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        What is Mannerism?

      • Mannerism is a term developed in the present century to describe the artistic manifestations, principally Italian, of the period c.15201600. During these years many major works were produced which cannot be called Renaissance or Baroque without rendering these terms meaningless. The word maniera, from which Mannerism is derived, was used by Vasari (himself a notorious practitioner) to describe the schematic quality of much of the work produced, based on intellectual preconceptions rather than direct visual perceptions. Much of Mannerism consists of deliberately flouting the 'Rules' deduced from classical art and established during the Renaissance. This presupposes an educated spectator; otherwise there is no point in breaking the rules. The effect is more obvious in architecture, since the Rules there are both more simple and more rigid, and the works of Giulio Romano show him to have been a major Mannerist architect although less important as a painter.

        The principal characteristics of a Mannerist work of art include an insistence on the primacy of the human figure, which, however, is set in strainer poses, wilfully distorted and elongated, while the muscles are sometimes also grossly overemphasized. The composition is usually forced and unclear, with the principal subject set in a corner or in the background, with great discrepancies of scale between the figures and with the perspective treated more often as a piece of virtuosity than as a contribution to the lucidity of the narrative. The colour of a Mannerist picture is always vivid and often harsh, since it is intended to heighten the emotional effect rather than describe the forms; many Mannerists also have a preference for 'shot' colours, red blending into orange, yellow into green, and so on. It is essentially an unquiet style, subjective and emotional, and was therefore well fitted to be rediscovered and defined during the 1920s, but it is certainly wrong - as Marxist critics do - to equate it wholly with the disturbed political and social conditions prevailing in Central Italy after the Sack of Rome in 1527. These conditions, however influential, were more or less permanent; but it is fair to say that these disturbances, and particularly the unsettling effect of the Reformation (with its doctrine of private judgement) and the Counter-Reformation (with its repressive and didactic aspects), led to the abandonment of the serenity and calm classicism of the High Renaissance, of the art of Bramante and Raphael. Much of Mannerism is a conscious artistic revolution against the qualities summarized in Raphael: it is even possible to see Michelangelo's Last Judgement as a renunciation of the ideas underlying his own Sistine Ceiling. By about 1520 it was clear that the very perfection of Raphael was an impasse for his successors, leading only to pointless emulation; and his gifted pupil, Giulio Romano, therefore turned to an exaggeration of facial expression, gesture and lighting, derived partly from Raphael himself (the Transfiguration) but even more from Michelangelo, in an attempt to conquer entirely new fields of emotional expressiveness. The overwhelming greatness of Michelangelo is another major factor. His single-minded and sculptural devotion to the male nude led to many minor painters eschewing the painting of landscapes and accessories in a desire to storm the artistic heights of disegno, with all its difficulties of anatomy, composition and contrapposto. This was particularly important to sculptors like Giovanni da Bologna or Ammanati.

        On the whole, Mannerism is a style best suited to neurotic artists such as Pontormo, Rosso and Parmigianino, all of whom produced major works, as well as such great masters as Michelangelo, Tintoretto and El Greco. There were also many very dull painters who strained every nerve to be neurotically interesting, but produced only frenziedly gesticulating and twisted figures in insipidly repetitive contrapposto, derived from Michelangelo. It should be observed, however, that Mannerism had relatively little effect in Venice, where the political conditions which favoured the style in Central Italy did not obtain. From Vasari and Pellegrino Tibaldi elegant petrifaction set in - as in the splendidly null Court portraits of Bronzino - and the style eventually died of inanition at the hands of the Cavaliere d'Arpino. It was succeeded by a wave of returning confidence and vitality coupled with a return to Nature in the Baroque.

      • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

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