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  • Bronzino’s Dante
  • Deborah Parker

Bronzino’s Portrait of Dante (1532–33) differs from earlier representations of the poet in a number of striking ways.1 The earliest portraits, such as the one in the Capella della Maddalena in the Bargello attributed to the school of Giotto and the fresco in the former Palazzo dei giudici e notai by an unknown artist, show the poet in profile with the aquiline nose, dark hair and serious countenance noted by Boccaccio in his Trattatello in laude di Dante. In 1465 Domenico di Michelino introduced a number of new elements to the Dante portrait: a laurel crown now graces the poet’s cappuccio, his cap, and he wears a red lucco, a long tunic-like garment. Domenico depicts Dante amidst the three realms of the afterlife: above loom the heavens of Paradise, to the left we see the Mountain of Purgatory, and in the lower left corner, a mixture of infernal elements–the Gate of Hell, the neutrals, and Satan. To the right we see Florence—more precisely, Quattrocento Florence, with Brunelleschi’s dome prominently displayed. Dante holds a book of the Commedia open to the first lines of Inferno 1.

Bronzino’s Portrait of Dante adapts some elements from Domenico’s work and introduces some notable new ones.2 Dante himself has never appeared more grandly majestic. The work displays many of the hallmarks of the third age of art extolled by Vasari in the Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori: the features of Dante’s face, shown off profile, have been softened and show the fine modeling typical of the bella maniera. His red garment falls in soft sweeping folds and Bronzino has foreshortened the artist’s right arm. With his other hand Dante holds a large folio volume of his poem. Like Domenico di Michelino, Bronzino shows Dante amidst the three realms of the Commedia. In the painting Dante sits majestically [End Page 156]

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Fig. 1.

Title page, Dante con l’espositione di Christophoro Landino, et di Alessandro Vellutello, 1564. Photo: Courtesy of Small Special Collections, University of Virginia.

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Fig. 2.

Artist unknown, Allegorical Portrait of Dante, late sixteenth century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: Courtesy of the National Gallery.

[End Page 157]

on a rocky promontory, gazing meditatively towards the Mountain of Purgatory, three of whose terraces can be discerned—the proud, the wrathful and the lustful, not to mention the Earthly Paradise atop the mountain. A sailboat with one figure standing on the stern and two seated figures is visible in the middle ground.3 While Domenico da Michelino places Florence to Dante’s left in his work, Bronzino places the city to the poet’s right. His right hand hovers over Florence; below the city we see the fires of hell. Dante appears in partial darkness, his face and torso illuminated by a light that shines down from above, which also irradiates the large folio edition of the Commedia he holds. A light shines brightly on the upper left page, making the passage on the page he holds open with his left hand manifestly apparent: Paradiso 25.1–48. The portrait has a dual focus: while the figure of Dante dominates the painting, the large book he holds also commands the attention of viewers.

The earliest allusions to this work occur in Vasari’s Vite. In the “Life of Pontormo,” Vasari reports that Bronzino had begun to paint portraits of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio in the lunettes of his patron Bartolomeo Bettini’s bedroom, and he planned to add portraits of other Tuscan love poets. Later, in the “Life of Bronzino,” Vasari notes that the half-length portraits (“figure di mezzo in su”) of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio had been completed.4 Until Philippe Costamagna discovered the original in the 1990s, Bronzino’s Portrait of Dante was only known through some preparatory drawings, a workshop copy in Washington’s National Gallery of Art entitled Allegorical Portrait of Dante (Fig. 2), and a woodcut bust of Dante that appears in Francesco Sansovino’s 1564 edition of the poem that includes the commentaries...


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