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European Art: Mannerism  
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In the visual arts Mannerism refers to the dominant style of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Europe from around 1520 to about 1600, particularly in Italy.

Characterized by exaggeration, artifice, and purposeful complexity, this "stylish style"--as John Shearman has described it--was an artistic expression of the highly refined courtly culture of the sixteenth century, while it simultaneously represented the changing status of the artist from mere artisan to educated creative spirit. It has proven to be a great favorite of gay audiences, who developed a camp appreciation for its frequent excesses.

The Term Mannerism

The term Mannerism derives from the Italian maniera, meaning style or manner. The exact usage and meaning of the term have been the subject of highly contentious debate within the field of art history, with some art historians such as Sydney Freedberg applying it to only a small group of artists from the first half of the century, and using alternative terms such as maniera and counter-maniera to describe other groups.

In its most common usage, however, Mannerism refers more generally to the prevalent style of European art and architecture between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. Exaggerated or elongated proportions, extreme idealization, spatial confusion, horror vacuii (literally "fear of vacuum," a visual composition with virtually no negative space, in which every square inch is covered with something), and multiple layers of meaning are just some of Mannerism's notable characteristics.

Early Mannerists

Mannerism was most prevalent in Italy, where it was born, and among the most important and influential early Mannerists were the Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino, Jacopo Pontormo, and Parmigianino. (Interestingly, scholars have had reason to speculate on the sexual orientation of Pontormo and Parmigianino, both life-long bachelors, as well as that of the later Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino.)

Their works moved away from the highly stable and harmonious compositions of High Renaissance artists such as Raphael or Fra Bartolommeo toward more visually daring and expressively experimental works. In Pontormo's famous Deposition (ca 1528), for example, the space the figures occupy, as well as the very subject itself, are indeterminate and confusing, while simultaneously displaying extreme grace and elegance.

Giulio Romano, the pupil of the High Renaissance artist Raphael, designed the Palazzo del Tè (1526-1535) for the Duke of Mantua in a Mannerist style. His playful distortion and exaggeration of well-established High Renaissance classical architectural motifs is an important counterpart to the similar experiments taking place in painting and sculpture.

Bronzino, Vasari, and Bologna

Later important Mannerists included Agnolo Bronzino–court painter to Duke Cosimo I of Florence–and his contemporary Giorgio Vasari. Vasari not only established one of the first formal art schools in the liberal arts tradition, but also was the first art historian, writing his Lives of the Artists for Duke Cosimo, which appeared in two editions at mid-century.

Bronzino's famous Allegory (from ca 1545) epitomizes the complexities of Mannerism; its allegory is so intricate and obscure as to be the subject of ongoing debate almost five centuries later.

Giovanni Bologna was the most prominent Mannerist sculptor working in the second half of the century. His Rape of the Sabines (1581-1583) not only displays the twisting, elongated figures and complex, tortuous compositions favored by Mannerists, but it was also originally created purely as an artistic exercise, with no specific subject in mind.

The Status of Artists

Vasari's art school and Giovanni Bologna's creation of "art for art's sake" are both evidence of Mannerism's crucial role in the history of art. Artists were no longer considered artisans, but educated, creative intellectuals on a par with poets and writers, a change of status that had already begun in the High Renaissance.

While artists had long imbued their work with meaning and expression far beyond the limitations of particular commissions, during the Mannerist period the esthetic and intellectual connotations of art came to the fore in a way not seen since classical antiquity. The highly theorized art of Mannerism set an important precedent for later art and artists.


Mannerism was one of the first truly international styles of western art. Italian Mannerist artistic ideals spread across Europe, both through the medium of prints and through Italian artists working in other countries.

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Top: The Palazzo del Tè designed by Giulio Romano.
Above: The Rape of the Sabines (1581-1583) by Giovanni Bologna.

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