Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 28, 2005
Carl Brandon Strehlke, ed. Pontormo, Bronzino, and the Medici: The Transformation of the Renaissance Portrait in Florence Exh. cat. Philadelphia and University Park: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. 184 pp.; 65 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (0271025360)
November 20, 2004–February 13, 2005
Bronzino. Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus. ca. 1537–39. Oil on panel. 36 7/8 x 30 1/8 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The thematic core of this exhibition was built around two vastly different but compelling unofficial portraits, Pontormo’s Alessandro de’ Medici (1534–35) and Bronzino’s Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (ca. 1537–39), each in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Augmented by about fifty works selected from American and European collections, the exhibition explored the contribution of these two masters to the development and transformation of portraiture during the tumultuous era that witnessed the replacement of Florentine republicanism with autocratic Medici rule. It also traced the artistic debt between two painters mutually bonded through both art and personal loyalty.

While appealing to a broad audience, this stringently organized exhibition allowed scholars a unique opportunity to explore the artists’ working methods and the intentions of artists and patrons in this development. The panels formed an array of vivid “presences” in one gallery, with the drawings displayed in an adjoining space; small cases containing contextual medals and prints complemented but never overburdened the core theme. The modest space facilitated scrutiny of individual works and ready comparison between panels. In particular, the greater volume of Pontormo drawings reflected his stature as carrier of the Florentine disegno tradition; the fewer Bronzino examples reflected scholars’ revelations of his pioneering tendency to rework his teeming pentimenti directly on the panel. Not all the drawings exhibited were dedicated portrait studies, and comments here mostly concern those drawings linked to exhibited or existing portraits.

Portraits in the sixteenth century embodied talismanic engagement—with love, awe, and even, on occasion, fear bound up with the impact on the spectator of a painted persona. Such captivation is conjured in portrait-inspired poetry of Pietro Bembo, Giovanni della Casa, and Pietro Aretino, and was invoked most famously by Castiglione, who divined his wife and little son playing, laughing, and joking in his absence before Raphael’s portrait of him (ca. 1514–15), now in the Louvre. In Pontormo’s Philadelphia Museum Alessandro de’ Medici (cat. no. 26; and Elizabeth Cropper’s catalogue essay, 19–22), the first duke is portrayed in Castiglionesque elegance and ease, pausing as he sketches an idealized female profile. His limpid glance supports claims for the panel as a love token to Taddea Malaspina, its recipient. It was paired with its life-study on panel, the Chicago short-bust version (cat. no. 25, 1534–35), which, as the exhibition catalogue quotes, was described by Giorgio Vasari as a benchmark of diligence that “miniaturists do not even approach” (112). In the three-quarter-length Philadelphia version, the adjustment to Alessandro’s gaze, the softening of the expression around his eyes and mouth, the minimizing of less flattering physical traits, and the increased sfumato all enhance the duke’s “dongiovannesco” expression. The conservation studies by Mark Tucker’s team (34-54) detail Pontormo’s determination to make the hands and sketch a compositional focus of the painting, a topos freighted with recall of Leonardo’s ideal heads in silverpoint, and of Michelangelo’s. I suggest that a lost sketch from life presaged the Chicago Alessandro, on which the Uffizi miniature copy on tin of the 1550s depended: this later copy records a prominent mole, harsher features, and a deeper version of the characteristic fold in his neck.

The women’s portraits grouped to the left of Pontormo’s Alessandros offered a rare opportunity to trace Bronzino’s development and uniqueness as a portraitist. Bronzino’s riveting, vivacious Lady in Red (cat. no. 24; as ca. 1532–35), occasionally attributed to Pontormo, is a masterly harbinger of Bronzino’s future court style. Lively counterpoints abound: the gold-and-black lattice of her snood are echoed in the gold-latticed tassel in her lap, the little dog’s shaggy hair contrasts with the precisely trimmed, silken fringes on the chair, and its wide-set brown eyes glint with catch-lights like the sitter’s own. Above all, her composure is wittily played against the quizzical tilt of its cocked head and uplifted paw. Robert Simon saw a close resemblance between the Frankfurt Lady and the securely identified Maria Salviati with Giulia de’ Medici of the Baltimore panel (cat. no. 30, as ca. 1537); the drawing of her as a young woman (cat. no. 46), which I will suggest below belongs to the 1520s, is probably relevant, too. Scholarly datings for the Frankfurt panel range across two decades, but I note the dress style to be of the late 1520s, before Bronzino’s Pesaro sojourn from 1530–32.

The modest Lady in Green (cat. no. 20, 1528–32) belies the characteristic grandeur of Bronzino’s portraiture. It has been proposed as the Bronzino portrait of Matteo Sofferoni’s daughter recorded by Vasari, and, if once wrongly attributed to Raphael, it does recall his portraits La Gravida (ca. 1505–06) and La Muta (ca. 1507).

Bronzino’s Eleonora di Toledo, a portrait of Cosimo’s young duchess (cat. no. 40, ca. 1539), was on loan from Prague. This captivating presence depends on Bronzino’s preciosity of contour and delicate color, and evokes Leonardo’s paragone on the portrait’s beguiling power: “[The lover] often engages with it, embracing it, and talking with it, which he would not do were the same beauties placed before him by the writer . . . so much more [does it] conquer the hearts of men” (John Shearman, Only Connect . . . Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992; 118). More usually linked to a panel delivered to the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano in 1543, where Cosimo was convalescing, the catalogue entry ties its date to Eleonora’s arrival at Pisa to marry him in 1539, when she wore a crimson, gold-embroidered satin gown. Its mode, however, matches that of her state portrait of 1545 and the Erlanger portrait of the following year. Cosimo and Eleonora were famously in love, and the small size of the panel, her hand-over-heart gesture, and an intaglio ring on her little finger figured with emblems of fertility and faithfulness all confirm that the panel was commissioned for Cosimo’s personal enjoyment. (This ring and one cast in gold in the form of clasped hands were retrieved from her tomb.) Vasari recorded that Eleonora’s rigidly formal state portrait showed her “in different clothing to the first,” probably a reference to the Prague panel, which by contrast also reflects his own benchmark for lifelikeness, the infusion of “fiato” (the breath of life). Vasari admitted that the realization of such vivacity eluded him.

Pontormo’s Maria Salviati with Giulia deMedici (cat. no. 30, as ca. 1537) shows Cosimo’s mother in her later years, after her son had succeeded the murdered Alessandro in 1537. Giulia’s age here, about three or four, would tend to date the panel to about 1538–39, but this likeness of Maria Salviati may derive from a lost Pontormo portrait painted soon after Cosimo’s succession. The sfumato and the interlaced hands deepen the affective links between Maria and the child, who was recorded in the Riccardi inventory of 1612 as “una puttina”—a little girl. She is not Cosimo’s blond daughter Bia or his grey-eyed Maria, both known from Bronzino’s later portraits, but Giulia, Alessandro’s illegitimate daughter, and Maria Salviati’s other Medici charge. Archival documentation, secret diplomatic exchanges, diarists, chroniclers, and Medici historians relate an acute political crisis surrounding Alessandro’s orphaned children as pawns in a bid to challenge Cosimo’s succession in 1537, along with his legal obligation to protect them. The portrait stands as mute witness to this and to the unification of Medici lineages, to which the now-indecipherable plaque in Maria’s hand may have testified.1 Contrary to the assertion (120) that latter-day observation of the child’s features suggests possible Moorish ancestry, this possibility was already found in sixteenth-century commentary on Alessandro’s parentage in diaries, diplomatic briefs, and chronicles.2 Born in 1511, he was reputedly the offspring of Clement VII’s youthful liaison with a certain Simunetta, who is variously described as a slave or a servant in Alfonsina Orsini de’ Medici’s Roman household. As slavery in Italy was long established, her Lazian dialect in her letter of 1529 to Alessandro will not settle the issue of Simunetta’s ancestry, but the painting out of Giulia in the historic past may have some relevance. The figure came to light only after 1937, when x-rays exposed her presence with Maria.

Male portraits grouped on the opposite wall trace the development and the close artistic relationship of the two artists. Pontormo’s Two Men with a Passage from Ciceros On Friendship” of about 1524, on loan from Venice (cat. no. 5), recalls his apprenticeship and continuing contact with Andrea del Sarto. It also suggests his association with letterati. Their deep glances and shared exposure of the beautifully scripted Ciceronian passage welcome the spectator into their discourse. They may be the son-in-law of Becuccio Bicchieraio and an unnamed close friend of Pontormo’s, recorded by Vasari as the subjects of a double portrait by Pontormo.

Pontormo’s ability to project the psyche of his sitters is beautifully realized in his Youth in a Pink Cloak (cat. no. 14) from Lucca, dated to ca. 1525. It was recorded as representing “Giuliano de’ Medici” when in the Uffizi Tribuna in the seventeenth century. This is a portrayal from life, however, and it does not resemble either Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (1479–1516) or Giuliano di Piero il Gottoso (1453–78). The panel is compositionally linked to the Study for a Portrait of a Youth (cat. no. 13, ca. 1525), which is not accepted in the catalogue entry as a study for the Lucca youth or for Pontormo’s lost portraits of Ippolito or Alessandro ordered between 1525–27 by Ottaviano de’ Medici. Efforts to identify the red-haired boy remain frustrating.

Bronzino’s Lorenzo Lenzi and the related Pontormo study (cat. no. 21, ca. 1532; and cat. no. 19, ca. 1528–30; see also Cropper, 23–24) demonstrate the artists’ overlapping debt. Like Pontormo’s Lucca Youth, Bronzino’s portrait of Lenzi expresses a mutability that combines the confidence and fragility of mood typical of their age. Lenzi (b. 1516), called Il Lauro, was a literary child-protegé. After fleeing Florence from the plague in 1527 with his tutor, Annibal Caro, he met Benedetto Varchi at Bivigliano. In Bronzino’s portrait, Varchi’s Sonnet 1.7 occupies the nearer page of the open book and Petrarch’s Canzone 146 the other. Although girded for a sword (as is Titian’s Ranuccio Farnese (1542)), Lorenzo seems too childish in build and mien to be fifteen either in the panel or drawing, and I agree with scholars who date the panel prior to Bronzino’s Pesaro visit, beginning in 1530. As Cropper’s studies demonstrate, Pontormo’s heroic Francesco Guardi as a Halberdier (cat. no 18 [not exhibited], 1529–30, and preparatory drawing, cat. no. 17, 1529–30) closely informs Bronzino’s landmark Prince Guidobaldo della Rovere (1531–32) and the sophisticated Young Man with a Book (early 1530s). The Young Man with a Lute (cat. fig. 65, ca. 1532–34), its Chatsworth study (cat. no. 22, ca. 1532–34), a related Bronzino drawing of Pontormo similarly posed (cat. no. 23, ca. 1532–35), and his Ugolino Martelli (cat. fig. 64, ca. 1537) reveal the impact on Bronzino of Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel figures of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici, installed in the New Sacristy in 1534. This relationship fueled the paragone debate on the merits of sculpture versus painting. These male portraits forecast Bronzino’s growing status as poet and member of the literary but raffish Accademia degli Umidi, transformed by Cosimo in 1542 into the Accademia Fiorentina expressly to promote the Tuscan language.

Pontormo’s profile Cosimo I de’ Medici (cat. no. 34, 1537, with its related drawing [cat. no. 33, 1537]) and medals by Domenico di Polo (cat. nos. 35–37, all ca. 1537) show early evidence of classical aliases and references that would permeate ducal propaganda (see also cat. no. 47, Cosimo I de’ Medici in Parade Armor, 1544).

The Giovanni Della Casa and its drawing witness Pontormo’s ideations from sketch to panel in the early to mid-1540s (cat. nos. 45 and 44). In the panel, the worldly Della Casa’s piercing glance, the expansion of forms, and the heightening and stiffening of his posture confer monumental dignity and presence. The drawing’s meandering mozzetta hem was condensed in the painting into taut, pink-edged arcs, and its slate-grey folds were simplified to recall classical busts. This patron, a connoisseur and commentator on manners, complained of the exasperating Spanish etiquette of Cosimo’s new court: “Such meticulous distinction between degrees of nobility is bothersome to us.”3

Bronzino’s Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s other prize (cat. no. 38, ca. 1537–39, for which Robert Simon’s landmark study deserves specific emphasis [“Bronzino’s Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 1985, vol. 81, no. 348: 17-27]). It served as a distinctly private declaration of love on Cosimo’s marriage in 1539. The painting, of which no known copies exist, faced Pontormo’s Alessandro down the length of the gallery. Cosimo-Orpheus’s role as poet, lover, pacifier, connoisseur, scholar, and musician casts him in heroic triumph over Cerberus. With recent memories of plague, Clement’s humiliation in the Sack of Rome, the disastrous siege of Florence in 1529, and Alessandro’s unpopular reign and brutal murder, the imagery probably casts Cosimo-Orpheus in Renaissance retellings of the myth as savior of Eurydice, and may well promote him as savior of Florence.4 Technical examination exposed radical compositional changes: originally a more decorously posed and draped Cosimo played the viol, and Cerberus’s teeth were bared. Lascivious overtones were increased by Cosimo’s rearranged, suggestive grasp on bow and pegbox, and by his flushed cheeks and gleaming eyes, which, with the distant fires of hell, signal his ardor. Bronzino’s Cosimo depends on the heroic Torso Belvedere of the first century B.C.E., transformed to flesh and recalling Ovidian inspiration for his Pygmalion and Galatea.

Alongside the Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, Bronzino’s monochrome, nude Andrea Doria as Neptune (cat. no. 41, late 1530s–early 1540s; with engravings and medals, cat. nos. 42–43) felt stern. Posed against an inscribed mast, his bulging physique contrasts with the slack mainsail drawn around him. His metamorphosis into stone and his lusterless, lapidary gaze were a sharp foil to young Cosimo’s flushed skin and glinting eyes. Doria was more conventionally painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1526, but Bronzino’s emblematic portrait, painted for Paolo Giovio, commemorates the Genoese admiral at about seventy, and recalls Baccio Bandinelli’s Doria as Neptune in Carrara (cat. fig. 80, 1528–36). The figure originally held an oar, seen in Giovio’s illustrated Elogia virorum bellica virtute illustrium (cat. no. 42). The petrified, full-bearded Doria’s terribilità is reminiscent of that seen in Raphael’s Portrait of Julius II (London, National Gallery; ca. 1511–12), which Vasari recorded had “inspired fear as if it were alive.”

Of other portrait studies, the youthful Study of a Woman, Possibly Maria Salviati (cat. no. 46, where it is given to Pontormo) exhibits Bronzino’s precision and tautness and was, moreover, drawn from life, probably in the mid-1520s, but not in 1543 (as proposed in the catalogue). (Moreover, the catalogue’s suggestion that this face, long associated with Maria’s known portraits, is that of a youthful workshop assistant is wholly unacceptable 149.) A later drawing of Maria’s head by Pontormo (cat. fig. 83, ca. 1543), which appears on the same sheet separated from a clothed torso study, may be a vivified study from the deathmask made by Santi Buglioni on December 12, 1543. Luciano Berti and Janet Cox-Rearick plausibly proposed long ago that this sheet served Pontormo to compose the idealized, posthumous Maria Salviati (cat. fig. 84, ca. 1534).5 Possibly Pontormo mediated between Bronzino’s youthful drawing of Maria and his own posthumous study to arrive at the smoothed, idealized painted version in the Uffizi.

Drawings for unrealized portraits and compositions are not addressed here, but they wonderfully demonstrate Pontormo’s power to bind us to the fleeting psychological moment, even in the exquisite supine study for a Crucifixion, replete with exploratory head studies (cat. no. 8, ca. 1523–24). Carl Brandon Strehlke’s handsome catalogue ranges unevenly over the enormous scholarship on these works, with some catalogue texts demanding cogent debate of scholarly contributions fundamental to their topics. As a complement to a significant exhibition and its intent to demonstrate a transformation in portraiture wrought by two artistic sensibilities during a pivotal historic moment in Florentine and Medici fortunes, the catalogue’s great strength lies in its contextual essays. Cropper’s prismatic account of Florence’s strife-ridden history and the mindset of its culture, politics, and essential fiorentinità proved crucial to engaging with the exhibition; her tribute to Janet Cox-Rearick’s scholarship is particularly germane. The technical accounts by Tucker and his assistants admirably clarify Pontormo’s working methods and technique. The catalogue is provided with a useful glossary and index. While some of the entries are bound to provoke much scholarly debate, Strehlke’s catalogue provides fine plates, supplementary illustrations, and comprehensive bibliographies for each entry, all of which are of enormous use to scholars and students seeking to understand and clarify this complex period in the development of Florentine portraiture and its patronage.

Gabrielle Langdon
independent scholar

1 Gabrielle Langdon, “Pontormo and Medici Lineages: Maria Salviati, Alessandro, Giulia and Giulio de’ Medici,” Revue de l’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review (RACAR), vol. 19, nos. 1–2 (1992): 20–40, 26, 29.

2 Ibid., 36–7

3 Giovanni Della Casa, Galateo (1552–55), translated with an introduction and notes by Konrad Eisenbichler and Kenneth R. Bartlett (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1994), 61.

4 On happy endings to the Orpheus myth in the Renaissance, see Simon’s “Bronzino’s Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus,” 19.

5 See Janet Cox-Rearick, The Drawings of Pontormo: A Catalogue Raisonée with Notes on the Paintings, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964), 310. For Buglioni’s death mask, see Langdon, 21 and n. 19.