Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Queen's Skirt Explodes, part II, this time with Bronzino's help

In a post on May 5th, I had written about the way that some portraits seems to privilege the satins and silks and ermines and jewels of their owners over... their faces, and I had given you a photograph of a painting from my series exploring the peculiarities of that subject...

And I have found a new painter who seduces with his brushed fabrics. Agnolo Bronzino, an extraordinarily talented Renaissance painter, lesser known than some of his contemporaries, has had two exhibitions devoted to him in the past year, one at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence last winter and the other at the Metropoitan Museum of Art in new York last winter and spring. The catalogues are out, and there is a review by the very perceptive Ingrid Rowland in The New York Review of Books from May 26 (pages 8-10).  It is a wonderful, thorough review; read it... it is really fine. She outlines the way he worked, his basing of some works on Michaelangelo's (and she reproduces a drawing as proof of this sculptural echo), and Cosimo de' Medici's choice of Bronzino as his court painter.  She mentions that Cosimo de' Medici thought in terms of politics, geography, education, and economics.  He did not, for example, import textiles; Cosimo "set up his own Florentine silk works" (p.10).  And, she says,  Bronzino "knew how to use art as a form of publicity"; as he painted Cosimo's consort, Eleonora de Toledo,  he painted those very textiles perfectly (p. 10). Look:

What stays with you? The dress. The child's face is easy to love, in part, I think, because his clothing is so softly done. Eleonora's face has no chance up against those patterns, the shoulder laces, the enormous stylized flower on her chest.  In Bronzino's defense, Rowland writes that perhaps Eleonora "seems less haughty than melancholy; she was probably already beginning to suffer from the consumption that eventually killed her" (p. 10).  Her face is very far removed from the foreground, it seems to me; perhaps because she was ill.  But we can imagine another version of this portrait, one where her face, pale and subtlety-done as it is, comes forward, where she is seen as a person who will soon not be here, and knows it, one where the dress fades into the distance because the person is what matters. Bronzino was more than skilled enough to create this other portrait, where the face is the thing ... and yet he chose the dress.  I have sometimes thought that when artists paint these ruffles and laces so perfectly that they are adding to their resume, saying, "if I can paint these, I can paint anything."  This seems more than a few lines on a resume... this may be the most civilized, and early form of ... dare I say it? ... advertisement, for the silks of Florence. They are lovely ...

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