Bronzino – Limmericks and Holy Pictures

I thought I’d posted more of the enchanting observations on a few of the paintings that were in the Bronzino exhibition that just closed in Firenze. You may recall that Italian author Roberto Piumini wrote doggeral verses in the style popular with the painter and his friends at the Academia and Konrad Eisenbichler used them as his inspiration for English verses. They thought of them as “ways to look at Bronzino”.

I think this is perhaps one of the loveliest paintings I have ever seen of a sleeping child – you almost feel John’s kiss awakening his little cousin.

*“Dear Mary,” Joseph says, “if in a while,
Our little Jesus should awake
And want to eat, I’ll light this little pile
of sticks so you might cook a meal or bake,

But note,” then Joseph adds, “his cousin John
has come to play with him, and when they’re done
Pursuing one another on the lawn
They’ll both be very hungry, for a bun.”

“I’ll bake some sweets for them,” she says and smiles,
“Some buns, some pastries, and a healthy snack.
I’ll make some cookies, too, in various styles.
But where is my flour? Where is that sack?”

Holy Family with Saint John (Panciatichi Maddona) – 1538-40 – was one of five paintings commissioned by the wealthy and influential Bartolomeo Panciatichi.

«Maria,»
dice Giuseppe, «se fra poco,
Gesù si sveglierà, a vorrà mangiare,
io accenderò con la legna un bel fuoco,
ma tu, che cos’avrai da cucinare?”

«E poi,»
Giuseppe dice, «è arrivato
anche Giovanni, suo cugino, e sai
che è un bambino molto affamato…
Maria, Maria, cos cusinerai?»

Lei sorride e risponde: «Farò
frittelle di farina, dolci e bionde.»
Vedi un sacco di farina? Io no.
Tu guarda melgio:” dove si nasconde?

As with many painters of the period Bronzino found himself suddenly constrained by the decrees on art that came out of the Council of Trento – decrees that effected not only the spiritual but the physical content of what took place in Catholic churches. Subjects that had once been considered part of the normal Christian iconography were banned and strict use of symbols and groupings were carefully watched by the unsettled church authorities. This simple and beautiful Christ Crucified straddles the two worlds with a severity that is almost Protestant but with all the required iconography demanded by the Council. It was painted for Bartolemeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi, who at the time were suspected of having “Reformationist” leanings and were investigate by the Church until a gentle word from Cosimo caused the authorities to back away.

Christ Crucified – circa 1540 – Bronzino for the Panciatichi chapel.

Around the time that Bronzino became part of a group exploring the virtues of one form of art over the other – painting over sculpture being the most heatedly debated. Certainly this study could have been achieved in wood and polychrome but Bronzino’s technique and artistry has turned it into a “real dead-body”.

*Bel gioco l’altalena, in verità
si v agiù e poi su, alternamente.
Ma vedi? C’è qualcosa che non va
in questa altalena risplendente …

Un angelo la regge con la mano,
e il piccolo di destra porta su:
chi e quello che in basso, scuro e strano,
l’altro, a sinistra, tiene a tire giu?

Forse questa non è un’altalena…
E se un angelo salva l’innocente,
chi sarà quello che, con brutta lena,
trascina l’altro giù, dannatamente?

Saint Michael the Archangel – circa 1525-28 – the fact that it is on canvas, unusual for a time when most paintings were done on wood suggests this may have been a banner made for a confraternity.

A seesaw, wow! That’s lots of fun!
You’re up and down, you laugh and scream.
But look! This seesaw has begun
To go off-balance. See the beam?

An angel holds it in his hand,
And on the right that boy is up,
But on the left a grasping hand
has seized the boy that’s in that cup.

What kind of seesaw could this be?
If that’s an angel helping out
Then who’s that figure that I see
Grabbing the boy who seems to shout?

* Cherci nei Quadri/Hide and Seek
Roberto Piumini – Konrad Eisenbichler
2010 Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze
2010 Alias, Firenze
It may be purchased through their on-line store.

31 gennaio – Sant’Armentario

More Bronzino Dogs and Doggerel

In his portraits of the rich and ruling, Bronzino would include props that indicated the various virtues and achievements of his sitters. Take as an example the dog in this painting of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the first official portrait painted by the Florentine artist in 1530-32 during his stay in Pesaro. No doubt the dog was a favourite of young nobleman but he is also a symbol of his station in life. The animal would reflect his noble origins, hunting being the pastime of aristocrats. And notice how he draws our attention to two things very subtly: Guidobaldo’s hands lead our eyes to the helmet, indicating his military position and to his faithful companion, his hunting dog – there is no doubting his caste. The purpose of the large codpiece was not necessarily to suggest an actual physical feature of the 18 year old heir to the Duchy of Urbino but more to stress his virility and ability to produce sons to carry on the family line.

Guidobaldo II della Rovere – Bronzino 1530-32 Pesaro

And this portrait of unknown Lady – the exhibition catalogue goes into a lengthy hypothesis on her identity – is filled with symbolic details that would have literally painted a glowing picture of her character to all viewers. The little lap dog isn’t just a noble lady’s toy – a spaniel, such as this little guy, alludes to fidelity and in this case most likely refers to conjugal faithfulness. In the same way the rosary wrapped around her wrist tells us of her religious devotion and the books so readily to hand suggest that she is a lover of poetry. A devoted wife, a devote catholic and a devotee of poetry – the perfect portrait of a noblewoman.

Portrait of a Lady with a Lap Dog – Bronzino 1530-32 Pesaro (?)

And in their delightful verses – that they have wittily subtitled Twenty ways to look at Bronzino – Roberto Piumini and Konrad Eisenbichler remark on how well behaved this little creature is.

Ad una dama non pesa posare,
restando ferma lì, per ore e ore,
perché, alla fine, potrà ammirare,
il bel ritratto fatto dal pittore.

un cucciolo, però, come lo tieni?
A lui, cosa importa del ritratto?
Non lo fermi con lacci né con freni:
ma allora, questa dama, come ha fatto?

Guardi, e scopri il gioco. Lei teneva
qualcosa (ma che cosa?) e annuciava:
«Ura la butto!» ma non lo faceve,
e lui, paziente e immobile, aspettava.

This fine lady is willing to pose
For long hours and she doesn’t care
For she knows that this sitting all goes
For a portrait of her in her chair.

But, her little pet dog, what’s he know?
What’s he care of her portrait, so fine?
He is dying to jump up and go
Play with balls, and with toys, and with twine

Do you know how she made him sit so still?
She kept twirling that ball in her hand
With a grace that concealed a great skill
And enchanted her dog just as planned.

Cherci nei Quadri/Hide and Seek
Roberto Piumini – Konrad Eisenbichler
2010 Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze
2010 Alias, Firenze
It may be purchased through their on-line store

18 gennaio – Santa Prisc

Painterly Poetry and Dog(gerel)

The second visit to the Bronzino exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi was as delightful as the first. It was a chance to examine closer many of the paintings and related works and to read, more extensively, the fine explanations (in Italian and English) that put the works in context. An added feature was the burlesque verses in the style of Bronzino, again in both Italian and English. As a member of the Academia the painter was expected to excel in more than one of the arts. He was a writer of poetry – serious, burlesque, doggerel and limerick poetry all of which circulated among his friends and some of which was published. The exhibition included a display of his literary works including this page, at the right, from a book of his burlesque poems.

In the spirit of this really remarkable exhibition curators Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali – to whom be all honour and glory! – have included burlesque verses for many of the works created by Italian writer-poet-actor Roberto Piumini who is known for his modern takes on mythological subjects. They then were used as inspiration by Konrad Eisenbichler, a well-known teacher of Renaissance studies at the University of Toronto, to write English poems in the same spirit.

Here is the first of a selection I’ll post over the next few days gleaned from their book that accompanies the exhibition: Cerchi nei QUADRI/Hide AND Seek* along with the picture the verses accompany. (Remember a left click will enlarge both Bartolomeo and his pup!)

Portrait of Bartolomeo Panciaticchi
(1541-5) oil on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi

Bartolomeo, d’acccordo, tu leggevi
tranquillament quel tu libricino
pieno di cose sagge, e riflettevi
nel bel silenso del tu balconino.

Lui ha abbaiato, sì, ma solamente
perché voleva un po’ farsi notare,
perché, lo sai, è fedele e intelligente,
ma ha voglia di muoversi, di andare …

Tu invece l’hai sgridato, e lui è fuggito,
e adesso è lì, stordito di dolore,
tristissimo, nascosto, impaurito …
Su, dagli una carezza, buon signore!

Detail of sorrowful pup!

Bartolemo, I know you were
Constantly reading a small tome
(A learned text, if I don’t err)
On your fine balcony at home,

When all at once he barked because
He wished to tell you he was there
And that, perhaps, his restless paws
needed to move and go somewhere.

You scowled at him and told him: “Hush!”
So now he sits, forlorn and sad,
With ears down low, his face a blush.
Give him a pat and make him glad!

* Cherci nei Quadri/Hide and Seek
Roberto Piumini – Konrad Eisenbichler
2010 Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze
2010 Alias, Firenze
It may be purchased through their on-line store.


15 gennaio – San Macario il Vecchio

Family Portraits

Despite my constant complaining about their website TrenItalia does make travel within Italy remarkably easy to most of the major cities. With their new Frecce high speed trains Napoli is only 90 minutes from Roma as is Firenze in the other direction. So Sunday it came as no surprise heading back on the 2010 out of Firenze to see a fair number of people in our car clutching – as where my friend Peter and I – programmes from the Maggio Musicale performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and catalogues from the Bronzino exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.

We had taken a morning train up and arrived – in the pouring rain – at Santa Maria Novella with enough time to catch the exhibition, have a leisurely lunch at Trattoria 4 Leoni and make the late afternoon performance at the Teatro Communale. And we were back home in Roma by 2200. A full day but a good one.

Peter had seen the exhibition earlier in the fall and wanted another peak in. I wasn’t all that familiar with Bronzino’s work so was more than happy to accompany him. We hadn’t reserved and being a Sunday and rainy we had to line up for about 20 minutes but as with all line ups here the wait had its entertainment value. Its always fun to watch the attempts to jump queue and the pantomimes of astonishment or indignation when the heretofore invisible line up is indicated and suggestions made that the culprit go to the end of it. The attendant was obviously adroit at handling myopic and offended patrons of the arts who had never waited in a line at any other museum anywhere else in the world.

As with so many of the exhibitions here the design was exceptional, the flow from early works through the allegorical, the sacred and court portraiture was presented with style and flair. Pieces were put into the context of other artists and influences of the period and included poetry by Bronzino and his contemporaries who were members of a poet’s society of the time. Descriptions were in Italian and English and included verses – again in Italian and English – written in the slightly doggerel style Bronzino and his friends used in verses circulated amongst themselves.

Angelo Bronzino was a Florentine born and bred and though his travels took him to Pesaro and the delle Rovere court he returned to his home town and the employ of Cosimo I de’Medici. He was official court portrait painter to the Medici family from 1539 until his death in 1572.

It was these portraits that I found the most interesting and that gave me the greatest pleasure. When discussing it later on the train with fellow passengers I mentioned that the details was incredible but that it was the eyes that gave his likeness of the great and those around them life 500 years later.


Even the formal clothing of the court can’t hide the cheerful aspects of a pudgy two year old Giovanni de’ Medici painted in 1545. As healthy a child as he looks in this portrait he suffered from tuberculosis in his early teenage years. He was the son chosen to enter the church and was first Archbishop of Pisa and then made a cardinal at the age of 17. Two years later he was dead from a malaria attack. He* and his mother Eleanor of Toledo are the subject of the remarkable painting chosen for the poster and catalogue cover for the exhibition.

One of the more intriguing works was this double sided portrait of Cosimo’s dwarf Morgante. Braccio di Bartolo (his nickname was a joke based on the name of a giant in an epic poem of the period) had joined Cosimo’s court around 1540. Though he was an entertainer he also was known for for his kindness and cleverness and was much beloved by the Duke. He accompanied him on several diplomatic missions and Cosimo bequeathed him land and the right to marry.

This two sided portrait shows Morgante preparing for the night hunt with an owl on the retro and triumphantly displaying his catch on the verso. In the 18th century it was considered an obscene work and his nakedness was heavily over-painted with vines and grapes. It has been recently restored and is now being displayed for the first time in several centuries as Bronzino painted it. Though he had some privilege at court, like all dwarfs, he was there as a curiosity and was often the object of ridicule and humiliation from courtiers, functionaries and courtesans. Now 450 years later they have all been forgotten but Morgante lives on in Bronzino’s work and in sculptures by Giambologna and Valerio Cioli.

With the time at hand I couldn’t fully appreciate all of the more than 80 works on display so it may mean another day trip up to Firenze. After all thanks to TrenItalia its only 90 minutes away.

There are several articles on the Internet on the exhibition and an interesting video in English on YouTube: Bronzino in Florence.

*Though most sources indicate that the sitter is Giovanni, as mentioned in the catalogue, recent suggestions have arisen that given the date of the portrait – 1545 – it may be his elder brother Francesco.

29 novembre – Sant’Andrea apotolo