Mannerism: Understanding this Enigmatic Era of Italian Art


What exactly is the era and style of mannerism art? Put simply, it is one possible answer to a question regarding Western art during the height of the Renaissance, to wit, “Where do we go from here?” For over three centuries artists were trying to perfect their craft of painting to reflect the quality of ancient art found in Greece and Rome and to honour the god of the Judeo-Christian Bible whom they held in such high regard. Their goals were to do away with such archaic tropes as hierarchical perspective, in which “important” figures were depicted larger than those who were considered less important, and to perfect techniques such as linear and atmospheric perspectives that create a believable sense of depth and space through the use of foreshortening and sfumato. They wanted to perfect such things as “chiaroscuro,” so that light and shadow would seem to emanate believably from a single source, and to create a sense of realism through correct proportion of people and beings. And, among other things, they wanted to create beauty in colour and form and feeling. And so, for European artists in what we call the “proto-renaissance—“artists such as Giotto di Bondone ( c. 1266-1337) up through the “high renaissance” with the deaths of Raffaello Sanzio da Rubino (or “Raphael) (1483-1520) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), these areas became the collective focus. The astonishing thing about their efforts, however, is that they achieved them, and no one had given any thought as to what the West might do in two-dimensional pictorial art if that were to happen. Understand, this was perceived as a divine calling, and as such, it would be always the goal, the unattainable ideal, what “we all strive for;” “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp,” after all. And since the goal of Western society in all venues is to grow, develop, mature and improve, what do you do when there is no more? Where do you go from up? One answer, and perhaps the better answer in the realm of pictorial art, was the style of Baroque. But for Michelangelo Buonarroti, who out lived his rival, Raphael, by an additional 44 years, and other Italian artists from the high renaissance, the answer for a brief time (1520-80) was mannerism.

In certain ways, mannerism shows a certain rebellion against the idyllic harmonies of the renaissance. The renaissance emphasizes balance and proportion, mannerism stresses asymmetry and unnatural elegance. Mannerism is more artificial and favours less realistic, less naturalistic compositional tension as a sort of symbolism or exaggerated beauty. It lends itself toward distortion and abstraction, but not necessarily with a foundation of purpose for such straining aberrant stylistic choices.

By way of example, consider Parmigianino’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (c. 1524) below:

We have, first, a portrait that would never have been considered 30 years before. It is an accurate representation of a portrait distorted in a convex mirror: The subject’s arm in the foreground takes on the curve that it must in order to follow the curve of the glass, and the viewer gets a continued sense of that same distortion in the window of the upper left and the angled roof near the top and down the upper right. It is an accurate rendering of how a person would, in fact, appear in such a mirror, and, to our 21st-century sensibilities, it might have some of the same interest as M. C. Escher’s “Hand with Reflecting Sphere.”

In both, we get the sense of distortion brought on by viewing a person through a convex reflecting surface, so what’s the problem? Well, in Parmigianino’s portrait, there’s actually very little that is distorted. There is a flat back wall behind the subject’s face, but, as it’s flat, there’s no distortion needed. The distortion functions as a secondary, even redundant, framing mechanism around the edges, but there’s nothing in the centre, which offers no distortion because of its central location in the mirror, so the actual portrait is really nothing more than a normal portrait, and the painting, then, really offers nothing outstanding. It leaves a viewer wondering, “What’s your point?”

In contrast, Escher’s portrait is similarly a portrait, but not in the title, which focuses our attention primarily on the artist’s hand and its reflection, not on the face, which itself, while centred in the sphere, is not centred in the work as a whole. The hand and its reflection are centred while the artist’s face is tiny by comparison, and that distortion gives the image something interesting for viewers to consider. Additionally, where Parmigianino offers viewer’s a flat wall in the background, Escher offers bookshelves, furniture, two windows at different angles, and a flat ceiling that is not at all flat. In short, Escher plays with a lot more detail in his portrait and gives his viewers much more distortion to play with mentally.

The quintessential mannerist painting is Parmigianino’s “Madonna of the Long Neck.” Seldom can you study mannerism in a course without also studying this version of the Madonna and Child. The Madonna, herself, is elongated to the point of snapping, as is the child in her lap. Her neck, thankfully, supports proportionally tiny head, otherwise her anaemic shoulders would not support it. There is a man of uncertain purpose in the lower right corner, and viewers are given no visual clue as to the purpose of his size relative to the Madonna. Normally there would be lines on the floor or some other indication of space, but there is none leaving viewers to conclude that he is simply a very small man beside the Madonna. Behind him is a long colonnade supporting no roof nor serving any other purpose. The placement of the light reflecting off the column in the front suggests that the columns are tapered cylinders, as we might expect. However, near the bottom of said colonnade are a series of shadows created by the individual columns, and the placement of those shadows indicates that the spaces between the columns is the same as the width of each column, but given their sizes, the depth of each column could be no more than a few inches as compared with the several feet of their apparent width.

Having said all of that, the painting has some fine features: beautiful use of colour, exceptional folds in the clothing, beautiful expressions on the faces of those in the foreground, and yet, the composition is clumsy at best. It’s as if the artist, who is heralded as one of mannerism’s finest, had great understanding of some aspects of painting, but hadn’t begun to explore the basics of others. And since “The Madonna of the Long Neck” is the go-to painting of the era, it would be easy to conclude from it, that mannerism is little more than an era of bad art.

But if that were true, we must look to those who started the movement to see where the fault lies. Who are the artistic masters who lead the young minds astray? There are several from the high renaissance, but among the more prominent names is Michelangelo.

Between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo was at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, in Rome. For two-dimensional art of the high Renaissance, this chapel ceiling is Michelangelo’s masterpiece and considered a cornerstone of high Renaissance art; 131 feet long and 43 feet wide—5633 square feet of some 47 magnificent frescoes that tell the story of the fall of man from the Judeo-Christian book of Genesis, among other things.

Twenty-three years later, fifteen years after the death of Raphael, the time used to mark the end of the high Renaissance in southern Europe (In northern Europe, the date of 1528 is used, as it coincides with the death of Albrecht Dürer, the high Renaissance artist of Germany.), Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel during a vastly different socio-economic climate, to paint the back wall, depicting The Last Judgement scene from the book of Revelation. The back wall is less than a third of the size of the ceiling at 45 X 40 ft (1800 sq ft), but it took Michelangelo nearly seven years to finish it (as compared with the four years for the ceiling).

On the whole, the back wall is still a beautiful piece of art unless you find the topic to be disturbing, as some do. But when you look more closely at it and compare some of the features with Michelangelo’s earlier ceiling features, you see that there are some differences that are unsettling.

In the two images from the Sistine Chapel ceiling there is much greater naturalism and realism. The bodies represented are proportionate, each with itself, and from one to the next. Aside from Michelangelo’s inimitable style of depicting the human body, it is all quite believable. But when you look to the body of Christ from The Last Judgement, you see a fully muscular body with no hips or waist. The torso from the shoulders to the top of the legs is virtually square. The Virgin, who sits behind Christ, is in a position that no person could hold for long, and yet is depicted in a way that suggests that she is holding it.

Yes, it’s true that one must look at these images with the idea of symbolism and “other worldliness” in mind. Christ is seen as abundantly powerful, majestic and mighty, while Mary is shown as more demure but not of this world. But the symbolism seems to draw too much attention to itself and it loses its suggested meaning so that all viewers are really left with is distortion. Please understand, though, I am not criticizing the artist or his technique; I am, however, criticizing the philosophy and ideology behind the mannerist style.

Honestly, there are some mannerist paintings, whether portraits or narratives or what have you, that are mannerism apparently only because of the era and location of the artist. But there are many more that can lead a person to conclude that, if mannerism is an answer to a question as to where to go after the Renaissance, it is the wrong answer.

Mannerism has its roots and most of its branches securely stationary in Italy. It doesn’t move, in any major way, beyond the Italian Alps. The style and era also stand securely within the 16th century, beginning in roughly 1520 and ending squarely in 1580. Moreover, from the time of mannerism, it is no longer to Italy where artists look for the masters, no longer is Italy leading the way in art, but France is. And from the Baroque era that begins in about 1590 until the middle of the 20th century, France holds sway in most of the arts and Italy is relegated to the has-been.

Some see mannerism as a bridge between the Renaissance and the Baroque because it is during that time that the angles and other techniques used so well in the Baroque are brought about, and if it is such, then mannerism is not so much a style as it is a transition, a colourful sixty-year etude, not a masterful piece such as its predecessor nor its successor.

As this article draws to a close, let me show you a few more examples of mannerism and highlight the distortions, and you can see for yourself the oddities of the time.

Venus and Cupid occupy the foreground of the piece; Cupid, himself, is behind his mother. Look closely how his back and backside are bent—not at all believably—in order to accommodate the kiss with his mother, a kiss which is equally impossible from the angle depicted. In addition to the visible distortion, there is no sure, definitive interpretation to this allegory. The message has been lost with either time, or with some idiosyncratic rendering of Bronzino’s own.

Again, I would not be quick to hang this portrait in my living room if it depicted anyone in my family. Whatever beauty or elegance the subject may have had is lost to the distortion in her enormous shoulders and elongated neck.

In many ways this painting is emotional and beautifully depicted in its use of colour, but regard the poor fellow labouring under the weight of Christ’s legs. His torso and legs are monstrously elongated to the point that we don’t know if his expression is one of mourning for Christ’s death or for the fact that the weight is to much for his extended body to bear. Even the colour of his torso and upper arms seems ill as it is not clear if his upper body is unclothed or if he is wearing a tightly fitted tunic.

These are the distortions that mannerist artists introduced as being symbolic or in some other way making a statement. If it is a style and era unto itself as is the Baroque and the Renaissance, then we must conclude that it is not a success. If we view it as a transition, then we can be more forgiving as we consider it a time when artists lost direction and took 40 to 50 years to find it again. Thankfully, however, they did, most assuredly, find it.





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