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In Parmigianino's Madonna with the Long Neck (1534-40), Mannerism makes itself known by elongated proportions, affected poses, and eerie perspective.
Mannerism is the term applied to an artistic style (usually painting), which emerged after the Sack of Rome (1527) and in concept and time immediately followed the High Renaissance. Mannerism is actually a fusion of various highly individual styles that poses as an alternative to the neoclassical punctiliousness achieved in the Roman art and architecture of the High Renaissance.
The porphyry portal of the "church house" at Colditz Castle, Saxony, designed by Andreas Walther II (1584), is a clear example of the exuberance of "Antwerp Mannerism".
An example of mannerist architecture is the Villa Farnese at Caprarola in the rugged country side outside of Rome. The proliferation of engravers during the 16th century spread Mannerist styles more quickly than any previous styles. A center of Mannerist design was Antwerp during its 16th century boom. Antwerp Mannerism was the form in which Renaissance styles were widely introduced in England, Germany, and northern and eastern Europe in general. Dense with ornament of "Roman" detailing, the display doorway at Colditz Castle (illustration, left) exemplifies this northern style, characteristically applied as an isolated "set piece" against unpretentious vernacular walling.
The term comes from the Italian maniera, or "style," in the sense of an artist's characteristic "touch" or recognizable "manner."
"Mannerism" 1527 -1600 was initially a contentious stylistic label among art historians when it resurfaced before World War I, first used by German art historians like Heinrich Wölfflin to categorize the seemingly uncategorizable art of the Italian 16th century, the style that introduced the Renaissance to France in the School of Fontainebleau and to Antwerp in quite another "manner," styles that were neither Renaissance nor Baroque. Mannerism is not easily pigeonholed; it scarcely affected the popular arts, and no definitions survived much examination, in the views of English art historians, partly perhaps because they already had sufficient local categories: "Elizabethan drama," "Jacobean architecture and furniture."
But, historically regarded, Mannerism is a useful designation for those aspects of the late Renaissance arts (1530-1580), whose proponents sought to create dramatic and dynamic effects by depicting figures with elongated forms and in exaggerated, out-of-balance poses in manipulated irrational space, lit with unrealistic lighting. Even Michelangelo displayed tendencies towards Mannerism, notably in his vestibule to the Laurentian Library and the figures on his Medici tombs. Mannerism appealed to knowledgable coterie audiences with its arcane iconographic programs and the exaggerated new sense of an artistic "personality", an exciting new development at a time when the primary purpose of art was to inspire awe and devotion, to entertain and to educate.
Giorgio Vasari, frontispiece to Lives of the Artists, 1568
The framing of the engraved frontispiece to Mannerist artist Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (illustration, left) would be called "Jacobean" in an English-speaking context. In it, Michelangelo's Medici tombs inspire the anti-architectural "architectural" features at the top, the papery pierced frame, the satyr nudes at the base. In the vignette of Florence at the base, papery or vellum-like material is cut and stretched and scrolled into a cartouche (cartoccia). The design is self-conscious, overcharged with rich, artificially "natural" detail in physically improbable juxtapositions of jarring scale changes, overwhelming as a mere frame: Mannerist.
Vasari's own opinions about the "art" of creating art come through in his praise of fellow artists in the great book that lay behind this frontispiece: he believed that excellence in painting demanded refinement, richness of invention (invenzione), expressed through virtuoso technique (maniera), and wit and study that appeared in the finished work, all criteria that emphasized the artist's intellect and the patron's sensibility. The artist was now no longer just a craftsman member of a local Guild of St Luke. Now he took his place at court with scholars, poets, and humanists, in a climate that fostered an appreciation for elegance and complexity. The coat-of-arms of Vasari's Medici patrons appear at the top of his portrait, quite as if they were the artist's own.
The stylized elements of Mannerism are usually set in stark contrast to High Renaissance conventions; the immediacy and balance achieved by, say, a Raphael, seemed no longer relevant or appropriate. Mannerism developed among the pupils of two masters of the classical approach, with Raphael's assistant Giulio Romano and among the students of Andrea del Sarto, whose studio produced the quintessentially Mannerist painters Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, and with whom Vasari apprenticed.
Baptism, by El Greco
After the realistic depiction of the human form and the mastery of perspective achieved in high Renaissance Classicism, some artists started to deliberately distort proportions in disjointed, irrational space for emotional and artistic effect. There are aspects of Mannerism in El Greco (illustration, left). One can detect Mannerism in El Greco's jarring "acid" color sense, his figures' elongated and tortured anatomy, the irrational perspective and light of his breathless and crowded composition, and obscure and troubling iconography.
Mannerist centers in Italy were Rome, Florence and Mantua. Venetian painting, in its separate "school," pursued a separate course, represented in the long career of Titian.
Two works, one practical, one metaphysical, by Gian Paolo Lomazzo, helped define the Mannerist artist's self-conscious relation to his art. His Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura et architettura (Milan, 1584) is in part a guide to contemporary concepts of decorum, which the Renaissance inherited in part from Antiquity but Mannerism elaborated upon, which controlled a consonance between the functions of interiors and the kinds of painted and sculpted decors that would be suitable, in Lomazzo's systematic codification of esthetics, which typifies the more formalized and academic approaches typical of the later 16th century. Iconography, often convoluted and abstruse, is a more prominent element in the Mannerist styles.
Lomazzo's less practical and more metaphysical Idea del tempio della pittura ("The ideal temple of painting", Milan, 1590) offers a description along the lines of the "four temperaments" theory of the human nature and personality, containing the explanations of the role of individuality in judgment and artistic invention.
Some mannerist examples
Mannerist portraits by Bronzino are distinguished by chilly elegance, perfunctory realism, and meticulous attention to detail.
Jacopo da Pontormo's Joseph in Egypt stood in what would have been considered contradicting colors and disunified time and space in the Renaissance. Neither the clothing, nor the buildings— not even the colors— accurately represented the Bible story of Joseph. It was wrong, but it stood out as an accurate representation of society's feelings.
Rosso Fiorentino, who had been a fellow-pupil of Pontormo in the studio of Andrea del Sarto, brought the Florentine maniera to Fontainebleau in 1530, where he became one of the founders of the French 16th century Mannerism called the "School of Fontainebleau". The examples of a rich and hectic decorative style at Fontainebleau transferred the Italian style, through the medium of engravings, to Antwerp and thence throughout Northern Europe, from London to Poland, and brought Mannerist design into luxury goods like silver and carved furniture. A sense of tense controlled emotion expressed in elaborate symbolism and allegory, and elongated proportions of female beauty are characteristics of his style.
Susanna and the elders, Alessandro Allori (1535 - 1607): waxy eroticism and consciously brilliant still life detail, in a crowded contorted composition
Agnolo Bronzino's somewhat icy portraits (illustrated, to the left) put an uncommunicative abyss between sitter and viewer, concentrating on rendering of the precise pattern and sheen of rich textiles.
Jacopo Tintoretto's Last Supper epitomized Mannerism by taking Jesus and the table out of the middle of the room. He showed all that was happening. In sickly, disorienting colors he painted a scene of confusion that somehow separated the angels from the real world. He had removed the world from God's reach.
El Greco attempted to express the religious tension with exaggerated Mannerism. This exaggeration would serve to cross over the Mannerist line and be applied to Classicism.
Benvenuto Cellini created a salt cellar of gold and ebony in 1540 featuring Neptune and Amphitrite (earth and water) in elongated form and uncomfortable positions. It is considered a masterpiece of Mannerist sculpture.
In English literature, Mannerism is commonly identified with the qualities of the "Metaphysical" poets of whom the most famous is John Donne. The witty sally of a Baroque writer, John Dryden, against the verse of Donne in the previous generation, affords a concise contrast between Baroque and Mannerist aims in the arts:
"He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softnesses of love" (italics added).