madonnas that the pupils of that master threatened his life. Rosso Fiorentino -- his name means "Red, the Florentine" -- was as mischievous and hot-tempered as redheads are supposed to be. He died in 1540, a suicide by poison. But it is as if he has been waiting for the late 1980s. His time's come round at last.

Rosso's drawings, prints and tapestries -- which go on view today at the National Gallery of Art -- are half-sublime and half-subversive. He twisted the high seriousness of the august art of Florence. He left a seed of excess, of arcane sensuosity, deep within the soul of the courtly art of France. Rosso seems in retrospect a sort of Renaissance post-modernist. His clotted hyperactive space, his layering of themes, his sexiness and strangeness, seem just right for today.

Like other men who're nicknamed Red (Buttons, Skelton, Grooms), Rosso was at first regarded by the Florentines as something of a clown. Was he kidding, was he serious? His colleagues were not sure. Like the poet Ezra Pound (another fiery redhead), Rosso, as a young man, kept a monkey in his studio -- a pet he trained to torment the friars of Santa Croce, whose gardens were next door. He tweaked his patrons, too.

Giorgio Vasari, his biographer and friend, tells us in his "Lives" that one of Rosso's early paintings caused something of a scandal. The altarpiece, commissioned in early 1518, showed the Madonna and her Child attended by four saints. When the buyer came to see it, he fled the artist's studio. The holy figures, he complained, were "barbarous and desperate." He said the saints resembled devils. Rosso's often do.

Rosso was quite capable of drawing like an angel. It is his thinking that's impure. Modern viewers accustomed to the pieties of Raphael may find much that's on display in this 117-object loan show perverse and overloaded. They will not be the first. Rosso loved to shock.

In most works of the High Renaissance, the universe feels ordered, its inhabitants secure, purified and chaste. The proportions of their figures, wondrously idealized, resemble those of gods. The heroes and divinities -- and the columns of the arcade and tiles of the ceilings -- array themselves in measured space in obedience to the laws of single-point perspective.

But look at Rosso's "Mars and Venus," an engraving he designed in 1530. That's not what happens here.

The gods are being undressed in preparation for the act of love. The rational's been banished. A heavy-breathing urgency seems to stir the air.

Venus grasps the drapery as if it were a hand. Her leg seems nearly six feet long, her thighs are thick, her head too small. The whole scene seems to spin and jut. The ceiling starts -- then stops. In Rosso's drawing for this print (which is also on display) the raised buttock of the putto at the picture's top sticks out beyond the frame as if to further scramble the viewer's sense of discipline. Just beside his little head, scales, signs of balance (and of the Libra of the Zodiac), hurtle through the air.

The spirit of that picture seems peculiarly familiar. Its theatrics call to mind the French curves, the hyperspace and hollows of the exuberant Frank Stellas now on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Other echoes of our own time fly through Rosso's show.

A small army of artisans made prints from Rosso's drawings. He understood the market, how to tease it and delight it, with a slyness that suggests a cunning Andy Warhol.

Rosso knew his audience and their love of the illicit. He was as fond of straight-on crotch shots as is David Salle.

Prof. Eugene A. Carroll, the Vassar art historian who picked the exhibition and researched its first-rate catalogue, does not press Rosso's sexiness. But neither can he avoid it. "The composition {of Rosso's "Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro," now in the Uffizi}," observes Carroll, "revolves around Moses' genitals in the center." Various holy genitals -- those of Vulcan, Zeus, Apollo, Ariadne and Minerva -- occupy the centers of dozens of the pictures in this oddly fevered show.

One reason it unsettles is that Rosso's eroticism, like much else about his art, is often somehow twisted. The sex the artist celebrates is not always heterosexual. In his "Death of Adonis" (a gorgeous tapestry that he designed for his patron, Francis I) nude women embrace women and nude men embrace men. When Rosso depicts Hercules, and he does so often, he hymns the hero's buttocks. Those pictures wink across the years at the ads of Calvin Klein and at the now-it-can-be-shown, homoerotic art that fills the chic galleries of Manhattan.

Like today's postmodern architects, busily combining glass bricks and fluted columns, Rosso loves to dabble in complexities. He confounds us with the play of his contradicting themes.

The layered iconography of his "Allegory of the Birth of Christ" still perturbs art historians. "The old woman at the right," writes Carroll, "could be Saint Anne except that she is nude to the waist; the old man behind Christ, except for his state of undress, could be Saint Joseph. . .The beautifully dressed woman could be Saint Catherine but for her bare breasts."

One can't escape the feeling that Rosso saw it as his duty to discombobulate his viewers. When artists of our day float basketballs in fish tanks, or load their canvases with crockery, their motive, one suspects, is pretty much the same.

Something arch and distanced bends through Rosso's art. "He wanted," writes Vasari, "to achieve a powerful style, grander in its grace than that of the others, and marvelous." The key word there is "marvelous." Rosso shuns the commonplace. His elephants and mystic beasts, intricate confusions, embraces and confusions, celebrate excess.

Other artists of the Renaissance sought a sort of confirmation in the great art of the past. But Rosso had no interest in nostalgia or retreat. His early friendship with Pontormo may have goaded him toward strangeness. (The two men were 19 when they first worked together in the busy Florence studio of Andrea del Sarto.) In 1526, after he had criticized the Sistine Chapel, Rosso sent a letter to "the magnificent Michelangelo" insisting, rather unctuously, that he didn't really mean it. His words are not convincing. Rosso sought a sort of art never seen before. His mannerist distortions, his urgency, his fantasy, his hunger for the startling, sizzle through this show.

In his life, as in his art, he kept on pressing on. In 1524, just after the election of Pope Clement VII, a Florentine, a Medici, Rosso went to Rome.

He soon got into trouble there, thanks largely to his spiteful tongue. Cellini says he nearly starved. When, in May of the next year, the mutinous and unpaid troops of Charles Duke de Bourbon sacked the Holy City, Rosso fled their ravages. But he did not head for home. For three years, nearly penniless, he moved from town to town in Italy. Then, in 1530, he went to France to Fontainebleau. He had been summoned by the king.

It was there he did his grandest work and achieved his greatest fame.

The sharpness of his tongue suggests the breadth of his ambition. Every time he got the chance, he copied Michelangelo. Rosso also paid close heed to Raphael's great rooms in the Vatican. He saw these masters as competitors, and their hugely scaled projects as landmarks to surpass.

Rosso did not quite succeed. But, by God, he tried.

By 1532, he had begun to decorate the Gallery of Francis I, a room 190 feet long. Rosso planned its stucco work, its frescoes and its paintings -- and the tapestries that imitate its intricate illusions. Two, on loan from Vienna (both in superb condition), are included in the show.

The tapestries are awesome. Their scale and their glitter nearly overwhelm the prints and drawings near them. Each boasts scores of figures -- foxes, gods and demigods, blazing golden salamanders, warriors, entwined lovers, urinating putti, dragons, clouds and doves. The nymphs who mourn Adonis have wings that look like rainbows. The chains of fruit have little insects on them. The brilliance of the colors, the shine of gold and silver threads, and the richness of the imagery nearly burns the eye.

Something we now see as French -- a rococo grandiosity, a frank acceptance of the sensual and a towering ambition wed to art-for-art's-sake froth -- boils in these weavings. They're as frothy as a cream ga~teau, as saucy as the cancan, as blatant as the chorus lines at the Folies Berge`re, and as grand in their conceptions as the "Raft of the Medusa." Much that would come later -- the cloud-borne nymphs of Fragonard, the grandeurs of Versailles and the power of the "Guernica" -- seems to stir within them.

The Rosso show reminds us that in painting, as in cooking, it was Italy that somehow freed the Frenchness within French art.

Francis I, writes Carroll, made once-starving Rosso rich. "Whereas at the beginning of his life of Rosso, Vasari wrote that he lived like a gentleman in France, at the end he remarked that he lived like a prince. He had many servants and kept many horses. He had a house furnished with tapestries and silver and other valuables."

Nonetheless he killed himself. Vasari says the reason was a false accusation: Rosso had unjustly charged one of his assistants with stealing a large sum of money. When appraised of what he'd done, the artist swallowed poison as if to expiate his guilt.

Vasari writes: "When the news {of Rosso's death} was taken to the king it caused him indescribable regret, since it was his opinion that he had been deprived of the most excellent artist of his time."

"Rosso Fiorentino: Drawings, Prints and Decorative Arts" will only be seen in Washington. On view in the National Gallery's West Building, it closes Jan. 3.