Alberti writes that the history of portraiture begins with Narcissus, who in the Greek myth sees his own image reflected in a pool and immediately falls in love with it. The role of portraiture throughout its subsequent history is various and plays with such paradoxes. How close to nature should a portrait be? Can one put in paint an unattainable ideal? If a person ages, what is the value of a likeness of someone fixed in time? Does portraiture capture an individual or a culture? Is it what it seems or is there a coded message? For all this, the main purpose of portraiture has been to record a sitter’s likeness both in the moment and for posterity and to register his or her status, beauty, learning and moral probity. This function of portraiture is magnificently exemplified in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
In his introduction to the catalogue of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, Keith Christiansen, co-curator of the show says that it could be seen as a sequel to the memorable The Renaissance Portrait, from Donatello to Bellini. It is, and not in a bad way, the opposite. Unlike the 2011 exhibition which had an altogether different range, this puts under the microscope portraits painted over two generations almost all of which were painted for Florentines by Florentines. An underlying theme is that these paintings and sculptures were more than depictions of individual people; they were part of a larger propaganda exercise, touching both domestic and foreign policy, directed by Cosimo I de’ Medici specifically to consolidate support for his enlightened rule. It was an extreme exercise in cultural campanilismo, designed to connect the duke to a Florentine golden age, its literature and its language.
The use of portraiture to improve the brand of a regime is not unusual, Holbein did it for the court of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at almost exactly the same time (and with serendipitous points of convergence) (figs. 1–2), the Bellini family did it for Venice and Cranach for the Electors of Saxony. But no sixteenth-century ruling family exerted quite the same degree of control of the arts, both literary and fine, as did Cosimo. Bronzino and his workshop turned out over sixty versions of the two iconic images of Cosimo, one in armor, as a condottiere (cat. 20), and one painted fifteen years later as the ‘wise prince’ in fine silk clothes (cat. 55).
‘for Pontormo the human personality exists in a murky void. Attention is focused on the face, and the only detail that is admitted relates to the profession of the sitter…’
The exhibition allows us another opportunity to compare in depth the two favourite painters of the Medici court in this period, Jacopo Pontormo and Agnolo Bronzino. John Pope-Henessey, in 1966, found that ‘for Pontormo the human personality exists in a murky void. Attention is focused on the face, and the only detail that is admitted relates to the profession of the sitter…Bronzino on the other hand, portrays the individual in a setting – a physical setting…and an intellectual setting too’.
Because this exhibition is one devoted to portraits, both it and the accompanying catalogue are inevitably weighted towards Bronzino, who was on Cosimo’s payroll for around twenty-five years, and primarily employed for his ability to paint a good likeness. Even so, he learned his craft, even as a portraitist, from Pontormo who is represented here with some of his finest works in the genre, two of which are recent rediscoveries. If in the restrained palette and smouldering intelligence of Bronzino’s young Lorenzo Lenzi we see the shadow of Pontormo, some of the most arresting images in the exhibition came from the master himself, among the finest of which are the Portrait of Two Friends (cat. 2; fig. 5), the Young Man tuning a Lute (cat. 7) and the Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici (cat. 14; fig. 6).
We see, in this exhibition, Pontormo as an artist profoundly affected by the past even as he breaks from it. The portrait of Alessandro with its play on orthogonal lines and the half open door in the background seems to refer back to portraits by Botticelli just as Bronzino’s more complex architectural settings suggest the entirely contemporary architectural conceits of Vasari. The brooding, enigmatic face of the young duke portrayed by Pontormo as a literati touching a drawn profile of an ideal woman shows us nothing of the monstrous sadism, sexual depravity and capricious character for which Alessandro was famous, and murdered. Pontormo was not above a bit of Medicean mythmaking himself. The touching Two Friends, possibly painted for their father-in-law, calls to mind Raphael’s treatment of the same subject as well as the atmospheric poeticism of his teacher Andrea del Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino.
Perhaps my favorite portrait in the entire exhibition is by Pontormo, the Getty Portrait of Francesco Guardi (cat. 8; fig. 7), a work of extraordinary presence, sublime draftsmanship and virtuoso painterly qualities – it also takes its cue from an earlier renaissance Florentine, Donatello (fig. 8).
Though Bronzino is always seen as Pontormo’s pupil and in a way successor, the portraits in this exhibition by the pupil were almost without exception painted during Pontormo’s own lifetime. It was not until the second half of the 1530s that Bronzino had found his own artistic voice and there are points, early in Bronzino’s career, before he had perfected his trademark detachment and enamel finish, where the two artists are extremely close. Indeed the Frankfurt Bronzino Lady with a Lapdog (cat. 9) was, as early as 1612, thought to have been painted by Pontormo. The attribution of an even earlier portrait by Bronzino, which we exhibited in Grey Matters, vacillated for years between Pontormo and Bronzino. That painting (fig. 9), dated by Falciani to around 1525 and possibly a self-portrait, is arguably Bronzino’s earliest independent work in the genre. The soulful image of the young Lorenzo Lenzi (cat. 39; fig. 10), said to have been painted for his teacher and admirer Benedetto Varchi, shows us a very different Bronzino to the man who painted another young man, Ludovico Capponi (cat. 80), twenty-five years later in 1550. Both are masterpieces, both sitters were known as impetuous youths (Capponi got involved in several duels), but one looks inward and the other challenges the viewer with cocksure arrogance.
Both Bronzino and Pontormo rise to the challenge. Laura Battiferri, portrayed in profile as a female Dante, conforms to no conventional ideal of outward female beauty and even the portrait of Cosimo’s wife Eleanora with their son Francesco (cat. 28; fig. 6) shows her as a distinctly matronly woman (she did bear eleven children). Similarly, Pontormo’s fascinating Portrait of Maria Salviati (Cosimo’s mother) with Giulia de’ Medici (the daughter of the recently assassinated Alessandro; not exhibited) is an unflinching likeness of a middle-aged woman in widow’s weeds (fig. 16). Both Medici female portraits are painted to demonstrate Cosimo’s dynastic ambitions and have nothing to do with feminine ideal beauty. They are from a different world to that of Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este.
Bronzino’s reputation as a propagandist for the regime of Cosimo I should, maybe, be treated with some nuance. Perhaps his exceptional clarity of color and line, at its most extreme radically different from the dreamy ambiguity of Pontormo, makes him seem more illustrative of Cosimo’s Brave New World. However, Bronzino, while undoubtedly loyal to the cause of Cosimo, inhabited a world of his own, perhaps more unconventional than it at first would seem. His disturbingly unearthly and frontal 1540 Portrait of Bartolomeo Panciaticchi (not in the exhibition; fig. 17), a man who had spent time in France and was open to religious reform, is seen as a depiction of the sort of Imitatio Christi favored in Evangelical circles. Panciatichi was charged with heresy in 1552 and is known a few years later to have held a party to celebrate the anniversary of the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici.
A later painting, while not an official portrait, contained enough portraits to scandalize Florence when it was painted in 1552. This is the Descent of Christ into Limbo (not exhibited; fig. 18) painted for Giovanni Zanchini to hang in his chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce. The altarpiece depicts what were, to a contemporary audience, recognisable and flagrantly naked Florentine beauties, Costanza da Sommaia and Camilla Tebaldi. It also includes portraits of himself, Pontormo, Bacchiacca and Allori as well as the writers Varchi, Gelli and Giambullari. This painting astonished Florence in Bronzino’s lifetime and went on to define what came to be seen as Bronzino’s and mannerism’s decadence for Victorian writers, notably John Ruskin who described it as ‘vile as it is in colour, vacant in invention, void in light and shade, a heap of cumbrousnesses and sickening offensivenesses, is of all its voids most void in…the academy models huddled together at the bottom’.
The painting, while not in such extreme language, was also criticized by cinquecento authors such as Raffaello Borghini. Although many of the figures ‘huddled together’ in this scandalous altarpiece were members of the Medicean intellectual establishment, this is an eloquent example of Bronzino’s capacity to not just glorify Cosimo, but also himself and his personal academy. After Michelangelo’s death, the ashes of Bronzino’s hero, Florence’s most famous artist and its most ardent republican were taken from Rome and interred in Santa Croce. Just as Cosimo turned the republican Varchi into a supporter during his lifetime, he co-opted Michelangelo also, if only posthumously.
That the court of Cosimo de’ Medici was not necessarily prudish about nudity is emphatically underlined in this exhibition by the remarkable wall of male nudes by Bronzino spanning almost thirty years, all of which carry more or less blatant homo-erotic undertones. It is extraordinary that the young Duke Cosimo, only recently installed as Duke, having with the help of Imperial Spanish troops ruthlessly crushed the republican army at the battle of Montemurlo, should have himself portrayed in such a way. Here the Duke is portrayed, naked, as Orpheus (cat. 64; fig. 19), his bow provocatively emerging from between his legs. It has sometimes been thought to be connected to one of his marriage proposals (to Margaret of Austria or Eleanora of Toledo) but, given the bad outcome for Orpheus’ wife, this would seem unlikely. More plausible is the idea that, given the recent upheavals in Florence, Cosimo has chosen to portray himself as Orpheus, the calming influence, the pacifier of wild animals. His upper body is based on the Belvedere Torso (fig. 20) then identified as Hercules, a demigod whose attributes were often adopted by ‘strong’ rulers. Nearby is the ravishing St. Sebastian but, beautiful as it is, there is no compelling evidence that it too is an allegorical portrait. What undoubtedly is, however, is the highly suggestive, naked portrait of the legendary Genoese admiral Andrea Doria as Neptune (cat. 66; fig. 21), barely wrapped in a sail, originally holding an oar but now a trident.
The Doria portrait was commissioned for the collection of the Lombard prelate Paolo Giovio. Giovio was a physician, a humanist scholar and a career courtier who with varying degrees of success badgered Clement VII (Medici), Paul III (Farnese) and Cosimo I to give him benefices, stipends and financial support for his humanistic projects. He formed what he called his Musaeum (the first time the word was ever used to describe what we now understand as a museum) on land formerly owned by Pliny the Younger. In it he assembled over 500 portraits of illustrious men, good and bad, popes and kings, generals and men of letters (women were not included). The rationale was that ‘through emulation of their example good mortals might be inflamed to seek glory’. What was particularly original was that he insisted that these be ‘true images’, in other words proper ad vivum likenesses. Giovio commissioned the Doria portrait in this exhibition and Cosimo ordered Bronzino’s 1545 portrait of himself in armor as a gift for the museum and got Bronzino and others to make copies of 300 paintings in his collection. Giovio, while assiduous in cultivating Cosimo, was not an official Medici courtier and it was his hope to live out his life surrounded by his collection on the shore of Lake Como.
This exhibition posits a question: who were the collectors of these portraits? Cosimo seems not to have kept the one of him as Orpheus and indeed few of the Medici portraits in this exhibition stayed in the Medici collection. The Medici portraits, including some in this exhibition, were presumably painted by Bronzino and his workshop as diplomatic gifts. This custom went beyond princely largesse. “Portraits of all kinds were central,” Klinger writes “to the gift-giving rituals of introductions, friendships and diplomacy, tokens of respect, allegiance and remembrance.” A fact underlined by Vasari in 1568 “not only the rooms of princes but of those many private citizens are being adorned with portraits of one or another of the illustri, alluding to the patrie, family and affection of each.” The portraits of private sitters were probably kept as ‘personal keepsakes’, to be shared with their social, political and intellectual circles. By the end of the century, when Cosimo’s heir Francesco was Duke of Florence and the original sitters had died, many of these portraits had already started to migrate. A notable collector who took advantage of this trend was Riccardo Riccardi, a wealthy banker, who bought a number of major properties in Florence among them the Palazzo Gualfonda. Riccardi’s collection at his death in 1612 included the Woman with a Lapdog (then thought to be by Pontormo), the Portrait of Francesco Guardi (then thought to be of Cosimo I) by Pontormo, the Walters Portrait of Maria Salviati with Giulia de’ Medici by Pontormo and the Portrait of Cosimo I(?) (fig. 22) by Pontormo which was lent to our Grey Matters exhibition. In addition to these notable portraits were others attributed to Titian, Raphael and Rosso as well as 22 ‘portraits of the Medici House’ and 16 ‘heads of illustrious men’. Riccardi’s descendants would go on to acquire the Palazzo Medici in 1659, decorated with Benozzo Gozzoli’s splendid fresco of the Voyage of the Magi replete with contemporary portraits, historiated in a very different way to those painted for Cosimo by Bronzino.
Bronzino, as Pope-Henessey and others have noted, was the consummate painter of exterior detail as is clear from the first to the last room in this exhibition. Even as a very young artist his impenetrable Portrait of a Woman with a Lapdog hints at what will come in the last room. It is interesting just to focus on details such as the sleeves. Notice how Bronzino captures the iridescent sheen of the silk in the two late portraits, the one in the Getty the painting here correctly returned to Bronzino’s oeuvre (cat. 77; fig. 23) with that of his neighbor Ludovico Capponi (cat. 80) (fig. 24) painted five years later. And compare that to the entirely different approach taken by Pontormo in the Getty Portrait of Francesco Guardi (fig. 25) and the Young Man with a Lute (fig. 26). The fluid, creamy folds of the Getty picture and the billowing pink puffy sleeve in the Alana portrait are almost abstract in their facture.
Cosimo quickly identified Bronzino’s facility for painting a truthful likeness after his work on Eleanora’s chapel in which he had inserted portraits of Medici courtiers. In addition to the exquisitely rendered costumes, Bronzino’s forensic technique perfectly equipped him to paint a range of beards which would not look out of place on a fixed-gear bicycle in Brooklyn. From Cosimo’s wispy curls as a young man to Stefano Colonna’s (cat. 78) exuberant growth, one is struck by this fashion for facial hair which both Bronzino (fig. 27) and Salviati (fig. 28) excelled at painting (Bartolomeo Panciatichi’s swallowtail beard is my personal favorite). This was clearly an international phenomenon as Henry VIII, Francois I and Charles V all proudly sported this emblem of their ‘majesty’ and masculinity. Perhaps the fashion speaks to an Imperial revival. Just as republican Romans were clean-shaven and the emperors were bearded, so perhaps there was a comparable tradition in Florence. The quattrocento leaders of Florence when it was technically still a republic went clean-shaven and even Pontormo and Bronzino’s sitters who are thought to have had republican sympathies, Francesco Guardi (cat. 8), Ugolino Martelli (fig. 29), the Metropolitan’s Young Man (cat. 41) and Carlo Neroni (cat. 43) are all portrayed beardless. They were, of course, all young but perhaps a fresh face was also a signifier of republican politics.
That this remarkable exhibition was brought together in the middle of the pandemic was an extraordinary achievement and a testament both to the generosity of the international art community and the curators’ powers of persuasion. I do have a couple of quibbles. The first is that in the catalogue and the wall notes, politics and ‘poetics’ seem to carry more weight than the formal aesthetic and art-historical qualities of the works themselves. The other has to do with the hang itself. I can well imagine that COVID precautions necessitated the somewhat unappealing spacing of the works, but there were elements in the order itself which surprised me. Given the political slant of the exhibition, it would have seemed more natural to hang the 1530 Allegorical Portrait of Dante commissioned by the stridently anti-Medici Bartolomeo Bettini closer to the republican Portrait of Francesco Guardi which I found curiously isolated in a corner. Perhaps the Vasari Six Tuscan Poets, painted 12 years later, could have taken its place. Likewise, the exceptional Portrait of Laura Battiferri seemed thrown away and perhaps would have hung more happily with the other literary portraits such as that of Lorenzo Lenzi; also, a woman would have been nice on that wall.
The Metropolitan Museum’s and the Frick Collection’s portraits by Bronzino were both brought to the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. At a time when Henry James and Edith Wharton were the leading novelists of the day, this was the high watermark of Eurocentricity in the US. The exhibition, however, addresses a state which looked in on itself. Recently, the director of the National Gallery of Art cancelled a major exhibition of Italian painting at short notice, having earlier said “we want to attract the nation (i.e. the U.S.) and reflect it, too, in our exhibitions, our collections and our digital reach”, a sentiment echoed in the dramatic reduction of European old masters to be displayed at museums such as the Walters in Baltimore and LACMA in Los Angeles. One wonders whether we too are not witnessing a similar moment of insularity in America. But that is another conversation.❖