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Mannerism, an introduction

By Dr. Heather Graham and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank
Parasitic. Original. Derogatory. Refined. Hyper-decorative. Courtly. Anti-classical. Classicizing. All of these words (and many more!) have been used to describe mannerist art, which begins in the 16th century. But what is it, and how could it possibly prompt so many contradictory descriptors?
Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long Neck, 1530–33, 73 x 60 cm (Uffizi, Florence)

What is mannerism?

Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck is a famous example of mannerist art. It was painted for the funerary chapel of an Italian noblewoman. In the center, the Virgin’s lower body seems to swell, her impossibly long legs swathed in billowing fabric that then clings sensuously to her rapidly tapering torso, revealing her navel and a protruding nipple. Her head, seeming too small for her body, is precariously balanced upon an elongated neck rising from narrow, sloping shoulders. Christ’s spindly, bare body stretches across her lap. Pressed closely to her right are sensuous yet bizarrely proportioned angels, compressed into the foreground. One angelic figure, showing a long bare leg, holds an elegant antique vase with the tips of his impossibly long fingers. On the right side, a diminutive figure in the lower corner mysteriously holds up a scroll, while the background recedes dramatically into a deep, unfinished space. The architectural space is designed to appear illogical (though it can be reconciled) and the within it figures are mis-proportioned, yet the overall impression is one of elegance and carefully contrived artifice. This effect is enhanced by the use of rich jewel tones and the absence of visible brush marks.
Raphael, Madonna of the Meadow, 1505–06, oil on panel, 885 x 1130 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Parmigianino takes us to an otherworldly realm in which the laws of proportion, naturalism, and mathematics do not apply. It is a far cry from the rational classicism of earlier works like Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow (from what is traditionally called the “high renaissance“). Here, the Virgin and Christ child, accompanied by the infant John the Baptist, are rendered in
proportions and occupy an idealized though believable space. The Virgin’s body is demurely clothed and the children’s plump forms suggest playful vitality. Nowhere do we find the sensuous ambiguity or the irrational geometry of Parmigianino’s creation. Something new is happening in the mannerist image.
Rosso Fiorentino, The Dead Christ with Angels, c. 1524–27, oil on panel, 133.4 x 104.1 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Towards a definition of mannerism

The term “mannerism” is not easily defined. It has been used to designate art that is overtly artificial, often ambiguous, and conspicuously sophisticated. However, these are by no means the only stylistic traits associated with this designation. Mannerist imagery frequently pushes the boundaries of fantasy and imagination with artists looking to art, rather than nature, as a model, as Parmigianino was clearly doing in his painting. Mannerism is therefore a confusing term, subject to radically different interpretations. When the term was first widely used in the 17th century, it was intended as a pejorative label. It was used to negatively characterize Italian renaissance art created between 1520 and 1600 that was seen by these later audiences as overly stylized and tasteless, a debased departure from the classicism of Raphael and the high renaissance. With the rise of expressionism and abstraction in the 20th century, such negative views of this generation of artists subsided. Today, the English term “mannerism” is used to broadly designate 16th-century art throughout Europe (and even in places like the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries) that is conspicuously artificial, often emotionally provocative, and designed to impress.
In sixteenth-century Italy, where what we now call mannerism is first evident, the term “mannerism” did not exist. What we do find is “maniera,” a term rooted in the word mano (hand). It was used in a straight forward way by contemporaries to simply designate style. The styles that the word maniera was used to describe were as varied as way the word style might be used today. Audrey Hepburn had style. So did
Maniera was also used in the 16th century to suggest “stylishness” itself, a self-conscious, artificial artistry that at times privileged fantasy over reality. Artists displaying maniera may consciously exploit their technical skill but ideally did so with seeming effortlessness, like we see in Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck. Artistic departures from visual reality were intended to demonstrate invention and refinement, learning and grace. One way to understand mannerism, popularized by late 20th-century scholars, is to think of it as the “stylish-style.”
Left: Alonso Berruguete, Abraham and Isaac, 1526–1532, polychromed wood, (89 x 46 x 32 cm) (Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid; photo: Iglesia en Valladolid, CC BY-SA 2.0); right: Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and His Sons, early first century C.E., marble, 7’10 1/2″ high (Vatican Museums; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Rather than seeing such images as breaking with renaissance visual developments, scholars now recognize mannerist imagery as continuing those explorations in new ways. While the artworks might seem to diverge from classical forms, these artists did actually invent new ways of engaging with the ancient past. One of the most influential artworks for mannerist artists was the Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoön and his sons, whose twisting, contorted bodies appealed to a variety of artists of this time, including the Burgundian artist Juan de Juni (who worked in Spain), Domenicos Theotokopoulos (known as El Greco), Alonso Berruguete, and Francesco Primaticcio. Berruguete frequently adapted aspects of the Laocoön in his sculpture to heighten the emotional expressiveness of his saintly figures, such as we find in his Abraham and Isaac.

Why mannerism?

Why do these elegant explorations take place after 1520? While there is no easy answer for the style’s emergence at this time, historical and religious developments, the tastes of powerful patrons, and the rising social status of the artist may all be key factors. Mannerism first developed in central Italy in the cities of Rome and Florence and it quickly spread. The reasons are many. The early and mid-16th century was a period of enormous social, economic, and political change witnessing the spread of Protestantism and the wars of religion that followed. The rise of capitalism and absolutism, colonization and exploitation of new lands and peoples, and new developments in the science of anatomy and optics also add to the era’s complexity. Some have attributed the new stylistic explorations of the period to a general neurosis resulting from this shifting context. The new contorted and exaggerated forms are deliberately unbalanced like the 16th century itself.
Agnolo di Cosimo Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, c. 1545, oil on panel, 146.1 x 116.2cm (National Gallery, London)
While mannerist qualities are found in secular works, like Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid, this otherworldly, fantastical stylishness may have served a particular function for sacred subjects. The distortion, ambiguity, and supernatural beauty of many mannerist works may have heightened their emotional appeal to Christian audiences, inspiring a deeply personal devotional experience appropriate to this era of religious upheaval. On the Iberian Peninsula, mannerist artists like Berruguete or the painter Luis de Morales forged an expressive visual language that encouraged profoundly emotional and ecstatic religious devotion.
Luis de Morales, Piedad, 1565 oil on panel, 1.25 x .96 m (Louvre, Paris; photo: MOSSOT, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mannerist art has been associated with the tastes of aristocratic patrons, particularly those within court circles where displays of wealth and appreciation for beautiful things helped cultivate an elite persona. The self-conscious artifice and deliberate complexity of these works would have appealed to patrons who were familiar with recent artistic developments and eager to show off their knowledge and good taste. The general rise in the status of the artist—particularly in central Italy where mannerism first developed over the course of the renaissance, may also have contributed to a rising taste in art that reflected an artist’s individual style. Previously, artists were regarded as humble craftsmen, practitioners of the “mechanical arts.” By the 1520s—thanks in part to high renaissance artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer and others—visual artists could claim status as practitioners of a “liberal art,” placing them alongside scholars, poets, and other
. The stylistically specific creations of individual visual artists were increasingly valued as precious records of their individual ingenuity and intellect, it meant something to own a “Dürer” or a “Titian.” The pronounced stylishness of mannerist imagery unmistakably marked these works as creations of a unique maker.
Left: Giulio Romano, Wall and partial ceiling of the Sala dei Giganti, 1528–30, Palazzo Tè, Mantua (photo: Web Gallery of Art); right: Giulio Romano, Ceiling of the Sala dei Giganti, 1528–30, Palazzo Tè, Mantua (photo: Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first mannerist artists

Mannerist visual strategies have local beginnings (from what we can tell) in Central Italy, although they begin to spread rapidly after their introduction. We find elements of the maniera among Raphael’s followers, such as in the work of Giulio Romano, who, along with Gian Francesco Penni, took over Raphael’s workshop in Rome upon the master’s untimely death. His work at Palazzo Tè (the pleasure villa of Federico II Gonzaga of Mantua), like the frescoes in the Sala dei Giganti (Hall of the Giants), is a creative interpretation of and playful riff upon the classical tradition, continuing renaissance fascination with the ancient past. Powerful, elongated figures writhe across painted walls and ceiling that are reminiscent of ancient sarcophagi. At the Palazzo, Romano even developed architectural spaces that appear to dissolve in place like ancient ruins.
Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, altar wall, fresco, 1534-1541 (Vatican City, Rome) (photo: Ramon Stoppelenburg, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
While Michelangelo is typically associated with what is called high renaissance art, he also helped to shape the powerful visual language of what we now call the maniera. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, painted upon the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, is a complicated and intentionally terrifying vision of the end of time. With disconcerting jumps in scale, nude figures in contorted poses are spread across a blue sky, their souls and bodies bared before God as they either rise in glory or are crushed in despair. Michelangelo’s figures are heavy, their musculature overemphasized—these are the bodies of the afterlife, rooted in the artist’s imagination and the brawny nudes of antiquity rather than reality. His maniera is unmistakable.
Pontormo, Entombment (or Deposition from the Cross), oil on panel, 1525–28, Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicità, Florence (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Early mannerist qualities are found in the work of Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto, and his followers Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. Pontormo’s Deposition (or Entombment), created for the Capponi Chapel, has figures swirling across the picture plane, dislocated in time and space. No narrative elements, like the cross and concrete environment of Fra Angelico’s 1432 Deposition, serve to ground and clarify the image. The contorted figures and bizarre use of color recall more the work of Michelangelo than they do visual reality.
Fra Angelico, Descent from the Cross, 1432–34, tempera on panel, 69 in × 73 in (National Museum of San Marco, Florence: photo: Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
Ambiguous compositions, like Pontormo’s Deposition, seem to require sophisticated audiences already familiar with both visual and spiritual traditions. At the same time, a case may be made for the broader public appeal of such imagery. While the references to and departures from artistic tradition may not have been readily appreciated by non-elites, the disorienting effect of the image may have indeed spoken to any viewer familiar with the unsettling effects of grief.
Workshop of Rosso Fiorentino, The Royal Elephant, Gallery of Francis I, Château de Fontainebleau, 1528–1540, fresco (photo: cea +, CC BY 2.0)

Mannerism on the move

The forms explored by mannerist artists spread rapidly to other parts of Italy and to parts of northern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, the Americas, and even Asia. In each area, mannerism developed differently, reflecting regional visual traditions, as well as cultural, political, and religious formations.
Gallery of Francis I, Château de Fontainebleau, 1528–1540 (photo: Mbzt, CC BY-SA 4.0)
After the sack of Rome in 1527, the French King, Francis I, brought mannerist art to France by importing the Florentine artists Rosso Fiorentino and Benvenuto Cellini, as well as Francesco Primaticcio (who had trained with Giulio Romano). Under Francis’s patronage, these artists helped transform a rugged hunting lodge into the spectacular palace of Fontainebleau, and where a new form of mannerism would influence generations of French artists. The Italian Jesuit artist Bernardo Bitti would emigrate to Lima in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, and paint large-scale paintings with the classicizing visual language of the maniera.
Luis de Vargas, The Purification in the Temple, c. 1560, oil on wood, Church of Santa Cruz, Seville (Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla; photo: Paul Hermans)
Artists from other European regions also trained in Italy, absorbing mannerist tendencies. Spanish artist Luis de Vargas spent time in Italy with artists like Sebastiano del Piombo and Giorgio Vasari (among others), bringing back what he learned and adapted to the Iberian Peninsula. Vargas would create elaborate retablos (altarpieces) filled with painting and sculpture, for the Cathedral and the Church of Santa Cruz in Seville.
Adrian Collaert (engraver) after Maarten de Vos (drawing), Sight (Visus) from the Five Senses, 16th century, engraving, 21.3 x 26 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Likewise, the Flemish painter Maarten de Vos, who is thought to have spent time in the workshop of Tintoretto (a Venetian mannerist artist), created images infused with rich color, elegant elongated figures, and an overtly decorative style. Engravings of De Vos’s works circulated across Europe, and eventually found their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish viceroyalties.
Hendrik Goltzius, Apollo, 1588, engraving, 26.4 x 34.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In Prague, under the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, the Dutch printmaker Hendrik Goltzius produced numerous engravings, such as Apollo, 1588, notable for their dramatic gestures, flamboyant figure treatment, and conspicuous display of artistic virtuosity. Goltzius would become one of the most influential mannerist printmakers of his day. Goltzius borrowed mannerist strategies from Bartholomaeus Spranger, a Flemish artist who studied and traveled in Italy, and brought drawings and ideas back to Rudolph II’s court.
Simply put, the spread of mannerism was global.

Why mannerism matters

The ambiguity of mannerism and often sensuous treatment of figures proved problematic for some. The Reformation brought with it a new scrutiny of religious images. The Augustinian monk Martin Luther and other Protestant leaders were concerned that images could mislead or be treated as idols. While the Catholic Church never wavered in its commitment to the validity of images as tools for religious practice, the style of religious art did become an issue. At the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a series of meetings intended to solidify Catholic doctrine and strengthen the threatened church, it was declared that religious images must be clear, unambiguous, and lead viewers to faithful contemplation. Art should be for celebrating and instructing in the faith, not for showcasing artistic skill. The sensuosity, ambiguity, and conspicuous artistry of mannerism was not to be tolerated in sacred art.
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1612–1614, oil on canvas, 126 x 71″ / 319 x 180 cm (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)
This call for conservatism in art on the part of the Catholic Counter Reformation, the movement behind the Council of Trent, did not bring an end to mannerist explorations. The style continued in new ways and across the global Catholic landscape. Devout Catholics, such as the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’Medici (who was eager to garner the Pope’s approval in his quest to become Grand Duke of Tuscany), continued to patronize mannerist forms in paint and stone—and even tapestries. El Greco, an artist who is thought to almost perfectly embody the Counter-Reformation Church’s desire to produce emotionally affective religious works, borrowed a great deal from mannerism. In fact, El Greco’s work demonstrates that mannerism extends beyond the sixteenth century, attesting once again to the ways in which visual strategies ebbed and flowed differently in various parts of the world.
Later artists are indebted to the mannerists. The dynamic compositions, rich color choices, and dramatic brushwork of later Baroque traditions all owe a debt to mannerist experimentation.
Additional resources:
Lynette M. F. Bosch, Mannerism, Spirituality and Cognition: The Art of Enargeia (Routledge, 2020).
Jonathan Brown, Painting in Spain 1500–1700 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
Stephen J. Campbell, “Counter Reformation Polemic and Mannerist Counter-Aesthetics: Bronzino’s ‘Martyrdom of St. Lawrence’ in San Lorenzo,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 46, Polemical Objects (Autumn, 2004), pp. 98–119.
Liana De Girolami Cheney, ed., Readings in Italian Mannerism (New York: Peter Lang, 1997).
Arnold Hauser, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965).
Donna Pierce et al., eds. Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521–1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press and Denver Art Museum, 2004).
Franklin W. Robinson and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., eds., The Meaning of Mannerism (Hanover: University of New England Press, 1972).
John Shearman, Mannerism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967).
Craig Hugh Smyth, Mannerism and Maniera, revised edition with an introduction by Elizabeth Cropper (Vienna: IRSA, 1992).
Edward Sullivan, “European Painting and the Art of the New World colonies,” in Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America, ed. Diana Fance, ehxh. cat. Brooklyn Museum, 28–41 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996).

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