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
"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
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
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
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.