The term mannerism itself derives from the Italian word maniera. For Vasari (the most prolific art biographer at the time) this term meant ‘the method of copying frequently the most beautiful things, combining them to make from what was most beautiful the best figure possible, and putting it into use in every work for all the figures’. The period of time that we generally contribute mannerist works to is from around 1520 to 1600. Evidence to suggest this comes from many works of principally Italian origin.
The principal characteristic of mannerist works of art is the elongation and distortion of the human figure. The muscles are also often grossly over emphasised creating forced and unclear compositions often resulting in great discrepancies in scale between the figures. Much of mannerism is a conscious revolution against the calm classicism and serenity of artists such as Raphael during the High Renaissance. The very perfection of Raphael led only to emulation in his successors and therefore they turned to the exaggeration of facial expression, gesture and lighting in order to produce a work of their own. Here are a couple of examples of mannerist art.
Jacopo Pontormo, The Descent from the Cross (1525-1528). This scene has no depth to it at all the figures are too closely intertwined and the whole space looks overly crowded. The contrapposto pose of Christ adds to the elongation of his limbs and makes him look very unrealistic. The only saving grace for the mannerist aspects of this work is the facial expressions, which are very pronounced, but as this is a deposition scene the horrified looks are acceptable. There are many other paintings that I think are badly composed with unrealistic portrayals of figures and poses. I understand the aims of mannerism; I just don’t think that they were always successfully executed. Mannerist characteristics in sculpture however seem to be more successful as in Cellini’s salt cellar.
Benvenuto Cellini, Salt Cellar for Francis I (before 1545). Although this is not a painting but a sculpture I think it demonstrates the aims of mannerism stated by Vasari very well. Cellini was primarily trained as a goldsmith and the fine detail here is extraordinary, and may well be what makes this piece so brilliant. This salt cellar was used as storage for salt and pepper and it depicts the god of the sea Neptune and the goddess of the earth Ceres. The elongation of the limbs and the depiction of ideal beauty here is perfectly acceptable as it has not been done to an extent that renders the piece ugly and poorly designed as in Pontormo’s deposition painting.
Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long Neck (1535)
Rosso Fiorentino, Dead Christ with Angels (c.1526)