As the creator of some of the most beautiful and famous Renaissance paintings, Agnolo Bronzino was an undisputed master of the Italian Renaissance.
But who exactly was this pioneering artist, and what are some of the best-known Bronzino paintings? This brief introduction presents Bronzino’s fascinating life, work, and times.
Born on 17 November 1503, Agnolo di Cosimo (Bronzino) hails from the Italian city of Florence. He spent almost all his working life in the city as a leading Florentine painter.
Indeed, from his late thirties onwards, Bronzino worked almost exclusively for the Grand Duke of Tuscany (Cosimo I de’ Medici) as a court painter. This took up most of his professional time.
Bronzino mainly worked on Renaissance portraits. These often consisted of portraits of the Medicis, used as diplomatic gifts by the family. Bronzino was an early pioneer of replica art and famous painting reproductions. He often ordered multiple copies of these portraits (replicated by apprentice artists) for the family to send out.
Despite this portraiture work, Bronzino created several religious paintings and allegorical topics. One of Bronzino’s best-known works is Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time. Now held by the National Gallery in London, this painting depicts strong sexuality veiled by classical mythology.
While the painting’s meaning is still uncertain today, we know Cosimo I de' Medici commissioned the work as a gift for King Francis I of France. The overt erotic sensuality appealed to Italian and French aristocratic tastes of the time, with marble-like figures set amongst luxurious yet vague backgrounds.
Bronzino studied with Jacopo Carucci (known simply as Pontormo), an Italian Mannerist portraitist from the Florentine School. His work showed a significant shift away from the calmly controlled works of the early Florentine Renaissance. Instead, Pontormo’s painting used ambiguous perspectives with characters floating in uncertain space.
Bronzino’s painting heavily borrowed from Pontormo’s teaching. Despite this, Bronzino returned a feeling of calm control to his stylish, elongated figures. Unlike his teacher, they rarely display any form of tension or dramatic emotion.
Scholars believe Pontormo included a portrait of a young fourteen-year-old Bronzino in his Joseph in Egypt painting. In it, Bronzino appears as a child seated on a step. In adult life, the two men kept a close working relationship, often collaborating on artwork. Indeed, their styles were so similar that scholars still debate specific attributions to this day.
As well as Pontormo, Bronzino also studied under Raffaellino del Garbo, a more classical Florentine Renaissance painter specializing in religious painting and altarpieces.
Bronzino’s work perfectly fits this description, as the artist deeply admired these two Renaissance masters. Rather than studiously copying their strictly harmonized compositions, however, Bronzino (and Mannerist artists) went further. They displayed extreme skill and artistry by playing with natural compositions emphasizing sophisticated poses and elegant perspectives.
This careful staging appears in Bronzino paintings such as Saint Sebastian (1533) and St John the Baptist (1553). Both feature significantly elongated limbs and torsos. These sensual male nude portraits also led some scholars to guess about Bronzino’s sexuality.
What was Bronzino known for?
Bronzino is primarily known for his paintings of the Medici family. Amongst famous renaissance paintings, however, his 1544 Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo col figlio Giovanni (the wife of Cosimo Medici) particularly shines.
In this painting, the woman’s sumptuous dress is an expert depiction of fabric and form. Indeed, it takes up as much room as the two sitters (placed against a sapphire-blue background). The young boy in the portrait was Eleonora’s second son, who sadly died from malaria in 1562.
The Medici patronage started in 1539, and Bronzino created many elegant and assured portraits of the family. Replicated in many workshops and copies, Bronzino painted Cosimo and Eleonora (as well as children and friends) with minute diligence. His celebrated portraits include works such as Portrait of Bia de Medici and Portrait of Cosimo I de Medici in Armor (both painted in 1545).
Did Bronzino produce religious paintings?
In addition to portraiture, Bronzino also created several religious paintings. From 1540 onwards, he worked on frescos for the Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo, found in the Medici family’s Palazzo Vecchio in central Florence.
Later in life, Bronzino also helped found the “Accademia delle Arti del Disegno” in Florence. Cosimo I de' Medici provided finance as an academy of artists, with further help from Giorgio Vasari. Bronzino was an active member, taking part in the Academy and supervising artistic production all over Tuscany. While most members were male, Artemisia Gentileschi was the first female artist admitted.
Bronzino’s teaching at the Academy favored a gifted young artist named Alessandro Allori. Due to their friendship, Bronzino was often known as Allori’s “uncle.” They certainly enjoyed a close working and personal relationship, and Bronzino lived at the Allori household for some time.
There’s scarce evidence regarding Bronzino’s unusual nickname. Many art historians guess it referred to his reddish hair and dark skin.
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence (specialists in Bronzino art) suggest it derives from the dark skin tones of his sitters. Examples include portraits such as Andrea Doria as Neptune (1550) and the somewhat gloomy portrait of Ugolino Martelli (1537).
The Andrea Doria portrait is notable as a highly unusual allegorical work. Indeed, Renaissance portraits rarely placed such well-known public figures in imaginary mythological scenes. However, Bronzino also created another mythological portrait depicting Cosimo I de Medici as Orpheus (the Greek musician, poet, and prophet).
Bronzino was staying with the Allori family at the time of his death in 1572. The cause of death is uncertain, but he rests at the Church of San Cristoforo degli Adimari in Florence.
Just before his death (22 September 1607), Allori requested burial at the same church as Bronzino. Together, they were two of the last prominent Florentine masters with an undiluted Tuscan heritage stretching back to Fra Bartolomeo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Andrea del Sarto worked in an unbroken chain alongside Bartolomeo and Da Vinci. Sarto trained Pontormo, who taught Bronzino in turn. Bronzino tutored Allori, seen as one of the last great Mannerist Renaissance artists.
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