Exposition : Agnolo di Bronzino. A Portrait of Dante, Saint-Pétersbourg, Musée de l’Ermitage, jusqu’au 16 janvier 2022

The display is made up of two works: an Allegorical Portrait of Dante Alighieri by the Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino and a printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy published in Venice in 1578.

“This exhibition has many distinctive features. It was conceived as part of the Saint Petersburg Cultural Forum. The Forum has been cancelled, but the exhibition is taking place, as is the round table discussion “Hell and Heaven” and a poetic concert. This year has turned out to be a year of Bronzino,” Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, observed. “We have put two of his paintings in the Hermitage on display after restoration. Today, we thank the owner for the loan of another work by Bronzino. This artist deserves frequent contemplation.”

The exhibition is timed to mark a notable anniversary – 700 years since the death of the great poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and is taking place in the “crisscross” Year of Museums in Russia and Italy 2021–2022.

The Allegorical Portrait of Dante Alighieri was made by the Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino in 1532–33. According to Giorgio Vasari’s account, the picture was commissioned by the banker Bartolommeo Bettini to adorn one of the rooms of his palazzo in Florence. The historical depiction was part of a trilogy of “Great Poets of Tuscany who extolled love”: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. The paintings had semicircular tops as they were installed in lunettes* in the upper part of the room. Bronzino probably painted all three works in the series, but the Portrait of Dante Alighieri in a private collection is the only one of the trilogy known today to have retained its original dimensions and shape, echoing the arched architecture of its original location.

Dante is immediately recognizable from his profile, traditional red clothing and the laurel wreath. Bronzino depicted his subject in front of a landscape background, with a striking turn of the body and as if the viewer is looking up at the figure from below.

With his right hand, Dante indicates Florence, which is shrouded in darkness, while he himself has turned towards the rising sun that is illuminating the very top of Purgatory and the spheres of Heavenly Paradise. The poet is holding a large bound manuscript copy of his immortal creation, the Divine Comedy, open at a passage from Paradise (Canto 25). It is possible to read the lines that speak of the great poet’s desire to return to his homeland:

“then, with another voice and other fleece
a Poet I’ll return, and at the font
of mine own baptism take the laurel crown…” 
(translation by Courtney Langdon)

In 16th-century Florence, veneration of Dante’s genius occupied a special place, combining the status of an exile, an image of love and the sense of belonging to one’s native city. For that very reason Dante is depicted with Florence behind him, pointing to its symbol, the Duomo or Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore. Beneath his right hand there is not just the city, but also a flame of the Inferno. Meanwhile, on the right, in the upper part of the picture, the night sky gradually turns into bright light: the sun is rising above a Florence immersed in gloom, and the time of Paradise is coming. Dante here acts as an enlightener, a bearer of light.

Agnolo Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, 1503–1572) was an outstanding Florentine painter. He became known in the early 1530s as both a poet and an artist. His works gave special status to the Florentine court portrait, creating a type that then spread across the whole of Europe. Thanks to his depictions of members of the Medici family and the Florentine nobility, Bronzino’s portraits retained an enduring popularity down through the centuries and the artist was never forgotten. At the same time, his religious and secular allegorical paintings were regarded on balance negatively by later generations and critics as complicated and pretentious works that had nothing in common with realistic art, and they were consigned to oblivion until the mid-20th century.

The Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, written roughly between 1304 and 1321, is one of the greatest works of world literature that has come down to us in manuscript copies and printed editions, often containing commentaries and illustrations.

Among the 16th-century publications of the Divine Comedy, one of the most popular was that edited by the Italian Humanist Francesco Sansovino (1521–1583) that was printed in Venice by the family firm of Giovambattista, Marchiò Sessa, & Fratelli in several editions (1564, 1578 and 1596).

The 1578 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy included in the exhibition is kept in the Rare Book Section of the State Hermitage’s Research Library. The Italian text is illustrated with 96 engravings. The title page carries a portrait of the author – a bust-length depiction of Dante in profile wearing a laurel wreath that derives from Bronzino’s allegorical portrait. The poem is accompanied by two extensive commentaries, one by the Italian Humanist Cristoforo Landino that was first published in 1481, the other by the writer and scholar Alessandro Vellutello. The book came from the collection of Matvei Alexandrovich Gukovsky (1898–1971), a prominent Leningrad scholar specializing in the history and art of the Renaissance era, a professor of Leningrad State University and head of the Hermitage library from 1959 to 1969.

The exhibition has been prepared by the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art (headed by Sergei Olegovich Androsov). The curators are Zoya Vladimirovna Kuptsova, researcher in that department, and Tatiana Borisovna Bushmina, senior researcher in that department.

The exhibition can be visited as part of either fixed route No 1 (entry by the Jordan Staircase) or fixed route No 2 (entry by the Church Staircase) around the Main Museum Complex.

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