“Few people train and draw…so that art falls and strays from the truth”. So wrote Agnolo di Cosimo Mariano di Tori, who was born on 17 November 1503 into a poor family in Monticelli, near Florence. Better known by his nickname Bronzino (or ‘bronze one’, perhaps because of his auburn hair or ruddy complexion), he became painter and poet at the court of Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Until recently, Bronzino has resided in the doghouse of art history – his Mannerist style, deeply unfashionable for centuries, even led one early twentieth century American art critic to predict he would sink into obscurity.
Some of Bronzino’s coldly classical canvases have not helped his reputation, and his famous Allegory of Venus and Cupid, with its over-the-top eroticism and cryptic symbolism, certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (check out the bemused visitors in room 8 of the National Gallery where the work hangs!). But drawing is the best place to start with Bronzino. A quick look at his sketches, studies, modelli (demonstration drawings) and cartoons done in black and red chalk and brown ink will leave you hooked!
The drawn line was the foundation of the Renaissance tradition from which Bronzino came. Via the concept of ‘disegno’, which literally means ‘design’ or ‘drawing’, but has been broadly translated as ‘creative capacity’ or ‘invention’, sixteenth century artists and thinkers fused labour and inspiration. Sketching from life, from ancient sculpture, and from the work of other artists, meant temporarily submitting to the discipline so as to free the imagination. Ultimately, the true artist was one ‘unable to think without drawing’.
Whereas Renaissance painting was all about finish, the hiding of the seams, drawing occupied a far looser visual category. Bronzino didn’t make an independent art of drawing – his drawings were exploratory and functional, helping him to resolve problems, refine outlines or contours of shading, and gauge the proportions and foreshortenings of figures. These works offer a vivid and intimate glimpse of the artist creatively contemplating on paper.
Bronzino’s earliest works mimic the supple hand of his teacher and friend, Pontormo, but by the late 1520s his personal graphic style began to emerge – drawings from this period are marked by a wiry tautness of line and subtle interior modelling. His sense of movement (the energy source for his art) is lively but focused. As court artist, Bronzino’s draughtsmanship transitioned to a more elegant or sophisticated pictorial style involving ink washes with white gouache highlights over chalk, revealing his technical virtuosity. Towards the end of his career he emulated the artistic language of Michelangelo, favouring gnarled muscularity, bulbous bodies, and meticulous linear definition.
We can use these drawings as a means to open up otherwise inaccessible moments of the past, to inspire us to maintain our working practices, or to give us the confidence to let our creative processes take place directly on paper. Bronzino urges us to pay attention to “the value, or force, of simple lines”, and for that he deserves a birthday toast.
To see more of Bronzino’s drawings have a look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photo gallery from its 2010 exhibition on the artist. Alternatively, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, a digital resource based on Bernard Berenson’s publication of the same name, allows you to search for nearly 4000 Renaissance drawings by artist, title (i.e. subject, in English or Italian), location, and technique.
Agnolo Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, c. 1545
Agnolo Bronzino, Study for the Portrait of a Young Man with a Lute, 1532-34
Agnolo Bronzino, Head of a Smiling Young Woman in Three-Quarter View, c. 1542-43 © Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques, Paris