Agnolo Bronzino
Biography of Mannerist Painter, Medici Portrait Artist.

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Allegory with Venus and Cupid
(c.1545) National Gallery, London.
By the Medici court painter
Agnolo Bronzino.

Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572)


Trained and Adopted by Pontormo
Early Religious Paintings
Ecclesiastical Paintings
Artistic Reputation

For details of the pigments
used by Agnolo Bronzino,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


One of the most famous Old Masters in Florence during the mid-16th century, Bronzino exemplified all that was good and bad in the elaborate style of Mannerism that was so fashionable in Italy at the time. His own style of Mannerist painting - characterized by a cool, detached realism, courtly elegance and vivid colour - earned him numerous commissions from rich patrons, including the powerful Medici family in Florence, to whom he was Court Painter from 1539. Much of his success can be attributed to his formative training under the great Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556), one of the pioneering Mannerist artists of the cinquecento. Bronzino's greatest works include Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi (1540, Uffizi Gallery, Florence); Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1545, National Gallery, London) and the Deposition of Christ (1549, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon).



Trained and Adopted by Pontormo

Born Agnolo di Cosimo, the son of a butcher in Monticelli, near Florence, the details of his humble background remain obscure. Even the origin of his nickname "Bronzino" (bronze-coloured) is unclear, although it is usually attributed to his dark complexion. According to the 16th century artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), Bronzino first learned goldsmithing under the goldsmith Raffaellino del Garbo, before being apprenticed to the famous Jacopo Pontormo. The young Bronzino had a special relationship with his teacher, Pontormo, who became his adoptive father and exerted a strong influence on his painting style. (It is said that Pontormo inserted a child portrait of Bronzino into his oil painting Joseph in Egypt, 1518, National Gallery, London.) Pontormo was a pioneering figure in Mannerist art, a style which was a clear departure from the graceful classicism of High Renaissance painting, and which was characterized by the use of intense colours and rather artificial compositions of figures in elaborate poses. If Bronzino failed to inherit Pontormo's unique talent for drawing, he did absorb his master's skill in a wide range of different media, including oils as well as tempera and fresco painting.



Early Religious Paintings

Bronzino began by painting religious subjects for churches in Florence, working closely with Pontormo, and copying his style. An early example of their collaboration was the Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita, close to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Pontormo did the panel paintings for the altarpiece - the magnificent Deposition (1525-8) - plus the fresco painting of the Annunciation on the side wall. Bronzino was assigned the mural painting which decorated the dome, but none of these frescoes have survived. However, we do have his Lamentation (1530, Uffizi) which shows the strong influence of Michelangelo (his hero) and Pontormo. His early allegorical work The Panciatichi Holy Family (1530-48, Uffizi) is revealing for both its technical skill as well as its portrayal of bodily motion, a key characteristic of his art.

Bronzino's personal style of painting borrowed heavily from that of his master Pontormo, with the result that - in the case of works created around 1530 - it is almost impossible to tell them apart. That said, the younger man lacked the emotional intensity that was such a feature of Pontormo's work, while his colouring and brushwork were harder and more brittle. Moving away from the more flowing lines of his master, he created works that had a much stiller atmosphere, with carefully posed figures and an enamel-like finish. This made some of his religious paintings seem artificial, full of elegant posturing yet empty of feeling.


However, when he turned the same detached style to portrait art, he created a new kind of portrait - aloof and superior - well-suited to many of the haughty aristocrats he was portraying. Thus it was for his portrait paintings that Bronzino received most of his acclaim, as he painted the leading aristocrats, poets, musicians, and scholars of his day. He received his first commission from the Medici family in 1539, when he assisted in the elaborate decorations for the wedding of Cosimo I de' Medici to Eleonora di Toledo. Shortly afterwards he was appointed Chief Painter to the Medici court and produced several portraits of Duke Cosimo I de'Medici and his family.

Bronzino's best known Renaissance portraits include those of Cosimo and Eleonora, along with courtiers like Bartolomeo Panciatichi and his wife Lucrezia. These and other portraits represent a pictorial chronicle of the Florentine elite, complete with their expressions of arrogance and overbearing self-confidence. In addition, they were noted for their intense colour and meticulous attention to the fabric and detail of the costumes worn by their aristocratic subjects. In addition, look for flesh that seems to be made out of porcelain. Among his best works are: Portrait of Bartolomeo Panciatichi (1540, Uffizi); Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi (1540, Uffizi); Eleanora of Toledo and her Son Giovanni de'Medici (1544-45, Uffizi); Portrait of Laura Battiferri (1555-60, Palazzo Vecchio). In addition, Bronzino also executed several idealized portraits - see, for instance, Dante (c.1530, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) - as well as a number of allegorical portraits, including that of a Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria painted as Neptune.

Ecclesiastical Paintings

As well as portraiture, Bronzino continued to paint decorative scenes for chapels and tapestries at the Medici court. In 1540/41, he began work on the fresco decoration of the Chapel of Eleanora di Toledo in the Palazzo Vecchio - see, for instance, his mural painting Crossing the Red Sea (1541–42).

In 1544-45 he painted the famous Allegory with Venus and Cupid (National Gallery, London), showing Venus, the mother of Cupid, kissing the winged god, and taking away his arrow as he touches her breast. This is perhaps Bronzino's best-known work, and has been the subject of a great deal of discussion and disagreement about the central figures who form a complex allegory, the meaning of which is still not clear. It was painted with the most expensive colour pigments and has a flawless surface, typical of Bronzino's style. It embodies the intelligence, intrigue, and danger of the Medici court. Rather like a precious jewel, it is an icy, polished, beautiful object for our contemplation. It is typical of the Mannerist style to fill the painting with lots of figures and objects, giving a sense of claustrophobia that is often characteristic of Bronzino's work. The complicated symbolism and moral tone of the painting would have delighted both Duke Cosimo, who commissioned it, and King Francis I of France, who received it as a gift.

His tempera panel painting Deposition of Christ (1549, Museum of Fine Arts, Besancon) was another crowded composition, which adhered to the courtly Florentine style of Mannerism. Originally painted for the oratory of Eleanora of Toledo in the Palazzo Vecchio, it was presented to Nicholas de Gravalle as a gift shortly after it was finished and remained in the Carmelite chapel containing his grave in Besancon, until it was removed during the French Revolution.

Artistic Reputation

In general, however, one can say that Bronzino was less successful as a religious painter than as a portraitist. His religious art lacked feeling as well as authenticity (too contrived), and occasionally borrowed too heavily from his hero Michelangelo: see, for instance, his last grand fresco The Martyrdom of St Lawrence (1569, Church of S.Lorenzo), in which most of the poses were 'borrowed' either from Michelangelo or Raphael. Although "Mannerism" was not identified or defined until the 20h century, it was Bronzino's over-artificial style which helped to give the style a bad name.

Nonetheless, Bronzino's work was seen to be stylish, sophisticated and scholarly, and he enjoyed a high reputation for his intellect and his poetry, as well as his art. He continued painting for the Medici until well into his sixties, while in 1561-3 he was a founder member of the Academy of Art in Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno), the first official Academy in Europe to foster what is now called Academic Art. However, by the end of his life, his style was becoming slightly outdated, as patrons began to be attracted by Baroque painting, which exhibited greater interest in dynamic movement and dramatic, elaborate effects. Bronzino's pupils included Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), who became one of the leading Florentine painters of the late cinquecento, and whom Bronzino adopted in a replication of his own relationship with Pontormo.

In addition to his painting, Bronzino was also a master of tapestry art. Around 1545, for instance, he designed a set of tapestries on the story of Joseph, for the Palazzo Vecchio.

Works by Bronzino can be seen in several of the world's best art museums including the Uffizi Gallery and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, as well as the National Gallery in London.

• For more about Mannerism, see: Homepage.
• For an evaluation of important Mannerist pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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