Agnolo Bronzino was born in Monticelli di Firenze in 1503. Coming from a humble family, he joined Pontormo’s workshop around 1515. The compositional and colouristic originality of the master, who was extremely visionary in his representations characterised by a very light colour palette and a general eccentricity of the scenes without chiaroscuro, profoundly influenced the young Bronzino’s early production.
In 1537, Cosimo I de’ Medici became Grand Duke of Tuscany, at a time when Florence had lost its hegemonic role in Italian politics, now held by Rome. Cosimo I’s successful attempt to consolidate the power of his city again corresponded to a rebirth of painting and sculpture under the sign of Mannerism.
Mannerism in the service of Cosimo I de’ Medici
The canons and formal harmonies of the purest classicism were overcome in favour of a Mannerism in which the often troubled personalities of the artists emerged. It was at this point that the broken lines, eccentric visions, ‘expressionist’ colour and painful, dramatic tension of artists such as Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo emerged. His pupil, Bronzino could do no more than inherit this new approach, developing his own personal painting and becoming, as Vasari described him, a painter ‘truly rare and worthy of all praise’.
Portraits and frescoes: a pure and algid formalism
With the rise of Cosimo, Agnolo Bronzino became the greatest interpreter of the Medici ideology and this can be seen above all in his vast production of portraits, concentrated on a profound search for a pure and cold formalism, as well as a chromaticism that is algid and calibrated. Optically perfect, the images of men and women, such as that of Lucrezia Panciatichi or Ugolino Martelli, seem to be set in a suspended and immutable moment. Impassive and intellectual, these portraits also evoke a sense of decorum and integrity required not only by the Medici court, but also by the demands of the Counter-Reformation.
After his first experiences in the 1520s, working alongside his master Pontormo, Bronzino worked alone at the Badia in Florence, where he painted the Penitent Saint Benedict and then the Evangelists for the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita, around Pontormo’s Deposition. In them, in fact, one can still see that bloodless treatment of the flesh, albeit characterised by a sharper and more predominant plastic sense than that of the master, who had at times been the author of diaphanous and extraordinarily two-dimensional figures.
After a stay in Pesaro for the decoration of the Della Rovere Imperial Villa, Bronzino returned to Florence and, from the end of the 1930s onwards, worked for Cosimo I, starting with the entire decoration of the Chapel of Eleonora in Palazzo Vecchio, perhaps his most prestigious undertaking. The room, completely frescoed, also saw the execution of the Deposition of Christ, one of his most famous works, together with the other pieces set in a precious framework, indebted as much to the Florentine Quattrocento as to Michelangelo and Pontormo. In the same years, he painted the panel in the National Gallery in London with Venus and Cupid, an allegory of Pleasure and Play and a mysterious alchemical and symbolic representation of Time and vanitas.