An Introduction to Mannerism by Francesco Bonavita


Rosso Fiorentino’s The Body of Christ with Angels, circa 1524-1527. Fiorentino was an eminent Mannerist artist.

Mannerism, as a critical category in the visual arts, has become a permanent term in the standard texts on the History of Art. The very notion of Mannerism is very often confined to an ephemeral role; one that embodies affected and unbalanced qualities. During the Renaissance, the term Mannerism was construed in terms of exaggerated and imitative forms of the classical art of the High Renaissance, which ultimately went on to become an elaborate form of the Baroque art movement.

Mannerism is an art movement that originated during the Late Renaissance in the 16th century and lasted during the first half of the 17th century. What strikes the viewer is the elongated proportions, the exaggerated forms, the distortion of reality and the complexity of the composition that is essential to Mannerist art.

The validity of Mannerism as an art form has often been overlooked. Many art critics have easily confused Mannerism as a movement that eventually went on to become Baroque. In essence, Mannerism is an art category that originated in the High Renaissance and, as such, it stands on its own merits.

Filippo Brunelleschi’s Dome of Florence.

At the very onset of the Renaissance, optimism was in the air. The Humanist spirit believed that man is capable of attaining perfection and that no problem was in surmountable. Renaissance scholars left no stones unturned, as they examined all fields of human endeavor, such as arts, science, mathematics, music, architecture, the visual arts, politics, philosophy, theology and social structures. One needs only to examine Renaissance art of masters like Filippo Brunelleschi’s majestic dome of Florence’s Cathedral or Michelangelo’s statue of David to realize that these masterpieces are emblematic of the Renaissance spirit of man’s ability to soar to the highest achievements.

David by Michelangelo Florence Galleria dell'Accademia

David by Michelangelo, circa 1501-1504, in the Academia Gallery in Florence.

Nonetheless, as time evolved, the notion that man could live in harmony with one another and that a terrestrial utopia could be experienced by virtually every citizen began to fall apart. In addition to witnessing incredible artistic achievement during the High Renaissance, Italy and the rest of Europe began to experience social chaos on account of diseases, religious and political wars and economic instability, all of which brought a sense of anxiety and uncertainty for the well-being of humanity.


The Sack of Rome of 1527, as depicted Johannes Lingelbach in the 17th century.

In her celebrated book, The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy gives a considerable account of the great sufferings inflicted on the Florentine people during this period of the so-called “ideal republic.” This aura of uneasiness by no means enveloped the city of Florence alone. The Sack of Rome in 1527, executed by the Imperial troops of Charles V is said to have had devastating consequences – the violent sequence of events, the numerous atrocities committed by the invading soldiers (the pillaging of churches and palaces, the raping of ladies and nuns) the explicit desecration of the actual bivouacking of troops in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s, the ubiquitous plague and famine accompanying the evils of war.


The Massacre of St. Bartholemew by the Huguenot painter François Dubois who escaped from France, after the massacre. In the background, there is also an image of Queen Catherine de’ Medici who orchestrated the massacre in order to ensure that France remain Catholic.

The sense of angst permeated Europe as a whole. In France, for instance, during the so-called the night of St. Bartholemew of 1572, some thirty thousand people perished on account of religious strife. So, too, a systematic genocide took place in Spain and Portugal against Arabs and Jews due to the Great inquisition. The economic upheaval that has been experienced in our own times, was very much present during the sixteenth century in Europe with the banking collapse of the De’ Medici and the Fugger bankers and it appears to have had debilitating consequences. So, too, the sanction of slavery during the Late Renaissance constitutes a definite blow to the humanist program. Indeed, such gloomy conditions have had enormous impact on all social classes, which saw the beginning of social revolts against the state.

The artist who lived during this unsettling climate was not immune to the social unrest of the time. The attitude of the artist may have been profoundly affected by this new world order. It appears that the concept of Mannerism is intimately connected to the spirit of the time, which is to say, chaos, uneasiness and uncertainty.

Mannerism is a reaction to the High Renaissance that sought to portray a stable and harmonious universe. In so many ways, Mannerism rejected the tenets of classical antiquity that equated beauty with perfection, as well as being intrinsically connected to a righteous world. In contrast, mannerism aimed at portraying a more emotionally engaging and expressive form.

Mannerist art was highly intellectual and individualistic in that it went against the established norms, in favor of depicting a world that reflected the inner struggles of the artist himself.

Parmigianino’s work is an excellent example of Mannerist art in that it embodies elongated forms, exaggerate images and, most importantly, his inner angst. In his famous painting, The Madonna with a Long Neck, the Madonna figure appears to be lonely, as if detached from the temporal world. So, too, in his self-portrait, Parmigianino sees himself as a fragile and problematic individual. One cannot help but to think of personal losses in life, when he was dispossessed of his entire estate. The sense of humiliation is part and parcel of his artistic output.


The Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino circa 1535-1540 in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

There are several anecdotes that relate to the artist as he struggled to advance his art. When he was commissioned to work on a Madonna and Child, he was so immersed with his work that he neglected to finish the Madonna’s neck, leaving it somewhat elongated. When it finally was unveiled, church officials were disappointed, but this work became one of the most brilliant examples of Mannerist art.

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Self-Portrait of Parmigianino at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

So, too, he is known to have experimented with a convex mirror in an effort to express his sense of anguish through a self-portrait. This work embodies an unconventional approach to creating a self-portrait, but the end results are that he produced a surreal, distorted image that projects how the world appeared to the artist.

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The Conversion of Saint Paul by Parmigianino circa 1527 at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Similarly, when he was commissioned by the Church of Parma to depict the conversion of Saint Paul, church officials became outraged, upon discovering that the work was not completed on time and threatened the artist with severe consequences. Parmigianino responded by painting himself with a tiny image in a lower corner of the work, as a way of mocking authorities.


Jacopo Pontormo’s Deposition from the Cross, circa 1525-1528 in the Capponi Chapel at the Church of Santa Felicità in Florence.

The artistic output of Jacopo Pontormo was highly significant, as it had an important saying on Mannerism, as an artistic movement. Like his contemporaries, his work had a distinct style, but it shared Mannerist qualities, such as elongated figures, distorted images, exaggerated forms and the depiction of intense emotion. Pontormo established a school that produced admirable artist such as Bronzino. Pontormo spent hours studying cadavers in an effort to better depict distorted images. He is also well known for his experiment with chiaroscuro, a technique that plays with light and darkness.


Michelangelo’s Moses, part of the Tomb of Pope Julius II in San Pietro, circa 1515, in Vincoli, Rome.

Perhaps, the best example of Mannerist art is generated by Michelangelo, towards the end of his life. The statue of Moses appears to close a circle in the Florentine master that started with his masterpiece of David, when he was in his twenties. As indicated earlier, David, embodies the humanist ideals of human perfection along with an optimistic view of humanity. As Michelangelo aged, a worldview emerged that was no longer in concert with that of an earlier vision.

In summary, Mannerism was an artistic movement that reflected the intellectual spirit of the Late Renaissance, with ornamental forms, elongated figures a surreal view of the world that was in stark contrast to the classical concept of beauty.

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