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The Bronzino Age

Recognition for a master in the shadow of the Renaissance.

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By JAMES GARDNER
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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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