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The Drawings of Bronzino
The Drawings of Bronzino
Carmen C. Bambach; Janet Cox-Rearick; George R. Goldner
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010
336 pp., 66.64

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Brett Foster

The Drawings of Bronzino

Remembering a Renaissance spring in wintertime.

It may be hard to imagine at the moment, in the grip of winter, but for one April weekend in Manhattan, or so it felt, everyone was partying like it was 1549, celebrating a convergence of Italian art of the late Renaissance: "The Drawings of Bronzino," a major show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a pair of small but impressively organized exhibits at the Morgan Library & Museum, "Palladio and His Legacy" and "Rome After Raphael." I had the good fortune of visiting these three shows, and I may as well say up front—even as a penman and bibliophile—that there is no substitute for seeing such exquisite drafts and drawings in person, up close.

That said, a handsome companion book (not at all out of place beneath a Christmas tree) is now available for the most important and extensive of these shows. The Met's was the first exhibition ever dedicated to Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), the great Mannerist painter of the Medici court in Florence, and it brought together for the first time sixty of his drawings, the majority from the Uffizi and many never before shown publicly. Some are dashed-off sketches; others are carefully designed and completed. "AllegoricalScene of Justice Liberating Innocence," an intricate tapestry drawing on blue paper, was not added till early March, months after the exhibit opened—a sign of guest curator Janet Cox-Rearick's intent to make it as complete as possible. Although perfectly browsable, The Drawings of Bronzino shares that thoroughness. It features gorgeous reproductions and helpful critical frameworks.

Bronzino has not always received such attention, or if he did, it was of a different tenor. He either has suffered neglect, which occurred quite early when Seicento tastes swerved from his distinctive style, or has been denigrated as a decadent ne'er-do-well. For example, when in 1860 England's National Gallery purchased his famous eroticized painting, Allegory of Venus and Cupid, the curator promptly ordered that fig leaves cover the goddess's privates and the bum of Cupid, no babe here but disconcertingly adolescent. (The pair's tongue kiss, along with Bronzino's clear if secondary gift of writing burlesque verses, certainly didn't help his reputation.) And yet that same painting was worthy of Erwin Panofsky's famed interpretation of its complex allegorical meanings. Bronzino's works often seem aimed at an ideal audience, one able to appreciate both the tantalizing and the learned; in this case, the painting found an ideal first owner—the French king Francis I, who was highly familiar with both qualities. Confusions of attribution have also limited Bronzino's reputation. His drawings and paintings were often thought to be the work of his great mentor and friend Pontormo, or those of Corregio or Alessandro Allori, Bronzino's own pupil and practically his adopted son, later in life. These matters of identification, influence, and collaboration are fascinatingly on display in this monograph, which also includes readable essays on the artist's life, reception, draftsmanship, and portraits.

He often signed his paintings "Bronzino Fiorentino," and art historians regularly discuss how he conveys "Florentine-ness" in his portraits. Bronzino was actually born in Monticelli, a suburb of Florence. A butcher's son, he was so poor that he was often identified simply by his forebears' given names: "Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano." His fellow artists dubbed him Bronzino, or "bronze one," perhaps because of his auburn hair or ruddy complexion. After some false starts serving mediocre artists, Bronzino's career gained momentum when he became Pontormo's apprentice in 1515. Allegedly his youthful likeness appears in his master's highly regarded Joseph in Egypt. There a boy sits at the foot of a staircase, with his little hat, cloak, and a large basket under his right hand (to pick up workshop supplies, maybe?) He looks tired and lonely—and understandably taken aback, since another youth stands over him, wearing bright, salmon-colored tights and a burst of red hair, like Little Orphan Annie on a bender.

For all of its artistic glories, the Renaissance Florence that the young Bronzino experienced was far different from the charming setting of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View or the tourist mainstay today. Savonarola had been burnt at the stake in the main piazza in 1498, and during Bronzino's early years, three families battled for control of the city. One ruler was deposed in 1512. At the pope's behest, the Medici family returned to power, having been expelled in 1492. Stability didn't follow. Instead, it was a time of conflicts with the papacy, imperial siege, corrupt dukes, and assassinations. And if all that weren't bad enough: Bronzino painted his first important works in the mid-1520s, when he assisted his Pontormo on a project at Certosa del Galluzzo … taken to escape the plague raging in Florence. While there, Bronzino also met Giorgio Vasari, an accomplished artist himself but best remembered for his Lives of the Artists, Painters, and Sculptors, the great biographical chronicle of Italian Renaissance Art. Vasari admired Bronzino, and said as much, but he was also his fierce competitor; both condescension and a rival's hypersensitivity inform the book's cool appraisals.

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.

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."

A sheet of drawings for this composition is one of the most interesting pieces in the present volume. One side features "Seated Nude Youth Playing Panpipes." For the final composition, Bronzino changed the pipes to a shawm and filled out the legs of the figure, now that he was Marsyas. (The red-chalk drawing ends at the torso, with a hint of plans for hairy, hooved legs—a bottom half appropriate to Pan.) These incomplete drawings, bereft of identifying details, often ignite the viewer's imagination: for example, an early profile of the Virgin, with no Christ child in sight, appears more like one of Michelangelo's stern sibyls. On the paper's verso, a "Seated Nude" turns to the right. He would become Midas in the painting, and Bronzino added a gaping mouth to mark him more clearly as an incompetent judge. This drawing clearly makes use of a garzone, or studio assistant, for a model, as does another, "Studies for a Portrait of a Boy." (It features a younger apprentice, identifiable by his work shirt and hat meant to protect him from falling plaster and paint.)

Some drawings prepared Bronzino for two major projects at the Medici court—first, Exodus frescoes (1541-45) for the chapel of Cosimo's wife, Eleanora of Toledo, in the Palazzo Vecchio, and an ambitious tapestry project illustrating The Story of Joseph (completed in 1553), for which modelli or demonstration drawings exist. "Standing Nude," a stunning full-length drawing in black chalk on ocher-colored paper, was a preparatory piece for the first project. In it, the model holds a pillow or strange hat upon his head, but more memorable is Bronzino's display of his gifts with anatomical representation. The shoulder and back muscles assume a high realism, no matter the burdened pose.

Figural torsion becomes more frequent in later drawings, reflecting Michelangelo's developing influence on Bronzino. One nude female figure turns almost 180 degrees behind her, and similarly contorted are male figures, captured raking coals or kneeling and working the bellows, for the later fresco The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1569). The most extreme of these forms is "Crawling Male Nude," who looks spidery, or like someone involved in a radical game of Twister. It also recalled for me a formally precocious classical sculpture, of Aphrodite kneeling, downstairs in the Met's Greek and Roman sculpture gallery. Bronzino's draft figure eventually occupied a place of focal prominence, as a soldier prostrate at the Savior's left foot in The Descent of Christ into Limbo.

Mannerist painters are known for such flair, for rendering the most difficult forms with an Ecco! of technical skill. Vasari characterized the movement by focusing on its "license in the rule," "abundant invention continued in the smallest things," and "grace exceeding the measure." All apply to Bronzino, yet my favorite drawings here have a lighter touch: "Sleeping Child and the Child's Right Hand," for example, cephalic with its tiny body. A new delicacy in shading gives the flesh a more lifelike appearance. This technical skill soon served the deepest of themes, when the figure reappeared in The Panciatichi Holy Family. Elsewhere, tenderness reigns in the preparatory drawings for the Joseph tapestries. "The Meeting of Joseph and Jacob in Egypt" contains layers of dark color: black chalk on mauve paper, to which is applied brown ink, and brown and purple wash. Yet the artist highlights the scene, and the embracing pair almost exclusively, with white gouache. In "Joseph Receiving Benjamin," it is superior composition that makes a similarly moving pair so noticeable. The welcoming figure's downward look is one of immense gladness, as his forefinger gently traces the kneeling Benjamin's jaw line.

The final drawing I keep reviewing is a portrait of Dante in recognizable profile, with aquiline nose and his cap's little rounded earflaps. It may be related to a series of lunettes Bronzino completed for a fellow Florentine of the city's three great writers: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. They were to ornament a bedroom dedicated to "poetry and love." Noble purposes. The Dante portrait helpfully reminds us that Bronzino from the 1530s onward was also a poet of high reputation, and a lover of poetry: "He has memorized the whole of Dante and a great part of Petrarch," wrote a fellow literary man.

Bronzino enjoyed the intense intellectual atmosphere of Florence's Academy, which he joined in 1540. A wave of reform within the society expelled him and most other artists in 1547. They were soon allowed readmission if they submitted a poem of sufficient quality; it took until 1566, but Bronzino successfully reentered with three poems honoring the duke. Less serious poems of his circulated in which he addresses his dog Corimbo, or explains that he must write in the middle of the night because his days are so busy. He was also a people person in more substantive ways. He was very active as a teacher in his later years, and was a founder of the Academy of Art and Design in 1563.

He never married or had his own children, but he ended up being a family man all the same: in 1541 a close friend died, and he soon took responsibility for the widow and children, along with his own mother and niece. It is a good detail to recall when we read older critics condemn his "degenerate" paintings. Yet, like anyone, Bronzino sometimes showed his limits: this volume features a letter in an appendix, in which he complains of tapestry weavers "pleading and nagging me," and elsewhere he laments the smells and noises of his neighborhood and close quarters. A friend wrote to Vasari on November 15, 1572, eight days before Bronzino's death, that he "is ill, and with a sickness of some gravity; yesterday he appeared a little better, and we shall see, for he is old and God help him."

Final images of relevant paintings and tapestries feel a little like an afterthought, but are essential for making comparisons between Bronzino's early and ultimate visions. Bronzino is so renowned for his paintings that to include none would be an oversight. That said, the paintings do not reproduce as well as the drawings, and readers may wish to consult collections by Bronk, Cecchi, and McCorquodale, all of which showcase the paintings nicely. The tapestries, on the other hand, are less reprinted, and so are especially welcome here.

Brett Foster's writing has lately appeared in Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan, and his first poetry collection, The Garbage Eater , will be published by Northwestern University Press early in 2011. He is an associate professor of English at Wheaton College.

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