Originally the term Mannerism meant “style”, from Italian word “maniera”, which can be translated as “stylish style”. During the 16th century artist and critic Vasari, a representative of Mannerism, thought that great painting demanded the following three things: 1) refinement; 2) richness of invention; 3) virtuoso and technique. Based on these criteria, we may point out the main feature of Mannerism: artist’s intelligence is far more important in this style that artist’s attention to recreating observed details of nature.
Thus artists ceased to be craftsmen and became the equals of scholars and poets during a time period that had a great admiration of elegance and complexity. They also chose Art to be their teacher and not Nature.
First Mannerism appeared in Italy around 1520 and then spread to other regions of Italy and to northern Europe. It is a period of art when the focus was on grace and beauty. Until the 19th century Mannerist art was considered by most to be perverse and capricious. It was considered simply an excessive use of specific manner of which contained qualities that were strange and unjustified. It was thought that extravagance, a need for increased productivity, and a lack of artistic knowledge led to Mannerism. Only in the beginning of the 20th century these generalizations were considered unfair and many new theories about the origins of Mannerism emerged. Some of them state that artists were displaying a conscious deviance, painting against the rules of classical art, and rebelling against the High Renaissance and the ideal of Nature. John Shearman points out in Mannerism that that the wars of the early 16th century created period of economic and social disturbance creating the growth of Mannerist style. “Most works of art are insulated in the mind of the artist even from his personal crises, joys and tragedies.” Craig Smyth explains the belief that Mannerism was connected with the desire for experimentation and creating art for art’s sake rather than spiritual crisis of the period. Also he suggests that usually considered as anti-classical style of Mannerism is based on classical style specifically antique relief. “The classic solution kept painters feeling at one with them, not in the opposition.”
There can be recognized two stages of Mannerist style: the Early Mannerism and the Late one. The Early Mannerism is known for its “anti-classical forms”; it lasted until about 1540-1550. The most prominent exponents of that period are Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentio – the students of Andrea Del Sarto; Parmigianino – a student of Corregio; and Julio Romano, Raphael’s head assistant.
Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists of that time and he managed to raise the standard of that style to a new level. Especially vivid and typical of Mannerism his “Last Judgment” appeared. As for the Late Mannerism or “High Maniera” it can easily be recognized with exaggerated elegance with exquisite attention to surface and detail: porcelain-skinned figures recline in an even, tempered light, with very few emotions on the faces of people.
Evidently Mannerism possesses the qualities necessary to be called its own style. “Mannerism rejects the clarity and logic of the High Renaissance and substituted ambiguity and intuition” . Therefore we can easily distinguish some features of it.
Artists of Mannerism had gained a lot of technical knowledge during the Renaissance (use of oil paints and perspective, for instance), but where High Renaissance art was natural, graceful, balanced and harmonious, the art of Mannerism was quite different. Mannerist compositions were full of clashing colors, disquieting figures with abnormally elongated limbs, emotion and bizarre themes that combined Classicism, Christianity and mythology. Moreover Mannerists were free to experiment with various events, so the critic of this art had to be not only aware of the secrets of craft but be a highly intellectual person to be able to interpret the piece of art correctly.
The nude which had been rediscovered during the Early Renaissance was still present during the Late but the poses were unnatural and odd. It would be fair to say that no human could ever have maintained positions such as those depicted.
In tune with the mannerist predilection for the depiction of the abnormal, the distortion of the human figure as of primary importance.
Figures were often elongated while the heads remained relatively small. Let’s turn to the painting “Madonna with Long Neck” by Parmigianino: the figure of Madonna is elongated with small oval head. In addition to it the figure of newborn Christ it somewhat elongated too – the baby looks too long as to the age of a newborn. It is just typical of Mannerism.
Another typical feature of mannerism is optical suggestion of movement. In sculpture this inspired the creation of single figures or groups of figures that can be viewed from all the sides, rather than from a single viewpoint; the figure seems to be in perpetual movement. Giorgio Vasari used the term “figura serpentinata’ to describe this concept. This form developed from the classical contraposition. The Mannerist derivation is fluid and expressive, more torsion than balance. In a two-dimensional depiction, the figure is composed in an S-curve, so the head faces the opposite direction as the feet, the hips uniting the opposing members by means of a sinuous curve.