Put yourself in the position of an up-and-coming artist living in early-sixteenth-century Italy. Now imagine trying to distinguish yourself from the other artists living in your town: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, or Titian. Is it any wonder that the Italian High Renaissance lasted only 30 years? Popes and kings may have loved it, but artists needed to go try something else. You can’t compete with perfection.
That’s the chills-down-the-spine artistic dilemma you encounter throughout “The Drawings of Bronzino” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The fiendishly talented Florentine Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572) wasn’t alone at this moment, of course. He and the other great artists of his star-crossed generation—Pontormo, Parmigianino, Tintoretto, El Greco—fragged every convention they found, deliberately making their work harsh, unattractive, intentionally different. The golden age of Renaissance miracles and harmony dissolves before our eyes into optical ambiguity and something unmistakably modern, connecting Bronzino to us in ways Renaissance artists never do. The Mannerists’ visual fields are shallow and hard to read. Spatial ratio, color, and real psychology: Everything is new, different, convincing, and influential. Bronzino and his contemporaries were the punks and New Wavers of their time.
Bronzino’s Italy (like punk’s New York) was a mess: The Plague had struck, and on May 5, 1527, Rome was sacked. Thousands of civilians were killed, churches destroyed, the pope jailed. What were artists to do? Bronzino performed a vivisection on the vocabulary of painting, particularly when it came to portraying overbred, high-strung aristocrats. Bronzino’s people, he said, are “steel inside and ice without.” It’s not so evident in his drawings, but his painted portraits leave one colder and more weirded out than perhaps any other artist in Western art. But it’s a new weird, a hot kind of cold.
Unlike the beatific beings of the Renaissance, Bronzino’s psychologically effete orchids and tainted loves, isolated in shallow interiors and irradiated by iridescent light, gaze at us with armored inward looks. These faces are not mirrors of the soul; they’re masks. Yet Bronzino gets the coldness of his subjects to rub up against his intense painterly method, and produces wild sparks. The eye ravishes these gaga lords and ladies clad in silk and satin.
Critics have lambasted Bronzino and the Mannerists for centuries as enfeebled and affected. What you see in the Met’s show are the bones of transforming the Renaissance into something more alive. I’d suggest speeding through the first of the galleries to the remaining two, where you’re treated to several of the most extraordinary drawings of the past 400 years. I swooned for a male nude whose posterior is rendered lovingly and erotically, combining strength, softness, surrender, and sexual tension. Nearby is the exquisitely sweet head of a young girl, whose luscious beauty is infinitely more appealing to me than the remoteness of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
Although I adore the Italian High Renaissance, I’d rather look at Mannerism. The former is ordered, integrated, otherworldly, and grandiose; it leaves you feeling hungry for something flawed and of-the-flesh. Bronzino is among the first to break through that stultifying perfection, into a reality that breathes.