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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 the Baroque style began to replace it, but Northern Mannerism continued into the early 17th century.
Stylistically, Mannerism encompasses a variety of approaches influenced by, and reacting to, the harmonious ideals associated with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and early Michelangelo. While High Renaissance explored harmonious ideals, Mannerism wanted to go a step further. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. Mannerism favours compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting. Mannerism in literature and music is notable for its highly florid style and intellectual sophistication.
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 literature.
The word mannerism derives from the Italian maniera, meaning "style" or "manner". Like the English word "style", maniera can either indicate a specific type of style (a beautiful style, an abrasive style) or 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. This notion of "bella maniera" suggests that artists thus inspired 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, synthesizing it into something new.
As a stylistic label, "Mannerism" is not easily defined. 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 found to exhibit the harmonious and rational approaches associated with the High Renaissance. “High Renaissance” connoted a period distinguished by harmony, grandeur and the revival of classical antiquity. (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 perceived 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 as to whether Mannerism is a style, a movement, or a period; and while the term remains controversial it is still commonly used to identify European art and culture of the 16th century.
By the end of the High Renaissance, young artists experienced a crisis: it seemed that everything that could be achieved was already achieved. No more difficulties, technical or otherwise, remained to be solved. The detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, physiognomy and the way in which humans register emotion in expression and gesture, the innovative use of the human form in figurative composition, the use of the subtle gradation of tone, all had reached near perfection. The young artists needed to find a new goal, and they sought new approaches. At this point Mannerism started to emerge. The new style developed between 1510 and 1520 either in Florence, or in Rome, or in both cities simultaneously.
This period has been described as a 'natural extension' of the art of Andrea del Sarto, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Michelangelo from an early age had developed a style of his own, a deeply original style which was greatly admired first, then often copied and imitated by his contemporaries. One of the qualities most admired by his contemporaries was his terribilità, a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur, and it was the attempts of subsequent artists to imitate. Michelangelo's impassioned and highly personal style was thus learned by the other artists copying the works of the master, learning by copying was a standard way that students learn to paint and sculpt. His Sistine Chapel ceiling provided examples for other artists to follow, in particular the figures of ignudi and of the Libyan Sibyl, his vestibule to the Laurentian Library, in the figures on his Medici tombs, and above all in his Last Judgment. The later Michelangelo was one of the great role models of Mannerism. This was noticed by Michelangelo himself who might have been annoyed sometimes by this. Young artists broke in into the house of Michelangelo and stole drawings from him. In his book Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari noted that Michelangelo stated once: Those who are followers can never pass by whom they follow.
The competitive spirit was cultivated by patrons who encouraged sponsored artists to emphasize virtuosic technique. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were each given a commission by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini to decorate a wall in the Hall of Five Hundred in Florence. 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 Giulio de' Medici who had been appointed as archbishop of Narbonne in the south of France. At this time Raphael was also busy painting the Stanze, creating various altarpieces, painting versions of his Madonna and Child and acting as the principal architect in Rome after the death of Bramante. This left him little time to do “The Transfiguration”. Therefore, the cardinal commissioned Sebastiano del Piombo who was a great Venetian colourist and a friend of Michelangelo to paint “The Raising of Lazarus”. This drove Raphael to complete the commission. 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. This competitive spirit drove the young artists to develop new goals, and while looking for new approaches and dramatically illuminated scenes, elaborate clothes and compositions, elongated proportions, highly stylized poses, and lack of clear perspective.
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 sculpture 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 that Raphael's premature death marked the beginning of Mannerism in Rome.
In past analyses, it has been noted that mannerism arose in the early 16th century contemporaneously with 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 early Mannerist art is still sharply contrasted with High Renaissance conventions; the accessibility and balance achieved by Raphael's School of Athens no longer seemed to interest young artists.
The second period of Mannerism is commonly differentiated[by whom?] 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 looked to their older contemporary Michelangelo as their principal model; theirs was an art imitating art, rather than an art imitating nature. Freedberg argues that the intellectualizing aspect of maniera art involves expecting its audience to notice and appreciate this visual reference—a familiar figure in an unfamiliar setting enclosed between "unseen, but felt, quotation marks." The height of artifice is the Maniera painter's penchant for deliberately misappropriating 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, acknowledging the viewer with a cool glance, if they make eye contact at all. The Maniera subject rarely displays much emotion, and for this reason works exemplifying this trend are often called 'cold' or 'aloof.' This is typical of the so-called "stylish style" or Maniera in its maturity.
The cities Rome, Florence, and Mantua were Mannerist centers in Italy. Venetian painting pursued a different course, represented by Titian in his long career. 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 disseminated throughout Italy and Northern Europe. The result was the first international artistic style since the Gothic. Other parts of Northern Europe did not have the advantage of such direct contact with Italian artists, but the Mannerist style made its presence felt through prints and illustrated books. European rulers, among others, purchased Italian works, while northern European artists continued to travel to Italy, helping to spread the Mannerist style. Individual Italian artists working in the North gave birth to a movement known as the Northern Mannerism. Francis I of France, for example, 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, revived naturalism. Walter Friedlaender identified this period as "anti-mannerism", just as the early mannerists were "anti-classical" in their reaction away from the aesthetic values of 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 had a particular impact on architecture. Other important continental centers of Northern Mannerism 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 native labels such as "Elizabethan" and "Jacobean" are more commonly applied. Seventeenth-century Artisan Mannerism is one exception, applied to architecture that relies on pattern books rather than on existing precedents in Continental Europe.
Of particular note is the Flemish influence at Fontainebleau that combined the eroticism of the French style with an early version of the vanitas tradition that would dominate seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting. Prevalent at this time was the "pittore vago," a description of painters from the north who entered the workshops in France and Italy to create a truly international style.
As in painting, early Italian Mannerist sculpture was very largely an attempt to find an original style that would top the achievement of the High Renaissance, which in sculpture essentially meant Michelangelo, and much of the struggle to achieve this was played out in commissions to fill other places in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, next to Michelangelo's David. Baccio Bandinelli took over the project of Hercules and Cacus from the master himself, but it was little more popular then than it is now, and maliciously compared by Benvenuto Cellini to "a sack of melons", though it had a long-lasting effect in apparently introducing relief panels on the pedestal of statues. Like other works of his and other Mannerists it removes far more of the original block than Michelangelo would have done. Cellini's bronze Perseus with the head of Medusa is certainly a masterpiece, designed with eight angles of view, another Mannerist characteristic, and artificially stylized in comparison with the Davids of Michelangelo and Donatello. Originally a goldsmith, his famous gold and enamel Salt Cellar (1543) was his first sculpture, and shows his talent at its best.
Small bronze figures for collector's cabinets, often mythological subjects with nudes, were a popular Renaissance form at which Giambologna, originally Flemish but based in Florence, excelled in the later part of the century. He also created life-size sculptures, of which two entered the collection in the Piazza della Signoria. He and his followers devised elegant elongated examples of the figura serpentinata, often of two intertwined figures, that were interesting from all angles.
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the head of Medusa, 1545–1554
Giambologna, Samson Slaying a Philistine, about 1562
Giorgio Vasari's opinions about the art of painting emerge in the praise he bestows on fellow artists in his multi-volume Lives of the Artists: 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 trained member of a local Guild of St Luke. Now he took his place at court alongside scholars, poets, and humanists, in a climate that fostered an appreciation for elegance and complexity. The coat-of-arms of Vasari's Medici patrons appears at the top of his portrait, quite as if it were the artist's own.
The framing of the woodcut image of Vasari's Lives of the Artists would be called "Jacobean" in an English-speaking milieu. 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, stretched, and scrolled into a cartouche (cartoccia). The design is self-conscious, overcharged with rich, artificially "natural" detail, juxtaposed with physically improbable and jarring shifts in scale. As a mere frame it is extravagant: Mannerist, in short.
Another literary figure from the period is Gian Paolo Lomazzo, who produced two works—one practical and one metaphysical—that 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. Lomazzo's systematic codification of aesthetics, which typifies the more formalized and academic approaches typical of the later 16th century, emphasized a consonance between the functions of interiors and the kinds of painted and sculpted decors that would be suitable. Iconography, often convoluted and abstruse, is a more prominent element in the Mannerist styles. His 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 human nature and personality, defining the role of individuality in judgment and artistic invention.
Jacopo da Pontormo's Joseph in Egypt features what would in the Renaissance have been considered incongruous colors and an incoherent handling of time and space.
Rosso Fiorentino, who had been a fellow pupil of Pontormo in the studio of Andrea del Sarto, in 1530 brought Florentine mannerism to Fontainebleau, where he became one of the founders of French 16th-century Mannerism, popularly known as the "School of Fontainebleau".
The examples of a rich and hectic decorative style at Fontainebleau further disseminated the Italian style through the medium of engravings, to Antwerp and from there throughout Northern Europe from London to Poland. Mannerist design was extended to luxury goods like silver and carved furniture. A sense of tense, controlled emotion expressed in elaborate symbolism and allegory, and an ideal of female beauty characterized by elongated proportions are features of this style.
Mannerist portraits by Agnolo Bronzino are distinguished by a serene elegance and meticulous attention to detail. As a result, Bronzino's sitters have been said to project an aloofness and marked emotional distance from the viewer. There is also a virtuosic concentration on capturing the precise pattern and sheen of rich textiles.
Alessandro Allori's (1535–1607) Susanna and the Elders (below) is distinguished by latent eroticism and consciously brilliant still life detail, in a crowded, contorted composition.
Tintoretto's Last Supper (below) focuses on light and motion, bringing the image to dramatic life. Unlike more traditional views of the Last Supper, Tintoretto depicts Heaven opening up into the room, and the angels looking on in awe, in line with the old Catholic maxim that "If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy the Eucharist."
El Greco attempted to express religious emotion with exaggerated traits. 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. El Greco still is a deeply original artist. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. Key aspects of Mannerism in El Greco include the jarring "acid" palette, elongated and tortured anatomy, irrational perspective and light, and obscure and troubling iconography.
Benvenuto Cellini created the Cellini Salt Cellar of gold and enamel in 1540 featuring Poseidon and Amphitrite (water and earth) placed in uncomfortable positions and with elongated proportions. It is considered a masterpiece of Mannerist sculpture.
Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638) continued to paint in a Northern Mannerist style until the end of his life, ignoring the arrival of the Baroque, and making him perhaps the last significant Mannerist artist still to be working. His subjects included large scenes with still life in the manner of Pieter Aertsen, and mythological scenes, many small cabinet paintings beautifully executed on copper, and most featuring nudity.
Tintoretto, Last Supper
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris
Bronzino, Portrait of Bia de'Medici
Alessandro Allori, Susanna and the elders
El Greco, Baptism
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. Through Antwerp, Renaissance and Mannerist 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 exemplifies this northern style, characteristically applied as an isolated "set piece" against unpretentious vernacular walling.
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.:15 (italics added)
The rich musical possibilities in the poetry of the late 16th and early 17th centuries provided an attractive basis for the madrigal, which quickly rose to prominence as the pre-eminent musical form in Italian musical culture, as discussed by Tim Carter:
The madrigal, particularly in its aristocratic guise, was obviously a vehicle for the ‘stylish style’ of Mannerism, with poets and musicians revelling in witty conceits and other visual, verbal and musical tricks to delight the connoisseur.
The word Mannerism has also been used to describe the style of highly florid and contrapuntally complex polyphonic music made in France in the late 14th century. This period is now usually referred to as the ars subtilior.
The Early Commedia dell'Arte (1550–1621): The Mannerist Context by Paul Castagno discusses Mannerism's effect on the contemporary professional theatre. Castagno's was the first study to define a theatrical form as Mannerist, employing the vocabulary of Mannerism and maniera to discuss the typification, exaggerated, and effetto meraviglioso of the comici dell'arte. See Part II of the above book for a full discussion of Mannerist characteristics in the commedia dell'arte. The study is largely iconographic, presenting a pictorial evidence that many of the artists who painted or printed commedia images were in fact, coming from the workshops of the day, heavily ensconced in the maniera tradition.
The preciosity in Jacques Callot's minute engravings seem to belie a much larger scale of action. Callot's Balli di Sfessania (literally, dance of the buttocks) celebrates the commedia's blatant eroticism, with protruding phalli, spears posed with the anticipation of a comic ream, and grossly exaggerated masks that mix the bestial with human. The eroticism of the innamorate (lovers) including the baring of breasts, or excessive veiling, was quite in vogue in the paintings and engravings from the second school at Fontainebleau, particularly those that detect a Franco-Flemish influence. Castagno demonstrates iconographic linkages between genre painting and the figures of the commedia dell'arte that demonstrate how this theatrical form was embedded within the cultural traditions of the late cinquecento.
Important corollaries exist between the disegno interno, which substituted for the disegno esterno (external design) in mannerist painting. This notion of projecting a deeply subjective view as superseding nature or established principles (perspective, for example), in essence, the emphasis away from the object to its subject, now emphasizing execution, displays of virtuosity, or unique techniques. This inner vision is at the heart of commedia performance. For example, in the moment of improvisation the actor expresses his virtuosity without heed to formal boundaries, decorum, unity, or text. Arlecchino became emblematic of the mannerist discordia concors (the union of opposites), at one moment he would be gentle and kind, then, on a dime, become a thief violently acting out with his batte. Arlecchino could be graceful in movement, only in the next beat, to clumsily trip over his feet. Freed from the external rules, the actor celebrated the evanescence of the moment; much the way Cellini would dazzle his patrons by draping his sculptures, unveiling them with lighting effects and a sense of the marvelous. The presentation of the object became as important as the object itself.
According to art critic Jerry Saltz, "Neo-Mannerism" (new Mannerism) is among several clichés that are "squeezing the life out of the art world". Neo-Mannerism describes art of the 21st century that is turned out by students whose academic teachers "have scared [them] into being pleasingly meek, imitative, and ordinary".
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