Complementing the drawings shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year is this exhibition at the Strozzi Palace featuring fifty-four of Bronzino’s seventy paintings: the largest exhibition of the Florentine master’s work to date. The son of a butcher, Agnolo di Cosimo Tori (1503-1572), nicknamed “Bronzino”, spent the bulk of his career in the Medici court until Giorgio Vasari succeeded him in 1564. Vasari in fact plays a large role in this show, as curators Cristina Acidini, Carlo Falciani, and Antonio Natali rely heavily on information contained in his biography of Bronzino. The pictures themselves tell much of the story, demonstrating that the artist is not readily classifiable as a Mannerist given his tendency towards natural, austere beauty in affectedly bright colors. His teacher Pontormo had already moved beyond the harmonic compositions of the High Renaissance by elongating his figures and softening his colors as we see in the Supper at Emmaus (1525), not part of this exhibition but available for viewing at the nearby Uffizi. Stylistic similarities between this piece and Bronzino’s Lamentation over the dead Christ (1529) are evident, but we see that the apprentice was already distancing himself from the master by opting for a more serene composition with a greater sensitivity to the variable effects of light upon skin and fabric. Bronzino’s Lamentation is also set in a landscape covered with evening shadows, a feature that became his trademark. In Madonna and Child with Saint John (1526-1529 circa) there are other signs that Bronzino was staking out new territory as he tightens the composition, frames the subject with trees, and refines his color. There are a few collaborative pieces where it is difficult to tell the hand of master from pupil, but in the Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John, the deeply wrinkled face of Elizabeth indicates that the work is primarily Bronzino’s rather than Pontormo’s. Another key phase of Bronzino’s development took place in Pesaro where he sojourned from 1530 to 1532 after the siege of Florence. The progress he made there is striking when we compare Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand with the Contest of Apollo and Marsyas.
The curators highlight the sculptural quality of Bronzino’s brushwork by placing several paintings near sculptures by Cellini (Ganymede and the Eagle, 1548-1550), Tribolo, Bandinelli, and Pierino da Vinci. Of particular interest is Bronzino’s ultimate response to the debate launched by poet Benedetto Varchi (1503-1565) whether sculpture or painting is the superior art form. After the publication of his famous Disputa on the topic in 1546 (a first-edition copy is on display), he elicited opinions from Michelangelo, Pontormo, Cellini, and, of course, Bronzino. For his part, Bronzino presents arguments in favor of sculpture, but, rather than offering a conclusion, immediately presents counterarguments for painting.
The conclusion comes in a witty double-sided portrait of Morgante (ante 1553) on a hunting expedition. On one side of the single canvas we see the dwarf in a frontal pose equipped with hunting gear and on the other in a dorsal pose holding a string of birds. Bronzino’s choice of subject and mode of presentation underline his point: not only can the painter represent the dwarf’s deformed limbs as well as the sculptor, he can do something the sculptor cannot do: namely, represent the passage of time from the beginning to the end of the hunt. The piece would have originally stood in the middle of a room on a pedestal as if it were a sculpture. It seems that during the nineteenth century Morgante was transformed into Bacchus, although the original composition has been restored for this exhibition. The restoration also revivifies the butterflies fluttering around Morgante, showing that painting can simultaneously represent both the natural and the grotesque.
The exhibition debuts three works definitively attributed to Bronzino for the first time. One is Saint Cosmas (1543-1545), executed for Duchess Eleonora da Toledo’s private chapel, a piece mentioned by Vasari but only recently rediscovered by Philippe Costamagna. It is in fragmentary form, but by placing it in its original position to the right of the Lamentation over Christ, the curators give us a good idea of how the saint’s rose-colored cloak must have brightened up Eleonora’s chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The second piece is Christ Carrying the Cross (1555-1560), painted rather hastily on canvas instead of wood, indicating that it was probably done for the funeral of some Florentine dignitary. The uncanny stylistic similarities between it and the Morgante support its attribution to Bronzino.
The Crucifixion (1540-1541 circa) is the third and most intriguing of the debuts in that it tells us something about the religious sensibilities of Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi who were tried for heresy between 1551 and 1552. Only the direct intervention of Duke Cosimo I stayed off their conviction. Carlo Falciani and Philippe Costamagna used Vasari’s description and other historical records to identify the piece hanging in Nizza with the label “anonymous Italian work”. Reflectographic analysis shows that it was painted according to the modus operandi of Bronzino himself, who used a preparatory drawing modified several times. According to the original plan, Christ hung more heavily from the cross with head drooping, arms distended, and legs bent. Such a posture would have evoked the preaching of Savonarola, for whom the sufferings of Christ are a stark warning about the consequences of sin. To have extolled these sufferings in the painting would have emphasized the necessity of humans to suffer for their salvation. The Panciatichi, however, persuaded by the poetry of Juan de Valdès, wished that the painting show that salvation comes by faith alone, in such a way that suffering is no longer necessary since Christ himself has already suffered.
To reflect the theology of justification by faith alone, Bronzino ignored the original drawing and instead painted Christ already deceased rather than in the throes of agony. Vasari writes that the artist worked long and hard to render the composition more calm and serene. The statuesque corpse is affixed lightly to the cross, which in turn is situated in an altar-niche rather than on Mount Calvary, suggesting that the painting is a memorial in the same way the eucharist is but a memorial according to the theology the Panciatichi found so attractive.
The exhibition also hosts two of the three Venus “allegories”: Venus, Cupid, and Jealousy and Venus, Cupid, and the Satyr, the latter of which is on loan from the Palazzo Colonna Gallery in Rome. Not part of this show is the first and perhaps most famous (1544-1545), which was originally a gift from Cosimo to Francis I and is now kept in London’s National Gallery. The Venus, Cupid, and Jealousy, normally housed in Budapest, depicts the goddess arguing with her adolescent son about the different types of love. Cupid holds an arrow pointing upward as he makes a case for heavenly love, while Venus, with her downward pointing arrow, stubbornly insists on the primacy of carnal love. The detection of an important alteration emphasizes the importance Bronzino placed on allegory. Towards the bottom, he replaced a satyr wantonly staring at Venus with a simple mask, perhaps thinking that the former was excessive and that the latter would be sufficient to achieve the desired symbolism. The hypothesis is further supported by the presence of a monstrous creature on the left – the personification of Jealousy – who grinds her teeth and recoils from the scene. The overall effect is a subtlety of composition that embodies Bronzino’s extraordinary talent for joining the serious and the burlesque.
The same wry humor even creeps into his marvelous portraits of children, including Francesco Cosimo I de’Medici and Maria (1550-1551), and especially Bia and Giovanni. The show closes with a room dedicated to the “Second Bronzino”, Alessandro Allori, who had even stronger tendencies toward naturalism and sentimentality as we see in his Counter-Reformational work The Penitent Mary Magdalene.
Together with the drawings at the Met last year, this exhibition invites us to rethink Bronzino the “Mannerist” in light of recent discoveries and insights into his painting and poetry. His droll humor is always tinged with a hint of stoicism. He teases, but always to some ulterior end. Dwarfs, butterflies, satyrs, gods and goddesses – all seem to frolic for a time, but Bronzino’s brush seems to remind them – and us – that there is also a time to sober up.