by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bronzino Emerges From Limbo

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 16 November 2010
Uffizi, Florence
Bronzino's 'Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi.'



Bronzino's contemporaries esteemed him especially for his uncanny realism.

His portraits of Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife, Lucrezia, of the 1540s, wrote Vasari, were 'so natural that they really seem to live, lacking nothing but breath.'

In 1552, the artist crowded his 'Descent of Christ into Limbo' for the Santa Croce church with lovely nudes of both sexes and all ages, many of them recognizable as living Florentines, including two celebrated local beauties. Vasari praised them for their 'different features and attitudes that are depicted very naturally,' but others thought that this time the painter's realism had gone too far. The panel has been regularly condemned as lewd, even into modern times.

And Bronzino himself has inhabited a kind of critical limbo. Epithets used to describe his work - 'hard, cold, icy, calculated and devoid of feeling' - are still repeated.

The existence of such contradictory views makes Bronzino ripe for reassessment, a task undertaken with expertise and gusto by Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali in 'Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici,' at Palazzo Strozzi, which, surprisingly, is the first monograph exhibition ever of the artist's paintings. The exhibition of more than 80 pieces from more than 40 collections, including a stupendous set of tapestries designed by the artist, is accompanied by precise directions to other Bronzino works that can be seen in Florence.

Agnolo Bronzino was born near Florence in 1503 and died here in 1572. In his early 20s he worked alongside Pontormo and absorbed his style so well, as Vasari attests, 'that their pictures have been taken very often one for another, so similar were they for a time.' Four circular paintings from the Santa Felicita church of the Evangelists at the beginning of the exhibition bear witness to this. Two have now been attributed to Bronzino, one to Pontormo, and a fourth remains in question.

Although only a few years older than Bronzino, Pontormo came 'to love him as a son,' according to Vasari. But close though this lifelong relationship remained, Bronzino was manifestly determined to forge a style of his own.

The opportunity arose when in 1530 he went to Pesaro in the small dukedom that Federico da Montefeltro had made into one of the most important artistic centers in Europe. In this milieu, where tastes were more outward-looking and eclectic than in Florence, Bronzino encountered the works of Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, Dosso Dossi, Titian, Lorenzo Lotto, Correggio and Parmigianino, not to mention the Flemish masters.

Before being summoned home by Pontormo two years later, Bronzino painted a superlative portrait of the future lord of the dukedom Guidobaldo II della Rovere, on show here. The picture played a significant role in establishing the style of princely portraits for centuries to come and marked the painter's coming of age as an independent master. It also helped smooth his path into the household of Cosimo I, who was to rule the Florentine state for nearly forty years.

Bronzino's posthumous fame has rested primarily on his portraits, and this exhibition offers a rare chance to see a large number of them together and to re-examine the cliché of their excessive stiffness and formality.

Many of the portraits were painted with a clear aim: to project an image of power, magnificence and dignity. Most famous is the majestic, Madonna-like picture of Cosimo's consort, Eleonora of Toledo, in which her gorgeous, minutely observed brocade dress, in monetary terms worth scores of paintings, is as much a protagonist as the Duchess herself. But other portraits are more searching and psychologically profound.

Cosimo was a great statesman, commanding respect both at home and abroad. But he was also a devoted husband and father, dining with his family and thoroughly enjoying their company. Thus Bronzino's pictures of his children were official images of his progeny, yet have a depth and sympathy that must have delighted their doting parents. One of the most captivating of these is of Bia, Cosimo's illegitimate daughter born before his marriage.

The Duchess brought up the vivacious Bia as lovingly as if she were her own. The child died young, adding poignancy to this touching memorial.

The Duke and Duchess were clearly not averse to less formal images of their family life. In Eleonora's private chapel at the Palazzo Vecchio, the first court commission that Bronzino received, the artist slipped Eleonora into his exquisite decorative scheme. She observes from the sidelines 'The Crossing of the Red Sea,' accompanied by a nursemaid with an infant-in-arms, the Duchess herself hugely pregnant, her hand resting on her stomach.

Bronzino was also the master of the mannerist erotic scene. The most familiar of these, the 'Allegory With Venus and Cupid,' painted for the French king Francis I, is now in the National Gallery in London. The image is cool, stylish and at the same time boldly sensual, the daring, serpentine poses inviting the eye to trace and savor the alluring curves and dimples of the embracing couple, the alabaster whiteness of their flesh highlighting the fevered flush of their cheeks. The other two variations on this theme, from Rome and Budapest, are on display here, and the curators were profoundly disappointed that the National Gallery declined the loan of their version to the exhibition.

A contemporary described Bronzino as a man 'who delights much in literature, poetry and music,' all of which informed his sophisticated painted images. And books and musical instruments figure prominently in his characterful portraits of young scholars.

His own poetry ranged from the high-flown lyric to the down-to-earth burlesque. In 1541 Bronzino joined the newly founded literary Accademia degli Umidi, the same year as Bartolomeo Panciatichi. Around this time the artist painted the enigmatic portraits of Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia, which Vasari admired so much.

Bartolomeo Panciatichi was born in France 1507. For a time a page at Francis I's court in France, he settled permanently in Florence with Lucrezia in 1539.

They had been exposed in France to Protestant ideas, which also circulated freely in Florence at this time. While conventionally catholic at one level, their portraits can also be read to contain references to their Lutheran sympathies.

Panciatichi also commissioned from Bronzino an extraordinary crucifixion, described by Vasari but long thought to be lost. It was recently re-discovered by Carlo Falciani and Philippe Costamagna at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice.

Cleaned and its original luminousness restored, this austere image, a trompe l'oeil 'tour de force,' the blood seeming to trickle from Christ's feet down to the edge of the picture, is vibrant with reformist zeal.

In 1550 Bartolomeo and Lucrezia and were tried for heresy by the Inquisition. Cosimo intervened on their behalf, but even the Duke could not save them from a sentence of public penance, or prevent the burning of their books.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024