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Bronzino and the Mannerist Portrait

Bronzino Portrait of a Young Man, oil on panel, 1530s (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Bronzino, Lodovico Capponi, Oil on panel, 1550-55 (Frick Collection) Speakers: David Drogin and Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Beth Harris: So, let's talk about mannerist. The mannerist style and how it appears in portrait painting. David Drogin: Okay. Beth: So, this is by Bronzino? David: This is a painting by Bronzino. This is called A Portrait of a Young Man from around 1540. We don't know exactly who it is and therefore it has that title and it's located in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beth: So, we can all go see it. David: We can all go see it if we're in New York. Yes, absolutely. Beth: You know, it looks so elegant. And so, immediately I think of mannerism. David: Yeah, absolutely. The elegance of the image, both in terms of the way that it's painted and in terms of how this young man presents himself to the things that really stand out, so actually maybe we should start by saying, in general, what some trademarks of mannerisms are and how this relates to it. Beth: So, that elegance. David: Okay, elegance is definitely one thing. A kind of hyper-sophisticated elegance. Other things that are typical of mannerism include a very enigmatic quality, a puzzling quality. Beth: Right. Things that don't make sense. David: The harder a mannerist image is to understand, the better it was to a certain extent. Beth: Right. And they seem to almost make things confusing on purpose. David: Absolutely. And then also, another important characteristic of mannerism, and we could say this about sculpture as well, is that the artist virtuosity becomes an integral part of the work of arts meaning. Some people call mannerism the stylish style. Not only because of the subject matter and how it's presented, but also because of the creation of the work of art and its technical difficulty, the kind of fireworks display of technical skill is also an important aspect. Beth: And sometimes I think that it almost seems like if they did things wrong, they were kind of showing off a kind of sophistication in an odd way. David: Absolutely, or at least making you wonder if they did it wrong is part of what a mannerist artist might do. Beth: Right. I thought I remembered one artist writing to another one, "Next time you do a painting of the figure, put the right hand on the left arm." David: That wouldn't surprise me. Beth: To do it wrong in a way, doing it wrong, proved that you knew how to do it right. David: Yep. Beth: So easily that it was a kind of showing off to do it wrong. David: Sure, sure. And also we should say, these characteristics, the reason why they emerged, there's lots of different theories people have. In part perhaps because a new generation of artists starting with Pontormo, but then also Parmigiano and Bronzino. They needed to do something different. They felt like all of the possibilities had been exhausted in the high Renaissance, the works or Leonardo and Michael Angelo and Raphael and Tischen. Beth: Well, it does kind seem after the school of Athens that the height of naturalism of what the Renaissance wanted to do had been reached and what was there for new artists to do? David: And so a new generation of artists turned away from the priorities of naturalism and classicism and the overwriting logic that we saw in the earlier 1500's. Also, mannerism can be tied to the Medici, both in terms of the election of a Medici Pope, Leo X in 1513, but also the return of the Medici to Florence in the teens and especially in the 20's and 30's. Beth: So, what was it about the Medici? David: Well, when they become Popes and when they return as Duke's of Florence, ultimately, they cultivate a very, very sophisticated court because they want to prove that they are peers of the great court rulers of Europe. So, the mannerist style develops in a way, in partnership with these efforts of their leadership to create a, as I said before, a hyper-sophisticated elegant setting for their court. Beth: So, the Medici are no longer pretending to be allies of the republic and they're really in a way, embracing a kind of aristocratic lifestyle. David: Yes, certainly by the middle of the 1500's, definitely. So, let's talk about how this image reflects these kinds of ideas and themes. Beth: Yeah. David: First of all, obviously, the way the young man is dressed, the way that he's standing, the expression on his face all seem to exude this very cool sophistication. Beth: Detachment. David: A great detachment and a hyper-articulated elegance. All of these things are, in a way, characteristic of both manneristic life as it was lived and mannerist art. We could also talk about the way that it's painted. Bronzino is one of the masters of the oil painting technique of the 16th century and when you're standing in front of this painting and looking at it, it's hard to see how it was actually painted. You can barely see any kind of brush stroke or any kind of surface texture. Beth: So polished. David: Exactly. It's as if he's transcended the medium itself in it's creation, which was also definitely a goal of a mannerist artist. Beth: Right. David: What else can we say about it in terms of mannerism? Beth: He looks, you know, very distant, very detached, but also in a way, very posed to me. Like this is not a position that one would catch one in naturally. David: Exactly. He hasn't been caught off guard. Beth: No, he looks like he's very much like a model, sort of taking a pose. David: That's true and that's an important part both of mannerist culture as it was actually lived and mannerist portraiture. The idea of the pose, the conspicuous nature of posing was actually something that people looked upon favorably. Beth: It's so weird because we kind of look down at it. We think people are insincere. David: We have a different take on it, certainly. Beth: Right. David: But at the time, especially in the Medici circles of this period, obviously artificiality was a goal of proper social behavior in elite circles. Your identity was something that was to be performed. You presented yourself to be seen in a certain way. And it was understood to be a performance, something artificial. It was supposed to seem effortless, but it was supposed to be clear that the real you, whoever you were, was not something on display. That would be gouache. Instead, a very polished artificial, superficial kind of performance is how you presented yourself in these court circles and as we can see, actually in this painting, as well. Beth: So a kind of mask. David: Absolutely. Beth: And that kind of fits in here. David: Mannerists were obsessed with masks because of this idea that it presented something to be seen and it was obviously hiding something underneath. This painting addresses those kinds of themes in several ways. First of all, because of his conspicuous pose, as we can see it, and usually a portrait is to present someone's physical appearance and identity, but the way he's looking at us, it's almost as if he's saying, Beth: "Who I am." Right. David: Which is very, very typically mannerist. Beth: He also seems to be condescending to us, in a way. David: Perfectly, absolutely. So, there's all of that just in the way that he presents himself, it's typically mannerist, but to return to the idea of the mask, there are several masks or references to masks in the painting. Some people say that his hard, kind of, porcelain like skin makes his face look like a mask. Beth: Yeah. David: Especially because his eyes don't look in the same direction. Beth: And also the way that the light, sort of, falls on his face. David: Yep, it is very, very mask like, but then we can also look at the face that's like a mask at the edge of the table facing out towards the viewer and there's another one on the arm of the chair in the lower right and then if you look very carefully, at the very bottom of the painting, the folds in the fabric of his pants leg, form two eyes and a nose and another mask, therefore in the painting and this idea of things being hidden and you have to search for the meaning and suddenly discover things that you hadn't. Beth: And things not making sense. David: And things not making sense. All of these are important characteristics of mannerism. Beth: And we can talk about the book in that case, right? Because normally what would be in a portrait would help to tell us something about the sitter. David: Right. Beth: And in this case we kind of don't have anything except those masks. David: Here we see a book, but it's closed. It's not open for us to read and understand. Just like how we are presented with a man, but he too, because of the way he looks at us and is painted as closed off to us. Beth: And remains an enigma. David: Like the window or door in the back that's also hidden from view in a way like the book is closed. Let's look at our other image as well. Beth: Okay. David: This is Bronzino's portrait of Lodovico Capponi. Approximately the same date and also here in New York City. This is at the Frick Collection. Beth: His fingers, those elongated boneless fingers are also very typical of mannerism. David: It's very similar to the last painting we looked at and to mannerism in general with it's refined elegance and the rather elongated forms, the face, the cool polish, and the sort of firm skin that we expect to see. Here, he's not quite as aloof looking as the last image, but still there's that sense that he's posing for us. He's presenting himself to be seen in a particular way and we're never going to know who the real person underneath is. So, again, a kind of virtuosic painting, but also very good demonstration of how you were supposed to behave in upper class society. Just like in the last painting we had a book that was closed, so we were presented with something that we expect to understand, but are prevented from seeing into it. Here too, we have the same thing. Beth: He's holding. ... a cameo and usually when a man is painted in a portrait with a cameo, we see who it is because it's his lover ... Beth: Yeah, right. David: ... or some family member. Beth: Right. David: And here he holds it. We expect to see it and understand it, but he also covers her face with his finger. Beth: Yeah. It's so fascinating how mannerism evolves a style that's so different from the goals, the naturalistic goals of the Renaissance. David: Yeah and when you think about mannerist portraits like these, in your head you can compare it to something like the Mona Lisa, where she's not obviously posing and Leonardo's effort in a painting like that is seemingly more honest and open and she's engaging with you in a kind of expressive way. Beth: Right. David: Whereas in these mannerist portraits, these two, as well as many others, you are presented with someone, but at the very same time you are precluded from understanding who they are. Beth: Yep. Do you think that this has anything to do with the reformation that's beginning to happen, or not yet? David: I would say it's too early for that. David: I think it has to do more with court life especially because these are such secular images. Beth: That's true. (piano playing)