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 …