Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati by Agnolo Bronzino

Portrait of Laura Battiferri by Agnolo Bronzino (c.1560)

My featured painting bears a strange resemblance to the painting I looked at in my last blog although they were painted about thirty years apart by two different Italian artists.  It is not unusual to see paintings featuring the same sitter or views of certain buildings or particular landscapes painted by different artists but it is somewhat unusual to look upon two portraits of two different women featuring a similar gesture towards a certain object which has been included in both of the works of art.  Sounds a little confusing?  Ok let me say that if you have just stumbled on to this page without looking at my previous blog (June 25th  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch by Andrea del Sarto) then go to that one first and read about that particular painting before you read more about today’s offering.

I am sure having now looked at the two paintings you can see the unusual similarity – the book and the pointing fingers.   My featured work of art today is a portrait completed by Agnolo Bronzino around 1560 and is entitled Ritratto di Laura Battiferri, moglie dello scultore Bartolomeo Ammannati  (Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati) and is housed in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  It is part of the Loeser Bequest of Palazzo Vecchio which comprises of over thirty works of art that the American collector Charles Alexander Loeser bequeathed to the Florence City Council on his death in 1928.  The idea behind his bequest was that he felt it would play a part in the enhancement and reconstruction of the ancient atmosphere of Palazzo Vecchio, which the Florentine Council was carrying out at that time.   One of the conditions Loeser made was that he laid down procedures for the layout of his bequest, which was to be displayed in several rooms in Palazzo Vecchio, and that they were to be kept united in perpetuity, in an arrangement that would give the area not the habitual appearance of a museum but as he put it, it would  make each room appear “simply beautiful for the repose and enjoyment of the visitor”.

Before we look at the painting in detail I suppose the first question one asks when we look at this work of art is, who was Laura Battiferri and why would the great Italain Mannerist painter, Bronzino,  depict her in the portrait pointing at a book?  To find the answer to those questions one needs to look at the life of both the artist and his sitter.

Bronzino, whose real name was Agnolo di Cosimo, but was was probably given the nickname Il Bronzino (the little bronze) because of his relatively dark skin.  He was born in 1503 in Monticelli, a suburb of Florence.  His first artistic training was under the tutorship of the Florentine painter, Raffellino del Garbo and this lasted several years before he became an apprentice at the studio of Jacopo Carrucci, better known as, Pontormo, named as such after the Tuscan town where he was born.  Pontormo is now recognised as one of the founder of Florentine Mannerism.  Despite Pontormo being nine years older than Bronzino they became great friends and artistic collaborators and in some ways Pontormo acted as a father-figure for the young Bronzino.

In 1522 the plague struck Florence and Pontormo and Bronzino left the Tuscan city and headed for the Certosa del Galluzzo which is prominently situated on a hillside just south of Florence.  Here Pontormo, with Bronzino as his apprentice, worked together on a commission to paint a series of frescoes.   This was a very important time for Bronzino as he began to gain a reputation for the beauty of his work.   Bronzino returned to Florence in 1532 and worked on his frescos, as well as a number of portraits.    Seven years later in 1539, Bronzino had a major breakthrough with his artistic career when he received the patronage of the Medicis and was commissioned to carry out the elaborate decorations for the wedding of Cosimo I de’ Medici to Eleonora di Toledo who was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples.   From that moment in time he became the official court painter to the Medici court and over time would paint a large number of portraits of the Medici clan and members of the royal court.  His portraits of the royal couple, Cosimo and Eleonora, and other figures of the Duke’s court, revealed a delicate coldness, almost an aloofness.  This was to define Bronzino’s portraiture style.  It was a portraiture technique which showed no emotion whilst always remaining stylish. The works were well received by the sitters and Bronzino’s portraiture style went on to influence a century of European court portraiture.

It is now we have our first connection between Bronzino and the sitter in today’s painting, Laura Battiferri, because she was a close friend of Eleanora di Toledo, Cosimo’s di Medici’s wife and there is no doubt that the artist and sitter met at the Medici court.  Another thing the artist and sitter had in common was poetry.   Although we are well aware that Bronzino was an artist he was also, like Laura Battiferri, an accomplished poet. Besides the portraits of members of the Medici family and some of the favoured royal courtiers he would paint portraits of his fellow poets, one of which was Laura Battiferri.   Laura Battiferri  came from Urbino.  She was born illegitimately to a pre-Reformation churchman Giovanni Battiferri, and his concubine. Her wealthy father, a Vatican cleric, provided her with a humanist education. As a well regarded and well respected poet she mixed with the most distinguished poets and artists of her day and lived all her life in court circles. She was the wife of the renowned architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was a close confidant and adviser to Cosimo di Medici.

And so to the painting.    I would ask you to look at today’s work in conjunction with Andrea del Sarto’s  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch which I featured in my last blog (June 24th).  Both are female portraits but Bronzino has unusually reverted to the type of female portraiture of the Quattrocento (the art of 15th century Italy).   In those days, in female portraiture, the sitter was seen in profile view.  These works were traditionally painted by male artists for male patrons.  Graham Smith commented on why female portraits in those days were painted in profile view in his 1996 book Bronzino’s Portrait of Laura Battiferri.  He wrote:

 “…the profile portrait allowed the suitor to explore his lover’s face ardently, while simultaneously attesting to the woman’s chastity and female virtue…”

As we look at the portrait of Laura are we immediately struck by her beauty?  I think not.  There is a remoteness about this lady as she looks straight ahead avoiding our eyes.  It is if she has turned away from us showing her disdain for us.   Or could it be that she is exhibiting a sense of modesty, and it is this which makes her avert her eyes?   Whatever the reason, it has in some way, added a majestic aura to her character.   There is a sense that she is untouchable and unattainable which of course would please her husband who is thought to have commissioned the work.  Laura was also recorded by historians as being a devout Catholic and a very pious person.  It is known that she was a great supporter of the Jesuitical Counter-Reformation also known as the Catholic Reformation which was the period of  Catholic revival beginning with the Council of Trent (1545-63)and which historians now look upon as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Therefore Bronzino’s portrayal of her is a very fitting one and it could well be that the artist wanted to indicate this piety in the way he depicted her.

Laura Battiferri

Look at her closely.  Her neck and fingers have been elongated in a Mannerist style.  The upper part of her body is now completely out of proportion in relation to her small head and the way in which Bronzino has depicted her forehead in some ways draws attention to her long and slightly hooked nose.  She is wearing a transparent veil, which hangs down from the shell-shaped, calotte-style bonnet covering her tightly combed-back hair onto her goffered shawl and puffed sleeves.  Her one and only gesture, as she ignores us, is to point to a page in an open book which she is holding.  Her elongated thin fingers frame a certain passage of the prose.  It is a book of sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch.  Compare this with Andrea del Sarto’s woman who is also pointing to a book of his sonnets.  So similar and yet so different.  The woman in del Sarto’s portrait connects with us.  We have eye contact with her.  We can almost know what she is thinking but with Laura Battiferri she is an enigma.  With no eye contact, her thoughts remain her own.

The passage in the book

In both portraits we see the women pointing to a passage in Petrarch’s book in which the central theme is the poet’s love for a woman he met when he was in his early twenties. Her name was Laura de Noves.   In this painting, Laura Battiferri points to a passage in the book where Petrarch talks about “his Laura” and maybe Battiferri identifies herself with Petrarch’s Laura and empathizes with the poet’s words as he describes the love of his life:

“….she is an unapproachable, unattainable beauty… as chaste as the adored mistress of a troubadour, as modest and devout as a ‘Stilnovismo Beatrice'”. “Laura’s personality is even more elusive than her external appearance. She remains the incarnation of chaste and noble beauty.”

Bronzino had already painted a number of portraits which featured the sitter pointing to pages in a book.  Around 1540 he completed his portrait entitled Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi in which the young lady points to a page in a book which rests on her knee.   Eight years earlier he painted a portrait entitled Lorenzo Lenzi, in which the young son of a prominent Florentine family holds an open book inscribed with sonnets by Petrarch and so when he completed his portrait of Laura Battiferri around 1560 showing the sitter pointing at pages in a book it was not a unique depiction and of course as we know Andrea del Sarto’s painting was completed about thirty years earlier.

I end with a question to any females reading this blog.  If you were to commission an artist to paint your portrait would you go for the Bronzino-profile style in which the artist would probably depict you as modest and unattainable or would you choose the del Sarto-style in which you look out at the us, the viewer and from your facial expression maybe we are able to read your thoughts?

The Madonna of the Long Neck by Parmigianino

Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino (1534)

Two days ago (March 16th) I gave you what I thought was a very strange painting entitled Child with Doll by Henri Rousseau.  The depiction of the child was odd and the proportions of the figure just didn’t look right.  The figures in today’s painting have similar unusual proportions but in my mind there is still an element of beauty about the figures.  The title of today’s painting actually derives from such artistic distortions.  The picture painted in 1534 by the Italian Mannerist artist, Parmigianino is entitled Madonna with the Long Neck, and hangs in the wonderful Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Before we look at the painting in detail I think we need to understand a little about Mannerism and Mannerist artists.

Around the 1520’s in Italy, art in many ways had reached its peak of excellence.  It was the time of the great High Renaissance painters Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonaroti, Titian and Raphael Santi.  It was believed by many that the works of these four giants of art could never be bettered.  Their paintings combined splendour and harmony with correctness.  Although few would disagree with this appraisal of their work, think how it affected a young up-and-coming artist of the time to be told that no matter how hard they tried, their work would never come up to the standard of those that went before them.  Would you be disappointed and disheartened by that appraisal of your future?  Would that just make you want to give up your artistic career?  For many aspiring artists at that time that is what they did – gave up their dreams but for others they decided to imitate the works of the great High Renaissance artists.  They looked at the musculature of the figures in some of Michelangelo’s paintings and copied the figures in to their works and as Gombrich wrote in his book The Story of Art:

“….Michelangelo had loved to draw nudes in complicated attitudes – well, if that was the right thing to do, they would copy his nudes, and put them into their pictures whether they fitted or not.  The result was slightly ludicrous – the sacred scenes from the Bible were crowded out by what appeared to be a training team of young athletes….”

 Others searched for a way to overcome the situation they found themselves in.  They knew that art would eventually move on and they decided they must be part of that future.  They realised that they would never be able to improve on the works of the Renaissance Masters and for them to become great artists and have their works of art become popular they needed to change their painting style.  Something had to be different about their work if it was to achieve greatness.  They looked at how they would depict people in their paintings.  They played round with how their figures posed within a scene.  Often figures would be distorted into almost impossible poses.  Sometimes they would disregard the true physical proportions of their figures, frequently elongating them. They did not believe their paintings had to exhibit balance or harmony, which was of great importance to the High Renaissance artists.  These mid 16th century Italian artists believed they could be the new future of art and were known as the Mannerists.  The art produced by these Mannerist painters was not loved by all.  Many critics suggested that this art genre was simply characterised by its artificiality, superficiality and exaggeration.  One could sum up Mannerism by saying it is a style in art and originating in Italy as a reaction against the equilibrium of form and proportions characteristic of the High Renaissance. However, the term Mannerism, to some people, rather than be thought of a style, is just the era in Italian art, sandwiched between the High Renaissance period which began around 1490 and ending circa 1527 and the arrival of the Baroque period of art circa 1600.  Art critics and writers have varied views on what they believe Mannerism to be and in his 1957 book entitled Mannerism, John Shearman, the author, wrote:

“…This book will have at least one feature in common with all those already published on Mannerism; it will appear to describe something quite different from what all the rest describe…”

And so to our picture today, which was painted by the great Mannerist artist Girolamo Francesco Mari Mazzola, more commonly known a Parmigianino which translated means “the little one from Parma”, his birthplace.  Today’s work of art is his painting, Madonna with the Long Neck.   This was his crowning masterpiece.  He commenced working on the painting in 1534 for the church Santa Maria dei Servi at Parma.  However at this time of his life the artist became fascinated with alchemy and all the magic that goes with it and this obsession resulted in his art commissions being neglected and on his death six years later this painting was still incomplete.

The revealed body of the Madonna

 As we look at this painting, the title is self explanatory.  The painting depicts the Virgin Mary dressed in luxurious robes.  On her lap is the baby Jesus.  To the left we see a group of angels and to the right of the Madonna, in the background we see the diminutive figure of the prophet, Saint Jerome, almost naked standing before a vertical column, holding an unfurled scroll.  This tiny figure of St Jerome is in marked contrast and completely out of proportion with the overbearingly large figure of the Madonna.

If we look closely at the Madonna we can see that her physical features have been distorted by elongation.  Look at the length of her neck, hands, fingers and feet, all of which are too long.  Look at the lower half of her body.  This seems to be far too wide.  Are all those features part of the Mannerism concept?  Some art critics would have us believe that the elongated length of her neck has religious significance and harks back to medieval hymns and litanies to the Virgin Mary which compares her neck to a great ivory tower or column (is that why we have a white column in the background of the painting?) and that the architectural reference to the column furthered her symbolic role as representing the Church.  But if this was the reasoning behind the long neck what was the reasoning behind the elongation of her hands, fingers and feet?   Another strange aspect to the painting of the Virgin Mary is there is a sensuousness about her pose and her clothing which is very unusual in Madonna portraits.   Look how the fingers on her right hand touch her breast.  Look how the almost transparent greyish garment lies against her breast and how the cloth hangs against her nipple.  See how her fingers almost point towards her breast and nipple as if guiding our eyes to what we should observe.  Look at how the cloth gathers tightly against her stomach and how we can clearly see her navel.  Parmagianino’s Madonna has elaborately curled hair which is decorated by pearls and frames her exquisite and beautiful face.  The robes she is wearing are sumptuous and cascading.   This is a very unusual portrayal of the Mother of Christ.  This is more a portrait of a (then) present day beauty.  She has the beauty of a Raphael Madonna but incorporates, some would say, “suffers from”, the elongation at the hands of a Mannerist painter.

Now look at the baby Jesus who rests on his mother’s lap.   The baby is not being lovingly cradled as it is in the more normal depictions.  His elongated figure just lies across her lap and we wonder if he will slide to the floor.  Look closely at the figure.  Is the baby alive and asleep or are we looking at a dead body with his lifeless arm hanging downwards.     Are we looking at a lifeless body lying across the thighs of the Virgin Mary similar to the dead Christ’s portrayal in the familiar Pietà figures?  Why has the artist given the baby a deathly-grey pallor?  Again look at the face.  Do you think this is the face of a baby or an older infant or are we being tricked into believing that the child is older because of his elongated features?

The sensuous quality of the angel

 

The group of six angels are crammed into the left hand side of the painting.  The artist, being a true Mannerist, made no attempt to balance the painting by having them split into equal numbers on either side of the Madonna and Child.  If you think I have counted up the number of angels incorrectly and can only see five, I believe the face of the “unfinished” angel is just below the right elbow of the Madonna.  Earlier I talked about the sensuousness of the artist’s depiction of the Madonna, this time I again have to draw your attention to the sensual depiction of the angels, particularly the angel standing at the front. Look at the way her silky gown is cut high exposing her upper thigh.  Note how the toes of the elongated left leg of the baby press the skin of the angel’s upper thigh.  It is almost acting as a pointer to where our eyes should look.  This is similar to the Madonna’s fingers and where they direct our gaze, which I mentioned earlier.  Was this just coincidental and am I making too much of it?  Did the artist intend to add an element of eroticism into this “sacred” painting which was to hang in a church?  Look at the vase which this angel at the front carries.  Although my picture doesn’t show it so clearly, there is a cross on it which was thought to be a reference to the future fate and coming Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion.

As I said at the beginning, this painting was unfinished at the time of Parmigianino’s death.  The sixth angel has not been completed. nor has most of the upper right background.   Look carefully at the feet of Saint Jerome, the man who is holding the scroll.  Just to the right of his feet are another pair of feet which presumably was to be the start of another figure !   The capital of the single column (the crown) is missing.  Was that just because the painting is unfinished or did the artist paint it as such to make the comparison of the Madonna’s elongated neck and this single smooth column more tenable.  If we prefer the “unfinished” reasoning then maybe we should also consider that it is quite possible that this was to be one of a number of columns, which would be shown in the background if the artist had completed the work.

There are so many unanswered questions for you to ponder upon.  All in all, this is a strange painting but this should not detract from its magnificence.  This is now looked upon as one of Parmigianino’s greatest works of art.