The Drawings of Bronzino
Carmen C. Bambach
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010
336 pp., $60.00
The Drawings of Bronzino
I first became entranced with Bronzino after recognizing the distinctive style of his portraits—Portrait of a Young Man with a Lute, Portrait of a Woman with a Dog, Portrait of Ugolino Martelli, Portrait of a Young Girl with a Prayer Book, Portrait of Luddovico Capponi, which often adorn paperback covers of Renaissance classics, or lend their impressions of "Renaissance Italian elegance" to all varieties of needful book. Two of his most frequently reproduced portraits are of a couple, Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi. Her portrait, especially, is a haunting masterpiece: resplendent, poised, and yet threatening to pierce. Recently I called upon an extremely knowledgeable friend, the painter Bruce Herman, to help me understand better the peculiar effects of this and other paintings. It remains enigmatic (and so it will, and that is part of its power), but he did confirm for me the mixed essence of Bronzino's vision. He spoke of "the sometimes spooky quality that descends on all his work for me," and yet something in the eerie gloom radiates, as one of Herman's own memories so vividly attests:
One time, about twenty years ago I walked into the Uffizi and sauntered from gallery to gallery appreciating all the fine old "golden" paintings (the varnish on all of them long ago having imparted a soft ochre-brown tinge to all the color). I then turned a corner into one of the galleries sporting a Bronzino portrait and presto! the color seemed freshly minted, the paint quality alla prima, and the spirit of the piece preternaturally present in the room. It was shocking to see it vibrate like that with all the soft old browns gathered 'round it. Strange. I felt both impressed and a little unnerved.
Bronzino had, Herman continued, "a talent that shone so brightly so early on, and still shines on in its own colder light."
A literal light is arresting in the "Lucrezia" portrait. The illumination of the face is so bright that it risks whitening out her features, and giving the subject a corpse-like appearance. There remains a warm, hearth-like quality to the color around her, yet it is only a hue or two away from that coldly pure white light, the kind in those headlights that I wish were not growing more popular, or in ominous-feeling elevators. Henry James in The Wings of the Dove crafted an encounter with this portrait similar to Herman's. There the American heiress Milly judges it "magnificently drawn" and dressed, "a face almost livid in hue," and yet "uncompanied by joy." Perhaps she, in the hopper of James' imagination, responds as well to that colder light—"And she was dead, dead, dead," Milly thinks at last about "Lucrezia."
It is clear by now that paradoxes surround Bronzino's overall effects. Viewers above describe him and his work as shining brightly yet coldly lit, poised but threatening, livid but dead. We, in turn, are impressed and unnerved. Critics likewise describe his distinctive Mannerist style with similar pairings: deft and grotesque, contrived and candid, an "oddly cosmetic naturalism" (a paradox in itself), displaying but then exorcising emotional outburst, refined and elegant yet eclectically perverse, austere in the exacting lines and marble faces, yet sumptuous in materials represented and general court ambience.
I would offer up "coolly extravagant" to describe Bronzino's vision. Above all, it is full of urbanity, which favors presence but renders it unapproachable. To appreciate these paintings, we must also strive to remember the vastly different senses of style and formality under which Bronzino worked. In her essay "The Strange Elizabethans," Virginia Woolf comments that "the familiar letters of the time give us little help" in understanding their private lives, noting that even there the English diplomat Henry Wotton is "pompous and ornate and keeps us stiffly at arm's length." Woolf gets it right (although, it should be said, she is hardly one to talk), and she might have added that Wotton acquired his personal brand of stiffness in Italy. There were no casual Fridays at the Renaissance court, nor were its denizens in the habit of asking, "Can I wear shorts to the restaurant?" Our culture is comfy like a booth at Applebee's; the Medicis' was like a resin torch glittering in the eyes of a reptile.
Bronzino's dynastic portraits and his knack for festival decorations earned him the role of the Medicis' court painter, from 1537, when Duke Cosimo I came to power, to 1555, when Vasari out-maneuvered him and became the family's main artist. In an earlier stint at the Duke of Urbino's court, on the Adriatic coast, in 1530, Bronzino had done what he did best, completing the portrait of Guidobaldo della Rovere (he had to wait around until the duke's armor arrived). He also painted The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas on the lid of a harpsichord case. Vasari called it a "rare thing."