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The Mannerist Style and the Lamentation:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
This section provides essential information for two large-scale paintings, Tintoretto's The Raising of Lazarus, 1558-59, and El Greco's Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, about 1570. Both were painted in mid-16th century Italy, when the Mannerist style predominated the visual arts. Both were produced in the years surrounding the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which decreed in absolute terms the role of the arts in the promulgation of Counter-Reformation doctrines.

However, neither painting is an archetypal example of Italian Mannerism, although they incorporate many of that style's most salient characteristics. In each case the artist (Tintoretto and El Greco) forged a highly individual and expressive method of painting that defies generalized categorization. Further, while these paintings were produced during the initial decades of the Counter-Reformation, and indeed illustrate biblical themes that affirm religious tenets espoused by the Catholic church, in terms of style and composition they do not comply with the rigid requisites stipulated as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Trent, resulting in the establishment of the Baroque style. These two works, therefore, should be examined with the broader context of Mannerism, and against the historical and emotional background of the Counter-Reformation, but not as archetypal exponents of either the style or the religious movement.

Let us begin by describing the origins and salient characteristics of Mannerism, and specifically of the Venetian version of Mannerism, and then examine the paintings individually.

Mannerism is the name given to the stylistic phase of European art covering the period from ca.1520 to ca.1590, the transitional phase between the High Renaissance and the Baroque.

The origin of the expression "mannerism" lies in the Italian word maniera, which can be translated in all cases into the English word "style." The word maniera was borrowed from the literature of social manners, in which the term referred to a quality of human deportment very desirable in the 16th century: a courtly grace characterized by effortless accomplishment, sophistication and savoir-faire.

Maniera, as applied to an artistic movement, implies overt stylization and an obsession with artificial conventions. In the 16th century virtuosity, then equated with great facility of execution, and the overcoming of complex and difficult problems, was highly prized in the arts, in literature, as well as in human decorum. An obsession with virtuosity and elegance, then, was the guiding force of mannerism, essentially an artificial, anti-naturalistic style. To repeat a much-quoted phrase, Mannerism is a 'stylish' style. Because it transgressed moderation, Mannerism appealed to an elite class of connoisseurs, not to the general populace.

Mannerism as a distinct and distinguishable style first appeared in Rome in about 1520; it was transported to Florence in about 1522-23 and to other Italian cities in that same decade. Mannerism, by now an international fashion, was transplanted to Fontainebleau in 1530, where it was put to service in the creation of French court art. Mannerism ran its erratic course until about 1590, by which time it had been substantially supplanted by the clearer and more uniform ideals of the early Baroque. And while we are primarily concerned with painting here, we should bear in mind that for a good part of the 16th century Mannerism was also the prevailing trend in architecture, sculpture, literature, and music.

The notion of mannerism as a separate style sandwiched in between the dying High Renaissance and the dynamic Baroque era is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly a 16th century artist was not aware that he was living in a designated time period or working in a designated style, in the same way that 20th century artists are aware. Most art criticism from the 17th to the 19th centuries perceived such a divergence, however, and generally discounted this interim period as decadent and perverse. Only around 1920 was such a sweeping condemnation reversed, and the merits and complexities of this neglected period studied and appreciated. The name Mannerism is really an umbrella term that attempts to consolidate its many facets, since so many different centers of artistic production, conflicting trends, varieties of patrons, and individual idioms are involved.

Various and contradictory definitions and interpretations have been proposed for Mannerism. It has been construed as a reaction against the ideals of the High Renaissance, as an expression of the spiritual crisis of the time, or as a sophisticated art created solely for art's sake, exemplifying the aesthetic theories of the 16th century. In fact, all of these theories are valid, presenting parallel, rather than incompatible, explanations of the many manifestations of this consciously ambiguous means of expression.

In the 16th century all of Europe was in a state of profound social, religious and scientific turmoil. A series of catastrophic events, both worldly and spiritual, disrupted the political equilibrium achieved by the late 15th century and caused a radical redistribution of powers among governments and a destabilizing effect on the social order. Principal among these unsettling events were the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reformation, which caused a permanent division in the Christian Church; the voyages of the great navigators and colonizers that opened up contacts and trade with the New World and the Orient; and the recognition of the helio-centric planetary system by the astronomer Copernicus.

The Protestant reformation officially started when Martin Luther nailed up his theses in 1517; the Catholic Counter-Reformation opposition began with the convening of the Council of Trent in 1545. As the zeal for reform gathered momentum, it produced deep-rooted reaction within the Catholic church, largely the outcome of the deliberations of the Council of Trent, in an attempt to win back the faithful and reaffirm its spiritual and secular authority. Although it began as a religious movement, the Reformation had wide-spread political impact throughout Europe. The continent of Europe was divided into two camps, Protestant and Catholic, as the various political entities aligned themselves with one side or the other, obliging their subjects to adhere to the chosen religion.

Every aspect of life was destined to undergo re-examination and fundamental change, including a view of human beings within a much larger sphere than was previously imagined. With the discovery of the New World, the Christian West could no longer see itself as the center of the earth, but only as a small area within an immeasurable and still largely unexplored whole. In 1543 Copernicus published his book On the Revolution of Planets and Their Orbits, a work destined to change the conception of the cosmos from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe. As inhabitants of a minor planet whirling through space, people began to realize that they were no longer the center of creation. The combined effects of these and other discoveries began to weaken the belief in divine intervention in human affairs.

The influence of classics on art and literature, so marked in the Renaissance, was waning. By 1600 humanism as a point of view was no longer a leading influence in European life. Other ideas (and systems)—capitalism, absolutism and national self-consciousness—continued to grow in strength.

Although born in a century of conflict, Mannerism nevertheless existed on its own as a style of aesthetic expression. It should be remembered that Mannerism became a distinct and well-established style well before the religious struggles began in Italy towards mid-century and that Mannerism, although for a while co-existent, was not created to serve the objectives of the Counter-Reformation movement. That was to be the specific role of the Baroque. Thus there had to have been an independent, wholly aesthetic incentive and there was: Mannerism is first and foremost a violent reaction to, and a dramatic departure from, the ideal order of the art of the Renaissance.

The art of the 16th century as a whole reflects deep doubts over the classical principles, normative proportions and lucid space of the High Renaissance. Living in the shadow of such unrivaled masters of the immediate past as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael created a dilemma for the younger generation of painters. They were very much aware that a golden age had preceded them and that there was no possibility of improving on the craftsmanship of their famous predecessors. The long-standing problems of linear and atmospheric perspective, mathematical principles of foreshortening, correct anatomical rendering, and the proportions and relationships of figures to their surrounding spaces had been solved and perfected.

While some less inventive artists reduced the ideas and techniques of their predecessors to workable formulas and repetitive compositions, others branched out in the only direction possible—by purposefully breaking the established rules and by violating Renaissance assumptions for sheer shock effect. Naturalism gave way to the free play of the imagination. Classical composure yielded to nervous movement. Clear definition of space became a jumble of picture planes crowded with twisted figures. Symmetry and focus on the central figure were replaced by off-balance diagonals that made it difficult to find the protagonists of the drama amid the numerous directional lines. Backgrounds, formerly intended as a credible context for the subject, were now vaguely defined or even nonexistent. The norms of body proportions were distorted by the unnatural elongation of figures. Chiaroscuro no longer served to model figures but to create optical illusions, violent contrasts and theatrical lighting effects. Strong pure tonalities gave way to insipid pastel hues or to unnatural, even acidic colors. The Renaissance realm of clarity and order was consciously disrupted, to be replaced by tension and ambiguity.

In 1548 the aesthetic theorist Benedetto Varchi defined artistic creativity as "an artificial imitation of nature," expressing not an original idea but a widely-held belief. This pronouncement indicates how far art had come to deviate from the attempt on the part of early Renaissance artists, such as Masaccio, to faithfully reproduce the natural world around them.

Many of the tendencies we categorize as Mannerist were already incipient in the Renaissance. The highly prized quality of stylishness, which encompassed virtuosity, fluency and refinement, was to be found in the antique statues then most admired, and in the works of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo and proclaimed in aesthetic theories of the 16th century. However, the crucial example of Mannerism in germination is to be found in the Sistine Ceiling, completed by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, which provided an immediate and lasting impact on every artist who saw it. The giant-sized nudes, Prophets and Sibyls sit in contrived, twisted poses, forced into impossibly shallow spaces. When he returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint the Last Judgment in 1534, Michelangelo abandoned all spatial cohesion—juggling crowded spaces and bare areas, while the masses of disproportionate figures emerge without intelligible relationship to one another. The recent cleaning of the Sistine Chapel frescoes has revealed the original colors Michelangelo used: strong, strident, at times almost psychedelic tonalities.

  1. Movement
    The desire to display several aspects of the figure at once led to the optical suggestion of movement. In sculpture, this inspired the creation of single figures or groups of figures that can be viewed from all sides, rather than from a single viewpoint; the figure seems to be in perpetual movement, so the spectator is encouraged to keep moving around it. Giorgio Vasari coined the term figura serpentinata (serpentine line) to describe this concept. This form developed from the classical contrapposto, in which the turn of the head opposes that of the hips, and one leg is weight-bearing and straight while the other is flexed and free, all asymmetries being reconciled in a final balance. The Mannerist derivation is fluid and expressive, more torsion than balance. In a two-dimensional depiction, the figure is composed in an S-curve, so the head faces the opposite direction as the feet, the hips uniting the opposing members by means of a sinuous curve.
  2. Distortion of figures
    In tune with the Mannerist predilection for the depiction of the abnormal, the distortion of the human figure, often with the object of making it more expressive, was of primary importance. Proportions could be imposed arbitrarily. In Florentine painting in particular, figures were often elongated, while the heads remained relatively small. This anti-classical approach to the human figure also occurred in central and northern Italy, and the Venetian-trained painter El Greco was especially influenced.
  3. Manipulation of Space
    In both architecture and painting, Renaissance space is clearly defined on all sides. In Mannerist compositions, space is unevenly filled. The picture plane was no longer constrained by the rules of perspective, and its logical boundaries were blurred or ignored. Sometimes there is only a neutral background, providing no comprehensible environment. In other compositions, the background seems to stretch into infinity, interspersed with auxiliary scenes apparently not related the main theme. An analogous feature occurred in architecture: the idea of centralized plan, that contained space rationally and systematically, was abandoned in favor of tan elongated axes that prolonged space indefinitely, culminating in the concept of the long gallery building (such as the Uffizi in Florence, designed by Giorgio Vasari).

    In many instances the space in two-dimensional compositions is compressed, forcing figures and other elements to inhabit a shallow area uncomfortably close to the foreground limits. Other common Mannerist tactics are asymmetrical composition, off-center diagonals, and figures that are cut off, not fully contained by the picture plane. The consistent result is a composition that is deliberately confusing, fabricating tension in the viewer's perception.

  4. Light
    Just as they manipulated space and proportions to attain jarring effects , Mannerist artists also manipulated light for dramatic impact. No longer were the elements of a pictorial composition illuminated from a single light source, seemingly arriving from a logical point outside the painting. Now light was imposed arbitrarily, sometimes emanating from a source within the composition, such as a halo; sometimes coming from diverse directions, lighting elements at odd angles and casting impossible shadows. Light signified divinity and could be used to transform a commonplace setting into a heavenly realm.
  5. Spiritual intensity
    Especially in the field of painting, Mannerism demonstrated a high pitch of religious fervor, and its practitioners developed a new way of distinguishing between the earthly and the divine. This new potential was most fully realized in scenes of apparitions, saintly visions and New Testament miracles, in which events taking place in this world were transposed into the divine realm. A new painterly concept was necessary for representing the spiritual. The primacy of line gave way to the emotional immediacy of color. Forms became less tangible and clearly defined, sometimes becoming focal points of vibrant, irrational hues. Brushstrokes could be broken or sketchy. Both the descriptive value of light and the focus on movement were effective tools that Mannerist artists utilized to concoct credible portrayals of transcendental themes.
The type of Mannerism developed by the Venetian school of painters shared the general characteristics discussed above, and yet in many respects it stands alone. This is partly because Venice enjoyed a unique political situation in Europe. Throughout the 16th century Venice remained one of the richest cities in Europe, by far the richest in Italy. It controlled an overseas empire and was still the major center for trade with Asia. Venice was the only Italian city to resist the successive waves of domination by France, Spain or the Papacy that engulfed the rest of the peninsula, and one of the very few cities that retained a nominally republican, in fact oligarchic, system of government. Although Venice was officially a Catholic country, it was not submissive to either the secular or religious authority of the Papacy. The primary patron of the arts was not the Church, as it was in other Italian cities, but the state. Private patronage was also considerable, specifically in the form of the Scuole, prestigious confraternities of lay persons devoted to charitable works. The Scuole commissioned paintings and other works of art to adorn the buildings that served as their headquarters.

The great wealth and autonomy that characterized the Venetian state is reflected in the independent course that Venetian painting took throughout its Renaissance and Mannerist phases. Much of Venetian art is public art, on a monumental scale. Venetian art was lavish, always grand, and therefore served as a transition, rather than a rupture, between the High Renaissance and Baroque. But it also could be introspective and was never mundane.

Venetian Mannerism never fully attained the precious, over-refined and self-conscious quality exhibited by the style in other fashion-setting centers, such as Florence and Rome, but maintained a dynamic and heroic energy. One reason may be that Mannerism could not function as a courtly art in Venice because the republic did not have a hereditary monarch and stratified aristocracy, and therefore had no princely court. Wealth was not principally in the hands of the nobility, a quite small and immutable number of citizens, but in those of the merchant class.

Yet the independence of Venetian Mannerism can be largely explained by the fact that painting remained for virtually decades under the sway of the overwhelming personality of Titian, whose extremely long and productive career ended only with his death in 1576. Although Titian occasionally experimented with Mannerist forms, his painting methods and ideology remained rooted in the naturalistic tradition, which impeded some of the decorative trends of Mannerism that flourished elsewhere.

Due to the damp climate of this water-bound city, frescoes were seldom attempted. Thus Venetian painters had little feeling for the opaque nature of tempera. Venetian color was particularly rich and vibrant, exploiting the maximum possibilities of oil pigments and their ability to produce saturated color and reflective light. Venetian painters developed a technique called alla prima, which involved the rapid application of paint over a preceding layer of paint before it had dried, resulting in a mixing of color directly on the canvas. Rather than precisely recording every detail of a figure, a few bold brushstrokes are used to describe them.

Venice was a crossroads of ideas as well as of trade, and Venetian innovations in architecture and music as well as in painting fanned out in all directions, eagerly adopted in the Church and court circles of Spain and France, where both the Church hierarchy and the aristocracy sought the impressive of the arts to enhance their exalted positions. In Venetian art they found the richest expression of this ideal

It has been stressed that Mannerism cannot be equated with Counter-Reformation art. Mannerism, as it was practiced in the latter 16th century, did not fulfill the artistic requirements of Counter-Reformation propaganda—it lacked clarity, stark realism, and most of all, a coherent message. It is only about 1580 and onwards, or roughly twenty years after the decrees issued by the Council of Trent established an official policy governing the creation of religious art, that we begin to discern Counter-Reformational art on a broad basis. The Counter Reformation rejected the exclusiveness of Mannerist taste because the Catholic church's primary aim in art was luring back broad sectors of the populace. A new style had to be formulated, and to accomplish this, a reform movement in art itself had to come about. The seemingly conflicting approaches espoused by the Carracci and Caravaggio would coalesce to meet this challenge.

How then, to reconcile this detachment with the starkly didactic themes of resurrection of the dead and cleansing of the church, so in tune with the Counter-Reformation messages, that we encounter in these two paintings? We can best do this by regarding subject matter as distinct from the style in which it is depicted. In each case, the painting is the unrestrained product of a unique temperament, the individual response of the artist to a spiritual theme. At least in the case of Tintoretto, his canvases are revelations of his deep personal religious commitment, and in the case of El Greco, then living in Rome, he was interpreting a standard religious theme sanctioned by the Papacy. The tenor of these paintings resounds with the initial reforming spirit of the early phase of the Counter Reformation, yet in execution they are still untamed and unregulated. The Church was telling artists what and what not to paint, but could not tell artists how. These two paintings, then, represent a brief but brilliant phase of uncertainty in the history of art, the half-way point between Renaissance and Baroque.

General discussions:
Honour, Hugh and John Fleming, The Visual Arts, A History, Third Edition. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1982, Part III, Chapter 11.

Fleming, William, Arts and Ideas, Seventh Edition. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1986, Part I, Chapter 13.

The Dictionary of Art (ed. Jane Turner). London, McMillan, 1996, vol. 20.

Specialized discussions:
Hauser, Arnold, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art, Cambridge, Mass. And London, Harvard University Press, 1986.

Shearman, John, Mannerism, Penguin Books, 1967.

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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>The Mannerist Style and the Lamentation,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009