Mannerism derives from the Italian word maniera, which means “style” or “manner.”  Inspired by Michelangelo’s concept of “artistic license” and the strange distortions of his later work, Mannerism became popular in the 16th century, and was especially appealing to aristocratic patrons who appreciated the exaggerated elegance of the style.  Often referred to as the “stylish style,” Mannerism emphasized artifice and distortion, rather than naturalism.  This emphasis on artifice and “personal style” rather than fidelity to nature, foregrounded artistic creativity and invention, and downplayed the role of the artist as a mere “copier” of observed reality:

“The sixteenth-century artist and critic Vasari—himself a mannerist—believed that excellence in painting demanded refinement, richness of invention, and virtuoso technique, criteria that emphasized the artist’s intellect. More important than his carefully recreated observation of nature was the artist’s mental conception and its elaboration. This intellectual bias was, in part, a natural consequence of the artist’s new status in society. No longer regarded as craftsmen, painters and sculptors took their place with scholars, poets, and humanists in a climate that fostered an appreciation for elegance, complexity, and even precocity.”
Mannerism, National Gallery of Art 

In many ways, Mannerism anticipated Modern art in its affirmation of artistic license and creativity.

Jacopo da Pontormo, Entombment of Christ, 1525-1528
Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicitá, Florence

Pontormo’s Entombment of Christ exemplifies the Mannerist style, with its strangely distorted proportions, ambiguous space, and exaggerated drama.  Departing from the naturalism of the High Renaissance, the painting’s artifice and invention takes precedence over fidelity to nature.

Pontormo’s Entombment (Khan Academy) 

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540
Uffizi Gallery

This painting also exemplifies the Mannerist style in its strangely elongated figures, and exaggerated emphasis on aristocratic refinement and grace. The following description by E.H. Gombrich captures the spirit of experimentation that was central to the movement:

“The picture is called the ‘Madonna with the long neck’ because the painter, in his eagerness to make the Holy Virgin look graceful and elegant, has given her a neck like that of a swan. He has stretched and lengthened the proportions of the human body in a strangely capricious way. The hand of the Virgin with its long delicate fingers, the long leg of the angel in the foreground, the lean, haggard prophet with a scroll of parchment – we see them all as through a distorting mirror. And yet there can be no doubt that the artist achieved this effect through neither ignorance nor indifference. He has taken care to show us that he liked these unnaturally elongated forms, for, to make doubly sure of his effect, he placed an oddly shaped high column of equally unusual proportions in the background of the painting. As for the arrangement of the picture, he also showed us that he did not believe in conventional harmonies. Instead of distributing his figures in equal pairs on both sides of the Madonna, he crammed a jostling crowd of angels into a narrow corner, and left the other side wide open to show the tall figure of the prophet, so reduced in size through the distance that he hardly reaches the Madonna’s knee. There can be no doubt, then, that if this be madness there is method in it. The painter wanted to be unorthodox. He wanted to show that the classical solution of perfect harmony is not the only solution conceivable; that natural simplicity is one way of achieving beauty, but that there are less direct ways of getting interesting effects for sophisticated lovers of art. Whether we like or dislike the road he took, we must admit that he was consistent. Indeed, Parmigianino and all the artists of his time who deliberately sought to create something new and unexpected, even at the expense of the ‘natural’ beauty established by the great masters, were perhaps the first ‘modern’ artists. We shall see, indeed, that what is now called ‘modern’ art may have had its roots in a similar urge to avoid the obvious and achieve effects which differ from conventional natural beauty.”
E.H. Gombrich, from The Story of Art

Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (Khan Academy)

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1530-1545
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mannnerist portraiture is an especially appealing category, as painters used artifice and skill to enhance the refined elegance of their sitters.  This portrait of a stylish young man is typical of Mannerist portraiture.  His elegant costume suggests aristocratic refinement, while his pose suggests a studied air of nonchalance that is almost haughty in its attitude.  The mannered pose and exaggerated refinement of Mannerist portraits resembles the artifice of modern fashion photographs, where models strike unnatural poses to enhance their slender proportions and elegance.  Lady Gaga’s bizarre costumes and contrived settings in her music videos might also be likened to the Mannerist taste for artifice.

Bronzino and the Mannerist Portrait, Smarthistory 


Web Resources:

Mannerism, National Gallery of Art

Mannerism:  Bronzino and his Contemporaries, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Mannerism, Khan Academy 

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