Derived from the Italian maniera, used by sixteenth-century artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, the term Mannerism refers to the movement in the visual arts that spread through much of Europe between the High Renaissance and Baroque periods. It originated in Italy, where it lasted from about 1520 to 1600, and can be described as “mannered” in that it emphasized complexity and virtuosity over naturalistic representation. While the formal vocabulary of Mannerism takes much from the later works of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Raphael (1483–1520), its adherents generally favored compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting. Some characteristics common to many Mannerist works include distortion of the human figure, a flattening of pictorial space, and a cultivated intellectual sophistication.
Certain aspects of Mannerism are anticipated in the work of Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530). Although Andrea’s style was rooted in the artistic ideals of the High Renaissance, such as the integration of naturally proportioned figures in a clearly defined space, his expressive use of vibrant color and varied, complex poses inspired the first generation of Mannerist painters in Florence (22.75; 32.100.89). Foremost among this group were Andrea’s students Jacopo da Pontormo (1494–1556) and Rosso Fiorentino (1494–1540). The intense tones and gracefully choreographed figures in Pontormo’s crowded Deposition in the Church of Santa Felicita (Capponi Chapel, Florence) heighten the emotional pitch of the picture and show a taste for elegance and artifice also seen in the stylized head and intricately braided hairstyle of Rosso’s Woman with an Elaborate Coiffure (19.76.11; 52.124.2; 49.97.233). Active at the same time as these innovative artists, Bachiacca (1495–1557) developed an eclectic mode that combined Mannerist influences and quotations from Northern artists like Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden with older Renaissance conventions (38.178; 1982.60.11).
By 1540, Pontormo’s student Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572) had become the leading artist working in this style in Florence and court painter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. Ducal patronage played an important part in Bronzino’s career, as well in those of his contemporaries working in the Medici court, Francesco Salviati (1510–1563) and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574). His official portraits of Cosimo I and his wife, Duchess Eleonora of Toledo, demonstrate Bronzino’s extraordinary technical skill and convey an atmosphere of aristocratic dignity (08.262). Typical of Bronzino are the extremely refined execution and graceful silhouette of his Portrait of a Young Man, in which the book, costume, and affected pose of the subject highlight his learning and social status (29.100.16). Portraits by Salviati capture a similar sense of sophistication and formality in their meticulous treatment of the sitter’s fashionable dress (55.14). The high maniera developed by these painters is also marked by an appreciation for intellectual complexity. Vasari’s design for a decorative painting in the Palazzo Vecchio illustrates the mythological references and complicated allegories in vogue among the Florentine elite (1971.273).
By the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of Mannerism had spread far beyond Florence. Two important representatives of the movement in northern Italy were Parmigianino (1503–1540)—active in Parma, Bologna, and Rome—and the Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto (1519–1594). The highly individual styles of these two painters incorporate the elongated figure proportions, twisted poses, and compression of space that distinguish central Italian Mannerism (1982.319; 13.75). Moreover, Italian artists employed by King Francis I at Fontainebleau made Mannerism the dominant style in France.
Finocchio, Ross. “Mannerism: Bronzino (1503–1572) and his Contemporaries.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zino/hd_zino.htm (October 2003)
Shearman, John. Mannerism. New York: Penguin, 1967.
Shearman, John. Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.