Uncanonical Mannerism

This allegory painting of Agnolo Bronzino’s, Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly, of 1545 (National Gallery, London), is in the so-called maniera style, which we know, courtesy of relatively contemporary art history, as mannerism. Maniera means ‘style’, and what’s on show in Bronzino’s picture, along with other mannerist paintings – and mannerist architecture, literature, and music for that matter – is an emphasis on style, per se, without denoting a particular style. This meta-style, this style of styles if it can be called that, emphasises artificiality above all: most mannerist works of art seem artificial in their execution, as does this painting. Mannerist works are a departure from naturalness. The order in the face of which 16th Century mannerism can be said to be artificial is that of High Renaissance art, of the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. We’re mostly all familiar with works such as the Mona Lisa, or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or the School of Athens. These High Renaissance works can be defined as embodying clarity, sensitivity, simplicity and nobility of form, along with sheer physical beauty, and technical brilliance. In a word, they seem real: they are realistic. In contrast, the mannerist works are artificial; they’re decorative, blending the real and the false; they’re usually witty, sophisticated and amusing. Their artificiality blurs the so-called real with the imaginativeness of the irreal and fantastic. Their grace is often of a strange, distorted, and frankly monstrous nature, coming close to representing ecstasy and rapture.

John Shearman (in his 1967 book Mannerism) calls mannerist works, among other things, uncanonical (p.71), in that they defy the accepted cannon, which in their case is the generally accepted cannon of High Renaissance art. I love this proto-definition of mannerism, since it commits the artist and the work to a wild oscillation between the real and the unreal, the acceptable and the mildly odd,  the naturalistic and the fantastic. In a sense, mannerist works only make sense in this mode of swing between these two opposing states, this drunken swaying down the road to respectable representation.

Uncanonical mannerism is a fine representation of insubordinate contemplation. It is a justified – because well studied – rejection of the established order.

Check out other mannerist works of art, and see if you can a) spot the order being subverted, b) acknowledge the close observation involved in its execution, and c) see the oscillation between the naturalistic and fantastic.

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