In this lesson, we’ll look at the style of art known as Mannerism.
The work of the Mannerists was dismissed for centuries as decadent, or simply weird. Only in the 20th century did it come to be widely admired.
Mannerism: Renaissance Masterpiece
If your predecessors achieved perfection, what’s left for you to do? That’s the question that seemed to haunt the generation of artists who came of age in Renaissance Italy after 1520 living in the shadows cast by Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Their response to these unique dynamics was to push art in some very strange directions.The painters we now call the Mannerists exaggerated and distorted the defining characteristics of High Renaissance art, creating unsettling, sometimes bizarre pictures. This form of art was ignored, even scorned, until the 20th century. Like some surrealist artists of our own time (including the creators of prog rock album covers), the Mannerists used their mastery of perspective, modeling, line, and color to create artificial worlds that were nevertheless painstakingly ‘realistic’ in their details.
The term Mannerism comes from the Italian word maniera, referring to personal style; the term was derived from mano, meaning hand, because style was considered inseparable from the personal touch, or ‘hand’, of the artist. It was almost a hundred years after its introduction that the term maniera was first applied to describe this period and style of art, and at the time it was not meant as a compliment. Instead, it implied that these artists had valued style over substance, indulging personal quirks at the expense of the universal vision of the High Renaissance.
Art in the Mid-16th Century
The middle of the 16th century was long regarded as a period of artistic and cultural decline, and it’s not too hard to see why. Leonardo da Vinci had died in 1519 and Raphael in 1520.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) still had many productive years ahead of him, but he had already completed his best-known works (David, completed in 1504, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted between 1508 and 1512). Interestingly enough, his own later work was characterized by Mannerism.Nor did political developments at the time encourage optimism. In 1527, Rome was sacked by the troops of Emperor Charles V, and in 1530, the city of Florence – the very heart of the Renaissance – lost its status as an independent republic after a devastating 10-month siege. Significantly, the art of Venice, which remained stable and independent, was not much affected by Mannerism.
Mannerism wasn’t taken seriously as a style until the start of the 20th century, when critics began to appreciate the Mannerists’ experimental attitudes. It was only at this point that the term ‘Mannerism’ came into wide use as the proper name of a particular school of art.
Characteristics of Mannerism
Generally, the Mannerists held on to the elements of Renaissance painting that made it so lifelike, especially those used to create the illusion of three dimensions. But other elements might be distorted, or taken to extremes. Where an earlier generation of painters had sought to create a new sense of harmony and stability, the Mannerists introduced tension and strangeness.The Mannerists often favored lurid colors such as pinks and oranges or greens and violets over calmer tones. Figures strike exaggerated poses, like modern dancers; sometimes their faces suggest agitation or even torment, but at other times they are oddly expressionless.
Mannerism also made its mark on architecture and sculpture, notably in the late works of Michelangelo. As in painting, Mannerist works are characterized by the exaggeration or alteration of proportions, posture, and expression.
In the Deposition from the Cross, also known as the Entombment, painted by Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557), the figures carrying the body of Christ appear to be dressed in strangely colored leotards, and some stand on tiptoe. The setting is only vaguely defined.Another famous Mannerist interpretation of the same subject, the Deposition painted in 1521 by Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), features grief-stricken figures whose clothes appear to billow in a high wind.
In both paintings, the figures occupy the edges of the composition, while the center is left relatively empty.Other Mannerist artists distorted the bodies of the figures they depicted. The painter known as Parmigianino (1503-1540) even made a self-portrait inspired by his distorted reflection in a barber’s convex mirror, painting it on a specially made convex panel.Parmigianino’s most famous painting shows the Madonna and Child, a conventional subject, but the bodies are weirdly elongated, especially the neck of the Madonna; in fact, this picture is known simply as Madonna with the Long Neck.
Many of the qualities that can make Mannerist art so unsettling come together in a work by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) variously known as An Allegory of Venus and Cupid, An Allegory of Lust, or Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time. In this picture, Cupid, who has an unnaturally limber spine, plants a distinctly inappropriate kiss on the lips of his mother, the goddess Venus. Crowded around them are a beautiful girl with the body of a monster, a cherub throwing rosebuds, a figure screaming in agony, and several empty masks. The ice-blue curtain behind them amplifies the chilly pallor of their bodies.Bronzino is also known for portraits of aristocrats all executed in the same style, such as his portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi.
No one has ever known quite what to make of the art of the Mannerists. As we’ve seen, it was dismissed for centuries as evidence of decline or even decadence. But eventually the work of artists like Pontormo, Bronzino, Parmigianino, and Rosso Fiorentino came to be appreciated for the very qualities earlier generations had disliked. Working in the long shadow cast by the great artists of the High Renaissance, these painters pushed the boundaries, striving for originality where their predecessors had sought perfection.