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Special Exhibition: A Musical Setting for Bronzino

Curator Carmen Bambach talks to composer Bruce Adolphe about how he translated the art and ideas of Agnolo Bronzino—whose drawings are on view in the current exhibition The Drawings of Bronzino—into music.  The world premiere of Adolphe's new piece, Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino (commissioned by Palazzo Strozzi in Florence), will be performed at the Metropolitan Museum on Saturday, March 6, 2010.


Carmen Bambach: I'm Carmen Bambach, curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a co-curator of the exhibition The Drawings of Bronzino, the first exhibition devoted to this great sixteenth-century draftsman, painter, poet, teacher, philosopher that's on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 18. And it presents nearly all the known drawings by this leading Italian Mannerist artist who worked primarily in Florence. Bronzino became famous as a court artist to Duke Cosimo I de' Medici and his beautiful wife, Duchess Eleonora di Toledo. Drawing was for Bronzino a uniquely functional activity, and close-up examination of his studies on paper provides an intimate glimpse into his creative process. The exhibition contains sixty-one drawings from European and North American museums and private collections, many of which have never been on public view.

I'm here with Bruce Adolphe, composer of the new musical work Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino, which will have its world premiere here at the Met in a related concert called "A Tribute to Bronzino" on Saturday, March 6, at 7:00 p.m. Bruce, can you describe the structure of your composition?

Bruce Adolphe: Yes, well, the piece, first of all, is scored for madrigal choir, harpsichord, viola da gamba, and vibraphone. So the vibraphone sticks out a little bit as being the modern instrument. The others are all capable of playing Italian Renaissance music without being anachronistic. And I felt the vibraphone would be important to put in there for some modern color and a little perspective.

The piece is called Dell'arte e delle cipolle: Omaggio al Bronzino (Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino). It's structured in seven movements. Some of them are poems by Bronzino, and two are based on Petrarch, for reasons that I'll explain in a moment. And then there's one movement called "Venus," which is just instrumental. The first movement is called "Salutar Piante," which everybody in the ensemble performs, and this is a sonnet to Laura Battiferri about the death of Luca Martini. And in this poem there are lots of references Bronzino made to Petrarch and Petrarch's style, but also to Laura herself, where he writes a l'aura soave, you know, just as in the Petrarch, "the sweetness of the breeze," but it sounds like the name Laura.

The second one is called "Il mio volto il consuma," and this one is just for women's voices, harpsichord, viola da gamba, and vibraphone. This one is based on, in a sense, one of Bronzino's paintings. It's the portrait of Laura Battiferri, in which she looks nose-wise a little bit like Dante. And she's also holding open some poems of Petrarch. One of the poems is Sonnet 240 of Petrarch. And there are lines in that poem: "What else can this man do? / My face consumes him. / Why is he so desirous and why am I so beautiful?" So I thought, since the painting by Bronzino of Laura Battiferri refers to Petrarch, that I should set the Petrarch here. And it sort of brings a little circle around. And so that one is just women singing that.

Then it moves into a movement which is a madrigal text that Bronzino wrote, and as far as I know, the text has never been set by anybody, which is interesting, because it really is in the madrigal style. And there are so many madrigalists in that time, and I couldn't find any setting of it. And this also mentions Laura—his Laura Battiferri, as opposed to the Laura of Petrarch. And I like the circle of Bronzino painting a poem of a Laura with the Petrarch, which is dedicated to a different Laura, and all of their problems with those women.

Carmen Bambach: And we also know that Bronzino painted portraits of Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio for Bartolommeo Bettini.

Bruce Adolphe: Absolutely. So it really completely comes together with the poetry and the painting of poets, and the painting of the women related to the poets, and Battiferri herself was a poet.

Carmen Bambach: One of the things that I find really quite extraordinary is to reflect a little bit about the background of Bronzino. I mean, he is born the son of a butcher, and the process of self-education must have been enormous—through his friends, through his acquaintances, through his apprenticeship with Pontormo. And to imagine that he rises to become one of the most exquisite poets is really quite extraordinary, to think about the intellectual refinement that clearly was part of what is essentially an autodidactic process, a process of self-education. And it is very interesting to reflect also on the status of the artist at this time, which is still mainly that of a craftsman. So this whole intellectual dimension is something that's a very hard-won battle for an Italian Renaissance artist. One also thinks of Michelangelo's being one of the great painter-poets, and in fact madrigalists. So there are certain precedents, but Bronzino is really quite accomplished.

Bruce Adolphe: You think it's possible that his growing up the son of a butcher gave him some of the humor and the bawdiness that he brought into his poetry?

Carmen Bambach: Probably. There is that element of popular culture, which we tend to underestimate greatly. And we also tend to underestimate the oral traditions, the storytelling. I mean, when one reads the diary of Pontormo, which he wrote when he was working on the San Lorenzo frescoes, he talks a lot about Bronzino coming to supper. And they discuss what they eat and the diary also tells them, "And today we argued about Dante and Petrarch." So it's an extraordinary sort of document, an insight into this private world of friendship, but also intellectual discourse. And some of those elements are also really quite bawdy, which clearly comes through in Bronzino's poetry.

Bruce Adolphe: He might have been thinking of more than one audience. I mean, not just the audience that normally reads poetry, but perhaps of some butchers and other people who might get their hands on this poetry.

The middle movement of the seven, the fourth movement, is called "Venus," and it's just instruments. I felt I had to use Venus even though there was no poem that I could find exactly. And it's such an iconic figure for people who—even who first encounter Bronzino, it's usually through Venus.

And the fifth poem is a serious poem, but it seems almost funny today because it's called "Deh, no, Musa." And it's from a larger poem called "On Being Famous." And in this particular stanza, he is lamenting the state of painting. I just find that extraordinary that he was upset with how painting seems to be going downhill.

Carmen Bambach: But isn't this also a universal theme—artists perennially moaning how their art is in decline? I think there is also a little bit of the fatalism in the poetry of the time, when one thinks of Petrarch's triumphs and the fact that fame perishes to death and even finally the memory of the artist or the poet is gone.

Bruce Adolphe: I'm glad you mention that, because—in a moment—that's how I end the entire thing.

The movement that follows "Deh, no, Musa" is "La Cipolla"—"The Onion." And "The Onion" is a very large, funny poem by Bronzino. And I had a hard time figuring out what to set from it but I finally chose, with the help of some people in Florence who were pushing me in this direction, because they are basing their catalogue on the concept of an onion, apparently.

Carmen Bambach: As one peels layers of the onion and reveals the core?

Bruce Adolphe: I ended up using the sections of "La Cipolla" that are about poetry and painting as compared to an onion, which is very funny coming from somebody like this. And of course, being the son of a butcher, there are probably onions everywhere, in his childhood.

And then the last movement relates to what you were just saying about fame disappearing. I went back to Petrarch because I just found a line that was the perfect line to end this. Because right after "La Cipolla," which is very funny, I felt it needed something quiet and serious and reflective. And it also helps remind the audience how far back in time this is. So I took this one line: "Che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno"—"Whatever pleases the world is a brief dream." And it ends with a canon of the voices moving as canons do—they're imitating each other at different distances of intervals, and of different distances in time, until it all comes together, saying that it's a brief dream. And that's the structure of the whole piece.

Carmen Bambach: Fantastic. Is your piece attempting to evoke a mood and set the stage for us to understand the works of this artist in very specific ways, or is this about a larger philosophical aesthetic and musical reflection on the artist? Can you elaborate, please?

Bruce Adolphe: Well, I took poems of Bronzino as my guide first. And since I'm setting poetry in each movement, the poetry determines a great deal about the mood. So I was careful to select a wide range of Bronzino's personality here. The sonnet to Laura Battiferri, which is kind of elevated and elegant and in the manner of Petrarch to a certain extent. And also something as funny as "La Cipolla," where he is on display as a comedian and his use of language is extremely funny. And I had to bear in mind that the performance here is for an English-speaking audience. So I did avoid certain kinds of poetry. The kinds of bawdy puns that even to Italians apparently are difficult to understand because it's Renaissance Italian—I decided to leave the really arcane aspect of his poetry aside and deal with obvious humor, funny comparisons between onions and paintings, that sort of thing. And also I wanted to show his serious, almost angry side in "Deh, no, Musa," where he's really quite upset about the state of painting. And I thought that was musically a good choice for me, because we have the seriousness, we have the comedy. And then he's angry and he is also despairing there.

Carmen Bambach: Were the aesthetic rhythms of his language of significance to you as well?

Bruce Adolphe: Yes. In fact, I needed some help with that, because I don't go about speaking Renaissance Italian normally. So I had quite a bit of help. I had several scholars in Florence and also in Toronto and in North Carolina and in New York, and they all had things to tell me about the poetry. But I also recorded a native Italian speaker reading all the poetry. And I had that recording playing all the time while I was working on it, so that I could really understand the details and the subtleties and the nuances of the way this language is spoken properly.

As far as reflecting Renaissance Italian music, now that's an area that I do know extremely well. I taught a class at Yale in 1984 on [Carlo] Gesualdo and it involved Monteverdi, etc. And I let some of that sound world kind of haunt the serious passages of the piece. In other words, I didn't want to do an imitation of that and I didn't want to write in a style that is not mine. But I did think it was important for the meaning of this piece to bring in some aspect of both Renaissance counterpoint and Renaissance harmonic movement. So in certain places it does appear—and one place it's quite clear is when the women in the second movement ask "Why am I so beautiful?"—the Petrarch line. I thought that would be a good spot to use some almost Renaissance Italian music. Because it just seemed—that music is beautiful, it gave it a kind of irony that I enjoyed.

The instruments I decided to use were picked for several reasons. One is that it makes it possible to have an entire concert of Renaissance Italian music with this piece in there. Otherwise it would be a rather difficult thing to program in an appropriate manner. So the harpsichord, the viola da gamba, and the madrigal choir could perform Monteverdi and Gesualdo and [Cipriano de] Rore and Luca Marenzio, and anybody else from that period. The vibraphone wouldn't fit in at all. But you know, one of the things that happened in Italian Renaissance music was there would often be lutes and other stringed instruments and keyboard instruments, especially as the time went on, mixed together in a free-flowing, improvisatory kind of continuum. And the vibraphone, had it been invented then, would have fit in beautifully with the lute and the harpsichord and the guitar, because it's very delicate, it's very bell-like, and it is a keyboard, too. So the harpsichord and the vibraphone, I think, is a beautiful combination and I'm looking forward to it very much.

Carmen Bambach: One of the things that I have found really striking about Bronzino's drawings and sort of thinking about the drawings as part of a continuum with his poetry, the two types of activity of his on paper, is this extraordinary attention to craftsmanship—the beautiful finish, the beautifully and seamlessly integrated thought, but worked out carefully, say, in the poetry in terms of rhythms, in terms of rhymes. And it is very interesting to see this perfectionism in his work. And I wonder whether some of this also can be translated into music in some way.

Bruce Adolphe: Well, it's a tall order to strive for perfection. But it is not unreasonable to expect a piece of music to have great attention to detail and to structure and rhythm, etc. And my way of composing is very involved with detail. There's no improvisation in the piece and everything stems from the rhythm of the text and the meaning of the text. Except for where there is no text, in "Venus." And it's very contrapuntal music, which not only reflects the Renaissance, but also allows for textures of great clarity and detail and lots of nuance.

Carmen Bambach: Very Bronzinesque, in fact.

Bruce Adolphe: Well, I suppose. I mean, I think when somebody is a craftsman, it's very appealing to me. And I do often bring into my music techniques that have come from different centuries, whenever they seem appropriate to expressing a particular thought. So the fact that this needs to have a Renaissance feel is something I was very familiar with. I love the idea of craft, because it's craft that sets you free emotionally. It's the skill to find the technique that allows you to express yourself that matters.

Carmen Bambach: What is really interesting is to look at his paintings and see these perfect surfaces. And then when one investigates them with, say, infrared reflectography or X-radiograph, you see there is a tremendous creative process and actually changes of design that occur underneath the surface. So it all seems in the end flawlessly perfect. But there is an extraordinary creative energy that attends this process, which we see in the drawings on paper and also underneath on the panel surfaces underneath the paintings.

Bruce Adolphe: The X-rays you mention are—that's an amazing technique. And I noticed in your book the X-ray of [Study for] Jealousy, the head. That's an amazing thing to be able to see. It's a lot like the fact that we have Beethoven's sketchbooks, so we can see that the things that sound the most spontaneous and lyrical are the things that he actually rewrote many, many, many times and crossed out and struggled with. And with Bronzino especially, in your book, you can see how that happens and the drawings do illuminate that. It's really very interesting.

You know, I used to write by hand like most composers, but now I use a computer. And I began to wonder about the fact that many of the so-called sketches disappear when you work on a computer. But now that's not true, because the programs now have a thing called versions attached to it, so that all the versions are being saved. So if you wanted to go back and look at what you originally thought, you can. I guess somebody realized that this was a serious problem.

Carmen Bambach: Were it be possible for Bronzino to come down from heaven smiling at us at this occasion of the exhibition, what would you hope that he could take away in listening to your piece? What would be the things that you would want him most to appreciate about what you've done?

Bruce Adolphe: Since that's a fantastical question, I would like him to want to stick around for a while, because maybe he's interested in modern music. But I would like—obviously it would be great if he said that he recognized his personality in the music in some way. I noticed, reading your book that goes with the exhibition, that assessments of his personality have changed drastically over the years. And so it would be great to have him come down, if he could get through all those cupids and cherubs on his way, and spend some time here and we'd find out what his personality really is like. I tried to find and put into the music and my choice of text as much of his personality as possible, from the refined to the bawdy to the comic to the reflective to the angry. So hopefully he's in there somewhere.

Carmen Bambach: Bruce, could you play a little passage from the piece?

Bruce Adolphe: I'd like to play two excerpts, and bear in mind I will be playing them on the piano and there is no piano in the piece, and I will be representing, in some cases, voices, vibraphone, harpsichord, and da gamba. So I'm just going to give a little feel. First, I'd like to play a little bit of "Venus," which is a movement that has no text. I felt that in trying to musicalize the idea of Venus from Bronzino's paintings, I wanted to get two things: one was the sensuality and the earthiness of it, but the other was the playfulness and maybe the opposite of the earthiness, which is the smoothness of it. So those are two hard things to do. But I'll play a little bit of music from that.

[plays piano]

Bruce Adolphe: The next passage is from the last movement, "Che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno," which is Petrarch: "Whatever pleases the world is a brief dream." And I'll just play a little bit of it to give a feeling of the mysterious, the sadness, the intelligence, and the wisdom of it. And I think the intelligence can be captured to a certain extent by the canonic writing, the feeling of it being worked out in detail.

[plays piano]

Carmen Bambach: Thank you, Bruce. We'll look forward to hearing your musical homage to Bronzino in its world-premiere performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 6.

Bruce Adolphe: Thank you, Carmen.

Carmen Bambach: Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino is a co-production with the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, Florence, and the Learning Maestros, New York. Its world-premiere performance by the Antioch Chamber Ensemble will take place at the Metropolitan Museum on Saturday, March 6, 2010, at 7:00 p.m. The program will also include music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

Palazzo Strozzi in Florence will present an exhibition of Bronzino's paintings this fall, 2010.

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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