Two shows devoted to Italian art, one devoted to portraiture and the Medicis and another of drawings from the 1500s to the present, make a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art a must.
"Pontormo, Bronzino and the Medici: The Transformation of the Renaissance Portrait" is a small but intense grouping of 13 superb late Renaissance paintings, 20 drawings, most from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, plus coins, medals, prints and handwriting manuals. The show is a scholarly excursion into a turbulent society searching for stability.
Looking at Pontormo's portrait of Alessandro de' Medici (1534-5), I got a feeling that sometimes arises from just glancing at a person, and then suddenly sensing, uh-oh, trouble. The sensual lips and large nose are paired with keen, assessing eyes. Confidence, arrogance and a hint of cruelty collide in that face.
Alessandro is portrayed as he wished, as an intellectual, perhaps writing a sonnet to the drawing of a lady in metalpoint before him. Others may interpret him as a would-be artist. Yet he seems closed off, his head almost too distant from his hands to be truly engaged in writing or drawing. He doesn't so much seem the intellectual as what he really was -- someone who played at being an intellectual.
As a ruler, Alessandro proved to be too much the womanizer to lead. Even the Medici came to see him as a liability. He was assassinated and quickly replaced by his cousin, Cosimo I de' Medici.
Pontormo's portrait of Alessandro and Bronzino's Cosimo I de' Medici as Orpheus (ca. 1537-9), both in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum, are the two centerpieces of this probing exhibition of late Renaissance or Mannerist painting in Florence.
In the catalogue, Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., proposes that behind both of these portraits and others is a quest for a Florentine identity based not on politics, which was chaotic and brutal during the early 1500s, but poetry and paint.
Cropper makes a persuasive case that the Medici used the cultural ideals from the time of the poet Petrarch in the early 1300s, around which intellectually inclined Florentines rallied, to further their authority during a shaky period. She stresses the large amount of writing that appears, and that can be read, in paintings of the time. She notes that an interest in the vernacular, and in writing the vernacular in the newly popular handwriting style of chancery cursive, linked academics, artists, members of the court and other humanists.
These people met and debated the past through literature and art. That they specifically embraced memories of Petrarch and his sonnets to a silverpoint drawing of his beloved may have been why Alessandro de' Medici strikes the pose that he does in Pontormo's portrait.
Pontormo and his student, assistant, and eventually colleague and friend, Bronzino, had already lived through the Medicis being thrown out of office twice, two plagues and a siege by the time Alessandro was chosen to rule. When Cosimo took over, the Florentines were once again hoping for peace and a return to past ideals of civility.
The wonderfully strange, nude portrait of Cosimo as Orpheus by Bronzino may be symbolic of his aspiration to lead and re-establish order and his knowledge of the Petrarchan "Golden Age." It is also an advertisement of his willingness to live up to these ideals, according to Cropper.
Others have opined that this luscious, abstracted male nude -- with strategically placed viol's bow -- is really a marriage portrait, made in anticipation of the entry into Florence of Cosimo's bride-to-be Eleanor of Toledo.
Recall that Orpheus, that masterful musician, who charms the three-headed dog Cerberus in the underworld in his attempt to rescue his dead wife, Eurydice, eventually loses his wife when he turns to look back at her, which had been forbidden by the gods. Not a happy thought for a marriage portrait, according to Cropper.
There was, however, a statue of Orpheus erected in the forecourt of the Palazzo Medici when the family was reinstated after their first exile in 1519, symbolizing the peaceful power of Orpheus' music over everyone. This painting may allude to Cosimo as a demigod and peacemaker. It would have been a witty assertion to intellectuals that he was conscious of, and willing to fulfill, this role.
And Cosimo did found the Accademia Fiorentina to discuss use of the vernacular and other cultural matters in 1541, encouraging the influential to join -- then keeping close tabs on them like any good autocrat.
Whichever interpretation you favor, the exhibition is sure to set you thinking. And simply savoring the works here is reward enough if interpreting paintings isn't for you.
Who could not be in thrall to Bronzino's proud Lady in Red with her spaniel? Or marvel over Pontormo's dramatic red-chalk nude Self-Portrait, probably executed in front of a mirror?
This small show deserves kudos for its focus and depth. Carl Brandon Strehlke, adjunct curator of the John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organized the exhibition, which is up through Feb. 13, 2005. Strehlke has also recently published his magisterial "Italian Paintings, 1250-1450, in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art."
The "Pontormo, Bronzino" catalogue is available from the Philadelphia Museum at $50 in cloth, $34 in paper. A technical study arising from the two-year-long conservation of Pontormo's portrait of Alessandro is included along with Cropper's essay and another by Strehlke.
That appraising look of Armida, a sorceress about to be under a spell herself, the spell of love, is one element that makes Cades' drawing so timeless. In Armida Gazes on the Sleeping Renaldo (1785), a Neoclassical theme based on Tasso, gets a light-hearted re-imagining by this Roman artist. The flowing lines link all the bodies real and angelic into one roundelay. All this, even though Rinaldo's pose is that of a crucified Christ or put upon saint!
But so do others with more well-known names attached. All three sheets by Guercino are wonderful. In his brown ink Samson and Delilah (1646), Samson mimes his weak spot to his lover and soon-to-be traitor.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's sheet of lively studies of a nude male figure from around 1720-30 delivers a different pleasure -- the hypnotic exercise of watching a master draughtsman think.
The year 1983 also is the date for the production of a huge (82 x 62 in.) charcoal of uneasily pacing figures, The Quadrant Walkers, by the late Florentine artist Lorenzo Bonechi. Imposing, moody and disturbing, it's an unsettling drawing that gets under your skin. Another find.
These are among the more than 80 works that curator of drawings, Ann Percy, has pulled together for this esthetically rich exhibition. The items date from Francesco Salviati's Christ Disputing with the Doctors in the Temple (1539) through the early 1800s with a few, memorable sheets from the early 20th century and a few contemporary pieces. "Great Italian Drawings" remains on view until Feb. 20, 2005.
The show is in celebration of the Philadelphia's Italian drawings being chosen for a catalogue in Italian as part of a distinguished series devoted to great Italian drawings throughout the world by the Milanese publisher Arti Grafiche Amilcare Pizzi s.p.a.
The catalogue has an absorbing essay by Percy about the three men -- two recluses and a scholar -- behind the three largest tranches of Italian drawings donated to the museum. Mimi Cazort, retired curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, provided the catalogue entries. The English edition, published by the Philadelphia Museum, is $48 in cloth and $32 in paper.