Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 14, 2003
Deborah Parker Bronzino: Renaissance Painter as Poet New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 233 pp.; 29 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0521781663)
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The quincentenary of Agnolo Bronzino’s birth was celebrated this year at the Renaissance Society of America annual meeting in Toronto. The sessions there, organized by Janet Cox-Rearick, sought to plumb an artistic intellect that produced some of the most challenging art of the early modern period. Bronzino, noted for aloofness, impenetrability, and extreme refinement in his art, emerged in presentations on his eroticism and varietà as a prolific exponent of bawdy, burlesque poetry parodying the neo-Petrarchan modes and expression that saturated the cultural circle in which he moved. This seeming paradox of refinement in his art and travesty in his verse has long engaged Deborah Parker and has sparked recognition of a complex creative mind.

Exploration of Bronzino’s role as poet-painter is central to Parker’s Bronzino: Renaissance Painter as Poet, which is divided into four chapters, followed by a short conclusion. She alludes in her introduction to the artistic evasiveness that so alienated John Ruskin and early critics of Bronzino’s art, and identifies parallel strains in his poetry—a literary form of “evasive representation” (10) that she addresses throughout the book. Because of Bronzino’s enormous poetic output, the author proposes that decodification of his poetry should help to unlock complexities in his paintings. A brief biography of Bronzino’s artistic career is included here, along with accounts of his activities as an engaged literato and his membership in the ducal Accademia Fiorentina, which subsumed the lighthearted Accademia degli Umidi in which he had been a founding luminary since 1540.

Chapter 1 explores Bronzino’s prolific, often homoerotic, burlesque poetry, its cultural and humanistic promptings, and its transgressive, comic tradition rooted in Francesco Berni’s (ca. 1497–1535) raffish capitoli. (Citations throughout the book under review are from Agnolo Bronzino, Rime in burla, ed. Franca Petrucci Nardelli [Rome: Treccani, 1988].) Some capitoli were published in Bronzino’s lifetime, and his facility in this mode drew great admiration from his Florentine literary coterie.

Chapter 2 examines Bronzino’s carefully crafted lyric canzoniere, which attest to the erudition in Dante and Petrarch for which he was praised by contemporaries. Denizens of the Accademia Fiorentina, Bronzino and Benedetto Varchi, along with Benvenuto Cellini, Laura Battiferri, and Vincenzo Danti, all exchanged Neopetrarchan poetry, aptly described as the “calling-card” of the moment (43). Parker traces influences from Pietro Bembo’s powerful Prose della volgar lingua of 1525 but shows that Bronzino’s revivalist modes were essentially honorifics ratifying relations with fellow-poets. Several extravagant panegyrics to Duke Cosimo, his family, and the new Medici dynasty augment his art in these categories; not least, Bronzino’s coterie exchanged anguished elegies to fellow-artists Jacopo Pontormo, Niccolo Tribolo, and Michelangelo on their deaths. Well-selected examples demonstrate Bronzino’s debt to Dante and to deft thievery—and bending—of key elements of Petrarch, adapted to the more modest dolce stil minore. An excursus on the painter-poet’s exchanges with Battiferri anchors this chapter and evokes Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna’s spiritual, poetic interfacings. Bronzino and Varchi’s riposte demonstrate a close friendship and support Parker’s assertion that Bronzino’s verses bring his social transactions into focus. An output of 230 lyric works makes Bronzino a notably prolific poet of his generation, and, while not claiming literary genius for him, the author endorses Albertina Furno’s observation (La vita e le rime di Angiolo Bronzino [Pistoia: Flori, 1902]) that they are valuable for what they reveal of his life, his soul, his sociocultural environment, and his artistic sensibility.

In chapter 3, the focus shifts to the world of visual art revealed in Bronzino’s poetry. The epigrammic tradition stemming from Petrarch’s tribute to Simone Martini’s ability to capture Laura’s peerless essence is identified in such tributes as Pietro Bembo’s to Bellini’s Lady Maria Sorvagnon? and Pietro Aretino’s to Titian’s Francesco Maria della Rovere. Parker notes the progressive refinement of portraiture in tandem with these and links the poetry on artistic virtuosity to an escalation of claims made for the representational power of painting. Bronzino and Cellini’s exchanges yield predictable praises for lifelikeness, for artifice and art’s deceptive power, and for painting as a liberal art. Bronzino’s wordplay applauds Michelangelo’s creative force, and a succinct sampling of Bronzino’s artistic dependence is presented to support it. Exchanges between Antonfrancesco Grazzini, Battiferri, and Bronzino on his Portrait of Laura Battiferri (the subject of much art-historical scholarship), the complementary Petrarchan sonnets displayed in it, and her Dantesque profile all contribute to a eulogy in art and verse that places Battiferri in the pantheon of great literati. Parker concludes that Bronzino’s poetry on art is adulatory but reveals little of his artistic ideas. Turning to his burlesque poetry, she examines in detail “Del Pennello” (“On the Paintbrush,” 1538), a cheeky pun on “pene” or penis, in which Bronzino insouicantly describes a nude man and woman “painted together in a pleasing act” (105). Parker interprets this as a parody on Michelangelesque concepts such as movement and profusion (copia) and diversity (varietà) for the nude promoted in contemporary treatises. Giulio Romano’s notorious I modi (The Positions) and Aretino’s brashly explicit complementary verses are here recalled. Bronzino also deflates his own artistic labors and tilts at Neoplatonism. His “Capitolo in lode del dappoco” (“In praise of idlers”) and “Il secondo delle scuse” (“On excuses”) are wry commentaries on the physical and emotional toll on him from meeting the demands of patrons and courtiers, set against a prevailing ambivalence toward the visual arts as unintellectual pursuits. These expressions are seen in the context of Varchi’s invitation to artists to defend their calling, as an implicit plea for artists to enjoy the creative freedom of poets, and as a tribute to Michelangelo’s genius.

In chapter 4, the notoriously resistant London Allegory (National Gallery, 1545) and the picaresque capitoloIl Piato” (“The Dispute”) are juxtaposed to explore the poetics inherent in Bronzino’s painting. Parker’s familiarity with Dante (attested to by her Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance [Durham: Duke University Press, 1993]) impels a vivacious recounting of the mock-epic adventure in which the protagonist is guided through a bizarre, phantasmagoric world—a parody of Florence’s acrimonious cultural and political environment. Parker lithely navigates Bronzino’s Dantesque vision, a carnivalesque throng of evanescent, self-transmuting experiences encountered on a disorienting journey across the body of Arcigrandone, the seven-mile-high giant. She concludes that Bronzino’s work is pervaded by opposing forms of expression, one ordered and elegant, the other disordered and subversive. The fascinating “Il Piato” is so replete with complex entities as to beg a full-length study to itself.

The two appendices include a well-organized index to the first lines of Bronzino’s lyric works as recorded in Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Magliabecchiana II.IX.10, coded to categorize this corpus into sonnets, madrigals, and free verse, with their metrical forms. Folio numbers are provided; Domenico Moreni’s idiosyncratic editions of 1822 and 1823—the first to reveal Bronzino’s lyric works—are correlated, and dedicatees and addressees are identified where appropriate.

Commentary:

Parker’s exploration of “anti-decorum” in Bronzino’s capitoli forms part of a widening examination of transgressive subculture in Medicean Florence. The ludic activities of the anti-Medicean Accademia del Piano, for example, are detailed by Domenico Zanre (“Ritual and Parody in Mid-Cinquecento Florence” in The Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001], 189–204). Like Parker, Zanre notes homoerotic double entendres for vegetables, in this case cabbage stalks decorating staged mock-obsequies for a bishop held, surprisingly, in the home of renowned Academician and ducal favorite, Bartolomeo Panciatichi. (Bronzino’s severely aloof portrayal of him [Florence, Uffizi, ca. 1540] belies any notion of his having spearheaded such subversive antics.) They were viewed with alarm by Cosimo’s spying secretary, Lorenzo Pagni. The duke, however, ignored his own Polverini law, which forbade unauthorized meetings, and instead perceived some merit in allowing the Pianigiani to blow off some steam.

Cosimo often equivocated in adjudicating such infractions. This begs the question: What was his stance vis-à-vis his poet-artist’s subversive writings? Bronzino portrayed him licentiously in Cosimo as Orpheus (Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, ca. 1539), but ducal patronage of Bronzino’s transgressive writings or the ruler’s taste for eroticism is unsupported by documentation. Further, the titillating London Allegory’s patronage is problematic: Did Cosimo commission the panel only to turn it into an expedient “gift” to Francis I of France—whose predilection for eroticism was known—to avoid censure? Also, Carol Plazzotta and Larry Keith’s forensic revelations of its teeming pentimenti (“Bronzino’s Allegory: New Evidence of the Artist’s Revisions,” Burlington Magazine 141 [February 1999]: 89–99) suggest that the body of scholarly interpretation of it deserves reassessment. More ink may yet be spilled before its enthralling “pleasurable deceits” are decisively unravelled.

Parker expresses hope that interpretation of Bronzino’s elusive art may be aided through study of his poetry. Indeed, her excursus into its patent equivocation and witty paradoxes signals an extraordinary inventiveness and erudition. This is joyful in the early works. In his Pygmalion and Galatea, a ram’s head carving is comically, archly alert to Pygmalion’s own metamorphosis from entreating sculptor to besotted lover just as Galatea quickens; however, Elizabeth Cropper (Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier [Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 1997], 92–98), who identified its covert inscription, “HEV VI[CIT]VENVS” (“Alas, it is Venus who has triumphed”), recognized that Bronzino’s levity also draws to itself timely political and cultural references to war, love, and desire for beauty.

It is in the pursuit of beauty and meticulousness in his portraits of women that Bronzino’s Neoplatonism, Petrarchism, and subtle layering of classical and Christian references are illuminated. His Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni (Florence, Uffizi, 1545) is a dense tissue of honorifics to her as Juno, Diana, Mary, as “Throne of Wisdom,” “Stella matutina,” and as Petrarch’s “Vergine bella.” Its iconic remove expresses the same essence of Petrarchan lontananza, a distant yearning reflected in Bronzino’s sonnets, “Cortese Donna” and “Bell’alma, e saggia, e sovr’ogn’altra accorta.” (See my “A ‘Laura’ for Cosimo,” in The Cultural World of Eleonora di Toledo, Duchess of Florence and Siena, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, forthcoming], 23–48). Bronzino’s posthumous Bia de’ Medici (Florence, Uffizi, ca. 1543) is a stilled, haloed vision in light-emitting white satin—a metaphor for her name Bianca and a forerunner to Cesare Ripa’s Innocenza. Bia epitomizes Bronzino’s eulogy, “Nuova Angioletta,” penned on the death of her half-sister, Lucrezia de’ Medici, in 1561. In effect, his paintings constitute a lyrical corpus in themselves of tributes that demanded deep engagement with the cultural ideologies promoted in Cosimo’s court and the Accademia Fiorentina. Parker suggests that his avocation, the enormous corpus of burlesque poetry, was penned to provide relief from this intensive artistic activity.

In engaging prose, Parker has explored territory that extends beyond contemporaries’ praises of Bronzino as a new Apelles. To a wider audience, he was affectionately regarded as a latter-day Euripides or Aristophanes. Her survey is clearly not intended—and could not be—a conclusive study of Bronzino’s complex ideations. She does not determine a single overarching approach to life by the artist, but her careful selections make their point that Bronzino’s art and poetry entertain relative degrees of the ordered and elegant, the disordered and subversive. The study is especially effective in weaving its leitmotif of the importance of Bronzino’s sociocultural interrelationships and his complex sensibility. Further, it may prompt tangential avenues of expanded inquiry into, for example, how Bronzino and his associates’ poetic exchanges may further reveal and augment sixteenth-century art theory and criticism; to what degree eroticism or ducal patronage of it as a cultural norm may be assessed; or, how the street-argot of burlesque poetry may be more or less transgressive vis-à-vis Medici appropriation of the “questione della lingua,” to name some possibilities. (The centrality of the latter to Cosimo’s cultural hegemony has been explored recently by Michael Scherberg, “The Accademia Fiorentina and the Question of Language: The Politics of Theory in Ducal Florence,” Renaissance Quarterly 56 [spring 2003]: 26–55). It implicitly demands an English translation of Bronzino’s lyric poetry to support expanding investigation into Medicean art, its rhetoric, and sixteenth-century studies in general. Parker has driven an informative wedge into an intricate topic. May it continue to be widened.

Gabrielle Langdon
independent scholar

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