Nano Morgante: the story and meaning behind Bronzino’s famous work

Nano Morgante: the story and meaning behind Bronzino’s famous work

nano morgante bronzino
nano morgante bronzino

It’s not often that a painting is fully appreciated only when viewed from both the front and back. Yet, that is exactly the case with the Nano Morgante by Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino (1503 – 1572). The canvas depicting the most renowned of the jesters in the court of Cosimo I de’ Medici, is placed at the center of the Sala di Apollo in the Galleria Palatina at the Palazzo Pitti, allowing it to be admired both from the front (recto) and the back (verso).
In this article, we explore the reasons why Bronzino decided to create such an original portrait and its meaning.

Morgante: the beloved dwarf of the Medici court

Braccio di Bartolo, which was Morgante real name, was born in Poggio Fornione near Bologna and suffered from achondroplasia. His ironic nickname likely derived from the 15th century epic poem by Luigi Pulci Il Morgante maggiore, dedicated to the good giant of the same name.
Known for his wit, Morgante entered the service of the Medici family by at least 1540 and remained there until his death in 1580.
A document from 1555 shows Cosimo I’s affection for him: described as “the dwarf of our ducal palace and beloved servant”, Morgante was gifted a farm in the area of Arezzo. Francesco I de’ Medici, Cosimo’s heir, and successor, also held him in high regard, as confirmed by the numerous works dedicated to him.

nano morgante valerio cioli
Nano Morgante, Valerio Cioli

One of the most famous is the sculpture by Valerio Cioli of Morgante su una tartaruga, housed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello and visible, as a copy, in the Giardino di Boboli. There is also a bronze version by Giambologna, where Morgante rides a sea monster: the copy is placed on the terrace above the Loggia dei Lanzi, while the original is in the Museo del Bargello. Giambologna depicted him again in the relief showing the coronation of Cosimo I as Grand Duke, located beneath the equestrian monument erected in honor of the Medici lord.
Morgante can also be recognized in the ceiling painted by Vasari and Stradano in the Sala di Cosimo at Palazzo Vecchio and among the grotesques in the Corridoio del Levante of the Uffizi.
Without taking anything away from the other works, this piece by Bronzino boasts several elements of originality.

nano morgante bronzino palazzo pitti
Nano Morgante, Bronzino

Il Nano Morgante by Bronzino: subject and features

The first unique aspect concerns the subject, as this is the only known painting where Morgante is alone.
The second lies in the composition, as described by Vasari in the Vita of the painter: “Bronzino then portrayed, for Duke Cosimo, Morgante nano, naked, in full and in two ways, that is from one side of the painting the front and from the other the back, with that extravagance of monstrous limbs that the dwarf has: which painting in that genre is beautiful and wonderful”.
The dwarf is indeed depicted completely naked on both sides of the canvas. On the recto, we see him from the front, his right arm raised while holding a leash to an owl used to lure a jay that flutters to his left. Around him, monochrome vegetation and two splendid specimens of swallowtail butterflies: one conveniently placed to cover his genitals.

nano morgante bronzino fronte
Nano Morgante (recto), Bronzino

Morgante was devoted to fowling, that is, bird hunting, which he carried out using the stratagem of “panions”. In the center of the field was placed an owl tied to a pole with a rope. All around, twigs covered with birdlime (a natural sticky substance) were distributed: when the other birds approached to observe the owl, they became trapped and thus could be easily captured.
Morgante is thus caught here in the moment before the hunt, while on the verso of the canvas he is depicted after completing the task. At a closer look, indeed, the front and the back are not perfectly coincident.

nano morgante bronzino retro
Nano Morgante (verso), Bronzino

On the opposite side, the dwarf appears from the back almost in the same position, but the context around him and some details of his pose have changed. The owl now looks more like a little owl, perched on the left shoulder. The vegetation has also changed: the most evident detail is the trunk, cut in the recto, intact in the verso. With his right hand, Morgante lifts some dead birds while in the other he supports a birdlime stick. The head is turned to the right, and the gaze seems to follow the viewer who is behind him. Despite appearances, we are in front of a different moment: after the hunt, with the booty well in show. In other words, Bronzino stages two different dimensions, the spatial (front and back) and the temporal (before and after).

The meaning of the work: the paragone between the arts

Nano Morgante is the result of a cultural context of great ferment in which the question nicknamed paragone, formalized by the intellectual Benedetto Varchi, was very much felt. He posed the question about the supremacy between painting and sculpture to several artists of the time, involving names such as Pontormo, Cellini, Vasari, Michelangelo, and Bronzino himself. Aligned with painting, Bronzino nevertheless provided only a partial and incomplete answer, which was therefore not included in Varchi’s concluding speech of 1547.
The painting commissioned by Cosimo I (certainly completed by 1553, as certified by an inventory of that year) seems to make up for this lack.

Sculpture – argued its promoters – could show a subject from multiple viewpoints, something instead precluded to painting. Well, Bronzino not only clearly proves the contrary, correcting the apparent limit of bidimensionality with a double, almost three-dimensional portrait. But he also makes explicit another potential of painting (impossible in sculpture), namely its ability to return the variation of time within the same painting.
Nano Morgante, in addition to standing out for its exceptional artistic quality, has the value of a true manifesto in defense of painting.

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Precedents and restoration: some curiosities

As we have seen, Bronzino’s idea of the double portrait is certainly innovative, however, he was not the first to resort to this expedient.
The credit goes indeed to Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) who in his recto-verso drawing of Studi di Ercole from around 1506-1510 (Metropolitan Museum, New York) depicts the mythological hero in a double full-figure portrait, frontal and rear. The intention is, in this case too, to overcome the presumed merit of sculpture.
Another illustrious example of a bifrontal work, the Davide che uccide Golia (Musée du Louvre, Paris), made in the mid-16th century by Daniele da Volterra for the scholar Giovanni della Casa. The aim of the painting, executed not on canvas but on slate, was to provide an example of painting that was concrete and lasting (the chosen support was very resistant). The scholar was indeed working on a treatise on the subject.
In comparison to both, however, Nano Morgante remains unique for the chronological development of the scene, which is lacking in the others.

davide che uccide golia daniele da volterra louvre
Davide che uccide Golia, Daniele da Volterra

A uniqueness that, during the 19th century, had been partially altered probably due to (mis)interpretation. Morgante, in fact, had been transformed into Bacco by adding a crown of vine leaves around the head, garlands and bunches around the waist and a wine goblet in the right hand. Fake details that were only removed in 2010, thus revealing the almost total nudity of the dwarf, the marvelous butterfly that hides the private parts, and the owl of the recto.
Details that contribute to the thickness – in an almost literal sense, as well as artistic – of a work as singular as it is evocative.

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