Term used in the study of the visual arts (and by transference in the study of literature and music) with a confusing variety of critical and historical meanings. Even more than with most stylistic labels, there is little agreement amongst scholars as to its delimitations, and John Shearman begins his book on the subject (Mannerism, 1967) with the frank admission: ‘This book will have at least one feature in common with all those already published on Mannerism; it will appear to describe something quite different from what all the rest describe.’ The word derives from the Italian maniera (‘style’ or ‘stylishness’), and it was popularized mainly by the writings of Vasari, who used it as a term of praise, signifying qualities of grace, poise, facility, and sophistication—characteristics that are indeed apparent in much of the art that he admired from his own time. From the 17th century, however, most critics thought that Italian art of Vasari's period marked a decline from the peaks of grandeur and harmony reached during the High Renaissance by Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and the term ‘Mannerism’ came to suggest an art characterized by artificiality, superficiality, and exaggeration, feebly plagiarizing and distorting the work of the masters. From being a stylistic term the word expanded its meaning to become a period label, so that ‘Mannerism’ came to designate the era in Italian art between the High Renaissance and the Baroque—that is, from about 1520 to about 1600. The term is still applied mainly to Italian art and architecture, but it is also used of art in other countries.
It was not until the 20th century—and particularly the period between the two world wars—that a more sympathetic attitude towards Mannerist art emerged, and the word began to be used neutrally, without the implication of decadence that it had long carried. At this time, after the revolutionary achievements of early 20th-century art, Mannerist art was looked at with new eyes, and the work of artists who had long been ignored or disparaged began to seem exciting and original to modern taste. The qualities associated with Mannerist art include tension, emotionalism, elongation of the human figure, strained poses, unusual or bizarre effects of scale, lighting, or perspective, and vivid—sometimes harsh or lurid—colours. Often the subject is approached in an unconventional way, with the artist drawing attention to his learning or virtuosity. In the hands of the greatest Mannerist artists (for example Pontormo or Parmigianino) such preoccupations led to works that are not only highly sophisticated, but also powerful, disturbing, and moving. The work of less accomplished Mannerists (for example Vasari as a painter) often degenerated, however, into insipid or frenzied gesturing and grimacing.
With Mannerism no longer receiving blanket condemnation, more subtle issues occupied the minds of historians, for example to what extent the term could be applied to art outside Italy (e.g. El Greco in Spain, the School of Fontainebleau in France, and Hilliard in England) or to architecture (where what might be taken in one context as playful or capricious disregard for the rules of classical architecture might in another be seen as provincial clumsiness). While some critics wish to expand the use of the term, others wish to contract it, and still others seek to distinguish what they regard as the central elements of the style within the general period label by using the term ‘maniera’. The following sentence from S. J. Freedberg's Painting in Italy: 1500–1600 (1971) in the Pelican History of Art series shows how potentially bewildering the terminology can be: ‘The first generation of Mannerism, its inventors, thus could achieve maniera, but this requires to be distinguished not only chronologically but in degree and in some respects of kind from the “high Maniera” or Maniera proper.’ Thus while the term ‘Mannerism’ can generally be taken to imply an elegant, refined, artificial, self-conscious, and courtly style, the shade of meaning to be attached to it varies very much according to the context and the outlook of the writer using it.