Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Although you wouldn’t immediately know it from his proud, aristocratic air, at about the time this portrait was painted Lodovico Capponi (b. 1533) was madly in love. A page at the Medici court in Florence, in the mid–1550s Lodovico fell in love with a girl whom Duke Cosimo de Medici had intended for one of his cousins. Refused permission to marry, the couple nevertheless remained devoted to each other for three years when, suddenly, the Duke relented with the stipulation that they marry within 24 hours. One can imagine it was a joyous, if rushed, event.
Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, called Bronzino, was the court painter of Duke Cosimo and the foremost portraitist in Florence. He also painted religious and allegorical subjects as well as decorations for Medici festivities (perhaps even Ludovico’s long awaited wedding) but it is his startlingly crisp portraits, such as this one, for which he is most renowned.
For Bronzino (and for the ducal court), a portrait was a mask. It was not intended to reveal the sitter’s character, but to convey the subject’s status, sophistication, and self-possession. He depicts young Ludovico almost as a symbol of the Capponi family, wearing his family’s armorial colours – black and white. With cool detachment, the young man stands before vivid green drapery that highlights his soft boyish skin and fashionable figure. In keeping with Bronzino’s Mannerist style, his body is elongated and his fingers expressive, or ‘mannered.’ Mannerism emphasised complexity and virtuosity over naturalism. The style originated in Italy in the 1520s with artists who, inspired by the late works of Michelangelo and Raphael, began to emphasise tension and instability in composition rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting. Bronzino, part of the second generation of Mannerists, liked to lengthen bodies, flatten pictorial space and use vibrant colour to create an air of intellectual and aristocratic elegance. The portraits he made at the Medici court express his extraordinary technical skill and refined execution.
Bronzino liked to focus on the sensations of the material world; here he makes the silks look tactile, the ruffs crisp, hair freshly cut. The surface is finished in such meticulous detail that there is almost no trace of brushstrokes. Even Ludovico’s prominent codpiece – which was a widely popular feature of men’s fashion at the time, a stylish conceit of masculine virility – adds to his courtly image. (Not all ages, shared this opinion; in the 19th century the codpiece was considered obscene and was temporarily painted over).
As part of the Medici court, Bronzino must have known of Ludovico’s love affair and he may allude to it with the cameo that the sitter holds and partially conceals with his finger. The image is hidden but the cameo’s inscription is legible: sorte (fate), a meaningful allusion to the twists of fortune and love. Was this painted during the three-year wait? Did Bronzino give this serious young man’s expression a hint of sadness because of his thwarted romance? We can only speculate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1551 Titian: Elector John Frederick of Saxony, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1551–2 Giovanni Battista Moroni: Gian Lodovico Madruzzo, Chicago, Art Institute
c1555 Paolo Veronese: The Anointment of David, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum