Art History 101

Elegance and Drama: All You Need to Know About Mannerism

Magda Michalska 2 January 2024 min Read

Young artists who left workshops in the years following the activity of Michelangelo and Raphael must have had a very hard time: how could one create art as perfect as those of great Renaissance masters, how could one outdo their achievements? Artists needed to find their own way to make art again. And they did… Mannerism!

Elegance

Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Florence, Uffizi, mannerism
Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy.

The way was simple: let’s make everything even more idealized than Michelangelo and Raphael did. Not possible? Nonsense, everything is possible. Elegance, beauty, and sophistication are a must, and if that requires a little bit of exaggeration…? No problem! An additional cervical vertebrae never killed anyone yet. (Although, to me, giant Madonna with the Long Neck and extremely long fingers doesn’t seem the happiest woman on Earth. Not even mentioning her overgrown baby).

Ornament

Agnolo Bronzino, Eleonora di Toledo and her son, c. 1545, Uffizi, mannerism
Agnolo Bronzino, Eleanor of Toledo and Her Son, c. 1545, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy.

The term used for this new way is Mannerism. It comes from Italian words:

mano (hand)

maniera (style; stylishness)

and it’s applicable to European (mostly Italian) art produced roughly between 1520 and 1600. Mannerism expanded beyond visual art and affected literature and music. I just try to imagine these florid verses flowing out of Manneristic volumes of poetry accompanied by elaborate tunes of a viola…

Elongation

Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies, 1516, Uffizi, mannerism
Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies, 1516, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy.

Andrea del Sarto was a master to two most prominent Mannerist painters in Florence: Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. His High Renaissance ideals of beauty, so similar to Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s, left obvious marks on his pupils’ styles. They tried to improve his technique by elongating bodies and arranging them in precariously balanced poses in a collapsed perspective and irrational settings, adding theatrical lighting to heighten the dramatic effect.

Unnatural beauty

Rosso Fiorentino, Angel Pietà (Dead Christ with Angels), completed 1527., mannerism
Rosso Fiorentino, Angel Pietà (Dead Christ with Angels), 1527, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.

Similar trends were developing simultaneously in Rome. Parmigianino, a student of Correggio, and Giulio Romano, who was Raphael’s head assistant, followed the same aesthetic.

Drama

Jacopo Pontormo, Pietà / Entombment, 1525-1528, Florence, Santa Felecità, mannerism
Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross, 1525-1528, Florence, Santa Felecità

Mannerism spread across Europe and its examples are visible in the styles of El Greco in Spain or Joachim Wtewael in the Netherlands. However, most followers can be found in Italy, including Alessandro Allori, TintorettoBenvenuto Cellini, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The style hung about until the Baroque began to sweep over Europe.

Sophistication

Agnolo Bronzino, Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, c. 1538, Philadelphia Museum of Art, mannerism
Agnolo Bronzino, Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, c. 1538, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Agnolo Cosimo, known under the name Bronzino (which most probably refers to his dark skin tone) was a student of Jacopo Pontormo. He lived all his life in Florence, and from his late 30s worked as the court painter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He is mainly known as a portraitist.

Grace

Francesco Guardi as a Halberdier. 1529-30, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles,
Pontormo, Francesco Guardi as a Halberdier, 1529-1530, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Although the identity of the halberdier portrayed is debated, it is most likely the portrait of a Florentine Francesco di Giovanni di Gherardo Guardi. Based on a 17th-century inventory of the estate of Riccardo Riccardi, formerly it was thought to be the portrait of the young Duke Cosimo I.

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