A Courtier In The Medici Palace
(Agnolo Bronzino, 1503-1572)
All the outward trappings of success had fallen into Agnolo Bronzino’s lap. In the past year he had been promoted by the Duke to be the Court Artist in the Duchy of Tuscany. Duke Cosimo de Medici paid him a generous salary and valued his paintings. Agnolo lived and worked in a room and studio in the upper reaches of the vast De Medici Palace. Despite his position as court artist, he knew he would never be a true courtier. After all, Agnolo was not a cavaliere or knight, but merely an artist.
Not being a true courtier need not really bother me, Agnolo mused, as he walked down the palace halls where ancient Roman statues stood, proud gods and emperors, between masterpieces by Florence’s older artists such as Leonardo and Raphael.
Questions over his worth as an artist would never cease to bother Agnolo. Even though few artists who painted in the style called la maniera were regarded higher than he. Jacopo Pontormo, his teacher, had also been acclaimed. According to some Florentines, Pontormo was half-mad and undisciplined. Agnolo revered his work and loved Jacpo as a friend. Yet Agnolo had outshone not only Pontormo, and many other painters, including Giulio Romano, Rosso Fiorentino and Vasari. Romano had been hired by the Duke of Mantua, and had left Florence. Giulio Romano painted lewd frescoes for his Duke, showing ancient Greek deities with muscular bodies and huge erections about to penetrate the fleshy goddesses who lay beneath them. What would the results of such unions be, mused Agnolo? A new constellation, or a nymph who would later succumb to Jupiter? Though Agnolo could be intrigued by a pretty face or body, he often suppressed any erotic desires in quest for recognition for his art.
Agnolo's other rivals had also left Florence. Rosso lived in Volterra, the town of the witches, high up in the hills, and Vasari worked in the Holy Father’s Eternal City.
With the competition working elsewhere, Florence was the best place to work for Agnolo, whose portraits were in demand in the city, and more importantly, at Court.
Just that afternoon Agnolo had been summoned by the Grand Duchess, whom the townsfolk called ‘the Spanish Bitch.’ But to him Eleonora had first seemed tolerable. After Agnolo’s deferential bow, she had leaned down to pat a velvet-covered stool.
“Sit down there,” she said, pointing to the spot close to the floor, near the pillows of her favorite dogs. The Duchess dismissed all her ladies except the duenna, Donna Lucia, an old harridan with the face of a tortured saint, who had stayed too long in the desert atoning for her sins. Seeing the old woman Agnolo decided that for his next painting of the “Holy Family,” he would sketch the hag’s features for the aged face of Saint Elisabeth.
During his visit, the Duchess pointed to a silver pitcher and goblets. She said, “Have some of my wine, imported from Spain. And try the sweetmeats, Maestro Bronzino.”
As he sipped the wine, Agnolo marveled that the Duchess could wear such a heavily embroidered gown even in late Spring, but of course high born ladies were bound to observe fashion, no matter what the temperature.
The Duchess stared at him as she spun the chain of her chatelaine around her first finger, the one that boasted an emerald from the New World the size of a quail’s egg.
She asked, “How are you adjusting to life here?”
“Very well, Your Highness. My supplies have been moved into my rooms, and soon I’ll be ready to paint whatever you desire.” As he looked up at her from his stool Agnolo suspected the Spanish noble thought herself more important than anyone who ruled an Italian state, such as the Duchy of Tuscany or the Duchy of Milan. After all, the Spanish Emperor ruled half the world. To Agnolo, the Duke seemed somewhat kinder, and his imperious manner less offensive than that of the Duchess.
“Good,” the Grand Duchess said. “I want you to paint my portrait. Your works have impressed me, and I want my portrait to be your greatest.”
Agnolo replied, “Yes, of course, I’ll do my best. Your request is a great honor.”
“You may rise and come forward.” She then motioned to Donna Lucia, who handed the Duchess a small pouch. “This is a special purse for you, Maestro Bronzino.”
He felt the soft leather in his hands, and shook it slightly. Feeling its weight, he suspected silver lira, or perhaps even a few gold Florins, lay inside the pouch. He bowed low, offered thanks and then asked, “When shall we start, your Highness?”
“The day after tomorrow. We’ll visit you at two o’clock.” With that, she waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. Agnolo bowed and backed out of the room.
The following day Agnolo prepared all the tools of his trade: charcoal vines for drawing on the canvas, sable brushes, linseed oils to mix with the colors, the gray wool cloth he would use as a backdrop, knowing that he could color it any shade, to match whatever dress she fancied. While he worked, sharpening his mind and preparing the ingredients for grandeur and greatness, he suddenly remembered Jacopo, his teacher. Agnolo could not forget how tortured his dear master looked, his sunken eyes deep-set in his skull, like those of the angels and saints in his exotically-colored paintings. Each figure, whether a crouching mourner in pink and yellow tunic and tights holding the body of Our Saviour, or the swooning image of the Holy Mother, confronted the viewer with fearful eyes. Once forced to look at the faces of Jacopo’s saints, one could not avoid either their anguish, or that of the artist himself.
Agnolo wondered how many of the lubricious youths, hired to pose as angels, had tempted Jacopo with their louche ways. Jacopo would never stoop to fondling his apprentices, would he? He had not when Agnolo was his pupil. But Agnolo could tell that Jacopo was attracted to them. It was prudent Jacopo had retired to a simple shepherd’s hut in the Tuscan hills, and half starved on a diet of beans and ramp-weed, rather than continue to live in the sinful city.
Agnolo knew how to control his carnal thoughts, and had never confessed to Father Francesco of a lustful act with either a woman or man, perish the wish. Thankfully Vasari didn’t know about Jacopo’s unorthodox visions and hadn’t written about them in his “Lives of the Artists.” Vasari’s book told all: not only facts about the artists’ lives and their grand achievements in art, but also lies and futile gossip as well.
Around sunset one afternoon, Angolo sat with his teacher on the hill where the church of San Miniato perched like a solitary marble tomb.
Jacopo slowly said, “It’s horrible. My visions aren’t those of an ordinary Christian. I see laughing and crying angels with iridescent wings of colors unlike any I’ve ever painted. They are colors we can’t imagine.”
“Who do they look like, these angels?” Agnolo could not imagine such angels, except as the slender youths that Jacopo so loved to draw. “Were they holy visions?”
“I do not know if they came from Heaven or Hell,” Jacopo answered, kicking a pebble in the dust. “But they were male and female, Agnolo, and they were cursed. They were writhing, naked. How could I face them?” Jacopo had gnashed his teeth, an unpleasant sound.
Agnolo had seen such angels in Jacopo’s altarpieces and frescoes. Jacopo hung his head in shame, so Agnolo knew his master had felt lust for the fiends in his visions.
“Come, we will dine in the tavern down the hill,” Agnolo said, shading his words with comfort. “Then we’ll look at your latest drawings, no doubt inspired by Heaven. I have never forgotten your maxims and instructions. Your teachings and belief in me have brought me what little success I’ve had.”
“Ah, but you would have succeeded no matter which master had trained you,” Jacopo said. “A natural ability for drawing like yours occurs only once in a century.”
“You are too kind, Maestro,” said Agnolo. They carefully worked their way down the hill to the street below, avoiding rocks, tree stumps and the offal under the windows of ramshackle stucco houses. They held lavender sprigs to their noses to avoid breathing the scent of excrement drying in the scorching sun, attracting crowns of flies.
As they left the street, Agnolo patted his Master’s shoulder. Later in chapel, during his daily prayers, Agnolo decided Japoco’s angel visions had corrupted his art. Agnolo’s own religious paintings were not only better, but more devout.
The day after preparing his paints and canvas, Agnolo waited an hour for the Duchess. As he waited, he thought of the pretty girl he had refused to offer a proposal of marriage. He would never marry, he knew. Though he admired her kindness and had loved the feel of Eva’s body, such pleasures interrupted his painting. The affair had not continued, because she had wanted a marriage proposal, so Agnolo stopped seeing her. Once, he had tussled with a fine youth, the subject of one of his early portraits. Franco also had been a delight in bed, a combination of sinewy muscles and smooth skin. Agnolo had felt the same reluctance to become too attracted when he craved touching Eva’s breasts and buttocks. Agnolo was wary of falling in love with either woman or man, just as he avoided marriage. Art would be his only spouse, he mused. Enjoyment of the flesh was like drinking a fine glass of wine, and he often craved the wines of Tuscany. Yet both drinking and sexual pleasures left one wanting more, led to spending energy better devoted to drawing and painting.
Finally, one of the Grand Duchess’ dwarves appeared, followed by three of her ladies, dressed in shades of scarlet, azure and lime green. Seeing their gowns, Agnolo wondered what the Grand Duchess would wear, but his question was answered by her entrance. Clad in the most ornate court gown Agnolo had ever seen-- white brocaded velvet with patterns in black and gold silk thread—the Duchess crossed the room with the purposeful stride of a born noble, rather than the dainty mincing steps of some woman of high standing. One pearl necklace lay around her neck, while more pearls, perfect ones in a long strand, flowed down her bodice, rounded as the carapace of some imaginary sea creature invented by the famed jeweler Cellini. The Duchess later told Agnolo that in fact her jeweled belt had been made by Cellini himself.
When the Duchess clapped her hands a small boy in blue appeared by her side. At first Agnolo assumed the child was another court dwarf, but noticing her endearments toward the boy, he realized the child was her son Giovanni. Like his mother, Giovanni also had huge eyes that stared into space as though bored by everyone and everything.
“You will paint my son by my side,” the Grand Duchess said.
“Of course, your Highness.” Her arrogance made Agnolo wish he lived far away from the court. But happily everything to be included in the painting-- the fabrics, the austere look on her face as she settled in her cushioned chair, and the child by her side—challenged him. How should Agnolo paint the very young prince, he wondered? He had previously only painted the Holy Christ Child, an idealized baby. But even if Prince Giovanni looked doll-like in his court clothes, he was real.
Agnolo knew he could conquer all the difficulties and decided the portrait would be better than any he had ever done, for that was the way he could maintain his reputation and please his masters.
Drawing with a brush, Agnolo outlined the curves and rich garments of the Grand Duchess with a sureness that never failed him. When he came to laying on the colors, he chose a lead white to emphasize the pallor of her wan face so people would think that she resembled porcelain. The Duchess was a high noble, and Agnolo would make her skin look as if it could not possibly be that of an ordinary mortal.
The Duchess and her son, a good child who did not fidget much, stayed in position for fifteen minutes at a time, with ten minute breaks in the painting session. At the end of the afternoon, the Grand Duchess led her son away by the hand.
One day during a painting session the Duchess told him about her upbringing by nuns, in a convent in Toledo, how severe they had been, and how she had mocked them behind their backs. She added, “You are the only one I can confide such stories to, Master Agnolo Bronzino.” He quietly wondered why she had told him the story.
In the following weeks, the Duchess never once asked to see the portrait, but Agnolo knew that it would be important to her to have a superior likeness grace the walls of the Medici palace. He had already painted her husband, the Grand Duke Cosimo, a nobleman with the long nose of the Medici clan and an equal amount of pride. The Duke had a free purse for the pleasures he valued and he liked Agnolo’s work. The Duchess seldom talked about art, but once she said, “How generous of his Highness to let you have two rooms in our palace.”
“Yes, indeed, Your Highness,” Agnolo had replied, wishing at that moment she would develop a fever and perish. His bedroom was cramped and cold, and poorly heated. His studio, though its windows did not have the best light, was at least a bit more spacious. Still, if she liked the portrait, that would augur well for his career.
Two weeks later the Grand Duke himself demanded to see the portrait of his wife. Bowing low, Agnolo lifted the cloth partially covering the still incomplete oil painting. He knew that if the Grand Duke were not pleased, he could be out of the most prestigious position for an artist in all of Tuscany.
Duke Cosimo said, “It’s excellent. Come to my studiolo after you are finished painting tomorrow. I have an idea for an allegory I want you to paint.”
Agnolo allowed himself to smile and replied, “Thank you, Your Highness.”
The next afternoon the Duke stood before Angole. “I want you to paint me an allegory of time and love. Make it poetic. Something a courtier, a reader would enjoy.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” said Agnolo.
The Duke added, “If the painting is good, I’ll give it as a gift to Francois, King of the French. That should spread your fame quite far.”
After he returned to his rooms, Agnolo asked himself how he could paint such abstract concepts as Time and Love, Jealousy and Folly. There seemed to be no way he could meet the Duke’s request. He lay his head on his arms wearily, a sigh in his chest.
Because Agnolo still had to make some adjustments to the portrait of the Grand Duchess, he plodded onward with his work whenever she could spare him time away from a ballo or dance, a masque, or prayers in her private oratory. Sometimes a lute player from the court would play in his studio as he painted, and the mellow notes of a galliard or dance tune would be heard in the room. Though Agnolo preferred to work in silence, he could not complain and instead told the Duchess that he admired her musicians. The courtier Ser Paolo di Viterbo, a member in the train of the Duchess, often stayed behind to ask questions about painting, art and artists. Soon Agnolo dared to count Paolo as almost a friend, though they were in different social classes, a fact Paolo never let him forget. Paolo was one of the busybodies of the court, according to the palace servant Guido, who brought the artist his meals and wine. But Agnolo shushed Guido’s descriptions of Paolo, not wanting to hear slander about his friend.
After several months, the day finally came when Agnolo asked the Duchess Eleonora of Toledo if she would like to see her portrait. She nodded, and he showed her the completed work. Agnolo held his breath as she walked around the easel silently, a frown on her lips. Would she refuse to hang it? Or worse, forbid the Duke to pay for it?
Finally, she sat down in the best chair in the room. “You have done well with my features, Master Bronzino, but Giovanni’s face must be repainted. That simpering smile should not be on the boy’s lips.”
Agnolo felt outrage, like a bear lunged at by a dog in the bear pit, muzzled and unable to tear into the opponent. “Yes, your Highness,” he said, forcing a crooked smile on his lips. “I will change it if the boy comes to pose.”
“There will be no more sittings. You have had enough time. Change my son’s face and then again show the painting to me.”
“Certainly, I’ll be glad to” said Agnolo as he bowed. His heart was beating so loudly that he imagined she could hear it. Sweat rolled from his armpits, and along his arms, dampening his white linen sleeves. She would always be the ‘Spanish bitch,’ he thought, yet she is my royal mistress. Agnolo took comfort in the thought that her petty tyranny would one day end, his painting would survive. Now, to spite her, he felt he would succeed with the Duke’s allegorical painting.
The Duchess did not smile at his last words, but merely walked out the door.
Agnolo sat in his studio, studying the portrait, wishing she had at least praised his painting of the ornate brocaded gown. The material had been difficult to paint realistically. He had left her face more oblique, a mask tinged with the rouge of her Spanish arrogance. Finally he rose and dabbed a brush into the gold ochre, carnelian red and lead whites that he used to paint the skin of the nobles. He would also turn the child’s face into a mask, barely keeping the boy’s smirk, reducing its impact. Like Mother, like son. There was no way to tell if the child would grow up to be as overbearing as the mother, but it seemed all too likely, thought Agnolo.
When the changes were complete, the Grand Duchess Eleonora admired the portrait and wanted another one. At the Grand Duke’s command, however, the next portrait was postponed until Bronzino could paint the allegory of love.
Slowly, he sketched his concept: Venus would represent ‘love,’ and her son Cupid would be included, entwined in his mother’s arms. Father Time would have an hourglass on his back, a white beard and wings. Other characters would include Fortuna, Deceit and Envy or Jealousy. The painting would be the most elaborate allegory that Agnolo had ever devised, hopefully to please the Duke and eventually the King of France.
Day after day Agnolo shut himself up in his studio and worked on his “Allegory of Love.” Since Ser Paolo had told him all about the racy poetry and literary allegories the Duke admired, Agnolo decided to create an erotic picture for the nobleman. Agnolo thought it the strangest painting he had ever done. Though far removed from the weird fantasies of his Master, Pontormo, the figures in the allegory twined themselves into braids of lust, hatred and hauteur. Father Time with his white beard parted a lavender silk curtain exposing the lovers, mother and son, Venus and Cupid. Opposite Father Time a grimacing, vacant eyed Fortuna also revealed the pair. Agnolo’s beautiful naked Venus gave her son a tongue-to-tongue kiss, and both were portrayed in full length figures, with Cupid’s bottom flaunted in the viewer’s face and his adolescent hand about to squeeze his mother’s nipple. Never before had incest been painted on such a scale—or maybe it had not been painted at all, thought Agnolo. The two main figures would be painted to look as if made of rare porcelain. On one side of the amorous couple, the old hag Jealousy tore out her hair. On the other side crept the embodiment of Deceit, with her face that of a charming young girl in a lush green silk gown, her hair elaborately done up like a courtier’s. She offered a honeycomb, the symbol of sweetness, from one hand, while holding a dagger in the other. Exposed beneath her silk gown, were her predator’s lion-like thighs connected to a scaled dragon tail. She was the worst of the lot, but in Agnolo’s heart Deceit reminded him of the Grand Duchess. Both were willful and only bile could spew forth from their nipples. After all, the Duchess had belittled his art.
In the middle of Agnolo’s work on the allegory, the Grand Duchess, unannounced, walked into his studio with only her duenna following. When she saw “The Allegory of Love,” the smile on her face disappeared. The Duchess held her hand to her mouth and frowned. “What is this? It’s obscene. I’ll never ask you to paint my portrait again, if this is what you like to paint.”
“It is a commission from the Grand Duke, your Highness.”
“I know, but it’s filthy, a disgrace to our court.” She started for the door.
“Let me explain the painting-- an allegory of love gone wrong,” Agnolo said, raising his voice.
“How can it be such a lesson?”
“Venus and Cupid are the guilty ones, but Father Time and Deceit accompany them in this painting, so the viewer soon knows their immoral love is doomed.”
Eleonora turned to face him. “Maybe if you are moral, what you say is true. I know little about you. But your painting of me was excellent, the type of work that could make every visitor to our court respect us and realize how important Tuscany is.”
“Exactly,” he said. Agnolo smiled as she studied the picture and strode about the room, picking up a brush here or there, looking at the raw colors in the deep dishes, ready to be mixed with oils. Her anger seemed to disappear into the fumes of the solvents.
She paced the floor, back and forth. “All right, then I will not judge you. You have your own methods that cannot be understood quickly. I know your portraits are true to life, but did not realize you have other, shall we say, specialized stories you paint. Did my husband specifically call for such a lewd story?”
“It was my invention, more or less.”
“So I thought. But he could imagine such a story about the ancient gods. Yes, he is interested in the mythology of the Greeks, but what would he know of your tale?”
“It’s not so much a story but an allegory, your Highness.”
Her expression softened and a faint smile covered her lips, as if someone had just kissed her. The Duchess walked to Agnolo’s side, and with one of her long fingers, caressed his sleeve and then his hand. She murmured, “You are a special person.”
“Oh?” Amazed, Agnolo wished she had not spoken so, wished he had not seen the lust on her face, the puckered lips which vanished when she sensed his aloofness.
“I said, your painting is special. Something we value.” She drew away from him, and walked to the back of the studio. She had not repeated her first phrase, he thought. Although she was beautiful and he found her attractive, despite her arrogance, Agnolo decided to say nothing. Intimacies with such an important woman would surely put him at risk of compromise, downfall and disgrace. He would not play such a game but would crush her ploys like a cat swatting at a lazy fly.
The Duchess stayed only a bit longer, a subdued expression on her face that he could not decipher. Was it respect or distrust, affection or loathing? He had been right, he thought, to paint her face as a mask.
The Grand Duke paid a very grand sum for “The Allegory of Love,” and the King of France, who received it as a gift, praised the work highly. So when the order to paint another portrait of the Grand Duke came two months later, the command came as no surprise to Agnolo. The artist was received in a sitting room in the Duke’s apartments. No courtiers were present for the meeting. Agnolo looked at the room’s walls, covered with armorial shields and embossed leather. The Duke smiled and said, “You shall turn me into one of your mythical beings, my dear artist.”
“However you would like to be portrayed, I’m at your command.”
“It shall be another allegory,” said the Duke.
When the Duke said he wanted to be shown nude, as Orpheus, a figure from Ovid’s ancient story, and in addition wanted a viola da gamba included in the painting because the ruler, like many nobles, was proficient in music, Agnolo could not hide his surprise, and raised his eyebrows. Still, he agreed to the request.
As Agnolo developed the painting, he placed the three-headed monstrous dog Cerberus, guardian to Hades, in the background. As an extra soupcon of provocation, Agnolo placed a recorder in the Duke’s delicate white hand, with the wind instrument leading down to the spot below his waist where his manhood was located. Agnolo wondered if the Grand Duchess would also find this painting ‘lewd,’ but he hardly worried since the Grand Duke was the ultimate authority in Florence.
The Duke paraded in front of the artist totally naked, and sometimes during the posing sessions he winked. He once remarked, “Isn’t my body remarkable for my age? I still partake in strenuous running and archery, to keep my muscles supple.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Agnolo replied, his eyes opening wide.
“And you—I imagine you also have a fine, lithe and masculine body.”
Upon hearing such words Agnolo felt the oddest sensation he had ever experienced in the Palace. Sympathy, admiration, and the implied flattery all mingled with fear and the knowledge that if he made the wrong move he could be banished from court, sent to a prison, or even be tortured. He remained silent.
Agnolo finally asked, “Shall we continue the session, sir?” His brush trembled a bit. He refused to be treated like a concubine in a Turk’s harem. Only art mattered, and the business of producing paintings would be his only favor to these noble and supposedly ‘grand’ people. He cared not what their morals were—for who had perfect morality?
What Agnolo never told the Grand Duke was that because the Duke was not able to sit still for very long, Agnolo in the end, based the body of Orpheus on an ancient Roman statue, the ancient Belvedere Torso, instead of the Duke’s actual figure; only the face was the Duke’s.
Years later, when Agnolo was older, much had changed in the city and in the world, but he still mused on the afternoons when the Duchess and the Duke had visited his studio. Agnolo thought future viewers would not know much about them. Yet the paintings were quite good. In the end, that was all Agnolo cared about.