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Renaissance Men by Paul du Quenoy

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Renaissance Men

"Six Tuscan Poets" (1569), a 132.8 × 131.1 cm oil on panel by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) depicting Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cino da Pistoia, Guittone d'Arezzo, and Guido Cavalcanti.

Photo: Courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“At Bank of America,” writes CEO Brian Moynihan at the beginning of the lavishly illustrated exhibition book of The Medici: Portraits & Politics, 1512-1570, “we believe in the power of the arts to help economies thrive, educate and enrich societies, and create greater cultural understanding.” As a sponsor of this recent exhibition—whose bank has also pledged $1 billion to address economic and racial inequality amid last year’s riots— one might wonder whether he was referring to the United States today or was extolling the goals of the exhibition’s 16th century Florentine subjects, who also got their start as bankers.

Indeed, the exhibition, which ran June 26 to October 11, was the creation of Keith Christiansen, the Met’s former chairman of European paintings, who retired earlier this year after having been accused of perpetuating a “deeply rooted logic of white supremacy and culture of systemic racism at our institution.” He had allegedly compared Black Lives Matter-inspired property destruction to the vandalism of cultural monuments during the French Revolution.

Whatever the corporate sponsor’s intentions in the current politically-charged climate, for this exhibition the Met assembled some ninety items—mainly portrait paintings but also sculptures, books, manuscripts, drawings, medals, and weapons—that conveyed how the Medicis and the artists whom they employed have represented personages and power as they reconsolidated their rule over Renaissance-era Florence.

The Medicis were around for much longer than the 58 years covered by the exhibition. Initially rising through multigenerational success in banking and marriage, they came to be Florence’s most prominent family by the mid-15th century and reached the height of their artistic influence under Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492). Due in significant part to his lavish arts patronage, Lorenzo ruined the family’s finances and sank its political clout into eclipse. Rivals took the reins of government, which eventually fell under the control of the extremist Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who imposed an iconoclastic aestheticism on the Florentines.

When Savonarola proved too much to bear, he was ousted, and Florence’s mercantile oligarchy returned to supplant his more moderate republican successors. The Met’s exhibition, in fact, started in 1512, the year that marked the return of Medici rule. The family’s restored leaders included Lorenzo II, who ruled on and off for six years before dying in 1519, “worn out by disease and excess” at age 26. Machiavelli, a minor republican official who was imprisoned and tortured by the revenant regime, dedicated The Prince to him in the hope of making himself useful.

A marble bust of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), Duke of Florence 1539-40 by Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560), located at the Met.

Machiavelli’s literary sycophancy got him nowhere with Lorenzo, and the tension between republican principles and authoritarian rule long endured in the age of the so-called ‘new monarchies,’ which witnessed a centralization of royal power across Europe. The “portraits and politics” of the exhibition’s title reflected Florence’s politically unsettled nature and transition from a restored oligarchy to the hereditary monarchy it became in 1532, when Lorenzo II’s illegitimate son Alessandro became Duke of Florence, a title his successor Cosimo I elevated to Grand Duke of Tuscany after he had conquered neighboring city-states toward the end of the period on view.

It was not an easy or simple time. In 1527, the Medicis were again ousted and briefly replaced by a Savonarola-inspired regime. Foreign troops—a combined army of the Medici Pope Clement VII and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (whose sword is on display)—crushed the insurgents in a brutal siege and installed Alessandro, who was assassinated by a distant cousin after just seven years of rule and was then succeeded by Cosimo I, an even more distant cousin from a junior female-line branch of the family.

Displaying legitimacy was of paramount importance, and Florence—the city of Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and so many others—had the artistic talent to advance political agendas. At the same time, the Medicis had to adjust their self-representations to prevailing idioms in taste and style. When they returned in 1512, austere projections of republican virtue and attendant scholarly seriousness were still in vogue. Many of the artists they commissioned harbored republican sympathies, as has been documented by Giorgio Vasari in his famous Lives of the Artists. Some, including, of course Michelangelo, left the city for political reasons.

Portraits from that time, typified by Rosso Fiorentino’s Portrait of a Man (ca. 1522), favor the simple dress and clean-shaven sincerity that recall the most somber Dutch painting. Rosso was among those who left, eventually ending up in France. Jacopo da Pontormo’s Portrait of Two Friends (ca. 1523-1524) repeats the trope, with both figures looking very serious in black suits, while his Portrait of a Young Man (ca. 1525-1526) drapes a similar figure in ill-fitting ceremonial robes in an awkward pose to suggest discomfort with the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere in which he found himself.

Unsurprisingly, the resurgent Medicis went in for grander postures as their rule solidified. They also adopted oil, a medium that allowed for brighter and more dramatic colors and lent itself to easy copying. Sebastiano del Piombo’s portrait of the Medici Pope Clement VII radiates a grim hauteur, with half-closed downcast eyes and a frown partly covered in a shadow that follows the line of his perfect Roman nose.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo II, whom Machiavelli unsuccessfully flattered in his literary work, emerges in Raphael’s portrait of 1518 as a Renaissance prince on the order of his contemporaries Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. His fashions are unapologetically foreign and French in inspiration, with vestments of bright silk trimmed with fur. His eyes, looking out over a neatly groomed beard, meet the viewer at an angle, suggesting that our gaze is intruding into vastly more important affairs of state.

His putative son Lorenzo II, installed after a republican revival chased the Medici from the city, reverts to the earlier republican style in Pontormo’s portrait of 1534-1535, gesturing toward the black-clad, straight-faced sincerity born of values that heavily contested dynastic rule.

By the time the uncertain Cosimo I had been installed in 1537, majesty reigned. Arriving as duke at age 17, he managed to stay in power for decades, utilizing all the Machiavellian lessons that Lorenzo II had ignored as well as what we today would call ‘soft power’ to claim the mantle of Renaissance civilization for Florence. It was no coincidence that Vasari, represented in the exhibition with his painting Six Tuscan Poets (1544), dedicated both volumes of his Lives of the Artists to Cosimo. In Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of 1545, the new duke is presented in full armor, with elongated hands clutching a helmet ready to be donned at any moment as his wary eyes dart in the other direction. A Latin inscription at the bottom right reminds anyone in doubt that he is “Cosmus Medices, Dux Flor.” Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze bust, executed about a year later and deliberately made to larger-than-life proportions, captures the same alert expression.

“Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni” (1544-1545), a 96 x 115 cm oil on panel by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), located in the Uffizi Gallery.

Photo: Google Arts & Culture.

Cosimo’s family is equally impressive in Bronzino’s portraiture. The artist’s depiction of Cosimo’s bride Eleonora di Toledo, a ravishing beauty who also had the virtues of being well connected to the Medicis’ Habsburg supporters and a loyal and capable regent in her husband’s absence, allows the heavily bejeweled subject to stare out with a knowing and defiant expression. Her hand rests over the sumptuously clad womb that gave Cosimo eleven children and ensured the dynasty’s survival for generations thereafter. In a boyhood portrait rendered about 1551, which Eleonora reportedly organized in minute detail, the ducal couple’s eldest son and heir Francesco affects a Spanish style akin to that of Philip II of Spain, son of Charles V and ruler of a vast empire in the Americas and beyond. It combines the austerity of study—suggested by a serious countenance and tautly held notepaper—with the trappings of majesty. Francesco’s adult portrait by Alessandro Allori (ca. 1570) places him in armor and doublet before an immense crimson curtain with ready hands placed on helmet and sword—a direct imitation of Philip II’s pose in Titian’s official portrait from the height of his reign.

Arts patronage reflected the cultural and political dimensions of Medici rule to an equal degree. Numerous portraits in the newer and more confident idiom feature serious figures holding books, including the recognizable works of Dante and Petrarch. Bronzino’s more formal portraits are accompanied by allegorical images featuring, for example, Cosimo I as Orpheus (ca. 1537-1539). With the fires of Hades burning in the deep background, the ruler sits naked and virtuously pale in the pose of celebrated ancient sculpture. One hand rests on a string instrument, while the other holds the bow between his legs, suggesting perhaps more than one form of prowess. The great Tuscan naval commander Andrea Doria is rendered as Neptune, with a bare torso and signature trident suggesting an atavistic virility rooted in military prowess.

As Medici rule was firmly consolidated—Cosimo’s achievements include concentrating Florence’s civil administration in the ‘offices’ that came to be known as the Uffizi, eventually the city’s greatest repository of art—more attention could be given to beauty. The exhibition’s final room juxtaposes lesser portraits by Bronzino, exemplifying depictions of power, with the soulful aestheticism of Francesco Salviati, who was heavily influenced by Venetian painters. Salviati’s Portrait of a Man (1544-1545) shows a courtly figure in fanciful pose clutching not martial objects but a pair of delicate gloves before an allegorical scene suggesting the romance of morning glory. His Portrait of a Young Man (1543/1548) depicts an adolescent timorously caressing a fawn, which in Petrarch’s poetry usually symbolized the object of adoration.

Visitors to the exhibition were spared the longer fate of the Medicis, who in both action and art came to resemble Europe’s other royal families. Over the next several generations, they intermarried with both their traditional Habsburg protectors and the French Bourbons who rivaled them. Involvement in the continent’s devastating 17th century wars sent Tuscany into an economic tailspin, while intermarriage degraded the family’s once robust gene pool. The Medicis’ male line died out in 1737, with the family’s patrimony eventually devolving through female heiresses to the Habsburgs. They placed lesser dynasts on the Tuscan throne until 1860, when Piedmont tossed them out and integrated the realm into the new Italian nation state. But for a few decades at least, the Medicis produced a legacy that tells us much about power as they conceived it.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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