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Bronzino Returns

Bronzino

by Charles McCorquodale
Harper and Row, 174 pp., $35.00

BRONZINO, Agnolo (1503-72), was a Florentine painter who was the pupil ofPONTORMO and was also influenced by Michelangelo. He was Court painter to Cosimo I de’Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, and one of the most important Mannerist portrait painters, concentrating on expressing an inhuman elegance andrestraint in his sitters, totally unlike the nervous sensibility of Pontormo….His few religious works are highly wrought and devoid of any kind of feeling, while his Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly (London, NG) has a kind of icy obscenity….

The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (1959)

What is Bronzino’s place in the history of European painting? As a portraitist, he stands with Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Ingres. Some of hisfigure paintings, notably those in the Eleonora Chapel, are among the most coherent statements by any European painter about the expressive possibilities of the abstracted human form….Without the surface finish where painting techniqueis under as rigid a control as his inimitable line, the purity of his vision ofideal form would not exist. It is on this unswerving devotion to such an ideal that Bronzino’s claim rests to have been the last great painter of the Florentine Renaissance.

—Charles McCorquodale, Bronzino (1981)

Charles McCorquodale’s Bronzino is the first book in English to treat Bronzino’s whole career as an artist since the publication of Arthur McComb’s Agnolo Bronzino: His Life and Works in 1928. In the intervening half century, as the two quotations above suggest, a change has been taking place in the estimate of Bronzino’s art. It is not only a matter of art historians having checked up on details and gathered more information, although this is part of the story. It is a matter, also, of changes in the perception, in the understanding, of Bronzino’s painting and of painting in his time. And this becomes a matter, in turn, of the artist’s stature. One might assume the general standing of such a well-known painter of the Renaissance to have been settled long ago, but it is not so in Bronzino’s case.

That the life and personality of Bronzino are elusive has not helped. On these subjects Giorgio Vasari’s account of him, in the second edition of the Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, is sparse; and no other contemporary writer supplied the lack. Vasari had known Bronzino, as he mentioned,for forty-three years, even serving as his assistant on one occasion, and Bronzino had been in the position of chief painter to the duke of Florence when Vasari returned from Rome in the 1550s to become painter and artistic entrepreneur for the same patron. No doubt Vasari could have given a fuller account, somewhat more like the one he wrote about his painter friend Francesco Salviati. But in the case of Bronzino, Vasari chose an approach more in keeping with advice hehad received from Vincenzo Borghini, not to write about artists’ lives, just about their work (Borghini thought only the lives of princes and men of princely achievement worth writing); and even about the work he was not expansive.

From Vasari’s account and a few other contemporary references we do get some essential facts about Bronzino’s career but only a limited impression of him as a well-liked, respected man of considerable cultivation, modest, generous in expressing his views of other artists, devoted to his friends. He was also an esteemed poet. His poetry still needs to be studied carefully for clues to a greater understanding of Bronzino himself.

Before McComb, only two books had been devoted to Bronzino, one published in Italian by Albertina Furno in 1902 on his poetry, the other a short work by Hanns Schulze published in German in 1911 on his painting. McComb’s announcedpurpose was to distinguish the genuine Bronzinos from the large number of school-pieces that passed under Bronzino’s name and to straighten out their chronology. He went about this carefully and sensitively. But he did not consider Bronzino a great painter. Bronzino was “never ranked with the traditional ‘great masters,”’ wrote Frederick M. Clapp, author of the pioneering study on Bronzino’s teacher Pontormo, in his review of McComb’s book; and clearly Clapp did not dissent.

Earlier, in his influential Florentine Painters, Bernard Berenson hadclassified Bronzino as “Pontormo’s close follower” with “none of his master’s talent as a decorator, but happily much of his power as a portrait-painter. Would he had never attempted anything else!” “But,” Berenson wrote, “as a portrait-painter he took up the note struck by the master and continued, leaving behind him a series of portraits which not only had their effect in determiningthe character of Court painting all over Europe, but…most of which are works of art. As painting, it is true, they are hard and often timid; but their air of distinction, their interpretive qualities, have not often been surpassed.” In the drawings that Berenson could attribute to Bronzino he found the draftsmanship “singularly devoid of interest,” not only dull, but feeble of touch.

McComb agreed with these views in the main. Bronzino’s portraits, deriving from Pontormo, were admirable for the fine design, taste, and precision with which they immortalized the aristocracy of “the Florentine decadence”—as he referred to the time of the first Medici dukes, Alessandro and Cosimo I, the time when Bronzino painted most of his works, following the fall of the Florentine republic in 1530. Some of the portraits he found magnificent, especially those from the 1530s—such as Ugolino Martelli (see page 52)—and from the 1540s after Bronzino had become the chief court artist of Cosimo I. But McComb had no praise for any of the rest of Bronzino’s work, with the exception of a few words on the Allegory of Venus and Cupid in the National Gallery in London (above) together with its somewhat later variant in the National Museum in Budapest, and on one or two nudes in the frescoes decorating the chapel of the Duchess Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The London painting and also the frescoes, as we now know, date from the first half of the 1540s. McComb’s book included no illustrations of the sixteentapestries Bronzino began designing in the middle 1540s for the Sala dei Duecento in the Palazzo Vecchio, narrating the story of Joseph. From his text it is evident McComb thought most of them unsatisfactory. Except for portraits, the later paintings from the end of the 1540s to Bronzino’s death in 1572 he could see only as mannered and unpleasant, empty of significance, even insincere.

In contrast, in his Great Age of Fresco of 1970, the exacting critic and historian Millard Meiss called Bronzino “a superb painter” when, to show “the range of this master,” he analyzed The Miraculous Spring of Moses in Eleonora’s chapel. In 1967 Michael Levey wrote unequivocally, “Bronzino is the last great painter of the Florentine Renaissance.” We realize now that Bronzino could draw masterfully as well, having discovered enough of his drawings to make this judgment inescapable, as I was at pains to point out in a book on the drawings some years ago.1 They show that Bronzino represented the tradition of Florentine drawing admirably in not one but a variety of modes, and they help us to see that his artistic culture was by no means limited to his heritage from Pontormo or by the confines of Florence.

By now Bronzino’s portraiture is regarded as unique, a remarkable creation for which, it is realized, he drew on more than one source—on Pontormo, to be sure, but also on the firm grounding in painting he had had from his early teacher, Raffaellino del Garbo, master also of Andrea del Sarto, and on several traditions of portraiture besides that of Florence. It is indicative that the Lady with a Dog in Frankfurt, the portrait that Bernard Berenson cited to represent Pontormo at his best and to show where Bronzino’s portraiture came from, is considered to be an early Bronzino by a growing number of us who have studied the two painters. McCorquodale argues strongly that it is a key early work.

Investigation and writing in the last forty years have surely helped Bronzino’s standing, not least the discerning and appreciative writing devoted especially to the portraits—in addition to that in English, one thinks first of Luisa Becherucci’s books of 1944 and 1949 and Andrea Emiliani’s Il Bronzino of 1960. The term “decadence,” meanwhile, no longer sits well as a label for the period of Bronzino and the people he portrayed: the history, achievements, and leaders of the time have been winning interest and admiration, as the success of the Council of Europe’s huge exhibition in 1980 on the theme “Florence and the Tuscany of the Medici in Sixteenth-century Europe” dramatically illustrated.

Concurrently, portraits aside, there is growing appreciation of the stylethat dominated religious and profane painting in Florence in Bronzino’s time, astyle which traditionally had been greatly disparaged and which, as we have become more aware, Bronzino did much to form. A difference in evaluation is suggested by the very sound of the new name “high Maniera” which in his Pelican volume Sydney Freedberg has given to the style in place of the unqualified term “maniera,” which had been attached to it long ago as a derogatory term, and from which the name Mannerism came, also originally applied in a derogatory sense.

The maniera of the mid-sixteenth century used to be almost universally blamed for complex invention, artfulness, artificiality, stylization, and remoteness from nature. But in the last twenty years or more such qualities of thestyle have been gaining acceptance as belonging to a distinct, rarefied, and refined ideal of beauty, one that can be appreciated especially when, as in the case of Bronzino’s London Allegory of Venus and Cupid, it is perceived as appropriate to a treatment of profane subject matter aimed at expressing sophisticated, complex meaning. The essays of Erwin Panofsky, Michael Levey, and GrahamSmith on this picture have taught how such a sophisticated style “may require the eye to move at first with deliberate slowness” in order to read its iconography and savor its content.

With religious subject matter, however, the maniera is considered basically at odds. Sympathetic though he is to high Maniera, Freedberg explained how the arbitrariness of the ways it deals with the appearance and behavior of figures results in a disjunction between artistic form and religious subject matter. In her Renovation and Counter-Reformation of 1979, Marcia B. Hall has written that in the high Maniera “beauty is severed from the divine.” She finds Bronzino becoming increasingly deficient on this score in the course of painting the three Florentine altarpieces of his mid-career in the 1540s and early 1550s: the Pietà (now in Besançon) for Eleonora’s chapel—see page 53—(Bronzino himself referred to it in a letter as a Deposition), followed by the Resurrection in Santissima Annunziata and the Christ in Limbo forSanta Croce.

But Hall points out that Bronzino has given the religious narrative of these three works a sacramental meaning from which his arbitrary and sensuous idealized forms are not wholly estranged. Indeed, she is able to characterize the Pietà as “closer to a genuine synthesis of form and content than any work of art since Raphael’s Transfiguration” and as “exceedingly beautiful.” Probably she would agree that Bronzino is “the most sophisticated and finest Italian painter to embody the ideals of maniera,” as Levey put it. In the Dialogue on Painting of 1548 by the Venetian painter Paolo Pino the Florentine speaker puts Bronzino forward as a match for Titian in excellence. This judgment, only recently mentioned in writings on Bronzino, has begun to be understandable coming from a compatriot in the 1540s.

Charles McCorquodale’s volume is a further step in the revaluation of the artist. An up-to-date book on Bronzino’s work over the whole span of his career has been lacking. The last was Emiliani’s over twenty years ago, McCorquodale says at the outset that his book makes no pretense of being a definitive study of either the life or the work of Bronzino. Commissioned to write it, he has presented and assessed Bronzino’s art, taking fully into consideration what hasbeen ascertained or suggested in specialized studies of recent years. The result is a straightforward, perceptive account, intelligent and well written.

To be sure, there are points I would challenge: the early date for Bronzino’s departure from Raffaellino’s shop, for Instance; or the dating of two of the early portraits before Bronzino’s stay in Pesaro rather than during or after it—both matters of some importance to the way one understands the formation of the artist; or the acceptance of one portrait in particular and a drawing as having been done by Bronzino.2

No book will ever convey the character of Bronzino’s art adequately unless its illustrations are of great refinement and almost all in color. This is not the case here. Certainly more of the tapestries should have been illustrated in color. Our modern eyes have habitually tended to glide over tapestries without properly taking them in. Bronzino’s tapestries have always been neglected. But recently Florentine tapestries, and especially those of Bronzino, have begun to get the attention they merit—witness the catalogue on the Palazzo Vecchio from the Council of Europe’s exhibition.

McCorquodale has given the fullest account of Bronzino’s tapestries of the story of Joseph to appear so far in a monograph on the artist. But he might have said more. One might think Bronzino was vying with Venice in his designs for the Joseph tapestries since some of the later ones are so flowing and readable: for all the complexity of their powerful figures and strong emotion, their vigorous and rich colors help to clarify the narrative, especially by the saturated red and blue reserved for Joseph. In the tapestries one sees vividly how experimental and innovative an artist Bronzino was. It is not possible that Bronzino did not compose any full-scale cartoons for the tapestries, as McCorquodale suggests, because low-warp weaving required them. If they had survived, our estimate of Bronzino’s work would have greatly benefited. The tapestries have been neglected partly because Giorgio Vasari almost skipped over them altogether in his account of Bronzino’s life. It is to McCorquodale’s credit that he brings out at several points the inadequacy of Vasari’s account of the artist, which has had much to do with his being underrated and may reflect the rivalry between the two.

For McCorquodale, as the quotation at the beginning of this review indicates, Bronzino is an artist of “individuality and genius. As a colourist…[he is] in a category of sophistication unprecedented in the Renaissance and scarcely equalled since. All this depends on his astonishing technical ability….” The Pietà in Besançon is “arguably the masterpiece of the Florentine High Mannerist style” and “one of the major masterpieces of sixteenth-century Italian painting”; the Resurrection and Christ in Limbo, both touched by the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, “are among Bronzino’s most memorable images.”

On the other hand, when it comes to the painter’s late works, those painted since 1560, McCorquodale’s view is hardly more favorable than McComb’s was of all the work except the portraits since the late 1540s. McCorquodale is stopped by the “vacuity” and “boredom” of many of these late paintings, both religious and secular in subject, by the “large number of writhing nude bodies” in some cases, by preposterousness, laboriousness, or loss of elegant feeling for line and color in others.

Hence, despite the very high standing he gives Bronzino, once again the verdict is mixed and leaves the old question looming all the larger in the light of increased admiration for the artist. How does it happen that most of the late works turn out to be so disappointing even to Bronzino’s admirers?

The answer Marcia Hall has given is that Bronzino must have undergone a crisis as the result of the Counter-Reformation. In the Deposition, painted in 1561 for the Franciscan convent at Portoferraio (in storage for decades in Florence), she observes that Bronzino repudiates aesthetic effect, including decorative color designed to delight, because, instead of beauty, he seeks intense communication of tragedy. When it comes to a painting with a subject of a very different sort, the Adoration of the Shepherds of 1564 in Pisa, it is “crowded with contorted figures in tense strained postures”; “joy and serenity” are “missing altogether”; and “confusion” has replaced “controlled order.” McCorquodale does not try to plumb the question. But since a late work like the Allegory of Happiness in the Uffizi is still in the refined vein of high Maniera (though McComb dismissed it as “overcomplicated to the point of illegibility,” it has long since been rehabilitated), he sees Bronzino’s painting in these last years as fluctuating in quality, perhaps because the painter, McCorquodale suspects, was in a depressed state of mind.

So in McCorquodale’s book many of Bronzino’s works are held in the greatest esteem as masterpieces, while most of the late pictures, especially the late religious pictures, are not. This could well be the view that will long prevail. Appreciation of high Maniera as a “stylish style,” in John Shearman’s words, has favored rehabilitation of those works whose arbitrariness is refined, sophisticated, polished, and rarefied—provided we do not find the arbitrariness too greatly at odds with the subjects portrayed, especially religious subjects. And we see the relation of such works to the tenor of Florentine courtly society at the time. But few critics have sympathy for the late works that turn away from such refined, worldly ideals of beauty and appear to be confused accumulations of figures.

A more sympathetic approach would have to consider more seriously the principles underlying the construction of such pictures as the Portoferraio Deposition and the Pisan Adoration of the Shepherds, seeing that they represent a fundamental break with the principles of composition that belong to the main tradition of European painting, from Giotto, say, to modern times. Far from having been arrived at inadvertently, these principles, which came to prominence in the maniera of the middle sixteenth century and are dominant in the late work of Bronzino, were derived mainly from longstanding, almost universal admiration and study of late antique relief—in accord, one may add, with the humanistic premise of learning from ancient example. Their application to painting was in keeping with the cinquecento ideal of making painting as much like sculpture as possible, an ideal promoted in Florence by much discussion.

The same principles underlie the construction of pictures in Bronzino’s refined vein as well. They are everywhere in evidence there, sometimes more, sometimes less: in the Miraculous Spring of Moses that Meiss praised as well as in the late Allegory of Happiness. We now find them acceptable in that vein of maniera. But in Bronzino’s late religious works they are difficult for us to accept, so exaggerated do we find them there and so at odds with the subjects depicted. When these pictures were painted, however, they had a public. Not long afterward in a changed climate of opinion they attracted sharp criticism. If we could take the method of picture making for what it is, we might be able to see that the figures in the Portoferraio Deposition do have a beauty, of a less profane kind than earlier pictures, but a beauty nonetheless, expressive of a more shrinking and fearful spirit.

Not all Bronzino’s late pictures are in the same vein. As always, he experiments with modes. The Noli Me Tangere in the Louvre was painted for the church of Santo Spirito in the same year as the Portoferraio Deposition (cleaning has just revealed the date). If ever Bronzino’s color was designed to delight, it is here. “Preposterous” as its poses and its ideal of beauty may appear to us—this time a development closer to the refined vein—and certainly did appear to critics less than twenty-five years after its creation, we should try to imagine how this picture might have spoken to those attuned to the conventions of its forms. In this case the figure of Christ might have seemed almost a pure apparition in the church.

Students of Bronzino have never given the late works much study. But thisis going to change. Malcolm Campbell and Robert Gaston are concentrating now on the late religious pictures. We can look forward to what they will have to say. Study of Bronzino is, in fact, accelerating. There will be more soon on the tapestries from Candace Adelson. There will be more on the portraits from Robert Simon. Janet CoxRearick is preparing a book on the Eleonora Chapel. Doubtlessother studies are going forward. Meanwhile, Charles McCorquodale has supplied a thoughtful picture of Bronzino’s career as it emerges from what is now known.

  1. 1

    C.H. Smyth, Bronzino as Draughtsman (J.J. Augustin, New York, 1971).

  2. 2

    Since there are no notes, two items ought not to be missing from the bibliography: the books of Hermann Voss and Edi Baccheschi, omissions that are inadvertent since the author must have known both books well. Inadvertent also is the reversal of the only color plate of a Bronzino tapestry.

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