For anyone who’s been away from Florence for, say, the last couple of years, beware that you may feel a little shaky when first walking into The Met’s new exhibit The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570. Not full-blown Stendhal syndrome (dizzy spells, disorientation, etc.) but still you may realize that you’ve been missing something both grand and familiar, a certain feeling that you get when you visit Florence, however briefly.
You’re greeted at the door by not one but two Cellini busts of Cosimo I de Medici, one in marble and the other in larger than life-size bronze. (Articles don’t have endnotes, but I’d add that the bronze statue was once partially gilded and placed high above the gates of a fortress on the island Elba, renamed Cosmopolis.) It’s a curious choice. Two Cosmos, two versions of the host of the party, but once inside you realize that there will be many more Cosmos, dressed in armor, undressed as Orpheus; profiled in intaglios carved from agate, gold and lapis lazuli, and cast in bronze medals. These Cosmos will move in and out of the exhibit among his family members and contemporaries.
What makes this exhibit unique is the focus on how art and language intertwined in the 16th century. Cosimo was instrumental in promoting vernacular Italian over Latin, a language that was far from dead but read, written, and even uttered almost exclusively by the elite class.
Guest curator Carlo Falciani, professor of art history at Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti, spoke at the exhibition opening on how language is used in the “battle for power”. Today it’s through the internet. In Cosimo’s time, it was “through the promotion of a new vernacular based on the three great poets of the 14th-century republic: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.” Falciani adds: “[Cosimo] understood that the success of his Tuscan state depended not on arms, but on the power of language and culture.”
The Met exhibit has brought together familiar faces and several new faces as well. A little over two years ago, Pontormo’s two works, Portrait of a Halberdier (ca. 1529-30) and Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (ca. 1530) were hung together in the Morgan Library exhibit, Miraculous Encounters. It was a small show enclosed in a space no larger than a good-sized living room. Pontormo painted both young men as proud defenders of the Republic of Florence during the catastrophic siege of their native town by the imperial armies of Charles V. Now here they are at The Met with more space and context, positioned near a glass case of 16th-century axes and rapiers, and the portraits of fellow Florentines.
After the assassination of his cousin Alessandro, the first Duke of Florence in 1537, Cosimo stepped in to fill the position. He was 18, the average age of a high school graduate today, but he knew what he had to do: Unite the people, remind them of their classical heritage, marry well, start a dynasty, and show the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V that he was a duke to be reckoned with. Enter Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, better known as Bronzino.
Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano), Italian, Monticelli 1503–1572 Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, 1537–39, Oil on panel, 367/8 × 301/8 in. (93.7 × 76.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1950. Image: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, painted between 1537 and 1539, is a showstopper. Loosely speaking, the portrait is Cosimo’s advertisement for a wife. In Greek mythology, the adolescent Orpheus was taught how to play the lyre by his father Apollo, a god esteemed by both the Greeks and the ancestors of the 16th-century Florentines, the Etruscans. The choice of Orpheus as an allegorical guise for Cosimo is puzzling. Orpheus was allowed to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the underworld, but only if he did not turn around and look at her along the way. Unfortunately, he did, and he lost her again forever. Here, as Orpheus, Cosimo displays his musical and physical prowess. With his left hand, he holds the neck of the lyre lovingly. To quote the museum label: “His nudity and the bow between his legs introduce an overt eroticism.” The message of the portrait seems to be that Cosimo, like Orpheus, would demonstrate great devotion and diligence as a husband.
The exhibit does not include the beloved portrait by Bronzino in the Nuovi Uffizi of Bianca (“Bia”), the daughter that he fathered with an unknown woman when he was about 16. Bia’s portrait, however, is painted with the same elegance and style—the blue background that radiates in a halo effect light around the head—that we see with the representations of Cosimo’s wife, Eleonora and their children in The Met show.
While Bronzino was busy becoming Cosimo’s favorite court painter, the artist also began to publish his first poems. The Accademia Fiorentini was founded in 1541 with Cosimo’s total support. Both Bronzino and another illustrious painter included in the exhibit, Francesco Salviati (aka “Cecchino”), were admitted to the prestigious institution. Meetings were regularly held at a space in Santa Maria Novella. Salviati’s portrait, Carlo Rimbotti (ca. 1548) seems to capture the young doctor mid-thought. His lips are slightly parted and his light-colored eyes appear to be directed at someone near him. Dressed somberly, Rimbotti holds a small red book close to him. It’s a portrait of reflection and subtle reaction rather than a pose.
Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano), Italian, Monticelli 1503–1572 Florence. Laura Battiferri, 1560, oil on panel 34 1/2 × 27 5/8 in. (87.5 × 70 cm). Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Florence; Donazione Loeser. Image: © Musei Civici Fiorentini—Museo di Palazzo Vecchio
Laura Battiferri (ca. 1560) is the bolt from the blue surprise portrait in this exhibit. The Dantesque profile that Bronzino has chosen to depict one of 16th-century Florence’s most gifted poets is daring. But that’s only the beginning: the fittingly named Laura and Bronzino played out their platonic relationship through the poetry of Petrarch and the exchange of their own verses written in the style of Petrarch. In the exhibit catalogue, Julia Siemon, assistant curator of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, calls our attention to the book that Laura is holding and the two Petrarch sonnets that are printed on the open pages. Sieman notes that Bronzino took poetic license here: the verses were never printed together. The page on the left refers to “laurel” that is planted in dry soil and implores 14th-century “Laura” to make the soil better for growing. On the right page, Laura Battiferri is pointing specifically to another verse by Petrarch, where the poet is begging forgiveness of the 14th-century “Laura” for his overwhelming desire of her.
This scholarly detail is one of the examples of why I recommend that you buy the catalogue of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570. The exhibit is exciting to move through and to enjoy firsthand, but the original research and commentary in the catalogue will open up this world of Cinquecento Florence after your museum experience.