What was Mannerism? Who were the Mannerists? An Intro to 16th Century Art

Published on Nov. 6th 2007

What was Mannerism? Simply put, Mannerism was the art movement that took place immediately after the Renaissance during the 16th century.

It was an interesting time for art. . . Michelangelo, da Vinci, and many other Renaissance artists had filled Europe with incredible, classical, works of art—art that no doubt intimidated as much as inspired the artists to come after them.

Portrait of a Halberdier by Pontormo

In fact, Mannerism isn’t really an art movement as much as it’s a period of time separating the Renaissance and Baroque movement. There’s not an incredibly distinct change in style to point out, either.

However there are two things that tend to show up in Mannerist works fairly often, and you can spot them if you know what to look for.

The first is an elongation of the neck and torso (and sometimes strangely fluid arms and legs) in portraits or figurative paintings. This is because in Mannerism, the “real-life” accuracy of a painting wasn’t as important anymore. . . Instead, artists were more interested in creating an interesting composition and expressing an emotion.

That meant if a piece called for the figure’s arms to be unequal lengths (or really long) so be it. It was one way the Mannerists could distinguish themselves from the more “traditional” artists who came before them.

Madonna and Child with St. Martina and St

A few of the Mannerists also used unorthodox colors, like in this painting above by El Greco, entitled Madonna and Child with St. Martina and St. Agnes. Despite the bright greens and yellows, it’s actually one of El Greco’s tamer works.

The second element sometimes seen in Mannerism is symbolism. Mannerist artists would use visual allegories and complex meanings in order to appeal to a specific, wealthier audience, instead of making art for everyone.

Parmigianino’s painting below (which looks like it was intended for that wealthy class) exemplifies the elongation that the Mannerists gave their figures—so much so that the painting is actually called Madonna with the Long Neck.

Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino

If you can leave aside their obsession with stretching the human body, in some ways the Mannerist artists seemed to be ahead of their time. . . especially El Greco, who I think painted almost like an allegorically-minded Van Gogh.

But in the end, El Greco sparked no real changes in the world of art—and with the Baroque art movement of the 17th century, classical realism returned once more.

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