The Gallery of Masks

Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) was one of the most celebrated painters of his own generation. Trained under Pontormo, he produced religious paintings but was mainly renowned for his portraits. These were particularly popular among the aristocracy of Florence, his hometown, where he secured important commissions from the ruling Medici family. Indeed, he depicted Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, his wife Eleonora of Toledo and some of their children.

Cosimo I de’ Medici – Agnolo Bronzino – 1545 – tempera on panel

Bronzino’s manner adapted comfortably to the courtly aesthetics of the Tuscan city at the time. This results in the aloof allure of his sitters, in the cold manner by which the painter renders minute details of their dress with the same precision of their faces. Bronzino was, in fact, a Mannerist of the second generation, in which the innovations brought up by Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino are already prone to become an established style. Interestingly enough, he was a portraitist, and his pieces were a status-symbol among the Florentine nobles, to some extent objects of fashion.

Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi – Agnolo Bronzino – 1540 – oil on panel

The visual likeness of all Bronzino’s creations is the result of some carefully arranged touches. In the first places, his brushstrokes are superbly thin, and it is virtually impossible to spot any visible mark. He comfortably adds tonal variations, and chiaroscuro effects through the folds of the drapery, or the skin’s surface, without hinting at the pictorial medium. This smooth use of the pictorial matter also enables him to create smooth surfaces. All his subjects show a perfect, wrinkle-free skin, white and polished as porcelain. In the portrait of Cosimo I, the only difference between his face and the shining armour is actually the colour.

Count Ugolino Martelli – Agnolo Bronzino – 1536 – oil on panel

The characters’ pose plays an important role as well. This is clear in the portrait of the Count Ugolino Martelli, depicted while reading classical pieces of literature. The books themselves focus the attention of the sitter’s erudite culture. The black dress might suggest a sober lifestyle, but this is indeed customary in many other portraits of the time. At the same time though, the dark shades create a contrast with the Count’s white hands, which touch the two tomes. Arnold Hauser defines them a device of separation, which the character puts forward in order to set a barrier between himself and the viewer. This barrier is visual and yet conceptual, since the hands relate Martelli to the books, that is to say, to culture. The statue in the background further underlines this conceit, and probably refers to some notable piece in the patron’s collection.

Portrait of a Young Man – Agnolo Bronzino – 1540-1545 – oil on panel

Following these features, scholars have sometimes defined the faces of Bronzino masks. Indeed, he often manipulates the features of his sitters, for instance turning the angle of their eyes, or designing the two sides of the face with slightly different expressions. I am not delving into the potential significance of these alterations, but it points out the defining characteristic of Bronzino portraits. They are not supposed to depict the sitter, but a public image of him. They do not convey the individual in a candid way, but through a deep armour of social conventions and aesthetic canons. They are truthful to the eye of society, rather than nature.


Cosimo I de’ Medici

Lucrezia Panciatichi

Count Ugolino Martelli

Young Man

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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