BY VICTORIA ROMEO AND JAMES WILENTZ
Bronzino was, without a doubt, one of the greatest Italian painters from the late Renaissance. Inexplicably enough, he has never received a museum retrospective, an honor for which his prolific oeuvre of portraiture is particularly deserved. How ironic then, that a premier exhibition of the man, now in its final weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, be a showcase of his drawings, works for which he never intended to be exhibited? Perhaps his stature has gotten in the way here. Are too few museums willing to even temporarily loan out prized paintings from his catalogue?
Notwithstanding, the Met has more than made due with an unprecedented collection of the man’s drawings-no small curatorial feat itself, as only 60 of them are known to exist. Such circumstances make curators particularly incredulous, offering a rare opportunity for connoisseurship. In a time where an artist’s individuality was downplayed, bringing together a collection of a master’s drawings allows for a glimpse into their mind- uncovering the subtleties of their technique and aesthetic priorities.
And while such studies may be primarily valued for this, what distinguishes this show is that many of Bronzino’s works are quite beautiful unto themselves- possessing a nuanced, finished quality that was also revolutionary during the time. Many of Bronzino’s peers solely valued drafted works for their functionality, as unrestricted experiments to reference for the final, more refined product. Yet Bronzino and his partner in crime, Jacopo Pontormo were among the first well known artists from the Renaissance to employ a more a finessed approach to draughtsmanship.
Agnolo di Cosimo Mariano di Tori, better known by his nickname Agnolo Bronzino, began his career as an apprentice and later a studio assistant to Pontormo. Bronzino basked in the grandiosity of his famous teacher, emulating his style in his early years, and collaborating with him over the course of four decades. Bronzino went on to a distinguished career himself, working as an official court painter to the infamous Medici dynasty.
Yet Pontormo’s influence stuck with him, which is explored in this exhibition’s three galleries that encompass Bronzino’s early, middle and late career stages. The Met’s curators note that in some cases, unsigned drawings make it difficult to distinguish between the two. In the first and second galleries however, we get a much closer connection to Bronzino, through small focused studies of one particular compositional element. Faces, musculature, drapery, are each handled with extreme detail and care.
Some of the wall cards helpfully indicate a finished painting that contains the detail in the study. In the second gallery, a small rendering of gnarled, grasping hands convey a stirring tension, yet only upon glancing at the wall card does the viewer learn that they are part of Bronzino’s celebrated work, “Allegory of Venus and Cupid”. The hands belong to the figure, “Jealousy” whose presence could easily be overlooked in the finished work’s complex composition. Yet this leads to a pleasantly spontaneous experience for the viewer, in which one’s focus zooms in and out from a particular detail to determine its relationship to the work as a whole.
In the second gallery, Bronzino’s work for the court of the Medici family takes center stage. Studies for frescos, tapestries and various other commissions demonstrate the artist’s ability to take on a variety of projects, as well as the influences of other Italian artists, particularly Michelangelo, whose exaggerated musculature and intertwining forms are evident in works like “The Virtues and Blessings of Matrimony Expelling the Vices and Ills,” and “Seated Male Nude.”
The exhibition boasts all of the extant drawings Bronzino did in preparation for a series of 16 tapestries, commissioned to decorate the walls of the Sala dei Duecento of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The works in the gallery arguably demonstrate this period as the height of his career and artistic talents. The charming “Head of a Smiling Young Woman in Three-Quarter View”, (ca. 1542–43) stands out for its soft modeling of form and graceful handling of line. This fragmented sheet was originally part of a full-scale drawing (cartoon) done in preparation for “Moses Striking Water from the Rock,” a fresco in the Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo de Medici.
The final gallery contains the only painting in the exhibition, “Portrait of a Young Man”, (ca.1530), which has recently undergone infrared reflectography and x-ray examination to reveal the process of Bronzino’s working method, as under drawings beneath the painted surface display numerous drafts of the work. It was a final reminder by the Met that drafting was an invaluable resource to this Mannerist treasure, in this case a blueprint that shaped the direction of one of his most classic works.