Bronzino, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

There are just a couple of weeks left to see one of last season’s most remarkable shows. The Renaissance historian John Addington Symonds described the art of Bronzino as “brilliant but hard, cold, calculated, never fused by the final charm of poetry or music into a delightful vision”. The mixed critical fortunes accorded to this High Renaissance painter explain why there has never been a retrospective until now. As one would expect, the vaulted Quattrocento galleries of the Palazzo Strozzi are the ideal setting for the Cinquecento Florentine’s oeuvre. The paintings are beautifully lit and their interpretation illuminated by texts that discuss not only style but also socio-historical context.

Simultaneously icy and sensual, vulgar and refined, enamoured of detail yet awesomely simple, Bronzino is famous for some of the most daringly erotic pictures in the history of art yet also renowned for the chilly hauteur of his portraits. As this panorama of more than 70 paintings – and several magnificent tapestries – makes clear, Bronzino’s vision reflected the paradoxical nature of his times.

Born into a butcher’s family in 1502, he grew up in Florence as the city struggled to rediscover its equilibrium after the demise of the glittering Quattrocento era, one of the most vibrant cultures the world had seen. As Florence shuttled between Republican and Medici rule and the Catholic Church wrestled with stirrings of Reformist dissent, artists found themselves operating in a tense landscape where the calm, Platonic certainties of Piero and Raphael no longer held: lines grew agitated, facial expressions strained, and deep, harmonious perspectives were replaced by shallower, more crowded picture planes.

Bronzino’s teacher, Pontormo, was at the forefront of the new mannerist style. Bronzino’s version of Pontormo’s “The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand” is one of few duds in this show: an ill-defined heap of bodies squashed into a depthless landscape, it suggests that, at 29, he was struggling to emerge from the shadow of his master. A spell in Pesaro introduced him to the imaginative visions of northern Italian painters such as Dosso Dossi but also to the more serene monumentality of Piero, Lorenzo Lotto and Titian.

His developing style is beautifully illustrated in one of this show’s gems, “The Contest of Apollo and Marsyas” (1530-32), on loan from the Hermitage. Depicting the violent Ovidian melodrama that saw the satyr Marsyas flayed by Apollo, the painting was long attributed to Correggio but is now recognised as Bronzino’s work. Peopled by naked figures who drink, sleep and torture with taut-limbed, dynamic grace, the picture betrays both Bronzino’s inspired draughtsmanship and his cadenced grasp of pictorial space.

Already he was striving for the uncanny naturalism that would distinguish his portraits from those of Titian, his great rival. Painted in 1530-32, a portrait of Guidobaldo II delle Rovere is remarkable for his hunting dog whose velvet-skinned snout measures up to the best photorealist painting of today.

Bronzino’s virtuoso precision allowed him to turn his hand to any image required. As court painter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, who became Florence’s ruler in 1533, he produced a cycle of family portraits that re-established the image of the Medici as Italy’s foremost dynasty, unrivalled in luxury, learning and power. The pearl is a painting of Cosimo’s wife Eleonora and their small son Giovanni, with Eleonora’s flawless, alabaster face floating above the stiff folds of a sumptuous silk-brocade dress.

One of the most extraordinary paintings here was formerly attributed to Andrea Commodi. But, according to this show’s curator Carlo Falciani, “Christ Crucified” (1540) was actually painted by Bronzino for the Lutheran-leaning, Florentine couple Bartolomeo and Luciana Panciatichi. Showing Christ’s pewter-shadowed, rigor-stiffened body suspended in a bare, Brunelleschi-style niche, the crucifixion is an image of transcendent, essential suffering.

If Falciani is right, what does it say about Bronzino that he was also capable of the paintings in the next room? “Venus, Cupid and Jealousy (or Envy)” (1550) and “Venus, Cupid and a Satyr” (1553-55) both show the goddess and her son as full-length nudes. Voluptuous and long-waisted with tiny genitals, Cupid’s girlish, porcelain-smooth body mirrors that of his mother as she gazes lasciviously into his eyes. Masquerading as moral allegories. these Sapphic scenes pack an erotic charge that makes similar allegories by Titian – so much warmer and softer – look tame in comparison.

Reassured by the presence of a Medici (Pius IV) at the helm of the Papacy, by the early 1560s Cosimo had re-embraced orthodoxy. Bronzino’s later poetry makes clear he followed suit. It has been fashionable to interpret his final paintings through the lens of this religious volte-face, with many critics finding them affected and artificial. Yet late works here suggest he lost little of his genius.

Painted in 1568-69, “Lamentation of the Dead Christ” shows Jesus’s corpse supported by St John, the Virgin and Mary Magdalene. Their mannered gestures and jewel-bright drapery are familiar tropes in Catholic art yet Christ’s bone-white body, his chest thrust out to expose every rib and muscle in a masterly fusion of line, light and shadow, echoes the hyper-real pathos of the Reformist crucifixion he painted thirty years earlier.

Bronzino was an enthusiastic poet, and his later poetry suggests a religious volte-face. But his remarkable versatility suggests that his true faith lay in the power of his own brush. Symonds was right to describe him as brilliant, cold and calculated. Yet he was wrong not to perceive the poetry that sings in these compelling visions.

‘Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici’, until January 23.

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