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Mannerism-Nomenclature

Nov - 13 - 2012
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The word mannerism derives from the Italian maniera, meaning “style” or “manner”. Like the English word “style,” maniera can either be used to indicate a specific type of style (a beautiful style, an abrasive style) or be used to indicate an absolute that needs no qualification (someone ‘has style’). In the second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568), Giorgio Vasari used maniera in three different contexts: to discuss an artist’s manner or method of working; to describe a personal or group style, such as the term maniera greca to refer to the Byzantine style or simply to the maniera of Michelangelo; and to affirm a positive judgment of artistic quality. Vasari was also a Mannerist artist, and he described the period in which he worked as “la maniera moderna”, or the “modern style”. James V. Mirollo describes how “bella maniera” poets attempted to surpass in virtuosity the sonnets of Petrarch. The notion of “bella maniera” suggests that artists infected with its spirit looked to copying and bettering their predecessors, rather than confronting nature directly. In essence, “bella maniera” utilized the best from a number of source materials, sythesizing it into something new. Shakespeare’s creative approach could be defined in this way.
As a stylistic label, “Mannerism” is not easily pigeonholed. It was used by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt and popularized by German art historians in the early 20th century to categorize the seemingly uncategorizable art of the Italian 16th century — art that was no longer perceived to exhibit the harmonious and rational approaches associated with the High Renaissance. “High Renaissance” suggested a period of harmony, grandeur and the revival of classical antiquity and the term was redefined in 1967 by John Shearman. The label “Mannerism” was used during the 16th century to comment on social behaviour and to convey a refined virtuoso quality or to signify a certain technique.
However, for later writers, such as the 17th-century Gian Pietro Bellori, “la maniera” was a derogatory term for the decline of art after Raphael, especially in the 1530s and 1540s. From the late 19th-century on, art historians have commonly used the term to describe art that follows Renaissance classicism and precedes the Baroque. Yet historians differ in opinion, as to whether Mannerism is a style, a movement, or a period, and while the term remains controversial it is commonly used to identify European art and culture of the 16th century.

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