Cosimo, backed by Spain, was created Grand Duke in 1537, and in opposition to the republican ideals of Florence instituted a benign autocracy whose authoritarian character is often seen as reflected in the cool formality of Bronzino’s portraits. However, the artist was far more than a portrait specialist and achieved equal renown through his religious and mythological paintings.
Bronzino was the favorite pupil of Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557), who along with Rosso Fiorentino (1495–1540) was the leading exponent of early Florentine Mannerism. These artists deconstructed the classical perfection of Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530) in favor of a more eccentric, emotionally intense, and occasionally hallucinatory style. In portraiture, Bronzino’s best known works are of Cosimo and his wife Eleanora of Toledo and courtiers like Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia. The latter especially are characterized by an air of the highest elegance and fashion. However, a recently discovered Crucifixion which they owned, according to the biographer Giorgio Vasari was painted up from a recently dead corpse. This proves to be disconcertingly the case when confronted by it and increases awareness of the tensions and uncertainties of life lurking beneath the polished surfaces not only of Bronzino but of high society in general. It is this which lifts Bronzino beyond his reputation of a chilly Mannerist to the level of his master Pontormo and was the principle revelation of the memorable Bronzino exhibition in Florence in 2010–11.
The most celebrated of Bronzino’s mythological paintings is the Allegory of Love in the National Gallery, London. Here a highly self-conscious artificiality is deployed to excite and spice up the theme of sensuality threatened by the pitfalls of lust, raising it far beyond a mere lesson in morality. Among, the most beautiful of his religious paintings is a Holy Family also owned by the Panciatichi family, where the head of the Madonna shows a keen admiration for the female portrait busts of antiquity and in typically renaissance fashion seamlessly fuses the pagan and the Christian. Like most Italian artists Bronzino worked in fresco, most successfully in the packed narrative of the restricted space of the Chapel of Eleanora of Toledo in the Palazzo Vecchio, less so in his late Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in the eponymous church of San Lorenzo where the Michelangelesque athleticism of the figures swamps the subject. It was this kind of indiscriminate virtuosity that the next generation of Florentine artists, influenced by the Counter-Reformation, sought to modify in favor of greater clarity and realism.
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Books on Bronzino
Liana Cheney, ed., Agnolo Bronzino: The Muse of Florence, Washington D.C., 2014.
Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali, eds., Bronzino: Pittore e Poeta alla Corte dei Medici, Florence, 2010.
Charles MacCorquodale, Bronzino, London, 2005.
Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artist, 1550, trans. Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, New York, 2009.