Mannerism: A step toward Modernism

 There is a period of time between the High Renaissance and the emergence of the Baroque era that is transitional and defies an easy, single explanation. There is no one style associated to Mannerism (named because of the effected manner many figures possessed during this time). Actually, we saw elements of Mannerism with Michelangelo's David in the elongation and distortion of his left hand. But during the last half of the 16th century and well in to the 17th century, we can see an increasing movement toward the individual artist using their creativity in unorthodox ways. . . . . . from distorting and abstracting the human form, to very different and sometimes strange compositional designs. So with Mannerism, we go beyond Classicism toward the realm of the power of the artist to create and distort in which ever way he or she pleases.

This trend is certainly clear in the painting to the left, Madonna of the Long Neck (c. 1540), by Parmigianino. Ultimately influenced by Raphael, Parmigianino borrows his graceful elegance, but that's just about all. As you can see, the Madonna's neck, body and fingers are outrageously distorted, as is the baby Jesus, who looks as if he's in the process of falling off the Virgin's lap. Adding to the sense of distortion is the saint with a scroll in the lower right, and the strange column in the background. Parmigianino tells us that there are more ways than just Classicism to render a painting. Welcome to the first step toward Modernism!

 We can see some of these Mannerist elements in the works of Bronzino. In the Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1540), below left, the figure's affected stance is typically Manneristic. You might also notice that the man's head is way too small and his fingers much too long for his body. These distortions are indeed intentional, as they add to the discomfort of the image (which is what Bronzino wished to accomplish). The flesh tone is cool, almost clammy looking. Adding to our nausea is the cool greenish interior, the strange architectural elements that are out of perspective, and the churning scrolls and curves of the furniture in the foreground. The whole viewing experience leaves us uneasy if not queasy. (And what's up with those grotesque faces carved in the furniture?) A similar discomfort (albeit slightly more comical) accompany Bronzino's Allegory of Venus (c.1546), below and right. This painting was actually meant to condemn actions of "Folly", personified as the little cherub throwing roses at Venus and Cupid, who just happened to be caught in their incestuous affair by an angry Father Time. (Notice the unnatural distortion of Cupid's body.) The use of symbolism is almost extreme in this work (as in most Northern Renaissance works), so I won't take the time to go over it right here (you'll have to come to my lecture on Mannerism to get it).


 To no surprise, the Venetian Mannerists played with light and composition in many of their works, and Tintoretto was no exception. In addition to the very bold use of extreme changes in light and dark, there is a sort of hyper- emotionalism at work in Tintoretto's paintings. Below, Tintoretto's Last Supper (c. 1592) couldn't be more unlike the controlled elegance of Leonardo's work. The striking diagonals add to the emotional frenzy, as does the movement of the figures.

 Again we see Tintoretto's obsession with the unusual in The Finding of St. Mark's Remains (c. 1562). Notice the extreme emotional response of the figures, the bright splashes of light, and the almost annoyingly obvious diagonal starting with the outstretched arm of St. Mark (who is in the process of stopping the plundering of his won grave by Moslem infidels) following up the sides of the pilaster capitals. (What is bothersome here is the totally whacked out sense of proportionality and space.) The painting is shocking, and again, gives the viewer a sense of uneasiness.

Anyway, the story ends with St. Mark taking his own remains back to the City of Venice, where they are entombed in St. Mark's Cathedral.



El Greco


Nowhere is Mannerism more apparent than in the work of Venice's most famous Mannerist, El Greco (his name was actually Theotocopoulos.....but since he was from Crete, the locals dubbed him with a more manageable name). Being from Crete, El Greco was not surrounded by classical proportions (remember the hieratic style of Byzantine art), so the distortions of the Mannerists didn't phase him at the least. After working in Venice and Rome, El Greco settled in Toledo, Spain, where he painted for the rest of his life. It is not at all surprising that his art would take on the mysticism of the Spanish Counter Reformation......which is exactly what we see in so many of his works. In The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (c. 1608), above, we see the amazing figures of St. John (in blue) and nude martyrs gyrating in excitement at the coming of the end of the world. Every time I look at El Greco's works, I'm amazed at how modern they look.......distorted, twisted and almost looking as if they were made of rubber. The dramatic light reminds us of Tintoretto, while the colors look remarkably like those of Michelangelo's.


The theme of Spanish mysticism is even clearer in El Greco's The Burial of Count Orgaz (c. 1586), above. Again, we see the twisting, distorted figures raising the soul of Count Orgaz upward to heaven, which is shown as swirling, clouded sheets. The figures, below, are amazingly realistic, and take on an almost Byzantine look with the rich gilded robes of the Saints Steven and Augustine, who show up to help lower the body of the Count into the ground. Notice how the row of various and assorted Spanish officials create a line that divides the earthly world from heavenly kingdom.

 Even though we associate strange, twisting figures with El Greco, he could actually paint portraits with the best of the boys back in Italy. His famous portrait of Brother Hortensio Felix Paravicino (c. 1609) shows an amazing and lively brushstroke that adds to the animation of the portrait. (This portrait is exactly what we would think an intellectual, Spanish mystic would look like.)

 Early Italian Renaissance

 Late Italian Renaissance

 Italian Lingo 101

 To The Baroque Era

 Renaissance in the North

 History 1400-1600

 To Mannerism