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It is hard to pinpoint the exact date that the Renaissance ended and Mannerism began. Actually, like in many periods of transitioning from one movement to another, it happened gradually. In 1510, some artists in Florence and Rome were already presenting early Mannerism characteristics in their work, even with the Renaissance still in play.
This movement was criticized for looking too artificial and bizarre; this is because the artists started looking into different values than the ones appreciated during the Renaissance. Capitalism is in progress, and the concept of the value of labor and the value of the merchandise is being formed. This is frightening, and this fear shows in the art of the Mannerists, having many landscapes which allude to a dream-like, or nightmare-like, scenarios, such as in The Fifth Seal of The Apocalypse, by El Greco.
The figures were exaggerated, with intentionally elongated limbs, distorted and expressive stance. The colors used were strong and uncommon styles of composition were being elaborated. All of these elements brought a sense of estrangement, breaking the automatic welfare that painting was meant to give the audience.
The term Mannerism comes from the Italian, maniera, and was seen as a pejorative term. It was thought the artists tried to copy the classic masters to achieve excellence but fail because they are only able to do it in their own “manner.” Of course, this is what critiques would say at the time, but in fact, the artists were not interested in representing the world in a naturalist way, like during the Renaissance.
Madonna with the Long Neck is a great example of the awkward proportions used during this time. Parmigianino works with light, shadow, and color with great technique, thus causing a contrast with the use of exaggerated proportions. The central figure, Madonna, seems to have a larger lower body than her torso, shoulders, and head, subsequently making the group of angels next to her appear petite. But the most eye-catching figure of this painting is baby Jesus, with stretched out, chunky legs and torso.
In 1525, King Francis I founded the first space especially for Mannerist artists called the School of Fontainebleau. During this movement, each artist developed their entity, while still following the overall main idea of the art movement. Baroque artists continued working individually as well.
Each artist worked on their level of distortion, for example, we can compare Giambologna’s sculpture Rape of the Sabines, with El Greco’s painting Laokoon. Both portray classical myths but with a different feel. Giambologna’s statue is neat and tragic at the same time. He gracefully captures despair and desperation. While, on the other hand, Greco’s painting is exuberantly dramatic. Using an intense white light to highlight the bodies and a unique way of distributing figures in space, Greco represents desperation in an entirely different way.
El Greco’s work has a naturally dramatic feel to it, and he was able to work wonders with the concept of contrast; light and dark, warm and cold colors, contrasting surroundings and more. This can be seen in the oil painting The Burial of Count Orgaz, where he divides the painting into two parts. The top half represents heaven in a Mannerist fashion, with distorted religious figures depicted in fantastic colors and a peculiar composition. The bottom half reflects El Greco’s earlier studies of the Byzantine art. The figures are more natural compared to the other half of the painting and look almost like sculptures. He illustrates important people of Toledo into the crowd, mixing with unknown faces. There is a particular attention to detail in the clothing, especially of the holy men conducting the burial.
Another noteworthy painting is Allegory called Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, by the poet, painter, and intellectual, Agnolo Bronzino. This commissioned piece took ten years to conclude and caused a commotion when seen by the public. It was based on Petrarca's erotic poem, and Bronzino makes this clear with the incestuous kiss between Venus and Cupid. This parable narrative brings an almost peaceful erotism. He uses live models for studies and reference for this piece, yet still portraying outstretched hands and feet, as it was expected from a Mannerist painter. With a perfect refinement, Bronzino was able to make Venus skin glow as a classic marble sculpture would.
Mannerism weans art away from nature and into a new look on spirituality. Humanity is learning to look to itself, body and soul. Interiorizing, experiencing solitude. This brings up many individual issues and connects people to their faith.