The Drawings of Bronzino

Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 20-April 18

The prospect of seeing Agnolo Bronzino’s drawings may not send everyone running to the Metropolitan Museum, but then again it may: Consider that, in the five centuries since his birth, this Met exhibition is the first ever consecrated to the Florentine master. Nobody seems entirely sure why it has taken so long, given that many a lesser luminary was honored long ago with a full-scale retrospective. Nor is there any particular reason why the show should have been mounted in this particular year, which represents no special milestone for the artist (1503-1572). But whatever the reason, 2010 is turning into a fine time to be Agnolo Bronzino, not only because of the Met’s exhibition of his drawings, but also because of an exhibition of his paintings that will open in the autumn at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

As for this Met exhibition, it has the rare distinction of being very nearly definitive. Of the 62 surviving drawings that are generally attributed to the artist, all but two are on view here. Indeed, the show is so definitive that it may even contain a few more drawings by the artist than actually survive, if you take my meaning.

As Italian Renaissance artists go, Agnolo Bronzino ranks very high, but not supremely high. That is to say, although many people know about him, he will never achieve the sort of pervasive celebrity of Raphael or Leonardo or those two other titans after whom the tetrad of mutant ninja turtles were named a few years back. As an artist, he is obviously and instantly admirable: the porcelaneous smoothness of his flesh passages and the unflappable nobility with which he imbues the Florentine aristocracy have no precise equivalent in the corpus of Western art. But for those very reasons and because of the brittle, often arid precision of his line, Bronzino seems, by design, to deflect all human warmth.

Though he is one of the defining spirits of the Mannerist movement, his mannerism has little use for the sinuous vivacity of Parmigianino: In the portraits that make up most of his career, Bronzino slows the blood-flow of his pale, pulseless sitters until, as though through petrifaction, they are transformed into alabastrine statues of themselves. Consider his portrait of the lovely Eleonora of Toledo, wife of his foremost patron, Cosimo I, grand duke of Tuscany. She is enthroned beside her infant son Giovanni. If we buy into the fiction of this painting—and it probably was fiction—we can easily imagine that mother and child never embraced or even spoke to one another, so cool and impassive do they seem. Neither here nor in Bronzino’s other portraits can there be serious talk of psychological penetration; you need a soul for that, and the superior beings who populate his canvases are too refined ever to stoop to human frailty.

For many decades, even until fairly recently, Bronzino was identified with these portraits to such an extent that his many ambitious narrative works, if they were known at all, seemed to be a distraction from his true talents. In fact, the paintings that he devised for the Chapel of Eleonora of Toledo are some of the most dazzling of the mid-16th century. Here, as in his designs for the tapestries in the Vecchio Palace and the Pitti Palace, Bronzino exhibits a compositional sophistication that represents one of the high-water marks of the Mannerist movement.

From Venice to Florence to Rome, the second half of the Cinquecento was the age of big paintings: By the yard, it seems, the artists of Italy unfurled these very uneven labors and leavened and diffused their paint textures accordingly to accommodate their vaster scale. Not so Bronzino, who paints his grand narrative works the way he paints his portraits, one inch after another. This imbues works like the eight-foot-tall “Lamentation” in the Vecchio, and the even larger and better “Lamentation” in Besançon, with an overdetermined quality that, in its insistent realness, takes on an almost surreal quality. These narrative works reveal unanticipated excellencies that Bronzino had little or no opportunity to display in his portraiture; in depicting flesh, as in Christ’s bared torso in Besançon, the painter is about as accomplished as can be. And the blue that dominates the composition reveals a chromatic savoir faire as deft and original as anything attempted by even his greatest contemporaries. Finally, regarding the compositional arrangement of figures at various points in “The Crossing of the Red Sea” in the Vecchio, only Michelangelo, among the living, could possibly surpass him.

But these are Bronzino’s paintings, and the works on view at the Met are drawings that often diverge wildly from the works for which they were mostly preparatory studies. While some of the artist’s contemporaries, like Michelangelo, occasionally produced drawings as finished works in their own right, Bronzino uses them as a tool in developing the finished painting.

Concerning these drawings, Bernard Berenson made an interesting point: If we were to compare those of the famous Bronzino with others by his more obscure contemporary, Giovanni Battista Naldini, on the basis of what survived, “they would change places, Naldini rising to reputation and Bronzino sinking into obscurity.” Berenson believed that the relative rarity of Bronzino’s drawings could be attributed to the fact that, “aware of his dullness as a draughtsman, he made away with his sketches.”

Berenson’s point is interesting not because it is true with regard to either Bronzino or Naldini, but because it raises some important questions for the critic. Painters are no more obliged to draw beautifully than violinists are required to tune their instruments con affetto. In each case, the act is (or can be) a purely functional prelude to the real cultural act, which is the finished painting or performance.

Now it is one of the clichés of criticism—especially when Modernists turn to consider the Old Masters—to assert that drawings are more lively, spontaneous, and process-oriented (and therefore better) than the finished product that is the painting. Though the drawings on view at the Met do, indeed, reveal something of the artist’s processes, it is not correct to say that they reveal much about him that is dissonant with the evidence of the paintings themselves. True, there are shades of feeling and character in his “Study for a Portrait of a Seated Man” that are rarely encountered in his completed paintings, just as his “Standing Nude” of 1541 suggests a physical immediacy, a vibrancy of flesh and blood, that is nowhere to be found in his finished works. But most of the drawings at the Met, like “Justice Liberating Innocence,” are, in their linear brilliance, fully of a piece with the masterpieces they presage.

Though it is regrettable that Bronzino’s paintings will be shown later this year only in Florence, the quality of his drawings is usually so high as to make a visit to the Met compulsory for anyone who cherishes the Old Masters in any form.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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