Agnolo di Cosimo, also known as Bronzino (1503-1572), was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance. Court artist to Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), his work embodied the sophistication of the Mannerist style. Despite his iconic portrayals of some of the most famous figures in the early modern period, there are elements of Bronzino’s biography that render him accessible to contemporary audiences. He was the son of a butcher who became a self-taught artist; throughout his career, the artist remained quite up to date with the contemporary popular culture of his era; and, he was said to have possessed a bawdy sense of humour. The first exhibition devoted to the artist’s painted work, Bronzino – Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici, is on view at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until 23 January 2011.

Late in December 2010, British-Canadian architect and Director General of Palazzo Strozzi, James Bradburne, took the time to answer some of my questions about Bronzino, and the ways in which the Palazzo’s various programs are designed to attract new audiences.

HN – There is a Vermeer-esque air to Bronzino’s oeuvre in that they both produced a fairly limited number of (known) works. The Dutch Master created 36 paintings and the Italian Mannerist 70 – 54 of which are on display in Bronzino – Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici at the Palazzo Strozzi. In other words, this is as complete a curatorial project on a single artist as most of us will experience in our life times. Tell us a little about the inception and process of organizing this show.

The idea for the project was born in late 2006, with the idea of celebrating a great Florentine artist who had been unfairly ignored for some centuries. The key to making such a show happen was the exceptional support by both the Director General of Florence’s State Museums, Cristina Acidini, and the Director of the Uffizi, Antonio Natali, which allowed the core of the Uffizi’s work to be loaned to the Palazzo Strozzi. With this core assured, we were able to convince other major lenders such as the Met, the Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Hermitage to participate.

HN – What were some challenges, and surprises, which you faced while your curatorial team – Cristina Acidini, Carlo Falciani & Antonio Natali – worked on this show? Were there any discoveries that altered the path or interpretation of the project, at any point?

The discovery of the Crucifixion in Nice was a major revelation, which gave the exhibition a way to speak of the theological debates in which Bronzino and his patrons were active participants.

HN – There are several works in the exhibition that have undergone conservation work prior to their installation. What opportunities did this temporary exhibition offer to perform the very time-consuming and costly processes of conservation…

A great exhibition has to do three things: 1) create new scholarship, 2) restore works to the public and 3) transform visitors. Restoration, therefore, is part of the fundamental mission of any serious exhibition. Over 30 works were restored for this exhibition, and many of them, such as the Allegory from Budapest, the Crucifixion, the Dwarf Morgante and the tapestry cycle, represented the fruit of decades of restoration work. This was made possible by the generosity of sponsors such as the Bank of America and the Ente Cassa di Rispamio di Firenze.

HN – Like many of his High Renaissance predecessors, Bronzino was a poet and madrigalist. Late last year, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi commissioned American composer Bruce Adolphe to create a piece called Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino.How did the idea of this patronage come about?

We learned in 2007 that the Metropolitan Museum in NY was planning an exhibition of Bronzino’s drawings. Rather than seeing this as ‘competition’, we saw it as an opportunity to create a virtual ‘Bronzino Year’, with parts of a single whole shown at two major cultural institutions. To make this collaboration visible, we commissioned the American composer to write music based on Bronzino’s poetry. The work had its world premiere in NY at the Met during their exhibition of Bronzino’s drawings, and its European premiere in Florence during the Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition. The English translation of two of Bronzino’s poetry was the result of an online international competition launched at the opening of The Met’s exhibition in January 2010.

HN – I have read that Palazzo Strozzi has created a number of very engaging ‘outreach’ programs, including, hosting local cab drivers in advance of the exhibition(s)…

The Palazzo Strozzi has a double mission: to bring international cultural events to Florence, and to ‘give the Palazzo back’ to the city and its citizens. We believe that by making the city a richer experience for its residents, it is better for those who want to stay longer and return more often. The city’s first ambassadors are its taxi drivers and its concierges, so prior to every exhibition we host a series of free cocktails to show them the exhibition at first hand. The second team of ambassadors are the staff in the exhibition, the café and the shop, who also receive a complete introduction and preview to every exhibition, as well as specialised training in how to interact with visitors.

To fulfill its mission to encourage visits to all of Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi also creates a special passport to the city indicating sites related to the exhibition, special visits and openings of sites normally closed to the public, iPhone applications, as well as special maps and tours. For the Bronzino exhibition, we also developed a travelling theatre on the back of a bicycle based on the Japanese ‘Kamishibai’ tradition, whereby an actress recites poetry specially written for the exhibition by Italy’s leading children’s author Roberto Piumini in Florence’s parks, playgrounds and piazze.

In addition to outreach, the Palazzo Strozzi is extremely family-friendly, with special labels for families and children, family ‘suitcases’ to explore the exhibition, as well as workshops, events and activities. For young people there is also the Palazzo Strozzi’s Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, and an installation by Italian contemporary artists Michelangelo Pistoletto in the courtyard.