Monday, March 1, 2010
Then and Now (Bronzino at the Met)
by Peter Schjeldahl
There’s a new old art star in New York this winter: Agnolo Bronzino, the sixteenth-century Florentine painter, whose entire corpus of some sixty known drawings (a few attributions are uncertain) is on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, to rousing effect. His arrival heralds a new old movement: Mannerism, the most commonly despised period in Western art history and, I think, the one that best befits creative culture today. We are mostly Mannerists now. Art about art, and style for style’s sake, Mannerism held sway from the end of the High Renaissance, circa 1520, until the Baroque kicked in, seven decades later. Even the strongest Mannerists—Pontormo and Bronzino in Florence, Parmigianino in Rome, Tintoretto in Venice, and El Greco in Italy and Spain—squirmed under the crushing criteria that had been established by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian. They did so in ways both ingeniously elegant and gamily perverse. Think of Parmigianino’s elongated body parts, then of El Greco’s elongated everything. Recall Bronzino’s “The Allegory of Venus and Cupid,” at the National Gallery in London: a confounding tour de force of over-the-top sensuality and cryptic symbolism, painted for France’s racy, bookish Francis I. (Cupid lewdly embraces his naked mother while, among other things, Father Time presides, a butterball putto rejoices, a cute-faced and snake-tailed grotesque proffers a honeycomb, and a dove departs on foot like a stricken guest from a party that is way out of hand.) As the Mannerists toiled in the twilight of the Renaissance, so do we in relation to the modern age—the word “modern” having been torn from its roots to signify things that loom behind us. The cinquecento artists would be intrigued by one of our musical genres, the mashup: new songs cobbled from scraps of old songs. (It shares an arch intricacy with their most popular form, the madrigal.) The movie “Avatar” strikes me as Mannerist through and through, generating terrific sensations of originality from a hodgepodge of worn-thin narrative and pictorial tropes. Ours is a dissolving, clever culture of mix and match. We are ready for Bronzino.
He was born Agnolo di Cosimo Mariano di Tori, a butcher’s boy, near Florence in 1503. He may owe his nickname (the Bronze One) to the fact that he had a ruddy complexion. Sometime between the ages of twelve and fifteen, he became a student and protégé of Pontormo, the introspective pioneer of Mannerism, who had known Leonardo and studied with Andrea del Sarto. Pontormo and Bronzino are presumed to have been lovers; they remained close until Pontormo’s death, in 1557, when Bronzino was deprived of his mentor’s estate in a court case brought by a weaver who claimed, falsely, to be a blood relation. Bronzino’s early work can be hard to distinguish from Pontormo’s supple and energetic hand—seen at the Met in a furiously blowsy sketch of a Madonna and Child—but by the late fifteen-twenties he had come into his own, with a look of polished, imposing splendor. As the chief court painter of Florence’s ruler, Cosimo I de’ Medici, Bronzino executed some of the greatest of all portraits. Two are among the few treasures of Mannerism in American museums. Both exude aristocratic hauteur and erotic glamour: the Frick’s “Lodovico Capponi”—with that lad’s unforgettably protruding, glad-to-see-us codpiece—and the Met’s own superbly arrogant “Young Man” (the only canvas in the show, presented with radiological analysis of its drawing techniques). They depict highly particular individuals. Bronzino’s renderings of women tend to be generic masks of beauty—devastatingly so in the “Head of a Smiling Young Woman” (circa 1542-43), a study for his elaborate frescoes in the chapel of Cosimo’s Spanish wife, Eleonora di Toledo, in the Palazzo Vecchio. One glance at this girl—if she was an actual girl, and not an idealized synthesis—might land you, as it did me, goofily in love.
Bronzino was also a prominent poet—witty, erudite, and, when not penning courtly lyrics and paeans, prodigiously raunchy. A leading intellectual of the time testified that the painter had memorized all of Dante and much of Petrarch. Bronzino spoofed the bards in burlesques celebrating, say, rough trade in the night streets of Florence. Prose translations by the scholar Deborah Parker document a style drenched in double-entendre, as in this play on a word, pennello, which can mean “paintbrush” or “penis”:
Who is the person who does not take pleasure in the things that this thing does, which is born from the bristle or tail hair? And there is no man or woman so savage that he or she does not seek to have some of its things or to have himself drawn from life... I would not know how to recount one of the thousand different actions and extravagant ways; you know that everyone likes variety. It is enough that in order to make it from behind, in front, across, foreshortened, or in perspective one uses the [pennello] for them all.
I have two thoughts about this. First, it’s fun; and, second, it’s not that remote from sophisticated American humor today. A similarly burlesque spirit permeates “The Daily Show” and The Onion: taking glee in the absurdities of inescapable conditions. Folding ribaldry into nightmarish politics, for instance, doesn’t change anything, but it cheers us up. The trick is to force despairing cynicism to a pitch of wholesome revelry. Bronzino’s laughter resonates.
The pictures in the show, most of them black-chalk studies of heads and bodies, are working drawings, some of which have been squared up for transfer to paintings or tapestries. Bronzino didn’t make an independent art of drawing, though his exacting care may give the impression that he did. A telltale feature is the thin, continuous line that contours his figures, divorcing them from the negative space of the paper: they were limned to be integrated elsewhere. Within the lines, fabulously deft anatomical details, in hatched and smeared shadings, evoke voluptuously animate flesh. Bronzino makes this look so easy, you should remind yourself to appreciate it. The most gorgeous of the drawings are male nudes, including a tall, narrow study, for the Eleonora chapel, of a young man seen from behind, twisting in a serpentine posture while holding a pillow, or a bizarre hat, on his head with one hand. The artificiality of the pose coexists perfectly with lip-smacking, carnal joy. That’s Mannerism: the most contrived degree of fantasy, the most candid of appetites. It bespeaks the urbanity of someone well able to conduct himself impeccably in any company while pursuing personal pleasures without a lot of compunction.
Bronzino’s long residence in the doghouse of art history began during his lifetime, with his displacement, as Cosimo’s favorite, by his inferior rival Giorgio Vasari, whose treatment of Bronzino in his biographical magnum opus, “Lives of the Artists,” drips condescension. (It seems that the Duke was swayed by the relative speed with which Vasari’s workshop fulfilled commissions.) Later, Bronzino, suffering through centuries of contempt for Mannerism in general, as an addled interregnum between the Renaissance and the Baroque, was often singled out for abuse on moral grounds. A leading American art historian, Frank Jewett Mather, re-stated the case in 1923: “He was a vicious person, a cold aesthete, with few of the generous virtues that nourish the soul.” (I can hear Bronzino responding, “Nourish this!”) In 1903, Bernard Berenson cheerfully contemplated the prospect of “Bronzino sinking into obscurity.” Berenson was “tempted to fancy,” he wrote, that Bronzino’s drawings were scarce (he counted only thirteen in all, two of them erroneously) because the artist had destroyed most of them out of commendable shame at their “dulness.” The connoisseur’s connoisseur of Italian painting somehow detected “feebleness of touch” in Bronzino’s light-fingered grace.
It’s unsettling to read such judgments, by smart men, on art that looks so good at present—as it does to a lively cohort of art historians who include the show’s excellent curators, Carmen C. Bambach, Janet Cox-Rearick, and George R. Goldner. (Reproductions of Bronzino’s paintings, in the thorough and sumptuous catalogue, confirm his mastery of clarion color in glassy illusions of hyper-reality.) The old verdicts suggest a proactive condemnation—of our own era—which, for all we know, future generations may come to endorse. Meanwhile, we are doing the best we can in the twenty-first century, things being as they are; and anyone who wants our friendship had better be civil to Bronzino. ♦
Publicado en el New Yorker, 1 de febrero, 2010
Imagen: Bronzino/Desnudo, circa 1545-60
Posted by Claudio Ferrufino-Coqueugniot at 6:43 AM