"Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici as Orpheus" by Agnolo Bronzino

Agnolo di Cosimo was born in Florence, Italy, in 1503.  The origin of his nickname, Il Bronzino, is unknown but it may be due to his dark complexion.  As a young man, he was a pupil of important local artists including Raffaellino del Garbo and Pontormo.  During the 1520s, Bronzino assisted Pontormo in painting frescoes to adorn a small chapel, Capponi Chapel, in Santa Felicita, Florence.  Bronzino received his first Medici patronage in 1537 when he was among the many artists chosen to execute elaborate decorations for the wedding of Duke Cosimo I de'Medici to Eleonora di Toledo, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples, including this portrait.  He became the official court painter of the Duke and his court not long after and remained so for the rest of his life.

Cosimo I de Medici acceded to the title of Duke of Florence in 1537 at the age of 17.   By this time the golden age of the Florentine Renaissance had passed.  For nearly a century Medici dominance had endured through imprisonments and assassinations, including the murder of Cosimo’s immediate predecessor Allesandro.  In spite of the obstacles of his youth and the chaos of his times, Cosimo solidified Medici family control.  He was quickly recognized as the legitimate heir by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who sought his alliance against the French in the wars and invasions which beset Italy following Martin Luther’s Reformation.  In 1569 Cosimo accrued the title of first Grand Duke of Tuscany, which the family kept until the death of the last Medici heir in 1737.  

By the turn of the sixteenth century, papal patronage of the arts had assembled many great artistic minds in the city of Rome, Italy.  But the Sack of Rome by the armies of Charles V in 1527 had drastically altered the art and culture of the Italian High Renaissance by creating a confusion of religious and political strife.
The style of painting during this time period came to be called Mannerism due to the unnatural, stiff and affected appearance of the formally posed subjects in the paintings.  The Renaissance desire to imitate nature and the life around us in convincing realistic detail was no longer the focus.  Anti-classical emotionalism and the abandonment of classical balance and form are also evidence of the times in which Mannerism was popular.

Agnolo Bronzino’s  "Portrait of Cosimo I de'Medici as Orpheus" provides an excellent example of this mindset.  Painted from 1537-1539, the oil painting on a poplar wood panel is small at 37 inches by 30 inches.  In it, the Duke is personified as the mythical poet and musician Orpheus. Such allegorical portraits are fascinating, as well as peculiar, since a publically recognized personality in the nude is depicted as a mythical figure.  They are designed to assert the rank and station of the subject but not his personality.

Cosimo is shown here as Orpheus at the mouth of Hades where he has gone to reclaim his wife, Eurydice, who died from a snakebite on the day of their wedding. The son of Calliope, Muse of epic poetry, Orpheus risked his own life in a desperate journey to reclaim her from the land of the dead.  Behind the musical instrument to our left is Cerberus, the three-headed dog who was guardian of the underworld, being calmed by Orpheus’ beautiful, soothing music.  Careful studies of this painting indicate that Cerberus was initially painted growling at Cosimo.  This change may have been inspired by the romantic occasion for which the portrait was commissioned.

The composition of the painting, the proportions of the figure and the sense of space are intellectual ideas rather than observations from the world.  Bronzino uses the classical High Renaissance convention of a central triangle to stabilize the space.  The head of Cosimo, placed in the very center at the top of the painting, marks the apex of the triangle while his back to our right, his leg stretching across the bottom and his upper left arm form the three sides.  Smaller triangular shapes are created such as the triangle formed by his torso, the top of his left leg and the underside of his left arm, which help to hold our eye in the painting.  In fact, many triangles can be found including the shapes made by his hands, the shape below his left knee and the space defined above the bend of the left elbow.

The proportions of the figure are unnatural with the small finely detailed head attached to the large elongated muscular figure.  Several much admired ancient sculptures as well as Michelangelo’s heavily muscled, full bodied sculptural images of the Sistine Chapel ceiling served as precedents and influences for Bronzino.

The eyes with their impassive icy, stare create an uneasy feeling.  The head, hands and feet were of special interest to the Mannerist artists for they believed them to be the carriers of grace.  Strong areas of light and shadow establish the sense of form but the disproportionate brightly lit figure dominates the entire foreground and almost entirely blocks the space. One can see Cerberus behind the musical instrument but the shallow space beyond is murky without depth or perspective.

This intellectual component of the style of Mannerism was disconcerting to many yet there is sensitivity, emotionalism, elegance and subtlety portrayed that eventually appealed to others.  The oddly proportioned forms, bold staring eyes and subjective rendering was puzzling yet intriguing.  The cold enamel or marble quality of the skin and the awkward pose of the affected young man seem artificial and studied; we are far from the simple, well organized statements of the High Renaissance.    

While its style places this painting within the school of Mannerism, there is still much here that recalls Renaissance cultural ideals. Holding the musical instrument, Cosimo is represented here not only as a patron of the arts, but as a musician himself, personifying the ideal of the well-rounded Renaissance Man. The painting’s allusion to an ancient Greek myth is also characteristic of Renaissance veneration of classical humanist ideals. Most obviously, the characteristic Renaissance focus on the individual is apparent in the very fact of such a private commission, and in the painting’s celebration of an idealized, if rather awkward, human form. 

Even five hundred years after the fact, one cannot help but be impressed by Cosimo’s temerity at commissioning a portrait of himself represented as a naked demigod, intended as a gift for his betrothed.  What must his future in-laws have thought when they unwrapped the package?!  Given the success with which this young man shepherded one of Europe’s most famous dynasties through chaotic times, the implicit boldness of this act may be the best indicator yet of what was required to succeed in the world in which this painting was created.

This article draws upon information from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology published by Hermes House, London, The Philadelphia Museum of Art Handbook of the Collections, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths published by Dell, Art Through the Ages published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, A History of Western Society published by Houghton Mifflin, and The Creative Impulse published by Prentice Hall Inc.