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Grey Matters

Agnolo di Cosimo, known as il Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, 1525-28, oil on panel, private collection
Agnolo Bronzino (Florence 1503-72)
Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, 1525-28
oil on panel
37 x 30 3/4 inches
94 x 78 cm

The long history of this painting attests to its importance. Known for over one hundred and fifty years, it has always born an attribution to one of the key Florentine painters of the sixteenth century.  Scholarly consensus has coalesced around the notion that the painting is an early work by Agnolo Bronzino. Bronzino was the most illustrious pupil of Jacopo da Pontormo and the highly Pontormesque quality of the painting in this portrait suggests it should date to the beginning of Bronzino’s career when his work most closely resembled that of Pontormo. Specific details that recall Pontormo are the rounded fingers that taper rather suddenly to the nail and the very liquid manner in which the fingers are painted. These compare to the hands in Pontormo’s Portrait of Francesco Guardi  (The J.Paul Getty Musuem, 89.PA.49; fig. 1) ca. 1529-30 and The Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap – Carlo Neroni? (Private Collection; fig. 2) ca. 1530.[1]  The smudgy hairline of the man in the present painting is similar to that of the Getty’s portrait of the soldier Francesco Guardi and that of Pontormo’s Portrait of Duke Alessandro (Private Collection). Another feature these share are the fine brushstrokes Pontormo used in applying paint around eye sockets, across cheeks, down noses, around and on the lips. Bronzino has used this same approach around the inner corner of the eyes, down the nose, and in the wonderful individual hairs of the beard. However, his style is already clearly deviating from that of his master as Bronzino had begun to emphasize the opaque nature of the physical shapes he is painting.

The present portrait also compares with Bronzino’s Portrait of Lorenzo Lenzi dated ca. 1528 to 1532  (Castello Sforzesco, Milan) in a number of respects (fig. 3).[2] Like the Man in the Red Cap the backdrop to the figure is vacant, but always a perfectly calibrated color. The sitters all face the spectator, are positioned slightly obliquely to the picture plane, and are sharply lit from the upper left. The effect of this spotlight is to insistently focus on the sitter, endowing him with a preternatural importance.  The Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, the Portrait of Lorenzo Lenzi and the present portrait all depict men holding letters or books, a motif that had been well-established in Florentine portraiture and adapted from Northern painting of the fifteenth century. However, it is the Young Man in the Red Cap and the portrait here presented that must be analyzed together. In them the sitter displays works written in everyday Italian script while Lorenzo Lenzi displays a book written in the chancery hand (cancellaresca) that became wide-spread in the sixteenth century. In the portrait of Lenzi a sonnet dedicated to Lenzi by the humanist Benedetto Varchi is written in this script, signaling the intellectualizing poetic background of both the writer of the sonnet and its recipient. Bronzino’s beautiful handwriting is also known from other paintings and his letters.[3] Elizabeth Cropper has argued that the Lenzi portrait is more sophisticated than the group of portraits completed around 1528-29 and the inclusion of the brilliantly staged book points to the social and intellectual world of the literary academies, the Accademia degli Umidi and the subsequent Accademia Fiorentina, to which Bronzino aspired.[4] Her pointlitis well taken in and that inclusion of this type of detail is more a mark of Bronzino’s work in the 1540s than of the late 1520s. Thus the present portrait, which in stylistic comparisons alone, appears very close to Pontormo’s works of around 1528, is indeed early also because the inclusion of texts relies on an earlier tradition.

Fig. 1 Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi), 1528-30, oil on panel transferred to canvas, 95.3 x 73 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Fig. 2 Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (Jacopo Neroni?), ca. 1530, private collection
Fig. 3 Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Lorenzo Lenzi, 1527-28, 90 x 71 cm. Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca, Milan

An indication of writing

That tradition is best embodied by Francesco Cristofano called Franciabigio (Florence 1484-1525). Part of the previous generation of artists that included Andrea del Sarto, Fanciabigio provides instructive comparisons in his portraits of A Steward of the Medici-Jacopo Cennini (Hampton Court, no. 1168) and a Portrait of a Knight of Rhodes (fig. 4) dated 1514 (National Gallery, London, NG 1035).[5] Although both portraits differ from Bronzino’s image in including backgrounds, they are similar in that the sitters directly look out at the viewer and the paper or books displayed by the sitter are written in normal everyday script and are, apparently deliberately, illegible in part. It is not clear why this is the case in the portrait of the Medici employee, although it could be argued that the contents of his book were confidential, and therefore an indication of writing rather than the actual transcription of the content of that writing was intentional.[6] In the other case, that of the Knight of Rhodes who looks up from reading a letter, only the date “1514” is legible. An inscription on the edge of the table on which he rests his hands makes it clear that the content of his letter must relate to love, and therefore again likely be best kept illegible, to maintain his privacy.


Fig. 4 Franciabigio, Portrait of a Knight of Rhodes, 1514, oil on panel, 60.3 x 45.7 cm. The National Gallery, London NG 1035

These examples illuminate the present portrait, clarifying the tradition from which it emanates. The goal of such images is to hide the actual words on the books or letters, but to make it clear what sort of context the writing belongs. In the present picture the type of book is a ledger. Sections are divided from other sections by horizontal lines. When an item is completed or over a diagonal line cancels it out. It was recognized as an account book by Frederick M. Clapp.[7] Moreover, a few words and symbols can be deciphered on its pages. On the left-hand page in the left margin is the symbol for soldi (a monetary denomination) and the number “16”. In the far right margin of the right page is the symbol for scudi, another monetary amount, apparently followed by “11”. In other words, the book is truly a financial ledger. Whoever is writing in it therefore must have had a need for a financial ledger.

Detail of the present picture

The sitter

Certainly anyone of a number of people could use such a book, but there is one candidate who was a close friend of both Pontormo and Bronzino in the 1520s. A certain Matteo Sofferoni (d. 1564) was recorded as working in the Florentine customs office in 1525. In 1528 in a contractual agreement Matteo Sofferoni employed as one of his witnesses Jacopo da Pontormo. Matteo was the brother or step-brother of Dianora Sofferoni, the mother of Alessandro Allori. Allori’s father, Tofano Allori, a spadaio who worked for both Duke Alessandro de’ Medici and Cosimo I de’ Medici was the best friend of Bronzino. In fact, Bronzino lived with Dianora and Tofano in their house in Via Adimari, and after Tofano’s death in 1541 Bronzino undertook the care of the entire Allori clan. Matteo also had guaranteed the money for the purchase of Tofano’s home in 1538, and was a member, with him of the confraternity of San Bastiano. Matteo was also involved with overseeing the financial administration of the construction of the Mercato Nuovo in the 1540s designed by Giambattista del Tasso.[8] Sofferoni was also involved in the literary set and was a good friend of the artist Franciabigio, who according to Vasari painted a portrait of him. There is a portrait by Franciabigio in Berlin said to be of Matteo. Vasari records that Franciabigio painted Sofferoni but there is no reason to identify him as the sitter of the Berlin picture.[9] Matteo Sofferoni’s connections to the Pontormo-Bronzino-Allori group coupled with his profession make him a plausible candidate for the identity of the sitter in this early portrait by Bronzino. That may be supported by the fact that according to Vasari Bronzino made a portrait of a daughter of Matteo Sofferoni as well (fig. 5).[10]

Fig. 5 Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Lady in Green, ca. 1528-32, oil on panel, 76.6 x 66.2 cm. Royal Collection Trust, Windsow Castle

A well-known copy

Fig. 6 Copy after the present work. Follower of Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Man with a Book, location unknown

A copy of the present portrait was described in the Lanfranconi sale of 1895 (Lugt, Lanfranconi 1895, p. 8, no. 27) and was subsequently in the collection of the Dayton Art Institute. Its present whereabouts is unknown. The fact that a copy was made suggests the importance of the present work, but it also reveals a significant change. In the Lanfranconi sale the Dayton picture was described as “Bildnis eines Gelehrten”, that is, a portrait of a scholar. In the 1969 record of it in an exhibition of treasures from the art institute it was named a “Portrait of an Author.” In both cases this may suggest that as the copyist, whose touch is harder and more formal than the charming and warm face Bronzino has created of his friend, substituted the text of the account ledger Sofferoni works in with something more generically like literature, thereby altering the picture into a more “normal” portrait of a writer. ❖

Elizabeth Pilliod

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Installation view of Grey Matters at Nicholas Hall, 2021
On the wall: Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, Agnolo Bronzino; tabletop: Limoges enamel plates and ewer
Agnolo di Cosimo, known as il Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, 1525-28, oil on panel, private collection

Corsini Collection, Palazzo Corsini, Florence, by 1842

Private collection

New York, Christie’s, 27 January 2015, lot 129

Private collection

on loan to New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, 2016 – 2020

Federigo Fantozzi, Nuova guida, ovvero descrizione storico-artistico-critica della citta e contorni di Firenze, Florence, 1842, p. 556: ‘Uomo che scrive. di A. del Sarto’.

Giuseppe François, Nuova guida della citta di Firenze ossia descrizione di tutte le cose che vi si trovano degne d’osservazione con pianta e vedute, Florence, 1853, p. 150: ‘Uomo che scrive, di A. Del Sarto’.

Ulderigo Medici, Catalogo della galleria dei Principi Corsini in Firenze, Florence, 1886, p. 17, no. 17: ‘CARRUCCI JACOPO (detto il Pontormo) – Ritratto di uomo in costume fiorentino del Secolo XVI. – mez. fig. gra. nat. Tav. al. m. 0,94, lar. m. 0,78’.

Frederick M. Clapp, Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, New Haven and London, 1916, pp. 202-03, no. 17, as not by Pontormo.

Carlo Gamba, Il Pontormo. Piccola Collezione D’Arte N. 15, Florence, 1921, pl. 45, as Pontormo.

Jean Alazard, Le portrait Florentin de Botticelli a Bronzino, Paris, 1924, p. 177, n. 2, as school of Pontormo.

Carlo Gamba, Contributo alla conoscenza del Pontormo, Florence, 1956, p. 16, as Pontormo.

Fifty Treasures of the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, 1969, p. 70, under no. 21; p. 133, fig. 5, as not by Pontormo.

Philippe Costamagna, Pontormo, Milan, 1994, pp. 310-11, no. A91.1 as a copy or replica of the ex-Lanfranconi picture.

Carlo Falciani, “Spigolature sul Bronzino (e sul Pontormo)”, Paragone, CXI, September 2013.

Carlo Falciani in Renaissance, Christie’s, 28 January, 2015, New York, lot. 129, pp. 88-98.

Elizabeth Pilliod, The Poetry of Bronzino’s Portraits, to be published, London, 2022.

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