Mannerism: The Renaissance Realized

The last several articles have concentrated on the art of the High Renaissance, with emphasis on Da Vinci and Michelangelo. While we must move on to the next stage, Mannerism, we continue to welcome questions about any of our previous articles. The term “mannerism” has been used in many different contexts in the art world, the most common is when it is applied to the art that flowed out of Italy and much of Europe in the nearly 60 years following the High Renaissance. The style is said to have started around 1520, when many of the great Masters, like Michelangelo and Da Vinci were still alive, and lasted until about 1580, or the beginning of the Baroque Period. While the main branch of Mannerism, which originated in Florence and Rome, was over by 1580 the style continued well into the 17th century in the rest of Europe, especially in Germany, where it finally fizzled out in favor of Gothic art in the early 1800´s. A teaching career in art history specializing in this period can be fascinating.

The term “mannerism” can be traced to the Italian word maniera and loosely means manner or style. The word however can be used as a noun or adjective, as in “he has style”. But the flexibility of the word causes some confusion when it is used to describe an entire period in art history. Some people use the term to describe the lifestyle of the artist and some use it to describe their work style. When we are talking about Mannerism however we are talking about the style of art, not a specific artist. There are a number of artists who contributed heavily to the Age of Mannerism whoever and we will address each in later articles.

The style of mannerism features, when compared to the Renaissance, many art concepts that were quite revolutionary. The style uses things like a collapsed perspective or precariously balanced poses to put the viewer off balance and elongated forms and irrational settings to keep them there. While classic styles evoked expressions of wonder, art done in a mannerist style evoked shock and adventure, a mystery that few could resist. A more recent example of this phenomenon can be seen with the development of rock music in the late 1950´s and 1960´s, replacing the use of the orchestra and adding electronics to create a sense of excitement overload.

Many of the early mannerist artists were students of students of the Masters, like Michelangelo and Raphael and Da Vinci. These students had the temerity to add style techniques from pre classical times and Hellenistic styles to the classical techniques developed by the Masters. Originally these artists were referred to as anti-classical. The contrasts continued of course. Classical art featured the natural and mannerist favored the artificial and extreme.

But the term “la maniera” was not meant to be a complement. Artists of the time were seen to be rebels and their art was seen by many writers of the time as offensive to the masterpieces of men like Da Vinci and Raphael. But while they were using the term to describe particular artists, the term has been used to describe the period for over a century.