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Lives of the Artists

October 31, 2010

I jumped into my research with both feet yesterday, looking through Amazon and UNR’s online library catalog, and making a “short list” of books I need to read.  On Friday, I impulsively bought the Drawings of Bronzino exhibit catalog on Amazon, saving $20 off the cover price (mental note, never again buy a museum exhibit catalog at the museum), though I lost some of the savings when I spent $4 for overnight shipping.  Pressing that 1-click button on my phone, I think, was more of a psychological need to confirm that I was really going to do this (the die is cast etc.) than a material need, as the UNR Library has the catalog in its collection. 

I hadn’t been up to the campus since before the new library was built – no reason to, I suppose.  The new one is so much nicer than the old library, in which all the books lived in the basement.  Lots and lots of natural light in the new one, making it a very attractive place to get some work done.

I got a new “community borrower” card and picked up what I believe are the essentials for this project.  I plunged right into Bronzino by Maurice Brock – what an eye opener!  Dazzling stuff, all the more since it’s translated from the French so you’d expect something to get lost in translation, but the language of the art criticism is so crisp and clear and so very far from what passes for literary criticism, wont as it is to dwell on vague fluffy concepts like “the unsaid” or “luminous prose,” that it makes me want to get a degree in art history – seriously, the more time I spend immersing myself in art, the more this sounds like a good if not great idea.  Well, when I when the lottery.

I suppose I’d expected a bunch of explanations of which Biblical bit was expressed here, or here, or here, and that would be the sum of it, but instead I’m seeing that while the artists of the time were forced to work in the religious medium, a world of things could be said within that framework that had nothing at all to do with Christianity.  Even portraits of Madonna and Child get politicized – if a family who takes Mary Magdalene as their patron saint wants her in a Pieta composition, therein she goes, and in pride of place; and if a rival family also has the Magdalene as her saint, and owns a slice of territory in the same church as the other family, the question becomes how to design the picture and its placement so as not to offend (and so as to get the maximum use of the available light in the assigned space).  The “religious” element, in the end, is really the least part of so many great Renaissance works.

Brock gets down to the nuts and bolts of Bronzino’s work, illustrating how he, along with many artists of the time, recycled and repurposed not only old drawings and studies and figures from their own previous works, but also borrowed liberally from Michelangelo (mostly) – most of the “remixing” coming in the form of borrowing the pose of a figure.  In discussing one of Bronzino’s earlier works, Pygmalion and Galatea, Brock spends pages decoding the almost subliminal political messages contained within it.  The painting was created as a “cover,” a painting that could slide over and hide another – in this case, the hidden painting detailed a young man’s enlistment (real or desired) into a pro-Republican militia, which would have been a very dangerous painting to have on display in 1532, when the Republic was being crushed.  Ostensibly a retelling of the Greek fable, Brock shows how everything in the cover painting, including and especially the “remixing,” pointed to Republican sympathies – Pygmalion strikes a pose from Durer’s The Prodigal Son Amid the Swine, a reference to Florence’s downcast state, as he looks up to and adores Galatea, who, Brock reveals, is Michelangelo’s David, seen from a different axis – and the David was to the Florentine Republic what the Statue of Liberty is to America.  Small wonder Dan Brown was able to “find” secret codes in da Vinci – in the works of the Renaissance they are indeed there in abundance.  Lawrence Lessig has spoken often of how he wants young people to be taught to “remix” – I say, let them learn from the masters how subtle an art form it can be when it’s done right, when it becomes much, much more than just “sampling.”

So tomorrow is kickoff day for the “contest.”  It’s one of those “everybody gets a gold star” contest, in which you “win” if you finish.  Now that I’m really getting into the research, really having fun with it, really feeling the ideas pollinating, I’m hesitant to dash something off in a month.  I hate the idea of writing something disposable, of writing something raw which people will see (it is the Internet, after all) and say, “Hmph, you have clearly done a disservice to the Great Artist.  This was a ‘work’ best not done ‘tall.”  Because honestly how good a job can I do in a month on something that’s getting deeper and deeper for me each day?  And I have a hard time with drafts, with the idea that you might write a whole book that you intend to throw out, because you know damn well it can only be a frame, a “study” for a real novel.  Hmm, well now that I think of it that way, as a “study,” it’s not so bad.  I can put that right up front, it’s a study, asshole, don’t judge this as the best final product I’m capable of (so touchy, I know!  So defensive!). 

Also a bit dismayingly, I got my dates mixed up as I was reading yesterday – I thought the pix in the header were from around 1540, which would have been perfect timing:  First, Bronzino had just done work for the wedding of Cosimo I Medici and Eleanor of Toledo, so I could have had him meet the “young man” at the wedding.  Second, while Brock is reluctant to label Bronzino as gay without any real proof, he did live with an armorer named Allori (and his wife and children) from approx. 1528 until the man’s death in 1541, after which time Bronzino became de facto head of household and made Allori’s children his heirs, with one of them becoming an artist under his tutelage.  I could have developed this relationship in its late days even as B. meets the most beautiful man who ever was.

The dates make Bronzino ten years older when he meets the Young Man than I’d thought – I think this pretty much sets the relationship into the realm of passionate attachment/non-sexual in my mind, as I especially don’t like the picture of the two of them in bed now, especially when I look at a portrait of the artist from this time.


Do hot young men go to bed with old men willingly, for reasons other than lust or greed?  Sure they do – Samuel Steward and Allen Ginsberg and even WIlliam Burroughs were sexually successful with handsome young men long after their looks were gone for reasons other than said looks.  But I don’t want to write about that, especially since the picture of Bronzino I’m getting is one of a quiet, friendly, modest man, passionately attached to a small number of people (hmm no wonder I identify with him), not someone who’d be likely to kick over the traces to chase some wild young hot stuff.  (Me, I’d do it in a heartbeat.)  So the sex is right out.

I can still set the young man up as a friend of the young Allesandro Allori, the budding artist and son of his longtime companion, whatever that term may have met in the context of that particular friendship.  And B’s amazement at the beauty of and his “passion” for the Young Man is unquestionably present in the drawing – it’s a question now of how that plays out in the narrative. 

So more reading today and tomorrow, to get myself to 1550, and figure out now how and where to start the story.

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