Revealing a Great Artist

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…

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