Italian Art – Post-Renaissance Paintings, Mannerism in Italy

The term “mannerism” is applied to an Italian artistic movement of the 16th century, which drew its inspiration from the maniera (or the style) of the great artists who worked in Rome during the preceding years, particularly Raffaello and Michelangelo.

The age of the maniera begins with the death of Raffaello in 1520, and it is given impetus, ironically, by one of the blackest events in the history of the West, the sack of Rome by the Imperial Army in 1527.  This event scattered the Roman community of artists all over the Peninsula (Naples, Pesaro, Bologna, Mantova), and as far away as Fontainebleau in France, and everywhere they went the artists brought their visions and techniques and seeded the flowering of the maniera in Late Renaissance Europe.

However, the term maniera is already present in the writings of Giorgio Vasari in the 15th century.  For Vasari the next logical step from naturalism was the surpassing and the perfectioning of nature herself.  The logical argument went as follows: if the earlier greats had finally succeeded in understanding and codifying the laws by which nature can successfully be imitated, then their successors, starting with a complete understanding of these rules, will know how to bend them to their pleasure and their artistic inspiration.  Technical competence of the highest order and an ability to faithfully depict the natural world are givens in the ethos of the maniera: the mastery of the rules is merely the starting point for the license the artist is then allowed.  This tension between rule and license is in fact a key philosophical feature of the maniera movement.  This is the pictorial equivalent of that sprezzatura exhibited with such eloquence in the Il Cortigiano, by Baldassarre Castiglione.  Furthermore,  the maniera exhibits the inclusion of bizarre or incongruous elements, a vagueness in the colors, and a wide variety of background scenes.
Amongst the practitioners of the maniera there stands out a group of artists who elaborated classical themes with greater personality and depth than heretofore.  Of these we may mention Bronzino, Vasari, Daniele da Volterra, Francesco Salviati, Giuseppe Porta, Nicolo’ dell’Abate, Carpenino, the brothers Federico, and Thaddeus Zuccari.

The age of the maniera begins to decline with the end of the Council of Trent 1n 1563, but the movement, as it wanes, becomes ever more refined, introverted and decorative, giving birth to works of unexcelled virtuosity,  commissioned by the great European ruling houses for private enjoyment of an extremely elitist character.  Such were the works belonging to the Studiolo di Francesco I in the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze, and in the collection of Rudolph II in Prague.  The movement finally declines into affectation, artificiality, preciousness, characteristics that have been variously found and evaluated in these artists according to the changing tastes of the times.

The term manierismo (as opposed to maniera) appears much later, with the flowering of the neo-classicism of the late 18th century.  Fundamentally this was understood as a digression of art from its own ideal, and was thus negatively judged by the historian Jacob Burkhardt in characterizing the Italian period between the Renaissance and the Baroque.  However, in the early years of the 20th century, with the advent of expressionism and surrealism, the Mannerists were rehabilitated and the underlying Mannerist philosophy (the separation of art from physical reality, the abandonment of the idea that the beauty of nature is unsurpassable, and moving past the idea that the artistic ideal  should be the imitation of nature) was vindicated.  In this conception then art becomes art for its own sake, ars gratia artis.

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