I can remember it clearly, my original Bronzino, the first time I saw the Descent. I was wandering with a friend through the Basilica of Santa Croce, and as it was her first visit, we made sure to follow the tourist itinerary and passed the famous tombs, admired the Giottos, peeked our heads past the drapes into the Pazzi Chapel, listened to the hammers bang in the Scuola del Cuoio, and finally moved towards the museum. But by this point, something wasn’t quite right. We had hit that stage known worldwide to tourists checking off their list of sights, one I often see in the faces of tourists, young and old at my own job at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The fatigue of cultural saturation, of one who has seen too many paintings, taken in too many monuments, heard too many histories, had sunk in and my mind was awash. My head began to hurt as much as my feet and the attention I paid to each sight decreased with exponential speed. Despite attempts to remain respectful of what I passed by, the medieval and early renaissance works I saw in the museum, I didn’t even slow my pace. I glanced up, perhaps, at the Cimabue Crucifix, not noting its importance and fame or acknowledging what it had gone through (I had not yet read Robert Clark’s excellent account of the flood: Dark Water: Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence, and am a little too young to remember the international news coverage that surrounded the 1966 Arno flood itself). Just as I was about to make my way out of the Refectory, the sunlight streaming through the exit door in this last room of the museum, the solace of the cloister awaiting, I turned and looked back at a painting. Into that tired mind’s eye, one only seeing grays and longing for a respite, came a cornucopia of faces, of bodies whose flesh twisted and intertwined in clothing of brilliant pastel colors. It was Agnolo Bronzino’s Descent of Christ Into Limbo.
The story was not one I knew. Growing up in the northeast of the United States, in a family whose church affiliation favorited Presbyterianism and who attendance could best be described as infrequent (we were mostly “Christmas-eve Christians”), the complex narratives of the Catholic story are ones that I only began to understand and appreciate relatively recently, as an adult, primarily through art and the architecture of the places that house it. The Harrowing of Hell, or Christ’s descent into hell, sheol, or limbo to rescue the deserving men and women from the Old Testament, all those that had died since the beginning of time, forms part of the Anastasis when portrayed in art (Christ’s journey between Crucifixion and Resurrection)(see note 1). The story may date (at least in its written form) to the first half of the first millenium (CE) in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus (2). In Part II, Chapter 2(18):
We then were in Hades, with all who had fallen asleep since the beginning of the world. And at the hour of midnight there rose a light as if of the sun, and shone into these dark regions; and we were all lighted up, and saw each other (3).
Painted in 1522, Agnolo Bronzino portrayed this illumination mid process, having already risen from beneath a rock the important mothers and fathers of the Old Testament. Adam and Eve alongside John the Baptist (and many others) stand behind Christ, while below Judith directs our attention to the scene holding a sword that bears, on its hilt, the signature of the artist. Locked within the faces of the painting, to the knowing, are portraits of Bronzino’s contemporaries, friends, and even a self portrait in the upper left (described in detail in Caroline Koller’s post, Bronzino’s 1552 Social Network Page).
Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, often called simply Bronzino was born on November 11, the same day as this post, 511 years ago in 1503. Much has already been written on his career as court painter to the Medici, writer of bawdy poetry, and on his role in the transition from Renaissance artistic styles towards Mannerism. Curious readers should seek out the exhibition catalogs for both the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition: Bronzino. Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici that ran from September 2010–January 2011, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Drawings of Bronzino which ran from January–April 2010. Both catalogs document the artist’s life and the role he plays in the Florentine artistic patrimony, from pupil of Pontormo in the early 16th century through to his influence as teacher and father figure to Alessandro Allori.
But if he was so important (even at the time of my “discovery” of Bronzino, the two international exhibitions mentioned above were already being planned), why had I never heard of him? Elizabeth Cropper, of the National Gallery of Art, in the Strozzi exhibition catalog, describes a prolonged and systematic degradation of the artist, alongside mannerism (4), for its decadent style and, especially in terms of religious art, scandalous eroticism, filled with figures so “delicate and supple” that they ran the risk of leading church attendees astray (5). I think that his legacy too had become overshadowed by the Florentine artists of the two previous generations, artists who have become now two of the most famous artists to have ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci (51 years older than Bronzino) and Michelangelo (28 years older than Bronzino). It is in this shadow of fame that I found Bronzino, hanging there in Santa Croce, as Stendhal had found him during his apocryphal Florentine visit, at the end of a long day.
There is something in a picture if for two hours one can stand before it forgetting tight boots and swollen feet (6).
Is it possible to be a fan of an artist in the way that others might seek out opportunities to connect with their local team or favorite celebrity? I am not ashamed to admit that the very beauty that once condemned Bronzino to historical obscurity is the very thing that first attracted me to his work. The figures and often their compositions are strikingly, often stunningly, beautiful. And while they did not inspire religious devotion from me, they did begin me, more than other artists, on a journey. This is the gift that art and museums offer: the ignition of wonder and the provisioning of direction. Through Bronzino’s portraits, I have been encouraged to understand the lives of the ruling elite of Medician Tuscany. His religious works have introduced me to the stories of the Harrowing, but many others such as Moses and the Gathering of Manna (frescoed in the private chapel of Duchess Eleonora of Toledo within the Palazzo Vecchio, one of the best mannerist spaces anywhere).
I have seen now most of his works in Florence, of which there are many. I have visited the incredible portraits in the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti, obviously, but there are many more treasures to uncover in some of the city’s lesser known corners. One example is the Resurrection, in the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, a work that I think of as the companion piece to the Descent, painted also in 1552, and with almost exactly the same dimensions, featuring a centered Christ figure (with the same face) enveloped in intertwined bodies (this piece is worth visiting despite the dreary darkness of the chapel in which it hangs).
Further north in Milan, is one of two allegorical (and curiously nude) portraits, the Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune (the other is the Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). When one begins to look, one begins to find Bronzino’s work all around, including here in the United States. It has been through visiting and photographing these works and then researching their stories that my fandom has developed and grown. He has become to me somewhat like an indie band that no one yet knows about, one that has yet to cross into the mainstream. Perhaps I feel as if my connoisseurship gives me some hipster credentials? “One good way to decipher whether or not an artist is hipster is if your non-hipster friends to have never heard of them (7).” Whatever the case, the works of this artist and my attempts at seeing them, photographing them, and understanding them more, have provided me with a way to focus my travels.
As a photographer, I am most interested in capturing the spaces I visit, to create a visual pause that will enable me to recall a place, walk back to a moment, make a feeble attempt at re-breathing that air, opening my eyes again on that scene. The making of memories has become inextricably linked to seeing in the way that I learned to see through the lens. Using this devise a degree deeper allows me to, if even for a moment, take a step back to another time or place, even a fantastical or allegorical one like that shown in the Descent. I take a leap through the window of my photo and then again through the frame of the painting. The photos in this post and the many more shared on my Flickr account are a way of reconnecting and remembering. They are, for me, a form of time travel.
So, with that, I wish a very Happy Birthday to you Agnolo and offer you my thanks. I think the digital age is going to find you well. As photographic policies loosen, I know that more will discover you and share your work. Perhaps too they will begin to take many of the same learning journeys that your paintings have inspired me to pursue.
Guest blogger (text and images) Darren Milligan leads strategy for digital outreach at the Center for Learning and Digital Access at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There he researches and develops resources for making online museum assets accessible and useful to educators and learners, including producing experiences such as online games and interactives, managing social media initiatives, and directing websites, including the online portal for educators at the Institution, learning.si.edu, a past recipient of two Webby Awards.
Notes to the text:
- Leslie Ross, entry on “Anastasis”, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary (Greenwood, 1996), pp. 10–11.
- The Catholic Encyclodpedia, entry on “Harrowing of Hell”, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company: New York), http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=5546, retrieved 9 November 2014.
- Peter, Kirby, “Gospel of Nicodemus”, Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelnicodemus-roberts2.html, retreived 9 November 20
- Elizabeth Cropper, “The fortuna critica of Agnolo Bronzino”, in Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali (eds.) Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici (Mandragora: Firenze, 2010), pp 23–33.
- Raffaello Borghini as quoted in Lala Morini’s catalog entry for Resurrection, in Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali (eds.) Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici (Mandragora: Firenze, 2010), p 306.
- F. C. Green, Stendhal (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p 94.
- WikiHow editors, “How to Be a Hipster”, WikiHow, http://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-Hipster, retrieved 9 November 2014.