Summary of Mannerism
Mannerism launched a highly imaginative period in art following the climax of perfection that naturalistic painting had reached in Renaissance Italy. Artists in 16th century Florence and Rome started to veer from classical influences and move toward a more intellectual and expressive approach. This ushered in a veer from authentic portrayals of figures and subjects, a rejection of harmony, and the development of a dramatic new style unconfined by the pictorial plane, reality, or literal correctness. Radical asymmetry, artifice, and the decorative also informed this movement. New discoveries in science had led society away from Humanist ideals and paintings no longer posited man as the center of the universe, but rather as isolated, peripheral participants in the great mysteries of life.
Some scholars further divide Mannerism into two periods. Early Mannerism, which expressed an anti-traditional approach and lasted until 1535, was followed by High Mannerism where a more intricate and artificial style appealed to more sophisticated patrons, becoming a kind of court style. Later, the use of the term Mannerism to denote a particular period of art history was pioneered by Luigi Lanzi, a 17th century art historian and archeologist. The period would become a forebear to the Baroque period.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- A key element of Mannerism was the use of figurative serpentinata, or "serpentine figure" in depicting human bodies. With extended limbs, elongated forms, and a fluid S-shaped grace, these figures presented an otherworldliness that departed from classical renditions.
- Many Mannerist works presented individuals or scenes in non-naturalistic settings, oftentimes without any contextual basis, inviting the viewer into a more philosophical experience rather than a literal reading of the work.
- Mannerism's reach was wide, with many important schools that cropped up to experiment within this new form. Yet, while each school drew upon its own indigenous attachments and cultural lore, the styles of presentation remained largely the same.
- Subjects and themes of Mannerism furthered the Venetian School's genres and expounded upon them. Mythological and allegorical subjects with an erotic theme, architecture, landscapes, and pastorals were common motifs albeit evolved via the new morphed aesthetics.
Overview of Mannerism
The development of Mannerism began in Florence and Rome around 1520, reflecting a "perfect storm" of circumstances affecting the art world at the time. Printmaking had allowed for the spread of popular imagery by artists such as Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer to infiltrate the collective consciousness in Italy (and the Northern countries), positing artists as divine creators rather than just employees of wealthy patrons and churches. In 1517, Martin Luther's Wittenberg Theses (1517), which denounced church practices and called for reform, launched the Protestant Reformation. Because of this, the serene and classical idealizations of beauty characteristic of the High Renaissance no longer seemed tenable.
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Important Art and Artists of Mannerism
This iconic self-portrait shows the artist, aged twenty-one, reflected as he looks into what appears to be a mirror. His distorted hand, extenuated, fills the lower part of the image, inviting the viewer in to the intimate scene. Beautiful, almost angelic, his gaze is introspective and focused with a still intensity. The fabrics of his clothing, the multicolored patches of expensive fur, the lacy frill of his sleeve, and the white of his neckline are rendered with a subtle play of light that seems precise though the brushstrokes are almost impressionistic.
The artist intended this as a tour de force, as it was one of the paintings he took with him to Rome when seeking the patronage of Pope Clement VII. The work was remarkably innovative, as he painted the image on a convex panel. Supposedly he had a carpenter make a wooden ball that was then sawed in half, so that the work would resemble a barber's mirror. Most Renaissance artists regarded the mirror as a tool for observation and normalized images painted from reflections. But Parmigianino kept the distortions in order to create a complex play upon the nature of perception itself.
The self-reflexivity in the work was remarkably modern. Art critic Michael Glover wrote, the result is "one of the most inscrutable portraits in the entire Western canon." Additionally, art historians David G. Stork and Yasuo Furuichi stated, his "interest in psychological introspection, belief in a shifting impermanent visual reality, experimentation in the dark sciences of alchemy, wit, and youthful desire to demonstrate his artistic prowess all find their expression."
Parmigianino became one of the most influential of the Mannerists, even though he died at the age of thirty-seven. His influence extended to print making and he has been called the "father of etching." John Ashbery, the American poet and critic, wrote his book length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), inspired by this piece.
This altarpiece depicts a swirl of stricken and grieving figures as they lower the dead body of Christ, his pale elongated torso depicted in a serpentine curve that extends through the lower center of the work. The Virgin Mary, dressed in blue, faints in the upper right. Though the work is thought to be the deposition from the cross, the artist has innovatively left out the cross, and has also added a number of figures, including the man whose face glimpsed at the far right, thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. Because the painting's composition emphasizes the swirling gestures of figures and robes, each face is like a still point of isolation, its white shocked expression echoing the face of the dead Christ.
This work marked the arrival of the Mannerist style with its unusual color palette, its elongated figures in distorted poses, and its creation of an unrealistic pictorial space. Pontormo's influence was, perhaps, greatest upon Bronzino, though he also influenced Vasari and El Greco, as well as other lesser-known artists of the time like Morandini, Naldini, and Salviati.
This work focuses on the Madonna, whose extenuated limbs and monumental scale fill the center of the canvas. A nude infant Jesus reclines on his mother's lap while angels crowd around them. His pale form, limp arms, and closed eyes create a disconcerting effect reminiscent of a woeful Pietà. Mary's expression is also nontraditional. As she holds elegant but overly long fingers to her heart, looking down with a slight smile, she seems bemused and distanced. A dissonance results between the haunting religious image and its portrait of what could be a fashionable but emotionally disconnected aristocrat. The angels are much more animated, but evoke the curiosity and liveliness of ordinary children more than a divine presence. The architectural setting, while conveying a 'classical' effect, is not classically rendered with linear perspective, and an unsettling ambiguity results. To the right of the column, the very small figure of St. Jerome, his limbs elongated, holds out a scroll while looking back over his shoulder.
The work was popularly titled "Madonna with the Long Neck," as Mary's graceful linearity evokes a swan. In 1534 this work was commissioned for Francesco Tagliaferri's funerary chapel in Parma but left incomplete in 1540 when the artist died. Perhaps, no other work has so come to characterize the Mannerist approach, as the artist pulled out all the stops in creating an unorthodox treatment of space and the figure. As E. H. Gombrich wrote, "Instead of distributing his figures in equal pairs on both sides of the Madonna, he crammed a jostling crowd of angels into a narrow corner, and left the other side wide open to show the tall figure of the prophet, so reduced in size through the distance that he hardly reaches the Madonna's knee. There can be no doubt, then, that if this be madness there is method in it." The Madonna's right foot seems to extend beyond the pictorial plane, as if into the viewer's space, and suggest that the artist's intent was to innovatively involve the viewer in its riddle of relationship and meaning.