Tucked away within the medieval Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is a tiny chapel (barely 150 feet square) completed in the early 1540s that stands as a symbol of the city government's radical transformation in those years. For most of the preceding four decades, Florence had struggled to retain its independence and ancient republican traditions. In 1537, after a succession of popular revolts, hostile occupations, and political realignments, Cosimo I, a descendant of the cadet branch of the Medici family, was installed as the city's second duke. His predecessor and cousin, Duke Alessandro, had been assassinated.
Cosimo had learned from Alessandro's misfortune--subservience to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and alliance with the papacy would be essential to the stability of the dynasty he intended to found. Cosimo swiftly consolidated his power by forceful military and political maneuvering. In 1539, he confirmed his imperial vassalage by marrying Eleonora, the daughter of Don Pedro de Alvarez de Toledo, the Emperor's viceroy in Naples. The marriage was a rare and remarkable love match that, in time, produced eight surviving offspring and a succession that lasted until the early eighteenth century.
The small chapel in Palazzo Vecchio was intended as Duchess Eleonora's private oratory, part of a total refurbishment that turned the ancient seat of municipal government into a princely residence. Marshaling Florence's preeminent scholars, painters, sculptors, and architects to the task of glorifying his reign, Cosimo was the first of a long line of Italian autocrats to understand the value of art and literature as handmaidens of politics. Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo Mariano di Torri, 1503-1572,) was primus inter pares in the Florentine art world of the mid-sixteenth century. He ascended from lowly origins as a butcher's son to the rank of principal court painter. The Chapel of Eleonora was the first "state" commission entrusted to the artist.
The young Bronzino, unlike his master Pontormo, was blessed with a measured, careful temperament that served him well in a long, fruitful career in the service of the Medici dukes. The chapel's decoration, which confirms Bronzino's virtuosity as a draftsman and colorist, is a brilliant display of maniera--a style principally evolved from the example of Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. The walls' retelling of the story of Moses carries a subtle but pointed political message suggesting a parallel between the Old Testament prophet and Cosimo, destined to lead his subjects to a shining future.
Bronzino, an accomplished letterato, moved easily in the rarified cultural milieu of Cosimo and Eleonora's court. He painted a significant number of magnificent portraits of the ducal couple and their circle; they are chiefly responsible for the artist's fame. No visitor to the Uffizi can forget the alluringly beautiful and gloriously attired Eleonora with her young son Giovanni by her knee. It is flanked, in the Tribuna, by an equally arresting pair of Panciatichi portraits. The three works signal the birth of the long-lived tradition of state portraiture in the grand manner.
Two memorable male portraits by Bronzino have been admired for generations in New York; they happen to be within steps of each other, at the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection. These cool, haughty, and serf-assured images of influence and power are the artist's principal legacy in America. "The Drawings of Bronzino," now at the Metropolitan, gives us, for the first time, a comprehensive view of the process by which Bronzino built his paintings: the graphic underpinning of his art. (1) As befits this quintessentially Florentine artist, that process was grounded in disegno, a discipline so valued and revered in his native city that it gave its name to Europe's first art academy, the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (of which Bronzino, not surprisingly, was a founding member). When Vasari, that arch-academician and friend of Bronzino for more than four decades, described him, he justly used the word "diligence." There is little doubt that it was meant as a compliment, for in this epochal exhibition of sixty precious sheets, the artist emerges as a meticulous steward of his hand. Carefully, almost tediously, he controls its movement across the surface of the paper.
Bronzino's forms emerge from the page with a minimum of fanfare, softly yet fully formed. At a glance, the careless eye might almost be bored by the obviousness of what it sees: no bold thrusts or sweeping, cutting gestures of the kind that have always captivated connoisseurs of the medium. When Bronzino wishes to emphasize the crook of a joint, the recess of a fold, or the furrow of a brow, he does so with such a light touch that some of the sheets bear evident traces of having been "strengthened" at a later date. The better preserved drawings, however, show an artist with an uncanny understanding of how light plays on surfaces, particularly human flesh, with passages in the modeling that are smooth and almost imperceptible.
With such attention to structure and design, it comes as a shock to learn that the drawings hanging in the three chronologically arranged rooms of the Metropolitan's mezzanine are virtually all that is known in this medium of an otherwise prolific artist. One thinks that Bronzino's artistic path would be strewn with endless studies of the myriad figures which fill his paintings. Alas, the vagaries of time have caused many drawings to disappear; others may still, perhaps, be hiding behind different attributions. As recently as 1971, Craig Hugh Smythe, in the only previous study on the subject, listed a mere seventeen drawings as securely by the master.
Although that number has grown considerably since then, many questions still remain, mostly concerning the drawings dating from the middle 1520s and early 1530s, the years during which Bronzino was still very much in Pontormo's shadow. Almost a dozen of the exhibited pieces in the first room, for instance, were at one time thought to be by Pontormo; Reclining Partially Draped Youth Seen to the Knees is still catalogued as "Pontormo or Bronzino." The problem of attribution even extends to two monumental male nude studies whose date may be as late as the 1550s (two studies both called Standing Male Nude in Three-Quarter-Length Seen from the Rear). There are also the ranks of newcomers: one magnificent sheet (Dead Christ [Study for the Mercatale Pieta]) was entirely unknown until it turned up at a Paris auction in 2000; another (Head of a Bearded Young Man in Profile Facing Right) was identified as a Bronzino a year later and acquired by the Metropolitan after passing as "Bugiardini" at a London sale. The catalogue may well be further expanded in the (unlikely) event that another exhibition of Bronzino drawings is mounted.
Because of the inclusiveness of the exhibition-and one might add, the generosity of the Uffizi Gabinetto dei Disegni as principal lender--the catalogue serves not only as a guide to the works on hand, but it is also as an up-to-date summary of current scholarship on Bronzino drawings. George Goldner, in his capacity as Chairman of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan, aided by his colleague Carmen C. Bambach, was chiefly responsible for the ambitious undertaking. It fell to Professor Janet Cox-Rearick, however, to order and evaluate the critical and art historical material on which the show is based. Much of this is recent and is owed to Professor Cox-Rearick's own research, particularly as regards the fascinating and often puzzling relationship between the young Bronzino and Pontormo.
The two artists, master and apprentice, collaborated on several important projects. The frescoes at the Certosa del Galluzzo are the earliest, made when Bronzino was little more than a garzone. The irascible and misanthropic Pontormo must have been taken by the youngster's precocious talent and even-tempered efficiency--so much so that he retained him as an assistant on his supreme masterpiece, the Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita. But there is little question that both were entirely Pontormo's undertakings; one must seek the full relationship of the master and his pupil in the drawings, rather than in the finished frescoes.
One drawing in particular (verso: Head of a Child and a Right Leg of a Seated Figure; recto: Study for a Madonna and Child with St. John) is a moving testimony to the time-less mystery of the creative process, particularly when two gifted artists expend their formidable energies on the same sheet of paper. On the verso of the drawing are feathery studies of a child's head and the leg of a seated figure. They capture and define the forms with a minimum of assured strokes and the lightest of cross-hatching. Originally thought to be by Pontormo, these somewhat unimpressive sketches, now seen in the context of other early Bronzino drawings, are clearly by the hand of the latter. There can be no doubt, though, about the recto: the Virgin and Child appear in a tumultuous explosion of whirling lines and forceful shading--Pontormo at his most aggressive. One can almost hear the two artists, as they examine each other's work, exchanging comments in the slightly barbed and sardonic idiom so typical of the Florentines.
The high point of the exhibition is reached with the eight sheets relating to the Chapel of Eleonora. They confirm Bronzino's mastery-the artist, now fully confident of his hand, transfers the living models before him into a parallel world, frozen in time and ruled by immutable laws. The drawings display an almost contemplative attitude about describing form and structure that is more reminiscent of Raphael than of Pontormo or Michelangelo. There is no denying that the cumulative effect of such a large number of drawings featuring the figure as sole protagonist can be deadening. One looks in vain for the dynamism and tension that, paradoxically, are such alluring qualities of the paintings. Our artist, alas, is not about to concede such relief--his is the earnest, almost relentless, pursuit of idealized, formal values inherent in the human body. La Bella Maniera, and none other, is the noble calling of this true Renaissance artist.
A spectacular series of twenty tapestries vied with the Chapel of Eleonora as Bronzino's most important Medici commission. Cosimo, again foreshadowing later European monarchs, established the first "state" textile factory in 1545 by bringing to Florence two celebrated Flemish weavers, Jan Rost and Nicolas Karcher. Fourteen of the cartoons, now all lost, were supplied by Bronzino (Pontormo and Francesco Saliviati were also involved). The huge panels, woven in a precious mixture of wool, silk, and gold thread, once again recount the biblical story of Joseph for political purposes.
Eleven preparatory drawings and modelli for this series have survived, nine of which are exhibited. They vary from typical single-figure studies to large and exquisitely detailed presentation sheets that display the full range of the artist's virtuosity in the use of pen, chalk, and wash. Study of a Left Leg and Drapery is a further recent addition to Bronzino's drawings. Another, Design from Half of a Border for the Joseph Tapestries, provides an enchanting change of pace: it bristles with animals, fruits, herms, masks, and grotesques, all in a mad, spirited tangle.
Only three drawings (Seated Male Nude, Standing Male Nude with Back Turned, and Kneeling Male Nude) that relate to the frescoes in the church of San Lorenzo, Bronzino's last Medici commission, survive. Shortly after Pontormo's death in 1557, Bronzino had been charged with completing his master's ambitious but unfinished decorative program for the choir. It was a particularly important and delicate undertaking, yet one that did not end altogether happily. San Lorenzo was not only the "parish" church of the Medici family--it also contained their tombs, serving as both a shrine and symbol of the dynasty. The project called for Bronzino to add two large scenes in the nave of the church, only one of which, The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, was completed before his own death in 1572.
Cosimo intended the decoration of the choir and nave of San Lorenzo as an enterprise equal to the glorious undertaking of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. By the late sixteenth century, however, the winds of taste had shifted away from the maniera. The doctrinal precepts enunciated at the Council of Trent were changing attitudes toward religious imagery. Critics soon scourged Pontormo's work at San Lorenzo--by the mid-eighteenth century, no qualms were felt about erasing the frescoes entirely.
Bronzino's Martyrdom of St. Lawrence probably narrowly avoided the same fate; had it not survived, the drawings currently at the Met would be all that was left of it. They arc individual studies for three of the male nudes that are in the foreground of the teeming, muddled composition. The huge fresco, completed in 1569, is very much in the vein of what we know of Pontormo's lost choir decorations. Masses of nudes whirl about and gesticulate in an airless space whose coordinates are impossible to determine. All too clearly, neither Pontormo nor Bronzino were up to challenging, much less surpassing, the Sistine Chapel. When they made the heroic attempt, both artists were at the ends of their careers, their best work behind them.
The presence of the Metropolitan's magnificent Havemeyer Portrait of a Man, seen as one enters the last room of the exhibition, startles and surprises. The correlation of drawing and painting is thrust upon the viewer in an oblique way, by the addition, on an adjoining wall, of a full-sized infrared "reflectograph" of the painting. The juxtaposition does little to enlighten since the "under-drawing" revealed in the photo shows no evident similarity in quality or technique to the drawings in the show; it pertains entirely to the painting and its genesis as a painted image. One quickly turns away from this odd and superfluous technological display--back to the drawings and the far more persuasive story they tell.
(1) "The Drawings of Bronzino" opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 20 and remains on view through April 18, 2010.…