Articles About Art - Mannerism in Art History
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Mannerism in Art History*
The term Mannerism is derived from the Italian word maniera, which, in its original usage,
meant "individual style". Its specific application to Mannerism originated in its use by the
sixteenth-century art critic, Vasari, who applied it in a number of distinct ways. In one context
rnaniera was used by Vasari to denote the personal style of individual artists; in another it
indicated a national or historical style, but, standing alone, maniera denoted "style" in the modern conception of the term: an artist either had or did not have maniera, We can thus see that maniera carried the added implication, in the sixteenth century, of quality, virtuosity and sophisticated, courtly taste.
Maniera was already a major artistic criterion in the High Renaissance.' A bella maniera was considered the physical expression of the Neo-Platonic ideal of beauty. It is clear, therefore, that the beginnings of the Mannerist style could already be found in the artistic values of the High Renaissance.
During the period of the High Renaissance, formulae and norms were created which led to the
concept of an ideal art. What characterises this ideal is the artificial creation of perfect balance
and harmony between all the pictorial and conceptual elements of a painting. Form and content,
in the ideal High Renaissance painting, had to integrate to create a mutually supporting balance
in which neither was allowed to predominate. Gradually, however, the artist's personal maniera
became more and more emphatic as the notion of genius took root, and invention assumed a greater importance than it had before. This progression towards greater idiosyncrasy is revealed
particularly in the later art of Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto and Raphael.
In a work such as Raphael's tapestry cartoon The Healing of the Lame Man (1515-1516), for
instance, formal invention seems to take precedence over the content of the work. The cartoon
lacks a clear, logical exposition of space, and there is no focal concentration on the main,
inconographic event. Judging by this painting and several other later works by Raphael, he had
been moving beyond the static balance dictated by the classical principles of the High Renaissance towards a style more concerned with the artificial animation of the pictorial surface.
Of the High Renaissance artists, Michelangelo was temperamentally the most inclined towards the unclassical expressiveness of Mannerist art, for even his earliest works possessed a quality of barely contained tension and idiosyncrasy. His overriding concentration on the human
figure and his sometimes excessive use of muscular nudes made him an ideal target for Mannerist
emulation. It should be noted, however, that Michelangelo's expression, continues to defy absolute classification, since his profound individualism elevates him above the contained framework of any particular style.
Of the High Renaissance artists, Andrea del Sarto exerted the most influence on Mannerism.
This is partly because he was tutor to Pontormo, who was one of its main exponents, and partly
because of his singular treatment of colour and drapery, which led to the new conventions of mannerism. Andrea tended to lay undue emphasis on purely formal effects such as the bulky,
angularly defined forms of his drapery and his intensely saturated, slightly "off-key" colours. It is in this concentration on the virtuoso manipulation of form that Andrea's art most clearly anticipated the development of Mannerism.
From an analysis of the later works of Raphael, Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo, it is thus
clear that there is no evident distinction or cutoff point between the High Renaissance and
Mannerism. However, whereas aesthetics in a High Renaissance context was largely a device by
which meaning could be enhanced, it became an end in itself in Mannerism. The tendency to indulge in courtly grazia and maniera was foreign to true classicism, where, ideally, nothing was
allowed to override the religious message of the work of art. It is evident, therefore, that although
mannerism adopted some elements from the art of the High Renaissance, it also constituted a
clear break from the classical ideal proposed by Leonardo and the early Michelangelo and Raphael.
* Drawn from notes compiled by E.A. Maré for the University of South Africa