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Device and monogram of Anne de Montmorency, unknown maker, about 1548-1550. Museum no. C.47-1982

Device and monogram of Anne de Montmorency, unknown maker, about 1548-1550. Museum no. C.47-1982

Mannerism is the term often given to a style of Renaissance art and architecture that began in the courts of Italy in about 1520, then spread throughout Europe and lasted until about 1610. The name comes from maniera, Italian for style. The style is characterised by surprising effects and visual trickery. Decoration is often complex, figures are elongated and given exaggerated poses.


Exaggerated Forms

In Mannerism, human figures usually appear slightly elongated or stretched, especially the necks and limbs.
These exaggerated forms often serve to heighten the emotion in an artwork. Skewed perspectives and dramatic foreshadowing provide tension within a composition. Twisted or distorted figures add to the impression of movement, making the drama seem even more vivid.


Mannerist artists aimed to delight and surprise their patrons with inventive and playful motifs. Bizarre combinations of objects, characters, plants or animals were a common element. Sometimes a hidden joke was revealed when the object was used

Lavish Decoration

Rich and elaborate decoration was popular in Mannerist design. Both flat and three-dimensional surfaces were covered with patterns, motifs and sculptural ornament. Different types of pattern are often mixed together. Human figures, animals, monsters and plants are everywhere. Sometimes, the entire surface is covered with decoration.

The Natural World

Mannerist artists took their inspiration from the natural world, but used the material or form in surprising or novel ways. A taste for variety and imagination in design, combined with a love of the bizarre, led artists to change and adapt natural forms. Sometimes they used real specimens, but presented them in novel and outlandish ways, enhancing their rarity with elaborate settings.


Michelangelo (1475 - 1564)

Michelangelo thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, but he was also an innovative architect and painter. He pioneered what became known as the Mannerist style in the contorted poses of his figures and by breaking the rules of classical architecture. His fame was such that other artists would boost their own reputation by imitating his work.

Giulio Romano (about 1499 - 1546)

Giulio trained in his native Rome under Raphael, helping him to paint frescoes in the Vatican and the Villa Farnesina. In 1524 he moved to Mantua, where he created a suburban pleasure palace, the Palazzo del Te, for Duke Federigo II Gozaga. As a court artist, Giulio produced a range of work, including architecture, painting and designs for silverware.

Francis I (1494 - 1547)

Francis I, King of France 1515-47, was a keen admirer of Italian Mannerist art. He invited leading Italian artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini to work on his palace at Fontainebleau. Through his patronage of architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts, he played a major part in spreading the Mannerist style among French artists and courtiers.

Buildings and Interiors

Fontainebleau, France

The palace of Fontainebleau had its origins as a royal hunting lodge outside Paris. It was rebuilt by Frances I, using Italian Mannerist architects and artists, as an elegant retreat for himself and his court. These architects and their French followers became known as the School of Fontainebleau. Engravings of their work spread the style around Europe.

Palazzo del te, Mantua, Italy

This palace was an urban retreat created by Giulio Romano for Duke Federigo II Gonzaga and his mistress Isabella Boschetti. Giulio played with the rules of architecture and inserted elements of surprise, such as keystones and blocks that appear to be falling into the courtyard. The Room of the Giants was frescoed with fantastic scenes that distort the sense of space.

Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy

The library is situated in the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. It was commissioned by the Medici pop Clement VII and designed by Michelangelo. Its style bears the hallmarks of Mannerism. Broken pediments and the imposing staircase with curved steps create a feeling of unease for those entering the Library.

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