Bronzino

Official painter of the Medici court, Bronzino is among the most delicate and appreciated artists of Florentine Mannerism. Through his paintings, the elegance and sophistication of the Grand Duchy is shown throughout Europe, laying the foundations of modern portraiture in Italy.

Origins and training

Agnolo Tori di Mariano was born in Monticelli, near Florence, in the year 1503. The nickname by which he is known today, “il Bronzino“, is perhaps due to the color of his hats which resembled that of bronze. The painter spends practically all of his life in Florence. It is here that he forms, works and dies. Son of a butcher, therefore a member of the very small city bourgeoisie, from an early age he devoted himself to the study of painting.

His first training took place in the workshop of Raffaellino del Garbo, a painter heir to the fifteenth-century tradition of Filippo Lippi and Ghirlandaio. At the age of just 15, he became an apprentice of Pontormo, a painter at the time already established, who was entrusted with important assignments in Medici Florence. From the apprenticeship, they soon move on to an active collaborative relationship, becoming a close friend of his master over the years. With him, Bronzino worked on the frescoes in the Capponi chapel in the church of Santa Felicita between 1524 and 1525, painting the four medallions at the corners of the architectural structure designed by Brunelleschi. It is with this work that he is officially presented to the eyes of major clients who soon begin to entrust him with numerous works.

The return of the Medici

In 1530 the Florentine Republic fell. In a climate of uncertainty and fear, the Medici manage to return to Florence with the help of the troops of Emperor Charles V, launching an intense campaign of patronage. Among all, the greatest promoter of art and culture in the Duchy of Florence, later extended to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, was the new sovereign Cosimo I, who made use of the support of the artist at that time, as well as the first historian of the art, Giorgio Vasari to build a refined and appreciable image of his court on an international level. Within this context, Bronzino managed to break away from the master Pontormo, and became, among others, the official portraitist of the Medici family.

For Cosimo I, a lover of myths and enigmas, the painter created many frescoes and paintings with a pagan theme, painting the figures intent on impossible twists and loading each work with deep hidden meanings. His style – later defined as Mannerism – is characterized by allegorical subjects that are difficult to interpret, sometimes unnatural colors and pictorial whims, as in the spectacular Allegory of the Triumph of Venus (1540-1545), now in the National Gallery in London.

Bronzino’s paintings, however, transfigure this approach and decline it, especially in the portraits of the Medici family, bringing it closer to reality. The influences of Michelangelo and Raphael are evident in the faces and in the choice of colours. In fact, “painting in the manner of” Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael is precisely the characteristic of early Mannerism.

From the 1940s his obsession with the crystallization of reality began to develop, almost wanting to make it immobile in a hyper-realistic way, which we notice especially from his portraits, the most famous of which Bronzino created for the Medici family. Some famous examples are those of Bia de’ Medici (about 1542), of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni (about 1544-1545), of Cosimo I de’ Medici in armor and that of Maria de’ Medici (1551), all preserved today in the Uffizi Gallery.

Eleonora di Toledo col figlio Giovanni, 1544-1545 c.
Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, 1544-1545 c.

The attention to detail is visible in the clothes of his subjects and in the accessories they wear. In particular, the care that the painter dedicates to the jewels of the ladies he depicts is famous. Precision, attention to detail and the naturalistic rendering of the subjects’ faces seem to be so fundamental for him that in the case of the Portrait of Bia de’ Medici he created the posthumous portrait based on the plaster death mask of the little girl who died at the age of 5. Documents of the time tell us that little Bianca – from whom Bia – was the “natural daughter of Duke” Cosimo I born before his marriage to Eleonora di Toledo. Despite this, however, it seems that the Grand Duchess took care of and raised her with a lot of love, just as if she were her own daughter. Unfortunately, the little girl suddenly fell ill when she was only 5 years old and died within a few weeks. The posthumous portrait would therefore be a tribute wanted by the grieving duke for his beloved daughter.

The great fortune that the artist enjoyed in these years is probably due to his style which goes well with the ideals of the restored Medici dynasty and the objectives of the Grand Duke: definition and stylization of social, intellectual and psychological identities associated with the celebration of absolutism monarchy and court protocol.

Involved by Giorgio Vasari in the artistic debate known as the “Paragone“, in which painting and sculpture were juxtaposed, Bronzino created a work that caused a stir but which also generated a lot of astonishment: the Double Portrait of Nano Morgante (1553), now kept in the Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti. This work depicts Cosimo I’s court dwarf, Braccio di Bartolo, completely naked. The peculiarity of the work, with which Bronzino wanted to reaffirm his thesis of the superiority of painting, is that it is a double-sided painting on canvas. by showing two sides of the same subject at the same time, the artist silences the critics who saw his major limit in the two-dimensionality of painting.

Doppio del Nano Morgante, retro, 1553
Double Portrait of Nano Morgante, front, 1553
Doppio del Nano Morgante, retro, 1553
Double Portrait of Nano Morgante, back, 1553

Bronzino now works almost exclusively for the Medici and his talent is recognised. In the 1940s he was commissioned to modernize Palazzo Vecchio by decorating the private chapel of the Grand Duchess Eleonora di Toledo with frescoes, altarpieces and canvases. The central one with the Deposition of Christ was immediately so appreciated for its delicacy, realistic rendering of the characters and strong emotional charge that the chancellor of Emperor Charles V on a visit to Florence, upon seeing it, was struck by it. As the good politician and diplomat he is, Cosimo I decides to give him a gift and subsequently asks Bronzino to make an identical copy, still present in the chapel today. On the right side of the panel, Bronzino enters the scene together with his master Pontormo (the older man) and his pupil, Alessandro Allori (the younger).

The last years

Bronzino continued to work for the Medici throughout his adult life and, on the death of the master Pontormo, he finished the work left unfinished by him. Over the years he became a reference figure for the city’s cultural panorama, so much so that in 1563 he founded the Academy of Drawing in Florence, an important artistic institution that had already been commissioned by Michelangelo.

It was November 23, 1572 when he died at the age of 69 in the house of his favorite pupil Alessandro Allori, with whom he had already lived for some time. His epitaph was written by Allori and reads as follows: «He who lives with Bronzino lived does not die: | The soul is in heaven, here are the bones, is the name on earth | Illustrious, where he sang, painted and wrote».

Cover photo: Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni, 1544–1545, Agnolo Bronzino, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Dove e quando

Florence, 1503 – Florence, 1572

Arte

Painting

Museums

Galleria degli Uffizi

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Palazzo Pitti

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Galleria dell'Accademia

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