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Art: Mighty Medici

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

We have to take it for granted that art patronage, as once understood, no longer exists in today’s America. People collect art, buying it for their own enjoyment. But spending millions on an inflated comic by Roy Lichtenstein or outbidding a rival heavy hitter at an auction isn’t public patronage. Such patronage suggests some intent of public edification, and in the U.S.–thanks to its barbarously ignorant politicians and its media-sodden public–that can no longer be done by high art, even if there was much high art to do it with. If the various bickering factions ever come up with an agreed-upon design for a monument to 9/11, it is almost sure to be committee-bland or the merest kitsch. (Even the searchlights that for a time stood in for the Twin Towers were a limp steal from Albert Speer’s light-cathedral at the old Nazi rallies, an unhappy bit of involuntary symbolism if ever there was one.)

Once it was different. Before the media age, people tended to believe in public didactic art and therefore in patronage. Although they may have eventually pulled it off its pedestal after what the Bush Administration euphemistically calls “regime change” occurred, they did not whine soggily about elitism when some duke or prince put up a statue in praise of himself or his relatives. And that is what the marvelous show now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence,” is really about.

The Medici were not, in fact, the biggest art spenders of the Italian Renaissance, but the fact that so many people still assume they were is proof of the success of their art policies as family propaganda. Like all other dynasties, the Medici in due course fizzled out; one of the last of them was the grotesque Gian Gastone (1671-1737), a mountain of fat and wobbly wigs, who commissioned practically nothing, kept puking on the table at court banquets, stank like a polecat and spent the last eight years of his life in bed, imploring boys (vainly, one hopes) to join him there.

But his predecessors were made of sterner stuff. Nor, despite his nickname, was Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92) the biggest patron of the clan. That honor belongs to his great-grandson, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-74), the linchpin of this show. He was installed as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany after his uncle Allesandro de’ Medici was murdered. He had an obsessive desire for magnificenza and was determined to outdo his ancestor–which, in terms of cultural spending, he did. Never had art and secular politics been brought closer together than in late Medicean Florence. Cosimo’s patronage dominated the production of visual meaning and the consumption of art in the city, rather as the ownership of a local TV station might help magnify the image of a determined and self-centered mayor.

We are inclined to think of political art as a separate category, but Cosimo did not. Everything–myth, allegory, history, erotica–was assimilated to his glory. When he was barely out of his teens, and had been Grand Duke for only a couple of years, he had his court artist, Agnolo Bronzino, paint him as a peacemaker: Orpheus enchanting the wild beasts (civic discord) with his music, and naked in an allusion to his prowess as a lover. Cosimo encouraging the arts, Cosimo fostering scholarship, Cosimo bringing wealth, Cosimo subduing the city’s enemies–there was nothing that Cosimo’s artists did not show Cosimo doing for Florence.

He was amazingly lucky in the pool of talent he could call on. There was Michelangelo himself, growing old (he would die at 89 in 1564) but still active: there are no fewer than 12 works by him in this show. Eccentric as this may sound, the most beautiful of them is the smallest, a tiny wooden carving–whittling, really–of the crucifixion torso, which manages to compress into its less than 1-ft.-high block the tragic pathos of his late, unfinished stone carvings, such as the Rondanini Pieta. (The catalog also compares the carving to late Titian, late Rembrandt and the late quartets of Beethoven, and not without reason.)

In addition to Michelangelo, there were lesser but still extraordinary sculptors waiting pliably at Cosimo’s beck and call. There was the fabulously eloquent Giambologna. There was Bartolommeo Ammannati, who made the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria, designed the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti and created the exquisite curve of the Sta. Trinita bridge over the Arno. Benvenuto Cellini did for Cosimo the bronze Perseus decapitating Medusa that still stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, an allegory of the triumph of Virtue over Cosimo’s enemies. Medusa’s gore, solidified in bronze streams, is one of the most (literally) bloodcurdling images in all Renaissance art, and the little study for her head, also by Cellini, is a thing of singular melancholy beauty and, so to speak, inwardness. It is a thinking head, not at all the horror-show mask that most Renaissance gorgons were made to be.

Then there were the decorative arts: hard-stone (pietre dure) inlays, gems, tapestries. The tapestries in particular were a way of extracting the maximum visual punch from skilled labor: not only could they reproduce great designs at a fraction of the cost of painting, but they could also cover enormous surfaces with sumptuous effects. Monarchs loved them, setting up weaving factories in the Netherlands, France, Naples and Madrid. Naturally, the Medici had to have their own. Most elaborate of all were the pietre dure designs–fantastically elaborate inlays of jasper, lapis lazuli, serpentine and all manner of semiprecious stones, sawed into thin sheets and assembled as a jigsaw by gem cutters. Francesco de’ Medici in particular, Cosimo’s son, took delight in these because of his proto-scientific, alchemical interests; he was fascinated, like someone seeing pictures in the fire or Leonardo free-associating about forms made by accidental damp on walls, by how the grain of the stone suggested further pictures within the larger design.

But it is to the paintings in the show that the visitor will probably be most drawn. Florentine mannerism–“the stylish style,” as one art historian called it–reached its apogee under the immediate and inescapable influence of Michelangelo. Its hallmarks were the extreme grace and elongation of the figures and their twisting, flamelike pose, known as the figura serpentinata. Thirty years ago, the fashion among (mainly Marxist) art historians was to attribute this artificiality to social anxiety among the artists: how different was the overrefined melancholy of Pontormo from the solid materiality of earlier Renaissance artists like Masaccio! Actually there’s no basis for this, and one can enjoy the wonderful (if at times rather stressed out) elegance of Florentine mannerism without feeling that the artists’ world was somehow falling apart.

Besides, it is not always so far from realism. Witness the sublime painting (circa 1616-18) by Cristofano Allori of Judith, attended by her nurse, holding the decapitated head of her would-be rapist Holofernes. (The model for Holofernes was Allori himself; for Judith, his real-life lover, known as La Mazzafirra). Far from being etiolated or artificial, it is almost as realist as a Caravaggio, though much classier in the opulence of Judith’s robes.

All in all, this isn’t just a good or interesting show. It’s a great one, thanks to the willingness of newly enlightened Italian collections to lend their treasures to foreign museums. The show could not have been done 10 years ago, and it shifts into the light a whole tract of art history that has never been properly treated by an American museum before.

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