"Bronzino, Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici" in Florence, Italy (it will not be traveling), is the first show, ever, that has gathered together most of the artist's paintings -- 63 of them, with others by his workshop, his contemporaries, and his teacher, Pontormo. It includes two works that had been presumed lost, works never before exhibited, and a number of paintings that have been cleaned and restored.
Affectation or Naturalism?
Bronzino (1503-72) has had the misfortune, art historically, of being lumped together with artists called Mannerists, who have, fairly or not, borne the pejoratives of that word -- i.e., affected, artificial, insincere.
At the same time, the appearance and texture of things are convincingly and meticulously rendered. The hyper-reality of the detail is extraordinary, but his very commitment to the hyper-real at the expense of atmosphere sucks the life from the painting. A comparison with Raphael's portraits decades before, where the figures inhabit a moment in time and take a breath, makes us appreciate how deliberately Bronzino rejected the naturalist approach for a more abstract rendering. Indeed, this was one of the lessons of the Met's recent xerographic study of its Bronzino; the underpainting of the face shows an individuality that was idealized in the final result.
Bronzino should be celebrated for the brilliant Mannerist he is. He was a court painter, and his art has the cultivated, hothouse feel of aristocracy. Subject and style coalesce perfectly.
A few of the revelations in this show:
- The "Double Portrait of the Dward Morgante," which shows the nude dwarf front and back on the front and back of the same canvas, is being shown publicly for the first time since the 18th century. Newly cleaned to remove the grapevines that had covered his genitalia, the painting is an example of the virtuosity so prized by Mannerist artists. It also shows Bronzino's involvement in a frequent topic of debate in Florence's academies -- which was the "nobler" art, painting or sculpture? Here, painting like sculpture can show more than one aspect, but painting can also depict the passage of time: the front of the canvas shows Morgante before the hunt, the back shows him with his catch.
- The "Crucified Christ" had previously been thought lost but has now been identified as the crucifixion mentioned by Vasari that Bronzino painted for Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi, who were tried for heresy in 1551. This painting may be an important indicator of the Reformation views current in 1540s Florence. The curators assert that the almost abstract depiction (rather than a suffering Christ) expresses a belief in salvation by faith alone. Even here, using a muted palette, Bronzino shines as a colorist, with the pale pink drapery against pallid flesh, brown cross, and gray niche.
The exhibition is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, through January 23, 2011.