Catalog of the exhibition edited by Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali
Palazzo Strozzi/Mandragora, 357 pp., $40.00 (paper)
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
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.
1 See Deborah Parker, Bronzino: Renaissance Painter as Poet (Cambridge University Press, 2000). ↩
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. ↩