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The term comes from the Italian maniera, or "style," in the sense of painting "in the style" of another painter. After the realistic depiction of the human form and the mastery of perspective was achieved in high Renaissance Classicism, some artists started to deliberately distort proportions for emotional and artistic effect. In Mannerist paintings, compositions can have no focal point, space can be ambiguous, figures can be characterized by an athletic bending and twisting with distortions, exaggerations, an elastic elongation of the limbs, bizarre posturing on one hand, graceful posturing on the other hand, and a rendering of the heads as uniformly small and oval. Mannerist artwork seeks instability and restlessness. The style was carried into France by Primaticcio, Il Rosso, Niccolò dell'Abbate, and Cellini. It flourished particularly at Fontainebleau and was adapted by the sculptor Goujon and the engraver Callot.

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