Sunday, May 4, 2014

Perusing the Internet for an Adequate Definition of Mannerism, Giving up, and Making my own one Instead

I looked at the definition of Mannerism as defined by four respectable dictionaries. Interestingly, there was very little overlap between the definitions. For example, of the two dictionary entries who included names of prominent Mannerist artists, there were exactly zero artists in common.  I found every definition to be lacking in some way, so I eventually decided I should make my own.    

Here's what the dictionaries say (followed by my rating of the definition's effectiveness):

Mannerism (
( usually initial capital letter ) a style in the fine arts developed principally in Europe during the 16thcentury, chiefly characterized by a complex perspectival system, elongation of forms, strained gestures or poses of figures, and intense, often strident color.


Definition rating: good

Issues with this definition: “complex perspectival system” is too vague. In what ways are the perspectival system complex?

Mannerism (Merriam Webster):
often capitalized : an art style in late 16th century Europe characterized by spatial incongruity and excessive elongation of the human figures


Definition rating: fair

Issues with this definition: “spatial incongruity” is too vague. “excessive” elongation could imply judgement. Obviously, the elongation of figures did not seem excessive to the artists.

Mannerism (Oxford English Dictionary):
a style of 16th-century Italian art preceding the Baroque, characterized by unusual effects of scale, lighting, and perspective, and the use of bright, often lurid colors. It is particularly associated with the work of Pontormo, Vasari,and the later Michelangelo.


Definition rating: fair

Issues with this definition: no mention of iconic elongated curving figures. “Later Michaelangelo” could be made more clear with “the later works of Michelangelo.” It almost sounds like we are talking about a Michelangelo Jr.

Mannerism (Cambridge):
A style of 16th-century Italian art that did not follow traditional rules of painting and tried to represent an image of beauty that was perfect rather than natural: Mannerism is characterized by a distortion of proportions and perspective. Leading Mannerists include Parmigano and Gulio Romano, whose pictures are painted in deep, rich colors.


Definition rating: bad

Issues with this definition:

 Nearly all art does not follow the “traditional rules” set by the generation of preceding artists. Also what is considered “traditional rules” here?

There is no mention of elongated, curving figures (though hinted at with “distortion of proportions”)

“Distortion” is too vague and has a negative tone. In what ways do have the forms been distorted?  Are they blurry, do they have arms that look like curly fries?  Also, saying a figure is "distorted" is  like saying the artists disfigured the human form, when in fact Mannerist artists sought to perfect the human form (which, ironically, is mentioned in Cambridge's own definition).

Here’s what the four dictionaries did agree on:

1. Happened in 16th century: 4
2. Occurred in Europe: 4
(It should be noted that two of the definitions did so implicitly by defining Mannerism as an Italian movement)
3. Intense color: 3
4. When referring to art, Mannerism is usually capitalized: 2.5
5. Occurred in Italy: 2
6. Elongation of forms: 2

My attempt at a better definition:

Mannerism- A style of art centered around Italy that historians attribute to 16th century Europe, between the renaissance and baroque periods. This style is predominately known for its intensely vivid colors, and elegantly elongated, curving figures, which are often depicted overlapping and/or in overly-dramatic or strained poses. This style is also known for intentionally illogical, though convincing, use of techniques pioneered and refined during the renaissance, such as perspective, lighting, and composition. Also common for Mannerism was its intellectually sophisticated, though inaccessible and at times even incoherent, subject matter which drew from any combination of Christianity, classicism, and mythology.

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