Mannerist Art: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 Mannerism: Renaissance…
  • 0:57 Defining Mannerism
  • 1:35 Art in the Mid 16th Century
  • 2:49 Characteristics of Mannerism
  • 3:47 Examples
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

In this lesson, we'll look at the style of art known as Mannerism.The work of the Mannerists was dismissed for centuries as decadent, or simply weird. Only in the 20th century did it come to be widely admired.

Mannerism: Renaissance Masterpiece

If your predecessors achieved perfection, what's left for you to do? That's the question that seemed to haunt the generation of artists who came of age in Renaissance Italy after 1520 living in the shadows cast by Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Their response to these unique dynamics was to push art in some very strange directions.

The painters we now call the Mannerists exaggerated and distorted the defining characteristics of High Renaissance art, creating unsettling, sometimes bizarre pictures. This form of art was ignored, even scorned, until the 20th century. Like some surrealist artists of our own time (including the creators of prog rock album covers), the Mannerists used their mastery of perspective, modeling, line, and color to create artificial worlds that were nevertheless painstakingly 'realistic' in their details.

Defining Mannerism

The term Mannerism comes from the Italian word maniera, referring to personal style; the term was derived from mano, meaning hand, because style was considered inseparable from the personal touch, or 'hand', of the artist. It was almost a hundred years after its introduction that the term maniera was first applied to describe this period and style of art, and at the time it was not meant as a compliment. Instead, it implied that these artists had valued style over substance, indulging personal quirks at the expense of the universal vision of the High Renaissance.

Art in the Mid-16th Century

The middle of the 16th century was long regarded as a period of artistic and cultural decline, and it's not too hard to see why. Leonardo da Vinci had died in 1519 and Raphael in 1520. Michelangelo (1475-1564) still had many productive years ahead of him, but he had already completed his best-known works (David, completed in 1504, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted between 1508 and 1512). Interestingly enough, his own later work was characterized by Mannerism.

Nor did political developments at the time encourage optimism. In 1527, Rome was sacked by the troops of Emperor Charles V, and in 1530, the city of Florence - the very heart of the Renaissance - lost its status as an independent republic after a devastating 10-month siege. Significantly, the art of Venice, which remained stable and independent, was not much affected by Mannerism.

Mannerism wasn't taken seriously as a style until the start of the 20th century, when critics began to appreciate the Mannerists' experimental attitudes. It was only at this point that the term 'Mannerism' came into wide use as the proper name of a particular school of art.

Characteristics of Mannerism

Generally, the Mannerists held on to the elements of Renaissance painting that made it so lifelike, especially those used to create the illusion of three dimensions. But other elements might be distorted, or taken to extremes. Where an earlier generation of painters had sought to create a new sense of harmony and stability, the Mannerists introduced tension and strangeness.

The Mannerists often favored lurid colors such as pinks and oranges or greens and violets over calmer tones. Figures strike exaggerated poses, like modern dancers; sometimes their faces suggest agitation or even torment, but at other times they are oddly expressionless.

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