he movement in painting that is now referred to as Mannerism began in Italy around 1520, influenced artists throughout Europe, and lasted until the end of the 16th century. The word Mannerism originates from the Italian word maniera which translates into the English word style. The basis of Mannerism then is style; it’s a period of art where the focus was on grace and beauty. While preceding trends of Renaissance art looked to nature to find their style, working to perfect it, Mannerists manipulated nature creating a gross perfection of human form, idealizing forms to the point of abstraction.
Definitions of Mannerist art as well as the reasons for its appearance as a movement are still contested today. For a definition of mannerism to have validity, it must offer a valid origination of the movement. Much is revealed when the reasons behind a certain artistic expression are clear. Until the 19th century, Mannerist art was considered by most to be perverse and capricious. It was considered simply an excessive use of a specific manner of which contained qualities that were strange and unjustified.
It was thought that extravagance, a need for increased productivity, and a lack of artistic knowledge led to the Mannerist style. In the early part of the 20th century, these generalizations were considered unfair, and many new theories about the origins of Mannerism surfaced. Some theories suggest that artists were displaying a conscious deviance, painting against the rules of classical art, and rebelling against the High Renaissance and the ideal of naturalness. The spiritual unrest of the age is often considered the root of this deviant artistic behavior.
John Shearman points out in Mannerism that the wars of the early 16th century created a period of economic and social disturbance creating the growth of Mannerist style. He says most works of art are insulated in the mind of the artist even from his personal crises, joys and tragedies 40. More reasonable, he says, are explanations of Mannerism in terms of sociological and religious influences. There was a new development in patronage during this period where works were commissioned for no other reason than to have a work made by a certain artist.
Many times the subject, and/or the medium were to be decided upon by the artist. Rosso Fiorentino’s Descent From the Cross has a profoundly disquieting, visionary style that indicates a deep inner anxiety. There is a cold, icy feel to the painting. Spidery forms spread across a dark sky, and the figures are agitated yet rigid. Even the drapery appears hard, the folds look brittle and ready to crack. The light that bathes the figures and the colors of clothing are brilliant but unreal which reinforces the bad dream feel.
Beginning with Mannerism, art begins to become more about the artist than the subject or the person who commissioned it. The pain and distress of Fiorentino is apparent in his work. In his book Mannerism and Maniera, Craig Smyth explains the belief that Mannerist style was connected with the desire for experimentation and creating art for art’s sake rather than a spiritual crisis of the period. Smyth also believes that what is usually considered the anti-classical style of Mannerism is based on classical style specifically antique relief.
He suggests that Mannerists connected with the idealization of classical art. Smyth says, the classic solution kept painters feeling at one with them, not in the opposition 27. Influenced by the figures of an antique relief, the figures in Pontormo’s Deposition appear to be molded out of stone; graceful linear rhythms are created by the intertwined geometric forms. The claustrophobic staging of the figures and the way they are all pushed up the front of the canvas closely resembles the unrealistic space of a relief. Pontormo’s forms have a sculptural solidity and cold gray flesh as if they were made of stone.
Like a battle relief where no figure has a personal identity, each of Pontormo’s figures closely resemble the next, each of their heads and consistently small and oval. The artist was more concerned with grace, form, and details such as drapery rather than the individualism of each character. In his Madonna with the Long Neck, Parmigianino pays close attention to body parts that rarely receive much focus. Shearman says that There is no figure of speech more characteristic of the language of Mannerism than the figura serpentinata 81.
That is, the figure and all its parts should resemble the letter S. Almost every aspect of Parmigianino’s entire work flows gracefully like the tip of a flame: the Madonna’s neck, her fingers, her enormous body, the child in her lap, and the woman that adorns her on her left. The figura serpentinata was considered the hallmark of beauty, leading the eye is a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety Summers, 269. Classical style was interested in portraying the earthly perfection of a human being.
While Mannerists were aware of the qualities of perfection, they refined those features to the point of abstraction. In Elizabeth Cropper’s essay On Beautiful Women, Parmigainino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style, she comments on Pietro Testa’s notes on painting. Testa took unusually clear and concise notes about the features that render a woman beautiful: the shape of her lips, part of her hair, even the color of her gums. The body of Parmigianino’s Madonna mimics the form of the antique vase held by the figure on the right of the Madonna.
It is the shape of an ideal woman according to Testa. The Madonna’s neck is long and graceful like that of a swan, and her fingers seem to slither across her chest like the tongue of a snake. The leg of the figure at the Madonna’s side is long, slender and smooth. Parmigianino was playing with the characteristics of feminine beauty and the rules of art, pushing them further and reaching new standards of beauty. Smyth also notes the Mannerist focus of feet, hands, hair, beards, and also abundant garments deserving special care as a focus of grace.
The Madonna’s drapery is plentiful, gracefully flowing around her, and covering her enormous body from shoulder to toe. Shearman explains that When a Mannerist artist breaks rules he does so on the basis of knowledge and not of ignorance 26. Many art historians including Shearman define Mannerism as un-classical and founded on the reversal of classical relationships and forms. In Pontormo’s Deposition, all the figures are characterized by athletic twists and turns, but the figure in the central front of the painting bends at the ribs, and holds up Christ’s body while positioned on the tips of his toes and leaning on a mound of fabric.
Both are feats impossible for the human body to achieve. Artists of the high Renaissance strove to recreate the perfection of human form precisely but also realistically. Pontormo’s work is a mass of confusion. It is unclear at times whom certain appendage belongs to, or if a figure possesses them at all. Paolo Pino, in his Dialogo della Pittura says that in all your works you should intorduce at least one figure that is all distorted, ambiguous and difficult Shearman, 86. Mannerist figures appear flat yet are often twisted and contorted in many directions.
By breaking the rules, it was obvious that the artist and anyone able to identify the broken rules knows them, and that they are educated in the finer points of art. It would perhaps be more witty to own a work that portrayed a deviation of a rule rather than simply offering one up to the audience. Mannerist artists like to exploit the strain between two and three dimensions, between restricting flatness and poses that suggest the need of freedom and flexibility. Pontormo not only played with the rules of his figures, but he also breaks the rules of composition.
Mannerist space is flat and ambiguous; the audience is never quite sure where it is going, or how the figures are arranged in it. The figures appear to be standing on a hill or incline, because the figures in the rear are lifted much higher than those in the front, and there are no clues to how far back the space actually extends. The center of the canvas is the space usually allocated for the focus of the painting during the High Renaissance, but Pontormo leaves it empty. This leaves the composition void of a focal point forcing the viewers eye to continually scan the image.
The bodies of the figures seem to move around the frame of the canvas, and the focus of each figure is somewhere different in the painting. Two figures are even facing toward the back of the painting leaving viewers unsure where their attention should be focused. The composition is abstracted further by the palette of colors Pontormo chose. Compositions of the high Renaissance used, for the most part, the full range of primary colors, almost none of which appear in this work. Mannerist color wasn’t meant to be realistic, it was for the purpose of variation, and thrill.
Again in Fiorentino’s Descent From the Cross, the multitude of figures creates a lack of focus in the image, but the uniform light in the painting also helps to disperse focal attention. Mannerist light tends to originate from somewhere parallel to the picture plane reserving shadow for surfaces that recede or protrude. Containing such a small amount of shadow, Fiorentino’s scene appears to be bathed in the harsh flash of a camera stressing each figure equally and obscuring the subject.
Fiorentino’s figures are a mass of parallels and intersections describing the use of line and geometry in Mannerist painting. Smyth says that Elongation is not central to maniera, but the principals of angularity and of spotting the composition with angular elements are 11. The cross and ladders add to the geometry of the painting and aid in the tangency of forms. Shearman explains that the title ‘Mannerism’ creates the illusion that it was a conscious movement like one of the 19th or 20th centuries. Mannerism didn’t have a focus, the artists weren’t working toward a common goal.
The artists of Mannerism were influenced by all that came before them: antiquity, their predecessors and artistic peers, but Mannerists were most importantly looking toward the future and their own imaginations. Artists were for the first time were creating art for the sake of art. The goal of art was no longer intended completely as social or religious propaganda to be determined by the patron. Mannerist art was influenced by imagination and based on fantasy, and it was largely aimed at the enjoyment of an audience.