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Special Exhibition: The Drawings of Bronzino

Curator Carmen Bambach discusses the life and work of the painter, draftsman, teacher, and poet Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503–1572) on the occasion of the first exhibition ever devoted to him.


Carmen Bambach: I'm Carmen Bambach, curator of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Drawings of Bronzino, the first exhibition ever dedicated to Agnolo Bronzino (born in 1503 and died in 1572), brings together nearly all of the sixty-one known drawings by the great Florentine court artist of the Medici. The exhibition features drawings of extraordinary beauty and rarity, which are seldom on public view, and draws loans from major museums and private collections within Europe and North America, including the Galleria degli Uffizi, Musée du Louvre, British Museum, Royal Library of Windsor Castle, Ashmolean Museum, Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden, and Staatliche Museen Berlin.

Bronzino was the son of a butcher. He was born in 1503 in Monticelli, near Florence. He died in 1572. He is really one of the most extraordinary artists of the sixteenth century. He spent most of his career in Florence, and he's especially well known for his portraits of the Medici family.

Bronzino is one of the main representatives of Mannerism in Italy, and especially in Florence. Being a poet, his literary sensibilities often profoundly inform his paintings, his compositions, full of allegorical meaning. Bronzino was an artist who prized the craftsmanship of drawing, the craftsmanship of painting.

The high point of Bronzino's career as a court artist to the Medici unfolds in the 1540s and 1550s, doing the Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo frescoes, the altarpiece, and also designing a magnificent and little-known series of tapestries. The drawings—the preparatory drawings—for the Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo are gathered for the first time in the exhibition. And we also understand Bronzino's great strengths as a designer of tapestries from the drawings that are presented in the exhibition, also for the first time ever.

As is true of Bronzino, you don't go from being the son of a butcher to the court artist of the Medici without having undergone quite a process. First of all, we should remember that the way in which artists were educated was to be trained as apprentices in a master's workshop. In the case of Bronzino, he was apprenticed at a very young age in the workshop of Pontormo. The other thing we should say is that the process of education—intellectual education—in the case of Bronzino must have taken place pretty much as an autodidactic process, that is, that he was very much self-taught, because he rises to become a poet of extraordinarily elegant sensibilities. And he is able to also integrate an extraordinary level of allegorical meaning in his poetry and of course into his paintings. So, in other words, he becomes a very intellectual painter, and in this way, one can see that he appeals very much to the learned sensibilities of the Medici court, particularly the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo and her husband, Cosimo Primo de' Medici, duke of Florence.

One of the marvelous opportunities furnished by a monographic exhibition dedicated to this single artist, Bronzino, is the ability to be able to tell the story of his life through his works. It is extraordinary that on one side we know his activity as court artist, and perhaps much more touching is also the personal aspect of this relationship, particularly of Bronzino to the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, the beautiful daughter of the Viceroy of Naples. It is amazing to think that Eleonora was really his strongest supporter, that when the Duchess Eleonora falls ill and then dies finally, in 1562, that Bronzino loses the main supporter of his work as court artist.

This bit of biographical detail helps us also understand the rise and perhaps the twilight of Bronzino's career as a court artist to the Medici. At the same time, Duke Cosimo de' Medici began to prefer the work of Giorgio Vasari, Bronzino's main competitor. And Giorgio Vasari, who was really very given to grandiloquent ways of painting compositions—and he was a very efficient artist who delivered great quantities of paintings in very little time, as he used many assistants—that Vasari becomes basically the replacement for Bronzino; Bronzino, who was, quite in contrast, someone very committed to the craftsmanship of his paintings and drawings, and therefore was a slower artist and relied much less on the help of assistants.

Giorgio Vasari wrote The Lives of the Most Eminent Artists and it is important to realize that Vasari is not only Bronzino's great rival in the eyes of the Medici—that is, Cosimo and Eleonora—but that Vasari, in a way, by writing the biography he did of Bronzino, that he sealed the way in which his fate, the way that he would be perceived by later generations. Vasari completely undervalued the activity of Bronzino as a poet, saying he dabbled in poetry and got distracted, essentially. And Vasari also completely minimized Bronzino's work as a tapestry designer for Duke Cosimo in the series of the story of Joseph. And what we come away with is the fact that Bronzino was extremely underestimated.

We must also think a little bit that at the time that historians of art were forming their opinions as to who was important in the sixteenth century in Italian art, that Bronzino and Mannerism were in general not considered very highly, that Bronzino's interest in the balletic form of the body, Bronzino's extraordinarily complex compositions, his level of allegorical content, of symbolic meaning—all these were elements that kind of militated against the taste of the earlier twentieth century, which is when this history of art is being written.

And now, making it even more difficult, we should say that in the early twentieth century, when all this very important history of art is being written, that the scientific knowledge, the historical understanding of Bronzino's work, was also not very advanced and in fact is really very faulty. If we consider the writings of Bernard Berenson, the great connoisseur of Italian art—of all the drawings that he attributed to Bronzino, only eight drawings stand up in his evaluations out of the possible sixty that are presented in the exhibition. And so, Bronzino's reputation has very much suffered as a consequence of this.

Since that time in the early twentieth century we have acquired a much more nuanced understanding of an artist's painting techniques, drawing techniques, the purposes for which they produced drawings, the way—the dynamics in the artist's workshop. We have also a much more refined understanding of the documentary evidence—that is, all the payment documents that have been discovered in the State Archives in Florence regarding the various projects for which Bronzino was employed. And this, of course, helps us build a chronology. And all this leads to a much more sensitive understanding of the artist's work.

Our tendency as historians today is also much more about interrogating the work of art, asking what was it made for, comparing it to other very similar drawings, and trying to think about purpose, trying to think about the ultimate intention of the artist. We must remember that, for Bronzino, drawing was a deeply functional activity, and so he always drew with a purpose in mind. And therefore sometimes not every drawing that he produces is beautiful as an end in and of itself but rather is meant to advance a purpose, therefore explore a further idea for a design.

We hope that viewers of the exhibition will look very closely at the drawings, admire a bit the process, relish the beauty of the drawings, but at the same time remember that we're looking at works by an artist who belongs in another time, so it's important to remember how functional drawing was as an activity for this artist. And so that we are, on the one hand, able to enjoy the beauty of what he produces, but, on the other hand, concede him space enough to see that he was producing drawings for his own purposes and toward other ends.

The Drawings of Bronzino is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from January 20 through April 18, 2010.

The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi and the Polo Museale Fiorentino, Florence.

The exhibition is made possible by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund.

Additional support is provided by Dinah Seiver and Thomas E. Foster.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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