Bronzino was born on November 17, 1503. What little information is available reveals that he was of modest descent, being the son of butcher from a suburb of Monticelli. Due to his hailing from a lower class, he most likely did not have a surname. His full name was Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano di Agnolo di Antonio di Agnolo di Toro.
His early training took place under the supervision of an unidentified artist, followed shortly afterwards by several years of work with Raffaellino del Garbo (1476-1524). Afterwards Bronzino joined the studio of Pontormo, from whom he learned his distinctive artistic style. Bronzino was an avid admirer of his mentor and would soon become one of Pontormo’s closest friends. From all available evidence, Bronzino seemed to have little personal ambition and did not strive for fame, preferring to lead a more secluded, simple life.
His career as a painter only really began in autumn of 1522, after an outbreak of the plague in Rome. Despite all precautions, the disease quickly spread beyond the city limits and swept across the countryside to Florence, causing several deaths by November of the same year. In trying to escape the epidemic, Pontormo took on a commission to decorate the Certosa di San Lorenzo, taking Bronzino along with him. Although Bronzino’s role in this venture was mainly that of an assistant, he nevertheless managed to paint two paintings, Dead Christ with Two Angels (circa 1522) and Suffering of Saint Lawrence (circa 1522), in the lunettes above the front door of the charterhouse, neither of which has, unfortunately, survived.
The plague receded towards spring of the following year, and was gone completely by 22 March 1523. However, Pontormo and Bronzino remained at the Certosa until 1525, giving Bronzino time to decorate several of the Carthusian monks’ religious books with miniatures. Shortly after their return, Pontormo and Bronzino were commissioned several paintings for the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita, Florence. Although during this project, too, Bronzino mainly served as an assistant, at least two of the frescos in the chapel are attributed to him by art historian Vasari. Due to their very similar styles, many modern art historians are divided in their opinions on exactly which frescos were done by Pontormo and which by his student, but the ones most often attributed to Bronzino are St. Mark (1525-28) and St. Luke (1525-28).
Bronzino’s first individual commission was ordered around the same time period as he was helping decorate the Capponi Chapel, by the same family that owned it. For this commission Bronzino painted the Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1525-26), one of his more renowned works and what finally started his professional career.
Many of the commissions that followed were portraits of the patrons and their relatives, beginning with Portrait of Lorenzo Lenzi (1527-28), Lady in Green (1528-32), Portrait of a Man with a Book (1530s) and Portrait of Young Sculptor (1530s). Around this time, soon after the Sacking of Rome, Florence was besieged by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, which inspired Bronzino to paint Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Martyrs (1530-32) for one of his clients. The painting, based on Pontormo’s fresco Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legions (1529-30), looks much like an “abbreviated” version of the other artist’s work, recreating only the upper left corner of the original, which depicts the suffering of the martyrs and the Angel sent to baptize them.
After the city’s surrender to the imperial troops, who reinstated the exiled Medici family to power, Bronzino left Florence once again, allegedly in search of more clients. However, his departure was probably also heavily influenced by another outbreak of the plague, brought into the city by landsknechts in the employment of the emperor.
Bronzino soon found employment in Pesaro, where he joined a group of artists from all over Italy, among them Girolamo Genga, Raffaellino del Colle, Francesco Menzocchi, Dosso and Battista Dossi, and Camillo Mantovano, who had been invited there a year prior to decorate eight halls on the first floor of the Villa Imperiale by the Duke of Urbino. Due to so many artists being involved in the project, and some of the frescos being renovated and redrawn over the following years, it isn’t clear which of the works in the Villa were done by Bronzino, although some records indicate that he (in some cases perhaps paired with Raffaellino) was mainly tasked with decorating the Hall depicting the Labors of Hercules and the Grand Hall. His employment by the Duke of Urbino did not end with the Villa, however, and the Portrait of a Lady with Dog (1532-33), Apollo and Marsyas (1530-32), as well as a portrait of the duke’s son, Guidobaldo II della Rovere (1532), are all believed to have been done in service of the duke.
Bronzino’s somewhat abrupt return to Florence was due in no small part to Pontormo, who wrote to his fellow artist, informing him that the most recent outbreak of plague had passed, but not before claiming the lives of painters Franciabigio and Andrea del Sarto, leaving their projects in the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano unfinished. Alessandro de’ Medici appointed Pontormo to finish the villa’s decoration, and Bronzino soon joined him to work on the frescos. However, this project, as well as the decoration of the Medici villa in Careggi (also assigned to Pontormo and Bronzino), was short-lived because of Alessandro’s assassination in 1537, after whose death all work on the villa ceased.
Nonetheless, between work on the Medici villas and even after the projects’ cancellation, Bronzino received many commissions from the Medici family, as well as other patrons. Some of his best known works from this period include his paintings in the Chapel of Eleonora of Toledo (1541-43), Lamentation (1543-45), An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1545), and his many portraits of members of the Medici family.
It is known that Bronzino was an avid poet, though very few of his works were ever published. At the time, poetry was viewed as a frivolous pursuit suited best to the entertainment of friends and family, rather than an independent art form in itself.
The nickname “Bronzino,” meaning “little bronze,” was first attested to in a document concerning the payment for the Pietà with Mary Magdalene (1529) in the church of Santa Trinatà, dating back to 1529, where the artist’s name is listed as “Agnolo di Chosimo pitore ditto Bronzino.” The origins of the nickname are unknown. The most popular theories include that it was a reference to the painter’s hair color, or his preference to use this color in many of his paintings. Other sources suggest that the nickname arose in light of his homosexuality, since, at the time, copper (a prime constituent of bronze) was also used as a slang term for the anus. This theory is also somewhat backed by the fact that Bronzino is not recorded to have ever had a wife or female companion of any sort. However, no solid evidence exists to prove either what Bronzino’s hair color or his sexual preferences were, and his choice not to marry may be explained by the following fact:
Sometime around 1528, Bronzino became acquainted with Cristofano Allori, an armorer living Florence, and the two became such close friends that Bronzino eventually took up residence in Allori’s house. Allori passed away in the summer of 1541, and Bronzino was left to look after his widow, Dianora Sofferoni, his four children, his mother and his niece. With a foster family of this size, it would be unsurprising that Bronzino might have had no interest in starting a family of his own.
Of the four children left in his care, the youngest son, Alessandro Allori, would become his best pupil, heir and an artistic successor of sorts. Alessandro would not only dub himself “Bronzino,” but he, along with his brother Sebastiano, would also be one of two sole beneficiaries named in Bronzino’s will, inheriting the artist’s entire workshop and painting tools. Like his adoptive father, Alessandro admired the works of Pontormo and would eventually become a close friend of the painter in Bronzino's stead.
Bronzino died on November 23, 1572.
Bronzino: Painter and Poet at the Court of the Medici by Carlo Falciani, Antonio Natali. Mandragora, 2010.
The Drawings of Bronzino by Carmen C. Bambach, Janet Cox-Rearick, George R. Goldner. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.
Bronzino by Maurice Brock. Flammarion, 2002.
Pontormo, Bronzino, and the Medici: The Transformation of the Renaissance Portrait in Florence by Carl Brandon Strehlke. Pennsylvania State Univ Pr, 2004.
Pontormo, Bronzino, and Allori: A Geneaology of Florentine Art by Elizabeth Pilliod. Yale University Press, 2001.
Bronzino: Renaissance Painter as Poet by Deborah Parker. Cambridge University Press, 2000.