Derived from the Italian maniera (style or manner), 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 late 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. [MMA]

Derived from the Italian maniera, meaning simply “style,” mannerism is sometimes defined as the “stylish style” for its emphasis on self-conscious artifice over realistic depiction. 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’s artificiality—its bizarre, sometimes acid color, its illogical compression of space, the elongated proportions and exaggerated anatomy of figures in convoluted, serpentine poses—frequently creates a feeling of anxiety. Works appear strange and unsettling, despite their superficial naturalism. Mannerism coincided with a period of upheaval that was torn by the Reformation (1517), plague (started 1347), and the devastating sack of Rome in 1527. After its inception in central Italy around 1520, mannerism spread to other regions of Italy and to northern Europe. In Italy, however, it remained largely a product of artists in Florence and Rome.[NGA]

See also work by the German Expressionists, as well as the work of other modernists like Amedeo Clemente Modigliani and Thomas Hart Benton.

The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, c. 1530, Andrea del Sarto (Andrea d'Agnolo, 1486–1530).

This grand and much copied work was painted about 1530 for the Florentine nobleman Giovanni Borgherini. The action of the figures has been interpreted as signifying the transfer of Florence's allegiance from Saint John the Baptist—its patron saint—to Christ, as had been promulgated by Savonarola. Sarto was known as "the painter without defects," and this reputation is fully evident in the masterful drawing of the figures, the nobility and complexity of their gestures, and the sumptuous color. There are preparatory drawings in the Uffizi, Florence, and the Louvre, Paris. The frame is of the late sixteenth century, possibly Florentine. [MMA]

Head of the Madonna, fragment Andrea del Sarto.

This is the only surviving fragment from a painting of the Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist. The original composition is known from an engraving by Cornelis Bloemaert and a painted copy by Sassoferrato, done when the picture belonged to the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani in Rome. It is an early work by Sarto, painted around 1506–10. The frame is seventeenth-century, probably Bolognese. [MMA]

Capponi Chapel, Church of Santa Felicità, Florence, Deposition, 1525–26, Jacopo da Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci, 1494–1556)

Virgin and Child with Saint Elizabeth, the Infant Baptist, Saint Anthony of Padua, and a Female Martyr,
c. 1514-1522, Jacopo da Pontormo.

Together with Rosso Fiorentino, Pontormo was a leading revolutionary artist of Mannerism in Florence. This recently attributed drawing can be dated to the period between Pontormo's Madonna of San Ruffilo fresco at Santissima Annunziata (1514) and his Adoration of the Magi panel in the Palazzo Pitti (1520–22)—thus, early in the master's career. Pontormo's drawings, mainly figure studies in red or black chalk, are among the highest expressions in the tradition of Florentine design. His early drawing style shows the influence of his master, Andrea del Sarto. [MMA]

Bust of a Woman with an Elaborate Coiffure, Rosso Fiorentino, 1494–1540.

Although a later collector identified this bust as a portrait of Giulia Gonzaga, duchess of Mantua, Rosso intended this drawing as an ideal representation of a beautiful young woman. Conceived in the spirit of Michelangelo's teste divine (divine heads) of the 1520s, this mannered figure is dominated by her fantastic coiffure, with numerous braids curled about a pair of horns; her elaborate clothing, with complex patterns of drapery held in place by a brooch; and her alluring gaze. Although certain details were touched with ink and the figure was silhouetted with wash at a later time, the characteristic clarity and precision of the original drawing in chalk are visible. The highly decorative mount was made by the British collector John Talmann. [MMA]

Diana: From the series Gods in Niches,
1526, Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio, c. 1500/1505–1565, after Rosso Fiorentino, 1494–1540.

Eve with Cain and Abel, fragment, 1520s Bacchiacca (Francesco d'Ubertino, 1495–1557)

The picture, which dates from the 1520s, has been cut down at the left and originally included a seated figure of Adam. The whole composition is known from another version painted by Bacchiacca in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A pupil of Perugino and a friend of Andrea del Sarto, Bacchiacca excelled in small-scale works, frequently adapting the compositions of his greater colleagues. The standing figure of Eve derives from Perugino's Apollo and Marsyas (Louvre, Paris).

The figures are well preserved, but the extreme left side of the picture has been damaged and repainted. [MMA]

Leda and the Swan, Bacchiacca.

Although Leda, wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, is commonly said to have conceived two children by her husband and two by Zeus during the same evening, Euripedes, in Iphigenia at Aulus, mentions a fifth child. Bacchiacca was no doubt familiar with the fourteenth-century Ovide moralisée, which states that Castor, Pollux, and Helen all emerged from a single egg, as here depicted at the right. The two children at the left must be Clytemnestra and Phoebe.

The pose of Leda derives from a print by Dürer, and the buildings in the left background from a print by Lucas van Leyden. [MMA]

Adam and Eve, 1504 Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528).

Under the influence of Italian theory, Dürer became increasingly drawn to the idea that the perfect human form corresponded to a system of proportion and measurements. Near the end of his life, he wrote several books codifying his theories: the Underweysung der Messung (Manual of measurement), published in 1525, and Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion (Four books of human proportion), published in 1528, just after his death. Dürer's fascination with ideal form is manifest in Adam and Eve. The first man and woman are shown in nearly symmetrical idealized poses: each with the weight on one leg, the other leg bent, and each with one arm angled slightly upward from the elbow and somewhat away from the body. The figure of Adam is reminiscent of the Hellenistic Apollo Belvedere, excavated in Italy late in the fifteenth century. The first engravings of the sculpture were not made until well after 1504, but Dürer must have seen a drawing of it. Dürer was a complete master of engraving by 1504: human and snake skin, animal fur, and tree bark and leaves are rendered distinctively. The branch Adam holds is of the mountain ash, the Tree of Life, while the fig, of which Eve has broken off a branch, is the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk melancholic. Before the Fall, these humors were held in check, controlled by the innocence of man; once Adam and Eve ate from the apple of knowledge, all four were activated, all innocence lost. [MMA]

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, c. 1497–98 Albrecht Dürer.

The third and most famous woodcut from Dürer's series of illustrations for The Apocalypse, the Four Horsemen presents a dramatically distilled version of the passage from the Book of Revelation (6:1–8): "And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given great power over a fourth of the earth; to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth." Transforming what was a relatively staid and unthreatening image in earlier illustrated Bibles, Dürer injects motion and danger into this climactic moment through his subtle manipulation of the woodcut. The parallel lines across the image establish a basic middle tone against which the artist silhouettes and overlaps the powerful forms of the four horses and riders—from left to right, Death, Famine, War, and Plague (or Pestilence). Their volume and strong diagonal motion enhance the impact of the image, offering an eloquent demonstration of the masterful visual effects Dürer was able to create in this medium. [MMA]

Samson Rending the Lion, c. 1497–98 Albrecht Dürer.

Dürer elevated the medium of woodcut to an unprecedented level of technical virtuosity. In Samson Rending the Lion, he achieved striking pictorial effects that vie with those created in contemporary engravings. Remarkable gradations of tone were realized in the lion's mane—all the more amazing if one considers that each tapered black line in the print was formed in the woodblock by chipping away the wood on either side of the intended line. Such expert and self-assured handling is particularly characteristic of Dürer's early woodcuts, dating to the 1490s. A print engraved about twenty years earlier by Israel van Meckenem served as the source for Dürer's powerful depiction of the Old Testament hero who, "suddenly seized" by the spirit of God, "tore the lion to pieces as if it were a kid" (Judges 14:6). The weaponless Samson is here shown on the lion's back, one foot pressed into its neck as he forces open its mouth. [MMA]

Herakles Strangling the Nemean Lion, c. 525 BCE, Psiax.

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, probably 1519 Albrecht Dürer.

This picture shows Saint Anne, who was particularly venerated in Germany, with her daughter, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child. Although the monogram and date are later additions, the picture was probably painted in 1519, the year Dürer became an ardent follower of Martin Luther. The theme and emotional intensity of the work, which was intended for private devotion, suggest the influence of the artist's new beliefs. The motif of the Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ Child was probably inspired by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, whose art Dürer admired during his two trips to Italy. The painting was acquired in 1630 by Maximilian I, elector of Bavaria, and remained in the royal collection at Schlessheim until it was sold in 1852. [MMA]

Cosimo I de' Medici (1519–1574) Workshop of Bronzino, 1503–1572.

In 1545, Bronzino painted a portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, first duke of Tuscany, which is assumed to be a panel now in the Uffizi, Florence. Of the many contemporary copies and workshop products derived from that composition, the Museum's is only one showing in the background a fringed curtain and ornamental border, details which may have been taken from Francesco Salviati's Portrait of a Man (below). [MMA]

Portrait of a Man, Francesco Salviati, (Francesco de' Rossi, 1510–1563).

Portrait of a Man, Francesco Salviati.

Portrait of a Young Man, 1530s, Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, 1503–1572).

This portrait—among Bronzino's most arresting—was painted in the 1530s. The sitter is not known, but he must have belonged to Bronzino's close circle of literary friends, which included the historian Benedetto Varchi and the poet Laura Battiferri, both of whom sat for the artist. Bronzino himself composed verses in the style of Petrarch, and some of the fanciful and witty conceits in this picture—the grotesque heads on the table and chair and the masklike face formed by the youth's breeches—would have been much appreciated in literary circles. The book is doubtless a collection of poems. [MMA]

The Annunciation, Attributed to Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503–1540).

In this intriguing nocturnal scene, the Virgin, in a diaphanous gown, kneels before an unusual bronze lectern, shaped like a boy and seen from the rear, with a canopied bed behind her. The archangel Gabriel flies in from the left with a lily in his outstretched right hand. The interior is fitfully lit by a candle and by sacred light that seems to emanate from the dove above Gabriel's head.

Parmigianino exerted an enormous influence well beyond his native region of Emilia. After his premature death in 1540, his style was propagated in works of lesser quality by his cousin, Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (ca. 1500–1569). The present painting is unusual in that it is a sketch-model and shows, beneath the present figures, a number of alternative poses and motifs. It was employed by Bedoli as the basis of an altarpiece painted for Viadana, near Parma, and now in the Museo di Capodimonte at Naples. [MMA]

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, c. 1545–50, Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, Venetian, 1518–1594).

On two occasions, Christ fed a large multitude with a few loaves and fishes. The present painting depicts the miracle as recounted in John 6, and shows Christ handing Saint Andrew one of the five loaves and two fishes to be distributed to the multitude. A companion painting, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, is in the Art Gallery at Toronto. It is not known for which Venetian church or confraternity the two paintings were made, but the large and long horizontal canvas is characteristic of the laterali used to decorate Venetian chapels, especially those maintained by confraternities devoted to the Eucharist, known as Scuole del Sacramento. Painted about 1545–50, the present picture was designed by Tintoretto and executed, like many of his larger paintings, in part by the artist and in part by members of his workshop. [MMA]

Portrait of a Woman, Florentine Painter, mid-16th century.

The architectural setting and aristocratic mien of the sitter are clearly dependent on the work of Bronzino, who established the norm of portraiture in granducal Medicean Florence. The picture has been ascribed to Bronzino's gifted contemporary Francesco Salviati and, more plausibly, to Michele di Ridolfo Tosini (1503–1577), who participated in the decorations for the entry of Emperor Charles V in Florence in 1539 and later painted portraits of the entourage of Duke Cosimo de' Medici. [MMA]

Also, check out the work of contemporary mannerists like John Currin, Patricia Piccinini, and Ron Mueck.

The art historian Walter Friedländer, early in the 20th century, defined Mannerism as an extension of the High Renaissance style—and an evolution away from its grace and balance. Emotionalism, distortion, the disappearance of symmetry, unnatural or extreme exaggeration, and an unsettling anxiety—these are the signs of the anti-classicism that emerged in the 16th century.

The dissolution of a classical ideal into something “mannered” ought to sound familiar to today’s art audience. The formal balance of 1950s modernism and the anti-emotionalism of early Pop have evolved into an over-the-top art that one could call postmodern mannerism. Matthew Barney puts on satyr’s ears and parodies frat parties and chorus lines in his films and performances; Damien Hirst brings the abbattoir into the art gallery; and Patricia Piccinini takes a cue from E.T., Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Pixar esthetic to give us creatures that share kinship with orcs, trolls, goblins, and hobbits.

Excerpt from "Beautiful Mutants" by Kay Larson. Art News, February 2006. Check out the rest of this article here.