A style of art that spread from Italy to much of Europe in the 16th century, between the High Renaissance and Baroque periods. There is disagreement among historians as to its nature but it often seen as decadent, rejecting the classical ideals of the Renaissance and characterized by elongated figures.
A European art movement that built on the highly skilled realism of the Renaissance and moved it towards an increasingly expressive and imaginative language, with elongated bodies, non-naturalistic settings and mythological or allegorical subjects. Mannerism lasted from around 1520-1600, beginning in Florence and Rome, before spreading throughout the rest of Europe.
Beyond the Renaissance
The Mannerist style first evolved out of Florence and Rome in the early sixteenth century. A series of circumstances collided which sprang forth the development of Mannerism; the Protestant Reformation broke apart the idealising Catholicism of the High Renaissance, scientific discoveries shattered the illusion that man was the centre of the universe and many artists saw in the perfect language of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci the end of an era.
Out of these circumstances grew a new language that expressed the dawn of a complex and fragmented new age, where figures were broken apart and isolated, placed in disjointed, asymmetrical settings. The classical, ancient Roman statue Laocoon and His Sons, 40-30 B.C.E., was found during a series of excavations in 1506 and had a profound influence on this new style of art, with its writhing movement and overwrought human emotion as giant serpents devour Laocoon and his two children. The twisting movement of the ‘serpentine’ figure seen here became a particularly popular motif for Mannerist painters and sculptors.
It is thought the early stage of Mannerism was led by the Italian painters Giovanni Battista di Jacopo and Jacopo Pontormo, who both trained under Andrea del Sarto in Florence. Both artists had learned the Renaissance style and were influenced by the drama and tension in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; they emulated and further exaggerating his twisted, turning bodies and swathes of fluttering fabric in their own practices, with heightened, vibrant colours, energised groups of figures caught in motion, and unreal, distorted spatial constructions. Pontormo was also influenced by Albrecht Durer, who’s intense, emotional expressions gave him the impetus to drive his ideas forward into greater levels of theatricality.
As the Mannerist style evolved and spread throughout Italy, artists took greater creative leaps beyond the Renaissance language, expanding into both painting and sculpture. Giambologna was the era’s leading sculptor, while Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, known as Bronzino, became the most pioneering painter, with elegant, elongated figures situated in erotic scenarios, often decorating the famous Medici family’s interiors. In Venice Jacopo Bassano pioneered the use of vivid colours, sumptuous fabrics and lavishly decorated, overcrowded scenes, as seen in his vastly scaled The Adoration of the Kings, early 1540s. Paolo Veronese followed his example with huge, decorative and indulgent paintings composed to create an overwhelming sense of drama, while foreshortened figures add to their depth and space, as seen in Mars, Venus and Cupid, about 1580.
The Mannerist style soon came to spread across Europe, flourishing in France, Spain, Prague and the Netherlands. In Italy and Spain El Greco’s exaggerated, elongated figures from both Biblical and allegorical subjects also came to typify the Mannerist style, painted in stark lighting to create a sense of disquieting tension. In France the Mannerist style became popular after the 1530s as Rosso Fiorentino moved from Italy to Fontainbleu and led a new generation, encouraging artists to paint female nudes in fantastical scenarios decorated by stucco relief panels.
Erotic subjects were also popular in Italy as painters including Francesco Primaticcio and Nicolo dell’Abbate created evocative mythological scenes; the goddess Diana was popular as an idealised motif representing feminine beauty. In Prague Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II encouraged court styles in secular subjects, led by Bartholomaeus Spranger who made large scale, highly eroticised paintings that were filled with swirling energy and drama. Emperor Rudolf was so influential within art circles that the term 'Rudolfine Mannerism' arose during his reign. In the Netherlands Mannerist printmaking was popular, pioneered by Hendrick Goltz, who founded a revolutionary dotted and gridded application of tonal variation. Italian Mannerism also greatly influenced Netherlandish Mannerist painting, where mythological subjects were painted alongside the Northern European tradition for realistic portrayals of landscape, depicting wide panoramas or dense, close areas of forestry, as seen in Adam Elsheimer and Roelandt Savery’s work.
Mannerist styles led the way for the intense drama and overwhelming emotion of the Baroque in the seventeenth century. Artists discovered new techniques for producing a darker, more Gothic sense of theatricality, led by Caravaggio, who brought new developments in chiaroscuro and tenebrism into his paintings. Historically the Mannerist period is often seen as inferior to the mastery of the Renaissance, yet the idealism of the movement paved the way for the elaborate Rococo celebration of leisure, the Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix and J.M.W. Turner and even the decorative, richly coloured Modernism of Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso.