In a previous post, I have drawn some considerations about the famous Allegory with Venus and Cupid by the Italian Mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572). As many other artists of his time, he produced several allegorical and religious paintings. Nonetheless, Bronzino is mostly known for the portraits of great aristocrats from the court of Cosimo I de’ Medici in Florence. In this post, I would like to focus on some of Bronzino’s creations to highlight his technique and the visual tricks that he employed to capture the character of his sitters. His style is at once varied and yet immediately recognisable, making the portraits his very signature pieces.
Bronzino masters the oil technique, producing beautifully rendered effects of light and texture. The carnation of his characters, often pale and flawless, reminds of ceramic and is made smoother by the use of light. Bronzino inherits the sfumato (literally “smoke-like”) technique from Leonardo da Vinci, blending the contours of his figures and creating shade areas which determine transitions from light to dark. On the other hand, Bronzino depicts various materials and simulate the effect of light on different surfaces. For example, in the Portrait of Ludovico Capponi, a Florentine banker, the black garment of the sitter has a satin look which makes it appear lucid and shiny, while the character’s skin is more opaque.
Bronzino’s portraits are lavish jewels, rich with beautiful details adorning the characters and conveying their social status. A self-evident example is the Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I, whom Bronzino depicted together with her young son Giovanni. Eleonora’s costly dress is represented with extreme care by the painter and becomes a fundamental part of the entire depiction. Her jewels stand out too, with the pearl of the necklace and pendant being depicted one by one with extreme care. Bronzino uses highlights made of lead white to simulate the reflections of shiny materials and renders the folds of the embroidered dress too. While Bronzino tends to set his sitters against shallow backdrops, often an empty wall or a monochrome surface, he enlivens the composition by adding decorative details through the garments.
Bronzino’s subjects often appear distant, aloof, as if they were wearing a mask. In many ways, his portraits reflect the norms of courtly life in sixteenth-century Florence. As Arnold Hauser points out in Mannerism, Bronzino’s sitters never present themselves in a candid fashion, rather, they set a physical barrier between themselves and the viewer. The hands are often protruded forward, holding an object as if to distance the spectator from the sitter. A book, a sculpture (as in the work above), some sort of identifying object is used to both describe the sitter and elevate his/her status. At the same time, Bronzino uses these visual hints to create mystery since the subjects never fully reveal themselves. For instance, in the Portrait of Ludovico Capponi, the sitter is holding a small cameo, presumably a portrait of a person dear to him, but his hand covers the effigy whose subject remains obscure to the viewer.
When academic art developed throughout Europe, portraiture did not hold a high rank among the genres. History painting was by far the most appreciated one and portraiture scored lower. In a way, Bronzino’s religious and allegorical paintings would be considered the centrepiece of his production. Nonetheless, the portraits are the true key to his art and to the poetics of Mannerism. The aura of aloof mystery of his sitters, their casual and yet rigid poses reveal a culture concerned with the issues of appearance, which used portraiture to elevate the subject by never fully disclosing his/her true nature.