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In Art, What Is Mannerism?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Mannerism is a term developed in the 20th century to describe a period of painting and architecture prominent primarily in Italy from 1520 to 1600. Stylistically, mannerism includes a variety of schematic approaches to painting that flouted the rules of classical art established during the Renaissance. A work in the mannerist style is generally based on intellectual preconceptions instead of direct visual perceptions. Additionally, this period is notable for the artificial rather than naturalist qualities of paintings. Art historians do not agree on a definition of mannerism and continue to debate whether the term is applicable to early modern poetry and music as well as painting and architecture.

The term was likely coined by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and adopted by German art historians at the dawn of the 20th century. Burckhardt was attempting to categorize 16th-century Italian art, a group of works that seemed to be evolving away from the styles characteristic of the High Renaissance. Rather than emphasize the observation of nature, artists were starting to favor their own intellect, invention, and technique. This was a partial result of the artistic profession’s increasing societal prestige.

A mannerist painting is characterized by the elongated forms of figures, irrational settings, and a lack of perspective. The lighting in most mannerist paintings can be described as theatrical. Virtuoso technique created compositions of clashing color; emotions; and combinations of Christian, mythological, and Classical themes.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, also known by his Spanish nickname El Greco or the Greek, is arguably the most well-known mannerist painter. After imbuing his style with mannerist elements in Venice, he traveled to Toledo in Spain, where he remained until his death in 1614. El Greco’s otherworldly figures are easily recognized by their extremely elongated,and his typical works include almost phantasmagorical colors and an irrational perspective. Time and space are condensed in El Greco’s work, which aims primarily to express religious tensions by dramatizing rather than describing.

Another representative mannerist artist is the Italian painter Tintoretto or Jacopo Comin. His work is characterized by muscular figures making dramatic gestures and bold perspective. For example, in his painting of Jesus’s last supper, Tintoretto moves the iconic table and its diners from the center of the composition. He pulls back, revealing all the cacophony and motion of servers and other guests surrounding Christ and his Apostles. Heaven and angels share the same space with humans as they observe the scene.

As mannerism began to fade from favor in the late 16th century, it was gradually replaced by the Baroque style. A version known as Northern Mannerism was sustained in regions north of the Alps well into the 17th century. Mannerism is also a general term for any idiosyncratic element of an author’s style that sets it apart. Milton’s Latinesque syntax and Hemingway’s rhythmic prose are two examples of qualities that make their writing easily recognizable and could therefore also be called mannerisms.

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