Mannerism is a period of European art that emerged from the later years of the Italian High Renaissance around 1520. It lasted until about 1580 in Italy, when a more Baroque style began to replace it, but Northern Mannerism continued into the early 17th century throughout much of Europe. Stylistically, Mannerism encompasses a variety of approaches influenced by, and reacting to, the harmonious ideals and restrained naturalism associated with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and early Michelangelo. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities.
The definition of Mannerism, and the phases within it, continues to be the subject of debate among art historians. For example, some scholars have applied the label to certain early modern forms of literature (especially poetry) and music of the 16th and 17th centuries. The term is also used to refer to some Late Gothic painters working in northern Europe from about 1500 to 1530, especially the Antwerp Mannerists—a group unrelated to the Italian movement. Mannerism also has been applied by analogy to the Silver Age of Latin.
The word mannerism derives from the Italian maniera, meaning "style" or "manner". Like the English word “style,” maniera can either be used to indicate a specific type of style (a beautiful style, an abrasive style) or be used to indicate an absolute that needs no qualification (someone ‘has style’). In the second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568), Giorgio Vasari used maniera in three different contexts: to discuss an artist's manner or method of working; to describe a personal or group style, such as the term maniera greca to refer to the Byzantine style or simply to the maniera of Michelangelo; and to affirm a positive judgment of artistic quality. Vasari was also a Mannerist artist, and he described the period in which he worked as "la maniera moderna", or the "modern style". James V. Mirollo describes how "bella maniera" poets attempted to surpass in virtuosity the sonnets of Petrarch. The notion of "bella maniera" suggests that artists infected with its spirit looked to copying and bettering their predecessors, rather than confronting nature directly. In essence, "bella maniera" utilized the best from a number of source materials, sythesizing it into something new. Shakespeare's creative approach could be defined in this way.
As a stylistic label, "Mannerism" is not easily pigeonholed. It was used by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and popularized by German art historians in the early 20th century to categorize the seemingly uncategorizable art of the Italian 16th century — art that was no longer perceived to exhibit the harmonious and rational approaches associated with the High Renaissance. “High Renaissance” suggested a period of harmony, grandeur and the revival of classical antiquity and the term was redefined in 1967 by John Shearman. The label “Mannerism” was used during the 16th century to comment on social behaviour and to convey a refined virtuoso quality or to signify a certain technique.
However, for later writers, such as the 17th-century Gian Pietro Bellori, "la maniera" was a derogatory term for the decline of art after Raphael, especially in the 1530s and 1540s. From the late 19th-century on, art historians have commonly used the term to describe art that follows Renaissance classicism and precedes the Baroque. Yet historians differ in opinion, as to whether Mannerism is a style, a movement, or a period, and while the term remains controversial it is commonly used to identify European art and culture of the 16th century.
Depending on the historical account, Mannerism developed between 1510 and 1520 in either Florence, Rome, or both cities. The early Mannerists in Florence—especially the students of Andrea del Sarto: Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino—are notable for elongated forms, precariously balanced poses, a collapsed perspective, irrational settings, and theatrical lighting. Parmigianino (a student of Correggio) and Giulio Romano (Raphael’s head assistant) were moving in similarly stylized aesthetic directions in Rome. These artists had matured under the influence of the High Renaissance, and their style has been characterized as a reaction or exaggerated extension of it. Instead of studying nature directly, younger artists began studying Hellenistic sculptures and paintings of masters past. Therefore, this style is often identified as "anti-classical”. Yet at the time it was considered a natural progression from the High Renaissance. The earliest experimental phase of Mannerism, known for its "anti-classical" forms, lasted until about 1540 or 1550. Marcia B. Hall, professor of art history at Temple University, notes in her book 'After Raphael' Raphael's premature death marked the beginning of Mannerism in Rome.
Michelangelo was one of the great creative exponents of Mannerism. His Sistine Chapel ceiling provided examples for other artists to follow, in particular the figures of ignudi and of the Libyan Sibyl. Michelangelo himself could have been influenced by the "Belvedere Torso,” which also influenced other painters.
Raphael’s "Lo Spasimo di Sicilia” depicts an event in Christian history when Christ falls while carrying the cross, sees his mother in distress and is helped up by Simon of Cyrene. The composition is linked by the diagonals of the soldiers’ spears and the wooden cross. However, Christ cannot be singled out immediately among the gathering figures in the foreground, whereas Simon stands out quite prominently. The spectator’s eyes look down the composition to the drama and charge of the narrative.
The competitive spirit that was spurred on by patrons who encouraged the artists to show off their virtuoso painting; as in Florence Leonardo and Michelangelo were each given a commission by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini to decorate a wall in the “Hall of Five Hundred”. These two artists were set to paint side by side and compete against each other fueling the incentive of being as innovative as possible. Later on in Rome Raphael was commissioned to paint “The Transfiguration” by Cardinal Gioulio di Medici who had been appointed as arch bishop of Narbonne in the south of France. At this time Raphael was also busy painting the Stanze, various altarpieces, painting versions of Madonna and child and being the principal architect in Rome after the death of Bramante, which gave him little time to do “The Transfiguration”. Therefore the cardinal commissioned Sebastiano del Piombo who was great Venetian colorist and a friend of Michelangelo to paint “The Raising of Lazarus”. This spurred Raphael on to complete the commission.
This period has been described as both a natural extension of the art of Andrea del Sarto, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as well as a decline of those same artists' classicizing achievements. In past analyses, it has been noted that mannerism arose in the early 16th century alongside a number of other social, scientific, religious and political movements such as the Copernican model, the Sack of Rome, and the Protestant Reformation's increasing challenge to the power of the Catholic Church. Because of this, the style's elongated forms and distorted forms were once interpreted as a reaction to the idealized compositions prevalent in High Renaissance art. This explanation for the radical stylistic shift c. 1520 has fallen out of scholarly favor, though the early Mannerists are still set in stark contrast to High Renaissance conventions; the immediacy and balance achieved by Raphael's School of Athens, no longer seemed interesting to young artists. Indeed, Michelangelo himself displayed tendencies towards Mannerism, notably in his vestibule to the Laurentian Library, in the figures on his Medici tombs, and above all in his Last Judgment.
The second period of Mannerism is commonly differentiated from the earlier, so-called "anti-classical" phase.
Subsequent mannerists stressed intellectual conceits and artistic virtuosity, features that have led later critics to accuse them of working in an unnatural and affected "manner" (maniera). Maniera artists held their elder contemporary Michelangelo as their prime example; theirs was an art imitating art, rather than an art imitating nature. Freedberg argues that the intellectualizing aspect of maniera art comes in the artist expecting his audience to notice and understand this visual reference, the familiar figure in an unfamiliar setting surrounded by "unseen, but felt, quotation marks." The supreme artifice comes in the Maniera painter's love of deliberately mis-appropriating a quotation. Agnolo Bronzino and Giorgio Vasari exemplify this strain of Maniera that lasted from about 1530 to 1580. Based largely at courts and in intellectual circles around Europe, Maniera art couples exaggerated elegance with exquisite attention to surface and detail: porcelain-skinned figures recline in an even, tempered light, regarding the viewer with a cool glance, if at all. The Maniera subject rarely displays an excess of emotion, and for this reason are often interpreted as 'cold' or 'aloof,' and is often called the "stylish" style or the Maniera.
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. A number of the earliest Mannerist artists who had been working in Rome during the 1520s fled the city after the Sack of Rome in 1527. As they spread out across the continent in search of employment, their style was distributed throughout Italy and Europe. The result was the first international artistic style since the Gothic. Other parts of Northern Europe did not have the advantage of such intense contact with Italian artists, but the Mannerist style made its presence felt through prints and illustrated books, the purchases of Italian works by rulers, and others, artists' travels to Italy, and the example of individual Italian artists working in the North is called Northern Mannerism. In particular Francis I of France was presented with Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. The style waned in Italy after 1580, as a new generation of artists, including the Carracci brothers, Caravaggio and Cigoli, reemphasized naturalism. Walter Friedlaender identified this period as "anti-mannerism", just as the early mannerists were "anti-classical" in their reaction to the High Renaissance.
Outside of Italy, however, mannerism continued into the 17th century. In France, where Rosso traveled to work for the court at Fontainebleau, it is known as the "Henry II style" and it had a particular impact on architecture. Other important continental centers include the court of Rudolf II in Prague, as well as Haarlem and Antwerp. Mannerism as a stylistic category is less frequently applied to English visual and decorative arts, where local categories such as "Elizabethan" and "Jacobean" are more common. Seventeenth-century Artisan Mannerism is one exception applied to architecture that relies on pattern books rather than direct precedents in Continental Europe.
Of particular note is the Flemish infection at Fontainebleau that combined the eroticism of the French style with a precursor of the vanitas tradition that would dominate seventeenth-century Netherlandish and Flemish painting. Prevalent at this time was the "pittore vago" those painters from the north that entered the workshops in France and Italy to create a truly international style in art.
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