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Bronzino's Bodies: Fortunes of the Ideal Nude in an Age of Reform

Stuart Lingo, University of Washington, Seattle
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2012 – 2013

In 1552 Agnolo Bronzino (1503 – 1572) installed his monumental altarpiece Christ in Limbo in a chapel beside the principal portal of Santa Croce, one of the most frequented churches in Florence. The panel immediately occasioned intense debate. It was hailed as an artistic triumph, in part because it amply displayed Bronzino’s command of the beautiful nudes so admired in much Central Italian art of the period. The very prominence of the nude, however, made the work’s success as an altarpiece more debatable. Alfonso de’ Pazzi (1509 – 1555), an aristocratic poet notorious for biting sarcasm, imagined a worshiper entering the church to pray and confronting Bronzino’s showpiece: “Excuse the painter, you who stop and stare, for his intention was to form Christ, the saints, and all that — but he mistook a brothel for Paradise.” De’ Pazzi’s barbed verses destabilize period and modern readings that see physical beauty in religious art as reflecting divine beauty and goodness and point to a culture at odds with itself about the status and purpose of contemporary art, particularly religious art. The book on which I am working probes this impasse and contends that the determination to place the ideal nude at the core of some of the most ambitious sixteenth-century Italian religious art represents a daring experiment that remains insufficiently interrogated.

In a papal Rome ever more concerned with religious upheaval throughout Europe, Michelangelo’s unprecedented investment in the nude in sacred art came under increasing scrutiny from the 1540s, particularly amid the polemics stimulated by his Last Judgment, unveiled in the Sistine Chapel in 1541. In Florence, however, the Medici dukes continued for a time to tolerate and even encourage the art of the nude in their determination to maintain Florentine primacy in the developing culture wars of Italy. In this context, Bronzino pursued experiments that extended and transformed Michelangelo’s proposals in critical ways. He brought the nude from the papal chapel, with its restricted audience, to urban churches frequented by a broad public. Further, despite the marmoreal surfaces of many of Bronzino’s mature works, I would contend that from early in his career he explored the fertile tensions inherent in an idealizing style with intertwined roots in canonical artistic sources and life drawing, allowing traces of the studio and the model to surface in ostensibly ideal figures. This investment, although acutely registered by de’ Pazzi, has been little studied. It has been the focus of my research at CASVA.

The tensions between life and art were built into the subject of one of Bronzino’s first significant commissions, Pygmalion of c. 1529 – 1530. Intended as the cover for a portrait of the handsome young patrician Francesco Guardi (1514 – 1554) by Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557), the panel is a precocious meditation on art’s fraught engagement with the body, desire, and Venus. Rich with allusive references to the canons of art, the work also compels reflection on the real bodies of life drawing as Bronzino dramatizes a classical sculpture becoming flesh, its arresting gaze implicating the beholder as a new Pygmalion. The issues the painting stages — the affecting power of images and the tensions between the sources and ambitions of representation — became recurring themes for Bronzino in several of his most significant mature religious works.

Christ in Limbo exemplifies these, and it is Bronzino’s “Last Judgment,” a programmatic assertion of the power of his art in an increasingly contentious cultural environment. To celebrate his command of the rich Florentine artistic tradition and of a range of pictorial genres, Bronzino explores the signifying potential of alluring feminine beauty as well as the heroic Michelangelesque male nude and joins ideal bodies with portraits of prominent Florentines. Remarkably, Bronzino seems to identify his enterprise most closely with the Biblical heroine Judith, whose  prominent figure in the right foreground of the altarpiece conjoins an idealized body with the face of Costanza da’ Sommaia, a young aristocrat renowned for her beauty and virtue. Like Pygmalion’s statue, Costanza fixes the viewer with a riveting gaze, demanding attention to her beauty and, through that surface, to the pictorial, cultural, and religious discourses she embodies.

Bronzino’s art thus becomes a site in which the allure, the power, and the inherent instability of a Christian art of sensual beauty are self-consciously staged and explored. The manner in which his religious works meditate on their own fashioning and the status of their claims have impressed, confused, and disturbed observers from the sixteenth century to the present. Resisting univocal interpretation or appropriation, the ambivalent bodies of Bronzino’s paintings are ideal figures through which to probe the experimental, radical, and ultimately fragile Renaissance investment in the nude in sacred art.

Stuart Lingo will return to his position as associate professor of art history at the University of Washington, Seattle, for the 2013 – 2014 academic year.

Related Publications

The image found in the original report can be accessed in Center 33.

Related Artists

Bronzino, Agnolo
Italian
, 1503 - 1572
Michelangelo
Italian
, 1475 - 1564