Progression of Art
Portrait of Guidobaldo della Rovere
This milestone portrait was painted by Bronzino during his two-year stay at the Della Rovere court. As art historian Heather L. Sale Holian noted, Bronzino's time in Pesaro was a "pivotal event" in his career "and in the larger history of Florentine portraiture". It was while at the court that Bronzino first encountered the influential 1528 publication Il Cortegiano by Italian courtier and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione. Il Cortegiano outlined the attributes, manners, and behaviors of the ideal courtier or court lady.
While at the Della Rovere Bronzino not only had the opportunity to study Il Cortegiano, he was also able to observe at close quarters the way in which said courtly precepts were implemented by courtiers. He then sought to translate these ideals and etiquettes into the visual language of court portraiture (as evidenced here in the Portrait of Guidobaldo della Rovere).
For instance, Il Cortegiano advises that courtiers should be "knowledgeable in both arms and letters". On the helmet of Bronzino's subject for this portrait, we see an emblem inscribed with Greek letters, which indicates an interest and knowledge of the classics, while, as Holian further asserts, the "fine suit of meticulously rendered Milanese armor implies his 'valor' in military feats, and in turn, alludes to the profession of an ideal courtier". Similarly, Bronzino has included a regal grey dog to the side of the subject, which alludes to the man's interest in hunting, which Castiglione promoted as a commendable pastime for courtiers. Moreover, two of the most important qualities described in Il Cortegiano were grazia (grace) and sprezzatura ("a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless"). Bronzino translates these attributes into the trademark "aloof" expressions he paints onto all of his portrait subjects.
Oil on panel - Palazzo Pitti
The Crossing of the Red Sea
This fresco, one of four, was commissioned by Cosimo I de' Medici and his wife, Eleanor of Toledo, to adorn the walls of Eleonor's private chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Three of the four chapel walls painted by Bronzino depict the story of Moses. The fresco The Crossing of the Red Sea is found on the south wall of the chapel. Art historian Liana De Girolami Cheney has speculated that "perhaps this painting constitutes the best expression of Bronzino's Maniera [Mannerism] style in its combination of sensuality and capriciousness".
The fresco includes multiple biblical scenes. The figures at the center and left of the foreground represent the Hebrews preparing for exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:33-39), while those in the background represent the Hebrews having safely crossed the Red Sea. The figure in blue in the background, Moses, is gesturing for the waters to return to normal and, in the process, drown the Egyptians who are pursuing the Hebrews (Exodus 14:21-29). An aged Moses appears again in the right-hand foreground, with a brown robe, grey beard, and two rays of light radiating from his head, placing his hand on Joshua and instructing him to take over as his successor, to lead the Israelites to the promised land (Numbers 27:12-23).
The topless male figure at the left of the foreground, who is awkwardly contorted and grasping the wrist of the seated female, is posed with his hip thrust outward in an exaggerated fashion, and one arm raised upward, which are typical elements of Mannerist positioning. In fact, the standing, topless male figure's pose is believed to have been inspired by the Idolino, a Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue discovered in an excavation of Pesaro in 1530, where Bronzino happened to be working at the time. Also, the male figure in the center who is leaning against a rock is shown with one leg crossed behind the other. It was a pose frequently used by Bronzino and ranks thus as something of an authorial motif.
Concealed within the fresco, meanwhile, are several references to the Medici's dynastic and political aims. For instance, Moses here represents Cosimo I de' Medici who aimed to lead his people to glory. This connection is boldly reinforced by the red Egyptian banner at the left of the background which shows a partial coat of arms of the Strozzi family. This feature alludes to the Battle of Montemurlo in 1537 at which the Cosimo defeated their fierce rivals (the Strozzi's). Additionally Moses' nomination of Joshua as the Hebrews' future leader in the foreground, combined with the presence of the pregnant and nursing women in the image, alludes to the birth of Cosimo I's son Fernando, who was heir apparent to the ducal state.
Art historian Deborah Parker notes that these frescos "demonstrate Bronzino's masterful use of colour, his handling of 'ombre' and 'lumi' - shadows and light to create relief. The jewel-like palette is ravishing: Bronzino used intermediate hues such as violet, ultramarine, coral, soft yellows, a wide range of greens rather than the more common saturated red and blue seen, for example, in Raphael's paintings. the combination of colours in applications of cangiatismo (or colour changes in which two colours are juxtaposed) is no less striking [...] This ornamental use of colour exemplifies the decorative artificiality of Maniera painting".
Fresco - Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Tuscany, Italy
Eleanor of Toledo
The seated woman in this portrait is Eleonor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de' Medici. Based on the date of the painting, it is generally assumed that the young boy standing by her side is the couple's middle son, Giovanni, who was born in 1543 and died of malaria in 1562. The pomegranate motif on Eleonor's ornate silk dress symbolizes motherhood. This underscored Eleonor's prime function in the Medici dynasty, which was to provide offspring. Prior to her passing on December 17, 1562 (due to tuberculosis) she bore eight children.
This portrait is one of a set of two, the other presenting Cosimo I as a confident ruler, while the portrait of mother and son was meant to demonstrate the wealth and dignity of the family. At this time, it was of utmost importance to the Medici family to strengthen, solidify, and legitimize their position as competent and unvanquishable leaders, particularly following the 1537 murders of a number of senior members of the family by their political rivals.
Several aspects of this painting are typical of Mannerist portraiture, such as the reserved, unemotional expressions on the sitters' faces, and the lavish elegance and inclusion of highly decorative elements (such as the dress, which dominates the frame). Art historian Deborah Parker suggests that "we are encouraged to read the garment itself as Eleonora, as an ostentatious symbol of her power and station." Recent archaeological excavation of Eleonor's tomb uncovered fragments of this same dress.
Oil on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Portrait of Bia de' Medici
The young girl depicted in this portrait was Bianca (or Bia) de' Medici, who was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici. Bia was born in 1536, prior to Cosimo's marriage to Eleonor of Toledo in 1539. In 1560, Simone Fortuna (Francesco Maria II della Rovere's ambassador to Tuscany) wrote that Cosimo "in his first years as duke, had, by a noblewoman of Florence, a girl who was baptised in the name of His Illustrious Excellence, and called Bia. And the Lady Duchess [Eleonora], finding her in her home, was raising the girl lovingly, as she was born to her husband before she became his wife".
The white color of Bia's dress alludes both to her purity, and to her name (Bianca) while the lavish jewelry (pendant earrings, necklaces, and a chain belt) demonstrate her high social rank. The medallion on the long chain around her neck, meanwhile, shows the profile of her father Cosimo, as depicted in a portrait by Pontormo (which now resides in the Palatine Gallery at the Palazzo Pitti).
Bia grew up in the household as a most beloved member of the family. She spent a great deal of time with her grandmother, Maria Salviati, who was reported to be particularly fond of her. Tragically, in January 1542, when she was just five years old, Bia fell ill, and passed away a few weeks later. Devastated, the duke had a plaster funeral mask cast of Bia, and it has been posited that, rather than painting the girl when she was alive, Bronzino likely modelled the portrait on the funeral mask.
Considering that Bronzino may not have had the opportunity to paint this portrait from a living model, it is remarkable that he was able to imbue Bia's image with such a sense of vivacity. This is seen in her slightly bemused facial expression, her position (she seems as if ready to leap to her feet and run off to play at any moment), and the way in which she appears to fidget with the belt in her right hand.
Oil on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid
In this painting, the central figure of a nude Venus sits in a contorted serpentine position (typical of Mannerist painting), grasping a golden apple in her left hand, and an arrow in her right. A nude Cupid (Venus' son from an adulterous affair with Mars), is positioned in similar serpentine position slightly behind Venus, forcefully grasping her left breast with his right hand, and clutching the back of her head with his left hand, while kissing her lips. Both Cupid and Venus are painted with alabaster-white skin. At the bottom-left corner of the image, behind Venus' feet, sit two masks, which resemble the traditional theatrical masks of Comedy and Tragedy.
The significance of the various figures in this mysterious painting has been much debated. In the first place, it is perturbing that Cupid (representing Desire) and his mother Venus (the Goddess of Love) are presented here as lovers, wrapped in an incestuous erotic embrace. The figure at the left, tearing at his own hair, is generally understood to be Jealousy, while the putto is understood as Folly, and the old man as Time (reinforced by the hourglass just above him). The chimera is another troubling element given that it usually symbolized Pleasure and Fraud.
As arts writer Roderick Conway Morris asserts, Bronzino was "the master of the mannerist erotic scene," best exemplified by this painting, which Conway Morris describes as "cool, stylish and at the same time boldly sensual, the daring, serpentine poses inviting the eye to trace and savor the alluring curves and dimples of the embracing couple, the alabaster whiteness of their flesh highlighting the fevered flush of their cheeks".
The overall meaning of this allegorical painting continues to be hotly debated, however. Art historian Charles McCorquodale has argued that "If any single work of art can be said to crystallise the urbanity, luxury, elegantly-displayed erudition and even the cruelty of the Italian mid-sixteenth century it must surely be Bronzino's Allegory of Venus and Cupid". Meanwhile, whereas some scholars view the work as "an allegory of lechery or luxury" Art historian Michael Levey views it instead a celebration of "the erotic power of Venus", observing that "Venus conquers Cupid by sweetness, not force [...] and her doing so is the picture's subject".
Oil on wood - National Gallery, London, United Kingdom
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