Mannerism – Artistic style labeled as anarchic, decadent and weird for centuries

Palazzo Te in Mantova, designed by Giulio Romano. Author: Marcok. CC BY-SA 3.0

Mannerism is an artistic style that dominated in Italy from the later years of the Italian High Renaissance, around 1520, until the arrival of Baroque style around 1600. It is considered a bridge between the Renaissance and the dramatic Baroque. The style originated in Florence and Rome, but soon spread to the rest of Italy and eventually all over Europe.

Tne name comes from the Italian word maniera, from mano meaning hand, because the style was strongly connected to the personal touch, or ‘hand’, of the artist. The term was used almost a hundred years after its introduction, and at the time it didn’t describe agreeable and admirable art. It wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that Mannerism began to be appreciated.

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The political developments at the time had a huge impact on Mannerism. In 1527, Rome was taken over by the troops of Charles V (who previously was Charles I, King of Spain) and he had himself crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V wasn’t very fond of the independent city-states of Italy and many of them lost their status. For instance, in 1530, after a 10-month siege, Florence was no longer an independent republic.


Jacopo Pontormo, Entombment, 1528; Santa Felicità, Florence

Charles V also wasn’t very thrilled with sponsoring art or artists – particularly not Italian. Additionally, with the Protestant Reformation led by figures such as Martin Luther, along with Copernicus’ contradicting the Church with his establishment that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe, caused many to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. So, under the circumstances, Mannerism was probably the best that could be expected from the artisans.

Mannerism arts are nothing like the natural, graceful, and harmonious High Renaissance masterpieces. The style seeks a sophisticated indulgence in the bizarre. The characteristic elongated human figures serve to heighten the emotion in the artwork, with exaggerated poses and faces that show agitation or torment but are also oddly expressionless.

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The paintings can have no focal point, figures can be twisting with distortions in the interest of expressionism, and space can be ambiguous. The colors used are nothing like the balanced, natural and calmer tones of the High Renaissance, but instead vivid and lurid shades such as pinks and oranges or greens and violets. The style attempted to achieve instability and restlessness.


Sistine Chapel with Ceiling and Last Judgement by Michelangelo, Rome, Vatican. Author: Jörg Bittner Unna. CC BY 3.0

In Mannerism, rich and elaborate decoration was very important. Surfaces were covered with different patterns, such as humans, monsters, animals, and plants, often mixed together. In the paintings, the sky could be filled with malevolent putti, flying animals, Grecian columns, and often a combination of them all or some other unnecessary element.


Mannerist architecture in Gdańsk, Poland.

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One of the finest Mannerist Artists was Michelangelo. He was flexible, adapting to the wishes of every successive Pope who commissioned him. His most famous Mannerist works are the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, such as The Last Judgement (1536-41). Other notable Mannerist painters were Parmigianino, Pontormo, and Correggio who was the first to portray light radiating from the child Christ.

Mannerist sculptors worked in precious metals much more often than their predecessors. An important and identifying characteristic is the development of the “Serpentinata” style. The forms and figures of the sculptures showed passion, tension, physical power and semantic perfection. Typical Mannerist sculptures were small bronze mythological figures with nudes. Among the notable sculptors were Giambologna, Benvenuto Cellini, and Alonso Berruguete.

Mannerism architecture is characterized by deliberately playing with the order, harmony, and symmetry, which were the hallmarks of High Renaissance architecture. Michelangelo was the pioneer of the architecture. His design for the Laurentian Library in Florence, commissioned by the Medici pope Clement VII, is considered a true masterpiece in Mannerism architecture. Another remarkable work is Palazzo Te in Mantova designed by Giulio Romano. Later on, Antwerp would become the center, from where the architecture would spread to England, Germany, and northern and eastern Europe.

One of the best examples of Mannerist architecture – Palazzo Te in Mantova, designed by Giulio Romano. Author: Marcok. CC BY-SA 3.0

The work of the Mannerists was very distinct from High Renaissance art and for centuries was labeled as anarchic, decadent and weird. But, with predecessors such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci who had already achieved perfection, what was left for the Mannerists except to push art is some strange directions. Around 1600, the paintings of Annibale Carracci and of Caravaggio announced the beginning of the theatrical Baroque style and brought the problematic style to an end.