Bronzino rescued from Limbo

Last week I made a pilgrimage to Florence to view, church by church, the Renaissance chefs-d’oeuvre I had read about in the course of my studies and unashamedly forgotten about. It was also the last chance to see Bronzino’s first ever retrospective as a ‘painter and poet of the court of the Medici’ at the Strozzi Palace. The show generated a flurry of scholarly and less scholarly reviews about this said second-class High Renaissance artist who, although praised by Vasari and his contemporaries, had been dismissed for centuries for his wayward painterly ways and, even during his second ‘renaissance’ in the 20th century, was never given the chance to measure himself against the other grand masters of the period.

In 1527, Rome was about to be ransacked by Charles V, the Medici expelled from Florence and the Catholics to further counter-attack against the Reformers. Shuffled through these social and economic upheavals, art moved away from the classical ideals and equilibrium of the Renaissance to a new style, which Luigi Lanzi would identify as ‘Mannerism’ in 1872 and which would develop throughout the 16th century in Italy and Europe. The maniera moderna of the great Renaissance masters was emulated so as to create a style awkwardly strange and artificial as if removed from reality. The classical contrapposto was so exaggerated that figures look languid and overly sensual. Naked or clothed in tight garments, the bodies revealed their forms – as if airbrushed in a sleek-and-smooth fashion, they looked like shiny, rose-tinted porcelain. The cold light used by Mannerists and their juxtaposing of colours such as purple, apple green and orange also enhanced the weirdness and mystical aura of the paintings. Pontormo’s Deposition is probably the quirkiest and most baffling Renaissance altarpiece I had the chance to scrutinise, my head in between the railings surrounding the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicita. In this painting, there is no cross, no tomb, the figures seem to be floating above the ground – their intertwining and contorted bodies create a nervous agitation in the composition, reflecting the intense emotionality of the subject matter. Three of the four tondi in the corners of the chapel, representing the four Evangelists, are attributed to Pontormo’s pupil, Bronzino – one of them is particularly puzzling, his head leaning out of the picture, an arm squashing an angel and his wide eyes starring intensely into mine. His golden curls, luscious mouth and distraught expression are similar to the features of the crouching figure in the Pontormo’s Deposition altarpiece. Although copies of the three tondi were exhibited at the Strozzi Palace, the crowds prevented me from approaching them and I had to move on with just a hint of exasperation. This will be my main criticism of the exhibition – the swarming of groups with impossibly loud Italian guides following me around and shouting in my ears, denying me the pleasure of contemplation (the other criticism goes towards the London National Gallery which didn’t lend the fantastic Allegory with Cupid and Venus to the Strozzi).

Among Bronzino’s court portraits were delicious discoveries such as the Portrait of a Woman (Matteo Soferoni’s Daughter?) whose relatively mature (she is probably less than 30) and irregular features had none of the frozen looks associated with his style of portraiture such as the impassive Eleonora de Toledo or the beautiful but cold Lucrecia Panciatichi. The Portrait of Guidobaldo II della Rovere also moved me – or rather, the bottom half of the portrait which includes the magnificent head of a white Labrador next to the prominent orange codpiece emphasizing the power and virility of the great military leader. Beside these stunning portraits, the painting which gave me the most pleasure was Resurrection – an overt celebration of flesh, I found the body of Christ particularly attractive, and the two teenage boys with angelic faces flanked by his sides a rather sexy pair. Unfortunately, this was also the view of his contemporary critics who found them too ‘lewd’ for a public altarpiece (but appropriate enough for smaller, devotional paintings). The fabric of the soldier’s uniform on the right is so thin it reveals every muscle and twist of his formidable back and the full roundness of his buttocks. Another man lying at the bottom clearly couldn’t take the ecstasy of the vision and lost both his consciousness and sense of modesty.

The painting that attracted the strongest opprobrium, during and after Bronzino’s days, was the Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552), which I stumbled upon in the Refectory of Santa Croce. Like the Resurrection, its huge scale (about 4.5 x 3m) and mass of intertwined semi-naked beauties makes for a great show. It is the naturalist portraiture, which Bronzino included in his religious paintings that aroused criticism. Among the contemporary Florentines he portrayed in Descent into Limbo, he daringly included two great beauties of the day that he clothed in transparent veils and little more – a practice that religious extremist Savonarola condemned as an ‘insult to God’ in his Lentens sermon in 1496. This was backed up by the Council of Trent in 1563.

Countless criticism against the painter’s lascivious poses and inappropriate nudity were recorded thereafter, the most vigorous of them being voiced by – you guessed it – 19th century Victorian prudes of the likes of John Ruskin. The French didn’t mind so much. Stendhal wrote in his diary that, after seeing the painting for the first time in 1811, ‘je fus touché jusqu’aux larmes… je n’ai jamais rien vu de si beau’ et ‘la peinture ne m’a jamais donné autant de plaisir’ (‘Painting has never given me so much pleasure’). My friend and I sat in front of it for half-an-hour without uttering a word, hanging in the balance between virtuous grace and devilish beauty. Whether it was the accumulation of fine art and dizzying splendours seen along our daily eight-hour pilgrimages, or the physical and emotional exhaustion as a result, that led to this ‘Stendhal effect’ remains unclear. Placed underneath Cimabue’s Cruxifix in the noble Santa Croce’s Refectory after having undergone a 4-year restoration scheme, it was a sight for sore eyes – its naturalistic stunners only matched by the hideous demons and other fantasmagorical creatures hanging, tits and claws, from the ceiling. There is also an interesting anomaly in this painting: instead of Christ alone rescuing the unbaptised souls from Limbo, a woman is helping them to get onto the rock… Grace in the form of a ravishing female nude?

The very last work we saw was Bronzino’s fresco The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo (1569), requested by Cosimo for the wall of the church of San Lorenzo, otherwise known by my friend and all-things-mannerist guide as ‘the gay sauna’. Here, the maniera of Michelangelo is taken to its extreme and near comical end, the mass of convoluted poses and anatomical display verging on the grotesque. Rather than arousing pain and torment in our poor souls, the lackadaisical saint, his torturers and supporters seem to be enjoying the hot stove, hanging round strutting their stuff – the group of women and children in the foreground look almost out-of-place in this display of vane and detached masculinity.

Modern scholarship suggests that Bronzino’s assemblage of Michelangelesque inventions should be viewed within the complex relationship between Bronzino and his contemporary artists and critics – notably Vasari and his own vision of the arts, which placed Michelangelo at the centre of the Florentine artistic galaxy. As art historian Carlo Falciani puts it, ‘those unnatural nudes… are the parody of a conception of the arts that had transformed the impenetrable path and quest for the absolute of Michelangelo into a hollow rhetoric of form’.More than a century before then, Masaccio worked on the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel, which were to become the starting point of the Italian Renaissance in painting. His revolutionary use of linear perspective, foreshortening, atmospheric perspective, cast shadows, unified light source and contrapposto contributed to making the scene so immediate to the viewer – an extension of his own space. The expressions and poses of his Expulsion of Adam and Eve were to be particularly influential on Guirlandaio, the teacher of Michelangelo, and thus on the Master himself. Seeing and breathing both Masaccio’s and Bronzino’s frescoes in the course of an afternoon was an absolute eye-opening treat.


~ by lavivette on January 25, 2011.

One Response to “Bronzino rescued from Limbo”

  1. Bronzino’s Allegory is the subject of my historical novel Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


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