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Mannerism Style of Painting

Mannerism is the usual English term for an approach to all the arts, particularly painting but not exclusive to it, a reaction to the High Renaissance, emerging after the Sack of Rome in 1527 shook Renaissance confidence, humanism and rationality to their foundations, and even Religion had split apart. 

Like "modernism", the term is one of the few style designations whose label was self-applied; it comes from the Italian maniera, or "style," in the sense of an artist's characteristic "touch" or recognizable "manner."

"Mannerism" 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 Fontainebleau schools 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."

The framing of the engraved frontispiece to Mannerist artist Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists 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 scolled 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 Gild 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.

Mannerism is usually set in opposition to High Renaissance conventions. It was not that artists despaired of achieving the immediacy and balance of Raphael; it was that such balance was no longer relevant or appropriate. Mannerism developed among the pupils of two masters of the integrated classical moment, 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.

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). In spite of the uniquely individual quality that sets him apart from simple style designations, you 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.

In Italy mannerist centers were Rome, Florence and Mantua. Venetian painting, in its separate "school" pursued a separate course, epitomized in the long career of Titian.

Examples of Mannerist Paintings
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 painted with too much action, his pictorial movement seemed out of control. He also introduced a new form of portraiture, which concealed the character of his subjects. A drastic change from portraits, which had previously revealed who the subject was.

Agnolo Bronzino pushed the envelope, showing that which was condemned as attractive. He adored the paradox when a single truth had disintegrated. Giorgione's Tempest was just that, with no clue left as to what it meant or why it was even there. Art began to gain its own value.

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 and even gave Judas Iscariot a halo. 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.

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