What is Mannerism in Art? A Stylish Style

Jacopo Tintoretto, Origin of the Milky Way, ca. 1575. Jacopo Tintoretto, Origin of the Milky Way, ca. 1575. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Parmigianino, The Madonna with the Long Neck, ca. 1534.

Parmigianino, The Madonna with the Long Neck, ca. 1534. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From the end of the High Renaissance (around 1520) to the early Baroque art period (around 1600), Mannerism made waves in northern Europe and Italy. The term “mannerism” comes from the Italian maniera, which means “manner” or “style.” Mannerism is thus also referred to as “the stylish style” in some cases.

The Mannerist style emerged in response to the classical ideals of the Renaissance. While the Renaissance emphasized balance, proportion, and naturalism in art, artists associated with Mannerism rejected these ideals and instead sought to create works with a high degree of subjectivity and imagination. They deliberately distorted and exaggerated forms, often using elongated figures with exaggerated limbs, and depicted complex, artificial compositions. Keep reading to learn more about influential mannerist artists and their work — and the impact of this artistic style on the fabric of art history.

Common characteristics of Mannerism in art

Mannerist artists emphasized stylized artifice over realistic depictions of the human form. From elongated figures to dynamic, distorted poses, mannerist artwork pushed the bounds of portraiture. Certain Mannerist works rank among the most esteemed works of art of all-time, so this style may feel familiar despite its eccentricities.

While two Mannerist works of art may look quite different, below are some common themes in, and characteristics of, Mannerism in art.

  • Distortion of the human figure. Mannerist artists typically elongated, using accentuated limbs and facial features to warp the traditional image of the human figure. A common theme throughout Mannerist works was the concept of figurative serpentinata, or “serpent-like figure,” a figure in a sinuous, twisting posture, which can evoke a sense of unease.
  • Flattening of pictorial space. Mannerist painters often flattened a painting’s pictorial plane to distort perspective. The result was often an image in which the subjects of a painting appeared to be on the same perspective plane as the background. This altered perspective allowed the painting’s subjects to appear integrated with the background, rather than positioned in front of it.
  • Intellectual sophistication. Mannerist artists intended for their artwork to be as much of an intellectual and philosophical experience as an aesthetic one. The unusual proportions, perspectives, and color palettes of mannerist artwork encouraged audiences to think critically about the significance behind these unconventional choices.
El Greco, “The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest,”  ca. 1580

El Greco, The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, ca. 1580. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the Most Famous Mannerist Artists

Below are some of the most famous Mannerist artists and their most notable works, to help you to understand these characteristics of Mannerism.

El Greco (1541-1614)

The Venetian painter, El Greco, made his mark on several spheres of the painting world, and is often cited as an influence on Cubism and Expressionism. The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, exemplifies Mannerism, depicting an unknown nobleman. In this painting, El Greco’s subject faces the viewer front on. This positioning nods to the then-traditional style of portraiture but El Greco’s use of perspective and proportion is anything but traditional. The nobleman’s elongated, spindly fingers, as well as his thin head and drooping shoulders, demonstrate some of the key principles of mannerist art. The Nobleman is a fitting introduction to the world of Mannerism — and to the liberties that Mannerist painters took when constructing the human form.

Browse work by El Greco coming to auction

Tintoretto (1518-1594)

Jacopo Tintoretto, often known solely as Tintoretto, was a Roman painter who almost exclusively produced Mannerist works. His paintings often centered around themes and images of religion and the cosmos, and his Origin of the Milky Way is no exception. This painting, full of rich blues, reds, and yellows, depicts Jupiter, Roman god of the skies; baby Hercules; and Juno, goddess of women and childbirth.

The vibrant color palette in Origin of the Milky Way is characteristic of Mannerist paintings, as are the S-shape cupids that surround Jupiter and Juno. The curvature of Jupiter and Juno’s bodies further underscores the Mannerist style of the work. The subjects’ extremities, such as their hands, feet, and clothes, almost blend with the background. Their gesticulations, positioning, and proportions all reflect the hallmarks of mannerist paintings. 

Browse work by Tintoretto coming to auction

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Giorgio Vasari, “Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent,” ca. 1533.

Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ca. 1533. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike Tintoretto, Giorgio Vasari worked in various artistic media, such as painting, draftsmanship, and architecture. He trained under the Medici family, and, as such, many of his portraits were of Medici family members. Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a Vasari painting of Lorenzo de’Medici after his death, is one of his most influential works.

As with El Greco’s Nobleman, Vasari depicts de’Medici with long, slender features. From his fingers to his torso, angular chin, and sloped nose, Vasari’s depiction is a distinctly Mannerist one. Many art historians believe that, through his accentuation of these features, Vasari intended to portray de’Medici as especially humble and wise. This portrait, and its perspective on Lorenzo de’Medici, reveal the power of Mannerism in communicating a subject’s subjective qualities.

Browse work by Giorgio Vasari coming to auction

Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530)

Andrea del Sarto, “Madonna of the Harpies,” 1517.

Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies, 1517. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea del Sarto was an Italian painter and draftsman who played an influential role in the development of Florentine Mannerism. His painting Madonna of the Harpies was among those that marked the beginning of the mannerist period. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary holding a haloed child while flanked by two cherubs. St. Francis of Assisi and St. John the Evangelist are also depicted within her vicinity. 

As with Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way, Madonna of the Harpies is lush with yellows, reds, and blues. However, del Sarto’s palette is arguably more vibrant — one of many aspects that make del Sarto’s Madonna a quintessential Mannerist painting. 

Similarly, St. John the Evangelist’s elongated fingers, as well as St. Francis of Assisi’s S-shaped silhouette, give del Sarto’s Madonna a firm grounding in mannerist techniques. The painting testifies to why Giorgio Vasari described del Sarto as “the flawless painter” — the artist deftly deviated from traditional, realist techniques.

Browse work by Andre del Sarto coming to auction

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556)

Jacopo da Pontormo, “The Deposition from the Cross,” ca. 1528

Jacopo da Pontormo, The Deposition from the Cross, ca. 1528. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jacopo da Pontormo, originally known as Jacopo Carrucci, was a Florentine painter who chose to deviate from High Renaissance classicism in pursuit of mannerism. The child of a painter and, later, an apprentice for Leonardo da Vinci, some art historians remain shocked that Pontormo produced such distinctly Mannerist work.

The Deposition from the Cross, one of Pontormo’s most renowned mannerist paintings, strays away from realism. The portrait entirely lacks a cross, though it does showcase Mannerism’s vibrant colors. It exemplifies Mannerist tendencies in its depiction of Jesus, as well as some of the foreground and background subjects, with pronounced spinal curvature. The sea of elongated limbs, all of which seamlessly blend together, also remind the viewer of the painting’s mannerist foundations.

Like many other Mannerist paintings, The Deposition from the Cross reconceptualizes a historically and religiously significant event. With its unusual, unsettling perspective, it encourages viewers to do the same.

Browse work by Jacopo da Pontormo coming to auction

Benvenuto Cellini, “Perseus with the Head of Medusa," ca. 1545

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, ca. 1545. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571)

While many influential mannerist works take the form of paintings, Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini pushed the bounds of mannerism through his medium of choice. One of his most acclaimed works, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, ranks among the most significant examples of Mannerist sculpture.

For Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Cellini sculpted the Greek hero Perseus in bronze. Perseus is depicted holding up the gorgon Medusa’s severed head. With his arched back and bent knee, Perseus emulates the characteristically Mannerist S-shape. This form is similar to Mannerist paintings but is especially stark in three dimensions. 

Additionally, Medusa’s hair — which appears to droop down from her head — and Perseus’s long sword both nod to the mannerist elongation of physical features. While Cellini’s Perseus may not be considered the first work that historians associate with Mannerism, it remains a striking example of the form.

Browse work by Benvenuto Cellini coming to auction

Significance of the Mannerist Movement

Giambolonga, “Rape of the Sabine Women,

Giambolonga, The Rape of the Sabine Women, 1583. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There were several early catalysts of mannerist art, from the introduction of printmaking in Europe to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (1517). These factors led artists to challenge High Renaissance art’s prioritization of over-idealistic aesthetics. Many artists simply no longer felt that the movement’s classical beauty ideals felt worth exploring during this time of challenging social upheaval.

Although Mannerist art reached its apex before the Baroque period, many art historians have circled back to study Mannerism’s unique properties. The unusual characteristics of mannerist artwork — and the movement’s relative brevity — make it an especially interesting case study for art historians and critics alike. Furthermore, many scholars have argued that mannerism is critical to understanding the historical and artistic contexts of the 16th century.

The Legacy of Mannerism

While mannerism is no longer in the spotlight, this “stylish style” marked a new, innovative period of artistic experimentation. Its signature distortion, exaggeration, and artifice are still common motifs in modern art. These characteristics may well endure into the future. They reflected the growing bounds of portraiture at the time, and today, they provide contemporary viewers with a unique intellectual experience. If anything, the elongated limbs, accentuated gestures, and stylized perspectives of mannerism have pervaded the world of modern art. From modern painting and sculpture installations to the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, mannerism is still here for us to marvel.