The Drawings of Bronzino
Carmen C. Bambach
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010
336 pp., $60.00
The Drawings of Bronzino
Around this time Bronzino also helped with a chapel project, for which he created at least two striking ceiling tondi, or circular portraits, of evangelists. They foretell the great portraits to come, in both their memorable composition and uncannily intense figures. St. Matthew has a wide-eyed, otherworldly look. He leans in to confront the viewer directly: he has Big Things to report. An angel stands directly underneath him, gazing upward and open-mouthed. The book features a preliminary drawing for St. Mark, and here the focus on composition—the relations of face to torso to bent arm—is most noticeable, compared with the relative vagueness of facial features. This lack of lineaments changes radically in the painted version, where a curly-haired, bearded young man (think hip, unkempt twentysomething in Brooklyn or Wicker Park) gazes out with a look of self-pleased serenity and deserved fatigue. He has eye circles, as if he has been working on a grad-school term paper, or writing his gospel all night.
Several of these early drawings are done with red chalk, favored by Bronzino's mentor, and scholars still debate which of the evangelists belong to whom. Relatedly, one black-chalk drawing of a man was very recently thought to be by Pontormo, and then by Bronzino and of his master. The editors attribute it to the pupil, but have backed off from further connections. A few sheets, which were visible from both front and back across the exhibit's three rooms, captured wonderfully the artists' closeness. Both sides appear in the book, but the impression of shared material is necessarily reduced. (This presentation inadvertently reminded me of Bronzino's infamous Dwarf Morgante painting, featuring the title subject from the front and back on respective sides of the canvas.) On one side, for example, Bronzino has carefully drawn a seated, draped figure, while on the reverse side is Pontormo's boy with an arm raised. They even appear at quarter angles, as if one artist simply flipped the paper and turned it to the other fellow across a table.
Also charming are doodles on Bronzino's side, of eyes, a bare human profile, a hastily sketched head wearing a turban. Such details remind us that these drawings were usually meant as work for the studio only, "unofficial practices." Others are final studies ready for presentation, or even marked in squares and soon to be used as guides for frescoes. Often Bronzino concentrates on drawing only those details that he knows will appear in a final version. For example, in a study of "Jealousy," he takes great care to render clawed hands and an arm, but barely outlines a thumb, which is indeed hidden in the final painting. Overall, the drawings invite a fresh reconsideration of some of the common reproaches of mannerist art—mask-like artificiality of the subjects, an over-refinement in conception or composition. Comparing these drawings and their finished versions in paintings (which can be done here, although the paintings and tapestries all appear in a final section), suggests that the medium, and the expectations for each, shape assessments of artists' styles more than we may think. There is continuity, of course, but Bronzino the drafter or sketch artist differs from the painter.
Speaking of continuity, his signature attention to "the value, or force, of simple lines" is apparent in the earliest work, and his figural outlines and contours of shading become ever more pronounced. This leads to a crisper effect in his paintings: if you'll pardon the digital metaphor, it is as if he were making brush strokes with more pixels at his disposal than his contemporaries. He remains best known for his portraits, and they have transformed his era's Florentine élite, anxious to be legitimated by their own contested times, into symbols of the Renaissance generally. His subjects look from the canvas with cool bearing, amid the severe glitter of the court. Bronzino is also famous for the details that surround, characterize, or compete with his sitters: their opulent garb above all, elaborately pearled and brocaded dresses, plumed hats, or satin doublets shining in the room's light, but also a study's writing implements, a knob or mascarons (chimeric, gargoyle faces) carved on a chair, or statues in the background. These curious objects give each portrait something akin to customized ground effects.