The Drawings of Bronzino

The Drawings of Bronzino
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
January 20, 2010–April 18, 2010

“…by drawing I mean all those things that can be formed with the value, or force, of simple lines.”

Agnolo Bronzino

Although many unique events occur at any given time in the New York art world, few represent true advancement in scholarship and major historical significance while offering a once in a lifetime aesthetic experience. Such was the case in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of all known drawings by or attributed to the 16th century Mannerist master Angnolo Bronzino.
Mannerism, derived from the Italian maniera, or style, as the term was used by Bronzino’s contemporary, the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, is one of the first examples in Western “art about art.” The Mannerist artist expects an audience to understand the visual clues and the indirect quotations found in their work. Delighting in artificiality, Mannerism is style at its most thoughtful, fully self-conscious of its rule breaking and its deliberate exaggeration of classical canons.

When used in the service of transcendence of the real, Mannerism concentrates on an almost complete rejection of the ideals of nature itself. As Stanley Freeber wrote in Observations on the Painting of the Maniera, it’s “art imitating art, rather than an art imitating nature”. With this in mind, we can begin to approach this prodigious and confounding exhibition.

Organized in collaboration with the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi and the Polo Museale Fiorentino, The Drawings of Bronzino presents approximately sixty works on paper. From his student work in imitation of his master Jacopo da Pontormo, to the drawings for the frescoes and altarpiece of the private chapel of Eleonora di Toledo, to later works such as the Story of Joseph tapestries and the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence fresco, the exhibit was arranged chronologically over three rooms, methodically dividing Bronzino’s output and allowing his extant graphic style to gracefully unfold.
Born 1503 in Monticelli, outside of Florence, Angnolo Bronzino spent most of his life in that city, dying there in 1572. Court artist to Cosimo de’Medici, know poet and member of the Florentine literary academy, he was, as well, one of the founders of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the first art academy in Europe.
As a teenager Bronzino entered into the workshop of Pontormo and was producing work under his own signature by 1528. Unlike Raphael, who left many completed works on paper, both Pontormo and Bronzino left few “finished” drawings. From the extant corpus, we can only surmise Bronzino’s actual drawing strategy.  We are left with a selection of preparatory sketching, various compositional studies and, from the more elaborate projects, well articulated designs and plans employed in preparation for his tapestries, altarpieces and frescos. Many of the drawings that ought to exist simply don’t.
A clear point made in this exhibition and the extremely well researched accompanying publication is that Bronzino’s formidable appeal as a draftsmen  comes from his dissipating mysterious style, which effortlessly approaches the elegiac at its most profound. This same intemperate but sure charm lends itself to a surprisingly improvisational, almost slight, provisional form of drawing. It appears with many of these works that graphical delineations to Bronzino are nothing more than the result of ideas quickly notated, to be construed with metaphorical meaning at a later date. Actual space, which seems so allegorically complex and formally intense in his painted portraiture is graphically shallow, even non-existent in many of these works. It’s as if he had no need for drawing in many instances, or that he couldn’t be bothered, that the paintings could just paint themselves. While this is unlikely, we are left to acknowledge a system of mark-making totally removed from many of those highly finished paintings. Contrarily, for example, in one drawing, the modello (demonstration piece) for the tapestry Pharaoh Receiving Jacob into Egypt we get a glimpse of the profound understanding of atmospheric perspective the artist had at his command using only the simple means of ink, chalk and wash.
Many of Bronzino’s drawings are quite informal, almost sketchy. Some seem to have what look like children’s doodles along their borders, giving them a contemporary, tossed off feeling. Many are two sided and displayed on pedestals, enabling the viewer to experience the sheet in the round.

Typically, the artist’s precisely drawn outlines are handled with a slightly mechanical touch and then worked into a smoky finish. Underneath the soft atmospheric haze are the remnants of a variety of sophisticated drawing techniques: hard outlines, refined crosshatchings applied with a variety of pressures and a blending of chalks resulting in a distinctive soft, warm atmosphere of evenly graded modulation. But Bronzino in so many instances rejects the effects put to such good use in his paintings. He seems to deliberately turn his back on ostentatious displays of virtuosity and technique in his work on paper. The elegance of Raphael or the graphic mastery of Michelangelo are almost completely at odds with many of these works. Except for a few examples, such as the black chalk drawing Study of a Left Leg and Drapery (originally attributed to Michelangelo) or the extremely lovely and delicate cartoon fragment Head of a Smiling Women in Three-Quarter View so reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci, there is only a suggestion of these older artists’ dexterity.

And at the exhibition’s most disappointingly pragmatic moment, the very important modello for the Frescoed Vault of the Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo, it’s evident we’re looking at a showy but lack luster proposal prepared for a client. One is left wondering what these works on paper have to do with his mind-boggling and technical paintings.

At almost every turn we are brought back to Bronzino’s well articulated and studious figure studies. Subtle and even tempered, these drawing are brought to life with warm graphic shimmer. Ignoring the running script of attribution, one can almost visualize how the artist is able to effortlessly capture and transpose dramatic essence of form to his confrontational but mysterious paintings.

Absent from this exhibit is any definitive explanation for the astonishing discrepancy between Bronzino’s paper works and the artificially serene and polished enamel-like surfaces of his paintings. Also missing is any discussion of the rarefied and crystalline air or any notion of the “dark side” found in his official portraiture. Works such as the well known and incestuous An Allegory of Venus and Cupid found in the National Gallery, London, or the equally explicit codpiece wearing Portrait of Ludovico Capponi in the Frick Collection clearly demonstrate, any connection between these paintings and the collected drawings on display will have to be left to a different exhibition and for now, the realm of our imagination.

With this in mind, the restlessness of many of Bronzino’s drawings can be seen illuminated by the unreality of Mannerism itself, an artificial world of delightful surfaces and expressionless faces, where psychologically compelling portraits and claustrophobic allegorical figure compositions live in a world apart, forever in their own space and time.

Mark Dagley