6. Renaissance and Mannerism

The history of western art is one of movements and counter-movements, actions and reactions. In particular there is the alternation between the tendency towards balance and rationality and the urge towards emotive elaboration or distortion. A typical example is the contrast between the Renaissance art of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, which sought to re-establish the rules of grand design and proportion of classical art after the overarching strains of the Gothic, and the Mannerist art which followed in the sixteenth century, which elaborates upon, and even perversely bends and breaks, the classical rules.

With early Renaissance painters such as Piero, and with High Renaissance masters like Leonardo and Michelangelo, come poised, architectonic arrangements of the human form. The development of their art coincided with a flowering of the natural sciences and of Christian humanist philosophy which, while deeply religious, marked a demystification and a new urbanity in human thought.

By the end of Michelangelo's career, however, we can perceive a distortion of figures and an exaggeration of musculature characteristic of Mannerism. The term 'mannerist' is one of the most problematic in art history, frequently used disparagingly to suggest affectation, often from an opposing 'classical' point of view. The original Mannerism of the sixteenth century certainly tended to heighten color and employ exaggerated, articulated pose or contrapposto to achieve emotional and spiritual charge. In architecture, at the same time, the elegance of Palladian proportion began to be subject to inventive, if not willful, variation, inversion, and parody. Thus the way opened up for the even greater and more florid artifices of the Baroque and Rococo.