It has taken over thirty years for the term Mannerism to become current in criticism of the arts. There was initially little interest in Dvorak's use of it to describe El Greco or in Pevsner's perception that what had been thought of as early Baroque might better be termed Mannerist. But a great change has taken place. Readers of Sir Kenneth Clark's special article on El Greco in the Sunday Times (September 27, 1959) are expected to take casual references to Mannerism quite in their stride. The application of the term to works of literature has been a slower development but is encountering less resistance, on both sides of the Atlantic, since the appearance of popular books such as Pevsner European Architecture and Sypher Four Stages of Renaissance Style, both of which in paperback editions have achieved wide distribution.
There is general agreement that Mannerism flourished, and was perhaps the leading style, between 1520 or 1530 and 1590 or 1600. There is also a fairly satisfactory consensus of opinion that certain works of Michelangelo are loci classici of Mannerism, that Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, and Parmigianino are at the centre of the movement, and that both Tintoretto and El Greco are outstanding practitioners of the style. Bronzino, Beccafumi, Cellini, and Bruegel are also reckoned in.
It is possible to separate the products of Mannerism into groupings associated with form, or content, or geographical location, or all of these. Michelangelo is regarded as the progenitor of tragical and mystical forms. An aristocratic Florentine form is associated with Vasari and the court of the Medici. The influence of Rome after the Council of Trent is manifest in an official religious form. The emotional and ecstatic painting associated with Barocci forms a final division.
The student who feels that Mannerism is a concept useful in the criticism of English or French literature has thus a number of steeds he may mount and there is considerable risk that they may be prepared to start off in different directions. An agile rider may leap from one to another. In two books by Imbrie Buffum this method is used with great address and to good advantage. In Wylie Sypher's book already mentioned the effect is of a cross-country gallop. Exhilarated and shaken, the reader thinks he will retrace part of the marvellous journey on foot.
In the pages that follow I try to arrive at a definition of Mannerism consonant with the judgement of reputable art critics and at the same time applicable to English literature. The specific works of art appealed to, whether poetic or plastic, are very few in number and are of the very first rank. The sacrifices entailed by this conservative approach are considerable. The temptation to pass directly from the experience, say, of Parmigianino's "Madonna del Collo Lungo" in the Pitti Palace to a consideration of John Donne is almost irresistible. But it has been resisted.
The starting point for a study of Mannerism is the recognition that the Mannerist artist invariably employs traditional themes and materials and frequently gives the impression that he is about to employ them in a traditional way. Giulio Romano, creator of the Palazzo del Tè at Mantua, may be regarded as "an artist who all the time takes every care to preserve the dehors of classical correctness, a care which has deceived observers of several centuries. A simultaneous eagerness to employ traditional forms and determination to rupture their prescribed rules is not often recognized in the criticism of English writing. Coleridge and Wordsworth, we feel, signalled their change of direction clearly and set up the expectation that their predecessors will have done the same.