Revealing a Great Artist

Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici

an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, September 24, 2010–
January 23, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali
Palazzo Strozzi/Mandragora, 357 pp., $40.00 (paper)

The Drawings of Bronzino

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City,
January 20–April 28, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition by Carmen C. Bambach, Janet Cox-Rearick, and George R. Goldner; with contributions by Philippe Costamagna, Marzia Faietti, and Elizabeth Pilliod
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 323 pp., $60.00
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Agnolo Bronzino: Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Giovanni, 1545

Our own times are not necessarily obvious times for appreciating the work of the sixteenth-century Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572). He is an artist for whom the essence of art lies in the very fact of its creation: for him, artifice and artificiality are positive virtues, the indispensable proof of his prowess. What we see in him, therefore, is virtually the opposite of what we think we see in Caravaggio: Bronzino’s compositions are flagrantly, triumphantly composed, planned out beforehand in a painstaking succession of preparatory drawings and executed in a pastel palette with all the fine-brushed precision of a Flemish Old Master. For most of his career, he served a despot, Cosimo de’ Medici, a distant relative of Lorenzo the Magnificent; he spent his own life trying to shorten that distance in people’s perceptions.

The society in which they both moved was one that prized erudition, and Bronzino was not only a painter but also a poet clever enough to hold a privileged place at the summit of the hermetically closed society that dominated life, politics, and culture in mid-sixteenth-century Tuscany. He expended his abundant wit on apparently useless subjects, writing impeccable little odes to mosquitoes, cheese, church bells, and other trivia, all the while using the meters that Dante and Petrarch had used to portray the structure of the universe and the passage of time.1 He painted decadent allegories whose solutions still defy scholars as stubbornly as the meaning of Botticelli’s Primavera, and filled the margins of a series of biblical tapestries with lascivious grotesques. Many of his portraits, famous for their icy perfection, also include outrageous dirty jokes, especially his images of young dandies with extravagantly overstuffed silk codpieces.

More often than not, Bronzino’s undeniable talent seems to be lavished on frivolities: on exactly reproducing the intricate patterns of a silk dress that Velázquez or Titian would have abstracted into a suggestive hatchwork of abstract brushstrokes; on painting a Cupid who languidly fondles the breast of his mother, Venus, as they exchange a voluptuous kiss; on painted versions of drawings that Michelangelo had executed decades before.

But there is one level on which Bronzino’s appeal is direct and undeniable: the man is a consummate artist who draws and paints with extraordinary, uncannily consistent skill. For four and a half centuries, his reputation has rested largely on his portraits, some of which have been perennial favorites since almost before the oil colors dried on the wooden panels that were his preferred painting surface. John Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites, like several modern novelists, were especially captivated by the placid, enigmatic beauty of Lucrezia Panciatichi (less fashion-bound, somehow, than her husband, Bartolomeo, whose long forked beard and beribboned hat make him look more foppish to present tastes than his serious expression and tired eyes might imply). The poetess Laura Battiferri, on the other hand, presents beauty of an altogether more challenging kind: a razor-sharp profile and imperious expression declare her as a woman of talent, and her impossibly long fingers, entwined about a volume of Petrarch, reveal the realm in which those talents have been exercised.

Laura Battiferri was beyond doubt a real person, who clearly held Bronzino—and, we can well believe, most of Florence—in her thrall (and if ever a portrait seemed ready to speak, it is this one). Fire and ice, he called her; we can feel both the flame and the chill still vibrating in this unforgettable image (Laura’s distinctive face also seems to reappear in an allegorical tapestry as the figure of Truth). Then there is fat little Giovanni de’ Medici, burbling with pleasure at his pet bird, grinning broadly enough to show both of his new teeth as he poses for Bronzino in his fancy brocade suit; at a time when most children were dressed and treated as tiny adults, this irresistibly jolly little boy (who really was jolly, by all reports) is pure, ebullient bambino.

Yet it is not only artistic skill that prompted both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence to mount exhibitions devoted to Bronzino in this past year. Like his present-day audience, Agnolo the butcher’s son from the village of Monticelli (his nickname, “little Bronzie,” probably referred to his reddish hair) was condemned to live in interesting times, reacting to a succession of events that raced beyond anyone’s control. As a court artist, Bronzino depended largely on the policies of his lord, and that lord depended on powers greater than his own: notably Spain, France, and the papacy. The comprehensive presentation of Bronzino’s art at the Palazzo Strozzi—amazingly, the first major exhibition ever focused exclusively on this great artist—not only provided a panoramic view of the man and his times; it also changed radically the ways in which we might view that panorama.

The exhibition catalog, written and published in both Italian and English, is full of surprising new information about Bronzino, his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, and the world around them. Its international authorship suggests the increasing openness of Italian scholars to other points of view; here, the collaboration among the authors is real and its results are spectacular. They show how Bronzino was compelled to face cataclysmic changes in Florentine society with nothing to help him but his wit and skill; the resulting portrait reveals an artist who is anything but glib or superficial. His work, we discover, responds profoundly to a host of pressures that bore down on Florence: political, religious, aesthetic, and personal. The elaborate codes of etiquette that governed Florentine life and Florentine style, what they themselves called the maniera, were sometimes the city’s only bulwark against utter chaos.

In many ways, the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of Bronzino’s drawings provided a perfect complement to the works shown at the Palazzo Strozzi. Drawing, at least from the Middle Ages onward, was the essential basis for the Florentine approach to art, and Bronzino, entirely trained in this tradition, was no exception. The impeccable lines of his paintings and his tapestry designs were laid down first in preliminary sketches, largely done in charcoal, and at last expanded up to full-sized paper cartoons (the word cartone means “big paper”). Sometimes artists pricked pinholes along the major lines of the cartoons and blew charcoal dust through the holes onto the surface they intended to paint, creating a connect-the-dots outline; this technique is called “pouncing.”

Bronzino seems to have favored an alternative procedure for transferring his cartoons to the painting surface (which in his case was usually a stuccoed wooden panel or a plaster wall rather than canvas): scratching the major lines of the cartoon right through the paper, a technique that destroyed the cartoons in the process. In fact, very few of Bronzino’s drawings survive. The Metropolitan showed just over sixty items, and this roster included drawings by his closest associates, Pontormo and Allori, and omitted one cartoon that is too deteriorated to display.2

His younger contemporary—and rival—Giorgio Vasari, a great biographer of artists, a great architect, and a much less great painter, reports that Bronzino drew very well, although Vasari managed to tuck these words of praise into the biography of another, lesser artist. Adding major insult to minor injury, the connoisseur Bernard Berenson, in the course of research for his groundbreaking The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), managed to misread the sense of Vasari’s intricate grammar and took the artist’s praise of Bronzino’s style as a condemnation (in Italian, “no” in a sentence can sometimes mean “yes”).

This misapprehension of Vasari’s judgment in turn jaundiced Berenson’s otherwise perceptive eye; when he looked at Bronzino’s surviving drawings, he saw what he thought Vasari saw, cast his own stones of disapproval, and by virtue of his own authority condemned poor Agnolo’s draftsmanship to several decades of undeserved opprobrium in the English-speaking world. The Metropolitan catalog happily restores Vasari’s words to their true meaning, through essays that manage with uncommon skill to address both a general readership and specialists; equally thoughtful is the decision to include color plates of the completed works for which Bronzino made the drawings on display. As we can see for ourselves (the catalog essays are particularly helpful in pointing out what to look for), he may have worked among giants, but he held his own in that company.

Born in 1503, Agnolo was apprenticed at fourteen to the strange, brilliant Florentine painter Jacopo Pontormo, whose large-eyed, heavy-browed, otherworldly figures exerted such a dominant effect on his young assistant that some of their work can hardly be distinguished. The exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi provided a unique opportunity to see some of their collaborations up close, by displaying four roundels with images of the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Normally these panels reside high up on the dome of the Capponi chapel in the church of Santa Felicita, just off the Ponte Vecchio (a must-see for any visitor to Florence), but they were removed for restoration and put on display for this occasion. (The roundels have now returned to their original site.)

The Capponi chapel’s overall design belongs to Pontormo, who also executed the altarpiece, a piercingly sad Deposition of Christ from the Cross, as well as the fresco of the Annunciation on the chapel’s side wall. Here a young, pensive Virgin Mary looks back as if she can already see the scene of her son’s death and her own excruciating grief; the fifteenth-century Tuscan preacher Bernardino of Siena assured his congregations that when Mary accepted her destiny she already knew what terrible pain it would entail.

The Capponi chapel’s four roundels, despite their architectural setting, were painted, like the Deposition, in oil on wooden panels and set into their stucco frames. Distinguishing Bronzino’s contribution from Pontormo’s among the four figures is largely a matter of deciding what qualities belong most to one painter or the other, knowing that they were close collaborators and remained so for most of their lives (the slight difference in their ages became less and less significant as time went on). Bronzino was given the assignment of frescoing the chapel’s dome, but those paintings have not survived.

Bronzino was too skilled an artist to spend his whole life in Pontormo’s workshop; not surprisingly, when he struck out on his own, he left Florence altogether. In Pesaro, on Italy’s east coast, he served for two years as a court painter for the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, and Francesco Maria’s son Guidobaldo. There Bronzino must have seen paintings by Venetian artists like Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, and Carlo Crivelli, all of whom, albeit in different ways, achieved a startling clarity of form, bathing their pictures in a brilliant white light, emphasizing every individual detail with loving care. He also saw works by Titian, who had painted a memorable portrait of Francesco Maria in a style radically different from that of the earlier Venetians, made up of loose brushwork and suggestively textured paint.

Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Agnolo Bronzino: Compositional Study for a Madonna and Child with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John, circa 1541–1543

Yet Lotto in particular must have intrigued him, a Venetian-born artist who spent most of his career outside Venice, experimenting radically with spatial and optical effects. The current exhibition of Lotto’s lesser-known works at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale,3 which includes altarpieces from the area around Pesaro, proves how strikingly original this marvelous painter could be, and how eagerly artists all over Italy were experimenting in the 1530s with new ways to conceive of painted texture, color, and space. Lotto’s altarpieces seem to leap directly at the viewer, all the more startlingly so because of their nearly photographic precision, and like Bronzino’s human figures, Lotto’s frequently evoke the whiteness of Carrara marble rather than the deeper colors that human flesh normally comes to assume in sunny Italy.

Soon, however, Pontormo was beckoning Bronzino back to Florence, where the political situation was changing rapidly. After various halting attempts at republican government, Alessandro de’ Medici, backed by his powerful clan, took over the city in 1536, consolidating his claim to power by marrying an illegitimate daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the most potent monarch in Europe: the redoubtable Margaret of Austria, who preferred to be called “Madama.” Alessandro’s gifts as a statesman fell short of his ambitions and he was assassinated in 1537 (leaving Madama a palazzo and a villa in Rome that still bear her name); quickly, another Medici relative, Cosimo, stepped in to replace him.

Cosimo was only a distant cousin of the banking dynasty that had ruled the city for much of the fifteenth century, but he understood military matters at least as well as they; his father, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, had been a famous freelance warlord until he was cut down, young, by gangrene on the battlefield. Cosimo, however, intended to rule a city-state himself rather than lead an army for hire.4 Clear-headed, tough, and imaginative, he turned out to be remarkably suited for the task, a soldier with a singular gift for statesmanship. With exceptional insight, for the next thirty years he would use both military muscle and the refinements of culture to assert his legitimate claim to the Medici line, expand the city-state of Florence into the duchy of Tuscany, and, finally, elevate his own status to that of grand duke.

It was Cosimo who created the magnificent legend of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the 1540s, as a way of securing his own claim to dominance; in fact, the younger Medici was a far more effective ruler, and a far more generous patron of the arts, than Lorenzo had ever been. And he chose Bronzino as the court painter charged with promoting the image of himself, his family, and his city. For a butcher’s son from the provinces, it was an exceptional promotion, and the appointment says a great deal both about Bronzino’s intelligence, talent, and social skills and about Cosimo’s farsightedness.

The Duke’s farsightedness was also geographical; he looked beyond Florence itself to create a Tuscan navy, based in Pisa; a Tuscan university system (likewise centered in Pisa rather than Florence); and the Tuscan free port of Livorno, where Protestants and Jews could live independent of the restrictions that governed their lives in the rest of Catholic Italy. But Cosimo, as befitted the head of a merchant state, also had a sound head for economics. He fostered the development of Tuscan and Florentine industry, focusing on a luxury trade that still thrives to this day. Under his sponsorship, the invention of tempered chisels enabled Florentine stone carvers to shape rare stones like porphyry and lapis lazuli for the first time since Roman antiquity, and to revive the ancient art of stone inlay.5 Rather than rely on silk imported from Asia, Cosimo set up his own Florentine silk works.

And he knew how to use art as a form of publicity. Hence Bronzino’s portrait of Cosimo’s consort, Eleonora de Toledo, is not just a meticulously precise representation of the duchess and her jolly son, Giovannino; it is a veritable showcase of commodities made in Florence, from Eleonora’s silken gown to the gold filigree and precious stones of her elaborate jewelry (see illustration on page 8). No wonder Cosimo’s court painter took such pains to show the skill of his fellow citizens down to the last detail.

At the same time, however, Bronzino has managed to infuse both Eleonora and her son with palpable personalities, despite the formality of their posture. The little boy has lost some of his baby fat since his earlier portrait, but none of his liveliness as his chubby left hand creeps across his mother’s skirt. The gesture is both loving and exploratory—he cannot resist fingering the satiny texture of the damask, and his bright eyes suggest both a perpetually active mind and a good deal of self-discipline. Eleonora’s posture is as stately as her rank requires, but her protective arm is clearly affectionate, and her fingers, like her son’s, wander, but in a motherly caress. The daughter of the Spanish viceroy of Naples, Don Pedro de Toledo, she seems less haughty than melancholy; she was probably already beginning to suffer from the consumption that eventually killed her.

The tapestries that adorned their palazzo were the first to emerge from the new Florentine silk workshop, and the finest. Bronzino provided their designs (some of them on display in New York), which combine promotion of the Tuscan state and its ruler with ribald wit. Episodes from the life of Joseph suggest that Cosimo is just like a biblical patriarch (nor does the game of assimilation stop there: in one of Bronzino’s paintings, the duke figures as Jesus Christ). The woven scenes, glittering with metallic thread, combine to suggest a divine mandate for Cosimo’s rule, but the tapestries’ borders are outrageous, and so, sometimes, are the scenes themselves.

It is perfectly clear that Bronzino composed the tapestry showing Joseph rejecting the advances of Potiphar’s wife after he had pondered the famous series of erotic engravings called I modi (“How to do it”). Potiphar’s wife assumes a pose as athletic, and as improbable, as the contortions of I modi’s loving couples (for whom Bronzino’s friend Pietro Aretino had written a series of explicit, and remarkably unwitty, sonnets). Every incidental figure carved into the leg of a couch or a bedstead in this glittering woven picture is smirking and leering, or engaged in a coupling of its own; the fruit garlands on the tapestry’s border are ripely suggestive, pregnant with verbal and visual jokes. Cosimo knew better than to take himself seriously all the time. So did Bronzino.

To a significant extent, however, all the jokes and ribaldry were a means of whistling in the dark. Both Bronzino and Cosimo had grown up to see Italy invaded repeatedly, by French and German armies, Swiss mercenaries, and a host of homegrown soldiers of fortune. Renaissance Italy had more aristocratic sons aspiring to a career in arms than wars to accommodate them, at least until the Reformation began to give Europeans something to fight about.

Cosimo himself sympathized with some of the reforming currents within the Catholic fold. These reformers had nothing to do with the stern legacy of the Dominican firebrand Girolamo Savonarola, who effectively ruled Florence from Lorenzo’s death in 1494 until shortly before his own death at the stake in 1498. Savonarola’s followers were called piagnoni, “weepers”; they bewailed the parlous state of the world and cast their worldly goods on bonfires of the vanities. Cosimo’s reformers took a much more sophisticated line, more Neoplatonist than Calvinist, and looked to figures like Erasmus and the group of ecumenically minded cardinals who would eventually have a significant part in convening the reforming Council of Trent: Giles of Viterbo, Gaspare Contarini of Venice, Reginald Pole of England, Girolamo Seripando of Naples.

As Cosimo himself gravitated to these currents in culture and religion, so did the people around him, including Bronzino and his friends. Those friends included the Florentine ambassador to France, Bartolomeo Panciatichi, and his wife Lucrezia Pucci Panciatichi, whose portraits by Bronzino have long enjoyed pride of place in the Uffizi Gallery. Originally, however, they appeared in the Panciatichi palazzo together with an image of Christ on the Cross, identified by the curators of the exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi with a painting in Nice that has hitherto been ascribed to Fra’ Bartolomeo and others.

As the exhibition shows, the three paintings not only belong together, but also make a ringing declaration of the Panciatichis’ reformist beliefs, founded on implicit faith in Christ Crucified. The apparently frivolous, lascivious Bronzino, in other words, was the friend of a couple with deep religious convictions, capable of painting for them in a spirit of solemn reverence.

These religious currents had their political side as well. Reformist convictions originally cemented Cosimo’s bonds with people like Panciatichi, and reinforced his, and Tuscany’s, resolute independence from Rome and Pope Paul III. But the story, like most stories of Italian intrigue, is more complicated than that. Another prominent reformer, Michelangelo, was also a friend of Pope Paul, and returned to Rome as an old man, at this Pope’s explicit summons. Thus Michelangelo become a living bridge between Paul and the reformist movements, as well as a bridge between Florence and Rome. In both cities, needless to say, the titanic artist cut a titanic figure; like Pope Paul, he embodied a living legacy from an age of giants. He had dined with Lorenzo the Magnificent before coming to Rome under Julius II, vied with Raphael and Bramante, carved his David to celebrate the expulsion of the first Medici dynasty from Florence, and then returned to the family fold under the Medici popes, Leo X and Clement VII.

For Bronzino, as for all Florentines, Michelangelo was a towering figure, and the younger painter based some of his own works directly on compositions by his great predecessor. A painting like Bronzino’s Noli me Tangere invokes the pastel palette that Michelangelo introduced on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as the elder artist’s artfully posed figures, more sculptural than real, drawn from the carvings on ancient Roman sarcophagi and his own imagination rather than directly from life.

By the 1560s, as the Council of Trent wound to its end in a far more militant and conservative atmosphere than it had begun in, Cosimo had also decided to make his peace with Rome. The Pope, after all, had the authority to make him a grand duke. In 1563, the same year that the council disbanded, Cosimo appointed a new court painter, displacing Bronzino: Giorgio Vasari, a Tuscan, too, but a Tuscan with long experience in Rome. Vasari’s style as a painter is no less artificial than Bronzino’s, but it draws much more explicitly on Roman antiquity and uses warmer colors than Bronzino’s restrained, icy hues. With lightning rapidity, then, Cosimo shifted his title, his politics, his religious orientation, and the visual representation of himself and his realm, aligning Tuscany with Rome just in time to face a major push against Europe from the Ottoman Empire.

Thanks in part to Cosimo’s efforts to build up a Tuscan navy, Florentine military commanders would take an active part in the Siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. But Bronzino, unlike Titian, Raphael, and, later, Velázquez and Rubens, never became a painter of imperial ambition. The smaller scale of Florence instead enabled him to engage in an experiment of a different kind: to participate, as a man of culture, in the creation of a modern state.

  1. 1

    See Deborah Parker, Bronzino: Renaissance Painter as Poet (Cambridge University Press, 2000). 

  2. 2

    I did not see the show itself, but the Metropolitan Museum kindly let me examine their one Bronzino drawing; my thanks for making this opportunity possible on very short notice. 

  3. 3

    Lorenzo Lotto,” March 2–June 12, 2011. 

  4. 4

    The memorable Italian film Il mestiere delle armi (2001), by Ermanno Olmi, recounts Giovanni’s life and, especially, his final battle. 

  5. 5

    This story is told in an enthralling book by Suzanne B. Butters, The Triumph of Vulcan: Sculptors’ Tools, Porphyry, and the Prince in Ducal Florence, two volumes (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1996)