During the Renaissance, many artists found new sources of inspiration from a variety of channels The Italians, particularly found beauty in the subject matter of classical antiquity. They enjoyed the idealized forms and harmonious compositions that came from ancient Greek and Roman art. While we see this in the works of High Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci, it also manifested in a style called Mannerism that emerged towards the end of the Renaissance movement.
Mannerist artists took the principles established during the Renaissance to new extremes, creating an aesthetic that puts a twist on the classic ways of art-making. Mannerism arose in the 1530s and lasted until the end of the century. It is named after the term, maniera, which is Italian for “style” or “manner” and refers to a stylized, exaggerated approach to painting and sculpture. Mannerism is also known as the Late Renaissance and is regarded as the bridge between the Renaissance and the Baroque period. It had its own ornate aesthetic and extravagance. While Mannerist artists were interested in the perfectionism portrayed in High Renaissance art, they did not seek to replicate it. Instead, they exaggerated these principles, which resulted in work that favoured self-expression over the pursuit of idealism. It is one of the first times we see this in art history. Self-expression has never been the focus in art, just the pursuit of perfection or religious and spiritual representation.
The Mannerists created highly artificial compositions which were intended to show off their techniques and skills. They manipulated the composition and its elements to create a sense of sophisticated elegance. A primary way that the Mannerists took High Renaissance techniques a “step further” through the exaggeration. Led by the artist Parmigianino, an Italian artist, Mannerists rejected realistic proportions and instead painted their figures with impossibly elongated limbs and oddly positioned bodies. These stretched and twisted forms were used as a way of heightening movement and heighten the drama. Apparently, Parmigianino stumbled upon this unique style by accidentally doing a self-portrait using a convex barber’s mirror. He painted what he saw and what he saw was a series of bizarre effects produced by the roundness of the mirror, which twisted the beams of the ceiling into strange curves and elongated his body to a near alien form. The idea came to him to amuse himself but became so much more.
The Mannerists pushed the sensibilities of the Renaissance to the limits. They enjoyed the idea of elaborate ornamentation, covering canvases and sculptures in an overwhelming abundance of decorative elements. One artist who took this concept to astonishing new levels is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a painter who crafted portraits out of vegetation, animals and found objects. They also abandoned the more natural colours of the High Renaissance in favour of more artificial and often garish tones.
A poignant way of describing the mannerists is to look at El Greco, a Spanish painter who adopted the Mannerist style when he moved to Rome. Like other Mannerists, he looked at earlier artists without attempting to reproduce their work. “You must study the Masters,” he said, “but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to the sword those who would try to steal it.” This statement really encapsulated the way the Mannerists saw the world and the way they attempted to capture that vision. They found value in looking at the past but saw the appeal of putting one’s own stamp on the future. Mannerism is arguably one of the most impactful art-movements purely for the fact that it encouraged artists to express some part of how they were feeling. While it is not held in the same esteem as the Golden Age’s earlier work. Nevertheless, its distinctive aesthetic continues to enchant those who are aware of it, making it one of art history’s most fascinating hidden gems.