FLORENCE – An extraordinary exhibit devoted to the paintings of Agnolo di
Cosimo, better known as Bronzino, is currently on show in Florence’s Palazzo
Strozzi. This is the most appropriate venue, since Bronzino (1503-1572) was born
near the city and spent most of his life there.
Moreover Florence houses
some of his greatest masterpieces.
Interestingly enough, this is the
first retrospective on Bronzino’s paintings that has ever been
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a
major exhibition devoted to Bronzino’s drawings which created enormous interest.
That show, as well as the current exhibition, has thrown new light on this great
Who was Bronzino? The painter, architect, writer and historian
Giorgio Vasari, who was a contemporary of Bronzino, concluded in his Lives of
the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects that Bronzino was one of the
most important painters of the Italian Renaissance, especially famous for his
incredible lifelike portraits. He painted in the Mannerist style, an art
movement in vogue between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. This style
represented art as idealized rather than natural beauty and was often associated
with exaggeration of human proportions.
This comprehensive exhibition
presents more than 60 of Bronzino’s documented works, several attributed to him
and his workshop and some paintings by his mentor Pontormo. The retrospective
concludes with a number of works by Bronzino’s favorite pupil, Alessandro
In addition to the 29 paintings from the Uffizi Gallery, there
are loans from more than 43 important international museums and private
According to James Bradburne, director of the Palazzo
Strozzi, “Every significant Bronzino that could actually be taken off its wall
was moved here.” There was however one notable exception: London’s National
Gallery declined to loan Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.
exhibit is curated by Carlo Falciani, a recognized Bronzino scholar, and Antonio
Natali, director of the Uffizi, and they also edited the accompanying
comprehensive catalog. The exhibition is laid out chronologically as well as
thematically. The wall texts are in large type and succinctly explain all
relevant details pertaining to each painting. In addition, there is a well
presented, clear and concise audio guide. Children are most welcome and there
are special wall texts and a guide for them.
IT IS not easy to
differentiate paintings early in Bronzino’s career from those of Pontormo. This
is particularly evident in the four large tondi of the evangelists Luke,
Matthew, John and Mark which open the exhibition. The former two are attributed
to Bronzino, the third to Pontormo but the final one remains inconclusive. These
paintings were removed from the Capone Chapel in Florence’s Church of Santa
Felicita for restoration prior to the exhibition.
It is a real privilege
to view these exceptional works at close range, without the need to strain one’s
neck looking at them high up in the cupola of the chapel.
three of his formative years at the Della Rovere court in Pesaro. One of his
finest earliest portraits is that of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino.
This life-like portrait must surely have impressed Cosimo I de Medici, duke of
Florence, who was eventually appointed grand duke of Tuscany. Indeed, shortly
after Bronzino’s return to Florence, he became Cosimo’s favorite court
It was in the unique artistic and intellectual milieu of
Cosimo’s Florence that Bronzino painted some of his greatest works. A room
dedicated to the Medici family displays the stunning portraits of Cosimo, his
wife Eleonora di Toledo and their children. Particularly arresting is the
portrait of Eleonora with their second son Giovanni. The spectacular and minute
attention to the detail of the fabric of her dress is mind boggling. Indeed her
apparel takes up more space on the canvas than either of the two
Another dazzling eye catching portrait is that of Bia, the
illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I.
Besides the Medici family, there are
portraits of other figures in Cosimo’s court, including those of the Lutheran
sympathizer Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia. Other bewitching and
beguiling portraits from Bronzino’s youth to his full maturity are displayed and
include Portrait of a Young Man with a Book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York, Lady with a Small Dog from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Portrait
of a Man from the National Gallery in Ottawa hangs for the first time alongside
Portrait of a Woman from the Galleria Sabauda in Turin. Recent scholarship has
determined that they are thought to be husband and wife.
All of these
portraits are among Bronzino’s best known works and reveal an extraordinary
grasp of naturalism combined with accuracy of execution.
His sitters are
so real to life, yet at the same time they are somewhat distant. These portraits
were a major influence on subsequent generations of artists.
the exhibit are sumptuous tapestries illustrating the biblical story of Joseph.
Together with Raphael’s tapestries from the Sistine Chapel, these two cycles are
arguably the most famous 16thcentury examples of this oeuvre. Bronzino designed
16 of the 20 tapestries. They were woven in Florence by the Flemish weavers Jan
Rost and Nicolas Karcher.
The cycle originally adorned the Salone dei
Duecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
These tapestries have recently
undergone a major restoration process and have not been on view for many years.
The restoration has succeeded to a large extent in revealing the original
Five of these stunning works are on display at the
exhibition. The story of Joseph, who was initially honored outside his own
country and then reconciled with those who betrayed him, had particular
resonance for Cosimo who saw in this narrative an allegory of his dramatic
elevation to power.
Of Bronzino’s output of religious paintings, the two
versions of the Holy Family with St. John and St.
Anne deserve special
mention. One comes from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the other is from
the Louvre. They are almost identical, although in the Viennese version, one can
make out the title of the book held by the virgin. The word “Isaiah” is seen in
faint Hebrew characters. Also on display are the two side panels of St. John the
Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Cosmas, one of the patron saints of
the Medici family. These originally graced Eleonora di Toledo’s chapel in
Palazzo Vecchio but were removed at the request of Eleonora and the
Cosmas was lost. It has only been recently identified.
addition to his mastery of portraits, Bronzino also excelled in erotic
mythological paintings. Perhaps the most famous are the allegories with Venus
and Cupid. One from Rome and a second from Budapest feature in the exhibition.
In these allegories, Bronzino’s skill with the nude is eminently visible. In the
Rome version, Venus has wrested the bow and arrow from Cupid. Her pose and
facial expression allude to the act of love making. The pure white skin of Venus
and Cupid should be contrasted with the darker skin and leering visage of the
satyr who appears as a licentious voyeur.
On occasion, Bronzino
incorporated mythological elements in his portraits. An excellent example is
that of the famous Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, who is portrayed as the sea god
Neptune together with a trident. Bronzino succeeded in depicting an almost nude
portrait of a famous publicly recognized personality as a mythological
ALSO ON view is the recently restored portrait of the dwarf
Morgante, who was part of the court of Cosimo.
He is seen nude on both
sides of the same canvas. The front view shows Morgante about to go bird hunting
with an owl perched on his right hand. The reverse depicts a back view of
Morgante on his return from a successful hunt, clutching the prey in his right
The owl now rests on his left shoulder.
This work was
Bronzino’s answer to the question posed by one of his contemporaries as to
whether painting was superior to sculpture as an art form.
double-sided canvas introduces a fourth dimension, that of time, which goes
beyond the three dimensions of a sculpture.
As the title of the
exhibition suggests, Bronzino was also a poet and some examples of his work are
on display. In style, his sonnets range from those reminiscent of Petrarch to
Great scholarship went into the planning of this
exhibition which features three newly attributed works by the artist. These
include the St. Cosmas discussed above as well as a previously unknown Christ
Carrying the Cross and Crucified Christ which Bronzino painted for Bartolomeo
Panciatichi. As has been noted, several Bronzino paintings were specially
restored for this occasion.
There are other paintings and frescoes of
Bronzino scattered about Florence and its environs which certainly merit a
visit. These include the Cappella di Eleonora at the Palazzo Vecchio. The
chapel, entirely decorated by Bronzino, is one of his most important and
original works. On the vault are the saints Francis, Jerome, John and Michael.
The main altar piece features Bronzino’s Lamentation and an
On the Cappella walls are a series of brilliant frescoes
depicting the life of Moses. These include the crossing of the Red Sea, the
brazen snake, the gathering of manna and Moses drawing water from the rock.
Overlooking these events, Bronzino portrays a very pregnant Eleonora, the wife
Like the Joseph tapestries, the story of Moses leading the
Jewish people out of bondage into freedom was a subject dear to Cosimo’s heart,
since he saw himself as a new Moses, the founder of a free independent nation
and also as a lawgiver. His pregnant wife is an allegory of the beginning of a
new fertile prosperous age for Florence. Further images of Cosimo and Eleonora
by Bronzino can be seen in the vault of their son Francesco I’s studiolo, also
in Palazzo Vecchio. Finally currently on show in the Palazzo are four additional
recently restored tapestries from the Joseph series.
Many other famous
works of Bronzino can be seen in churches of Florence. Santa Maria Novella has
Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus, painted by Bronzino in collaboration with
San Lorenzo boasts a huge fresco of the Martyrdom of
St. Lawrence, while in Santa Croce there is the Descent of Christ to Limbo,
which is one of his most important and largest religious works.The
writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes reviews and lectures on
medical topics, music, art, history and travel. Some of his articles, reviews
and photographs can be seen at www.irvingspitz.com.