Bronzino. An artist and poet at the Medici court

Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, from 24 September 2010 to 23 January 2011

1. Jacopo Carrucci, called Pontormo (1494-1557)
Saint John the Evangelist, 1525-1528
Oil on panel - D. 75 cm
Florence, Santa Felicita
Photo : Wikimedia

The Bronzino exhibition, one of the most beautiful at the moment, deserves a trip to Florence for anyone who can do so. He is of course known as one of the greatest painters of Renaissance Florence,that is simply, one of the greatest artists ever. This retrospective fully confirms it.

The visit, as well as the excellent catalogue, is organized in thematic sections each studying a different aspect of the painter’s art. Our only reservation would be to point out that more attention was needed in presenting the chronology. It is not always easy to understand Bronzino’s stylistic evolution clearly.
The exhibition begins logically by focusing on the artist’s beginnings and his ties with his master Pontormo. The task differentiating the work of each is difficult in the early works, with several of them changing attributions over the years as thinking progresses. A case in point is the four Evangelists in tondo placed in the corners of the cupola in the Capponi chapel at the church of Santa Felicita. Pontormo received the commission and painted the magnificent Deposition there in 1525-1528, still visible today, as well as the fresco in the cupola, destroyed alas, during the 18th century. No one knows if Bronzino helped Pontormo on the latter, but it has been ascertained that he painted at least one, if not three, of the Evangelists. Only Saint John (ill. 1), in fact the most beautiful of the four, is attributed in all certainty to Pontormo. Bronzino’s first paintings, between 1525 and 1530 more or less, despite their qualities, are less attractive than his later works or, in any case, this is what the exhibition tells us.

2. Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo and
her Son Giovanni of Medici
, 1545
Oil on panel - 115 x 96 cm
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
Photo : Galleria degli Uffizi

3. Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Portrait of Giovanni, Son of Cime Ist of Medici, 1545
Oil on panel - 58 x 45 cm
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
Photo : Galleria degli Uffizi

As of the 1530’s however, Bronzino had attained the height of his talent and produced many masterpieces, demonstrating his ease in all of the genres. His portraits are famous and the exhibition offers a good number of these. We reproduce here, among others, that of Eleonora of Toledo and her son Giovanni (ill. 2) as well as the laughing, amusing and touching likeness of him again at about eighteen months (ill. 3). The first is solemn, the second intimate and produced for private use. The combination of support – Bronzino generally painted on wood – along with cold and brilliant colours, the impeccable technique (many of his paintings are in good condition) make these portraits unforgettable works and we can understand how deeply they struck Ingres during his stay in Florence.
Although the famous Allegory with Venus and Amor from the National Gallery in London is not present here, visitors can see two other paintings which are close in spirit, the Allegory of Happiness from the Uffizi Gallery and Venus, Love and Jealousy (or Envy) from Budapest. Also noteworthy is the presentation of several silver and gold-threaded tapestries woven in Florence by Nicolas Karcher between 1546 and 1553 after Bronzino’s cartoons, in mint condition.

4. Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Saint John the Baptist, 1560-1561
Oil on panel - 120 x 92 cm
Rome, Galleria Borghese
Photo : Galleria Borghese

The exhibition underscores the artist’s interest for paragone, that is the debate, which gripped the 16th century about the supremacy of sculpture or painting. Several statues, by Benvenuto Cellini, Pierino da Vinci and Tribolo help us to understand the artistic context surrounding Bronzino, but their connections to the paintings are not very well explained. In any case, Bronzino also tried to compete with statuary. The double-sided portrait of the dwarf Morgante, commonly used as an example, is however not the best illustration of this attempt. Although remarkably painted, it is not really very attractive and also cannot really be considered as an alternative to sculpture. Seen from both front and back, the character does not present the same attitude and in fact, these are two distinct images of the same model unlike what Daniel de Volterra did with the David and Goliath at the Louvre (see news item of 2/12/07).
A much more original example is the painting Saint John the Baptist from the Galleria Borghese (ill. 4) with its multiple viewpoints, giving the impression that it can be seen from the side as well from the front : here painting rivals sculpture using its own arms, without trying to imitate it.

5. Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Christ on the Croce, c. 1545
Oil on panel - 145 x 115 cm
Nice, Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret
Photo : O. Guillon, CICRP

6. Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Saint Como, 1543-1545
Oil on panel - 73.5 x 51.3 cm
England, private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

We already pointed out here the publication of Christ on the Cross from the Musée in Nice (see news item of 18/7/10). Now restored, preserved in excellent condition, this painting (ill. 5) is one of the most beautiful in the exhibition. There is no doubt that its sculptural character falls under the realm of this paragone, as indicated by the entry, but in yet a different system than that of the two works mentioned above. Without attempting to render a trompe-l’oeil, Bronzino nevertheless achieves the illusion of volume on a painted surface.
We take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to Philippe Costamagna. This French art historian, today the director of the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio discussed here for its reopening (see article), is one of the leading specialists of 16th century Florentine art. Three paintings are shown here for the first time and all of them were discovered and attributed thanks to his work (in two cases alongside Carlo Falciani). Besides this Christ on the Cross, we should point out the sensational discovery of Saint Como (ill. 6) which is no other than the painting (or rather the upper part of it) previously located to the right of the Pieta which embellished the chapel of Eleonora of Toledo and whose companion piece, Saint John the Baptist (Los Angeles, Getty Museum), was already known. This Pieta, today held in Besançon (not lent due to its poor condition) was replaced by a signed replica whereas an Annunciation also quickly replaced Saint John the Baptist and Saint Como.

7. Alessandro Allori (1535-1607)
Christ on the Croce Between the Virgin
and Saint John
, c. 1550-1555
Oilo n panel - 325 x 216 cm
Florence, Educatorio di Fuligno
Chiesa della Santissima Concezione
Photo : All rights reserved

The exhibition closes by evoking the art of his pupil, Alessandro Allori, who was at times considered a second Bronzino. The relationship between the two painters was the same as the one between our artist and Pontormo. Allori’s Crucifixion (ill. 7) thus reveals very close ties to the Christ on the Cross from Nice.

In Italy, any exhibition of course leads visitors to explore other works in situ which cannot be moved, due to their size or because they are mural paintings. We recommend a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio to see the chapel of Eleonora of Toledo mentioned above, as well as The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in San Lorenzo and the large Descent of Christ into Limbo, catalogued but not presented in the exhibition. There is also the Capponi chapel in the Santa Felicita church, next to the Ponte Vecchio on the way to the Palazzo Pitti, offering a view of Pontormo’s Deposition quoted earlier, which was very influential in Bronzino’s art.

Exhibition curators : Cristina Acidini, Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali.

Under the supervision of Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali, Bronzino. Pittore e poeta alla corte dei Medici, Mandragora, 2010, 358 p., 40€. ISBN : 9788874611546.

Visitor information : Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Strozzi, 50123 Florence. Open every day from 9 am to 8 pm, Thursdays from 9 am to 11 pm. Tickets : 10€ (reduced rates : 8.50€, 8€, 7.50€ and 4€).

Didier Rykner, mercredi 1er décembre 2010

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