Portrait of a Dwarf Morgante
In this two-sided portrait, an obese male dwarf name Morgante is represented nude, and in a dark outdoor setting (with brown earth below, and a black-grey rock face behind the subject) on both sides of the work. On the front side of the canvas, the subject is shown frontally; preparing for the uccellagione (hunting with owls for smaller birds like larks and quails). He is shown with a hunting owl perched on his outstretched right hand; one swallowtail butterfly fluttering near his right knee; a second butterfly covering his genitals, while another bird swoops in at the upper right. On the back of the canvas, Morgante is depicted after the hunt, with his owl perched on his shoulder. On this reverse image, he holds a cluster of dead birds in his right hand, and is turning his head to look back at the viewer who has a full view of his naked backside. Several other artists (including sculptors Valerio Cigoli and Giambologna) created artworks with this same person as the subject, and in all cases, he is presented nude, in a parodic, mockingly heroic pose.
The subject of this portrait is Braccio di Bartolo, better known as Nano (dwarf) Morgante. It was common in sixteenth-century Europe for courts to be in possession of dwarves who served as entertainers who suffered humiliation and physical violence. For instance, courtiers were able to enjoy the spectacle of fights, in which a nude Morgante was pitted against a monkey. Art historian Robin O'Bryan notes that Morgante was special not only because he was a dwarf, and Cosimo's favourite, but also because his obesity "would have made him stand out in an age when food shortages [...] led to famine and death by starvation".
This portrait is unique, in that both sides of the canvas were painted, forming a portrait that offers multiple viewpoints of the same subject. With this "double portrait", Bronzino demonstrated that, not only can painting present multiple viewpoints simultaneously, like sculpture, it can also go one step further by presenting different temporal periods simultaneously (as we see Morgante, on the front, full of vim before the hunt, and on the back, after the hunt, shown tired and wearied through the appearance of a beard, sagging jowls, and wrinkled brow).
O'Bryan argues that several elements of the painting serve to mock Morgante's stature and the supposed "savage nature" of the dwarf (such as the inclusion of the civetta nana (pygmy owl) on Morgante's shoulder and the dirty, rugged, outdoor setting). Several scholars, including O'Bryan, have also noted that readings of this portrait can be enhanced by understanding the type of burlesque poetry and capitoli (both of which employed many double entendres and obscene sexual connotations) written by Bronzino. For instance, in this type of poetry, butterflies commonly connoted the phallus, which is reinforced in this portrait by the butterflies fluttering in front of Morgante's pubic region.
Oil on canvas - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Tuscany, Italy