The Diligent Hand of Florence

By Grassi, Marco | New Criterion, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Diligent Hand of Florence

Grassi, Marco, New Criterion

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. …

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