The definition of Mannerism, and the phases within it, continue to be the subject of debate among art historians. For example, some scholars have applied the label to certain early modern forms of literature (especially poetry) and music of the sixteenth and seventeen centuries. The term is also used to refer to some Late Gothic painters working in northern Europe from about 1500 to 1530, especially the Antwerp Mannerists—a group unrelated to the Italian movement.
However for later writers, such as the seventeenth-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 nineteenth-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 sixteenth century.
As a stylistic label, "Mannerism" is not easily pigeonholed. It was first popularized by German art historians in the early twentieth-century to categorize the seemingly uncategorizable art of the Italian sixteenth century—art that was no longer perceived to exhibit the harmonious and rational approaches associated with the High Renaissance.
Depending on the historical account, Mannerism developed between 1510 and 1520 in either Florence, Rome, or both cities. The early Mannerists in Florence—especially the students of Andrea del Sarto: Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino—are notable for elongated forms, precariously balanced poses, irrational settings, and theatrical lighting. Parmigianino, a student of Correggio, and Giulio Romano, Raphael’s head assistant were moving in similarly stylized aesthetic directions in Rome. These artists had matured under the influence of the High Renaissance, and their style has been characterized as a reaction or exaggerated extension of it. Therefore, this style is often identified as "anti-classical”. The earliest experimental phase of Mannerism, known for its "anti-classical" forms, lasted until about 1540 or 1550.
This period has been described as both a natural extension of the art of Andrea del Sarto, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as well as a decline of those same artists' classicizing achievements. In past analyses, it has been noted that mannerism arose in the early 1500s alongside a number of other social, scientific, religious and political movements such as the Copernican model, the Sack of Rome, and the Protestant Reformation's increasing challenge to the power of the Catholic church. Because of this, the style's elongated forms and distorted forms were once interpreted as a reaction to the idealized compositions prevalent in High Renaissance art. This explanation for the radical stylistic shift c. 1520 has fallen out of scholarly favor, though the early Mannerists are still set in stark contrast to High Renaissance conventions; the immediacy and balance achieved by Raphael's School of Athens, no longer seemed interesting to young artists. Indeed, Michelangelo himself displayed tendencies towards Mannerism, notably in his vestibule to the Laurentian Library, in the figures on his Medici tombs, and above all in his Last Judgement.
The second period of Mannerism is commonly differentiated from the earlier, so-called "anti-classical" phase.
Subsequent mannerists stressed intellectual conceits and artistic virtuosity, features that have led later critics to accuse them of working in an unnatural and affected "manner" (maniera). Maniera artists held their elder contemporary Michelangelo as their prime example; theirs was an art imitating art, rather than an art imitating nature. Freedberg argues that the intellectualizing aspect of maniera art comes in the artist expecting his audience to notice and understand this visual reference, the familiar figure in an unfamiliar setting surrounded by "unseen, but felt, quotation marks." The supreme artifice comes in the Maniera painter's love of deliberately mis-appropriating a quotation, for example Bronzino including the figure of a woman after the Medici Venus (similar to the one illustrated at right) in a religious picture depicting Christ's resurrection. Agnolo Bronzino and Giorgio Vasari exemplify this strain of Maniera that lasted from about 1530 to 1580. Based largely at courts and in intellectual circles around Europe, Maniera art couples exaggerated elegance with exquisite attention to surface and detail: porcelain-skinned figures recline in an even, tempered light, regarding the viewer with a cool glance, if at all. The Maniera subject rarely displays an excess of emotion, and for this reason are often interpreted as 'cold' or 'aloof,' and is often called the "stylish" style or the Maniera.
Mannerist centers in Italy were Rome, Florence and Mantua. Venetian painting, in its separate "school," pursued a separate course, represented in the long career of Titian. Because a number of the earliest Mannerist artists who had been working in Rome during the 1520s, fled the city after the Sack of Rome in 1527. As they spread out across the continent in search of employment, their style was distributed throughout Italy and Europe. The result was the first international artistic style since the Gothic. The style waned in Italy after 1580, as a new generation of artists, including the Carracci, Caravaggio and Cigoli, reemphasized naturalism. Walter Friedlaender identified this period as "anti-mannerism", just as the early mannerists were "anti-classical" in their reaction to the High Renaissance.
Outside of Italy, however, mannerism continued into the seventeenth century. In France, where Rosso traveled to work for the court at Fontainebleau, it is known as the Henry II style and it had a particular impact on architecture. Other important continental centers include the court of Rudolf II in Prague, as well as Haarlem and Antwerp. Mannerism as a stylistic category is less frequently applied to English visual and decorative arts, where local categories such as "Elizabethan" and "Jacobean" are more common. Eighteenth-century Artisan Mannerism is one exception.
The framing of the engraved frontispiece to Mannerist artist Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (illustration, left) would be called "Jacobean" in an English-speaking context. In it, Michelangelo's Medici tombs inspire the anti-architectural "architectural" features at the top, the papery pierced frame, the satyr nudes at the base. In the vignette of Florence at the base, papery or vellum-like material is cut and stretched and scrolled into a cartouche (cartoccia). The design is self-conscious, overcharged with rich, artificially "natural" detail in physically improbable juxtapositions of jarring scale changes, overwhelming as a mere frame: Mannerist.
The examples of a rich and hectic decorative style at Fontainebleau transferred the Italian style, through the medium of engravings, to Antwerp and thence throughout Northern Europe, from London to Poland, and brought Mannerist design into luxury goods like silver and carved furniture. A sense of tense controlled emotion expressed in elaborate symbolism and allegory, and elongated proportions of female beauty are characteristics of his style.
Jacopo Tintoretto's Last Supper (at left) epitomizes Mannerism by taking Jesus and the table out of the middle of the room. He showed all that was happening. In sickly, disorienting colors he painted a scene of confusion that somehow separated the angels from the real world. He had removed the world from God's reach.
An example of mannerist architecture is the Villa Farnese at Caprarola in the rugged country side outside of Rome. The proliferation of engravers during the 16th century spread Mannerist styles more quickly than any previous styles. A center of Mannerist design was Antwerp during its 16th century boom. Through Antwerp, Renaissance and Mannerist styles were widely introduced in England, Germany, and northern and eastern Europe in general. Dense with ornament of "Roman" detailing, the display doorway at Colditz Castle (illustration, left) exemplifies this northern style, characteristically applied as an isolated "set piece" against unpretentious vernacular walling.
The word Mannerism has also been used to describe the style of highly florid and contrapuntally complex polyphonic music made in France in the late 14th century. This period is now usually referred to as the ars subtilior.