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Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Gretchen A. Hirschauer. The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici.

Aldershot and Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2002. 132 pp. + 99 col. and

2 b/w pls. illus. chron. bibl. $65 (d), $39.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-85331-857-3 (cl), 0-85331-871-9 (pbk).

With the pick of Renaissance art at their command, what did the Medicis choose to look at when they were at home? Flowers.

Botanical painting is often regarded as a minor decorative art, but for nearly two centuries members of the Medici family gave it their special attention. To the rulers of Florence, the associations of "flower/flowering/Florence" (as well as "laurel/ laureate/Lorenzo") went beyond wordplay: they linked the natural world to Medicis' own grand vision of themselves and their city. So generation after generation laid out elaborate gardens and orchards on their estates, brought exotic plants from all parts of the world, and commissioned talented artists to give permanence to the perishable beauty of the blossoms and fruit.

Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi's splendid essay (translated by Lisa Chien) makes it clear that the Medici interest in plants was not just aesthetic and symbolic. Their enthusiastic patronage contributed tangibly to the development of Renaissance natural history. Florentine humanist scholars consulted and translated manuscripts of Pliny's Natural History and Dioscorides' Materia medica acquired by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Cosimo I's personal curiosity about medicinal plants made him the ideal sponsor for the first botany professorship and the first public botanical gardens in Europe. Those gardens and Luca Ghini's inspired teaching attracted medical students from many countries to Pisa and Florence and set a model for universities throughout Europe.

Cosimo's successors were equally passionate about the new science of plants. Francesco I engaged his own court botanist, the Fleming Joseph Casabona, to introduce and cultivate rare plants. Not content with looking at the living plants and distilling their essences in his alchemical laboratory, Francesco had Jacopo Ligozzi paint them in a series of stunning gouaches on paper. Although the paintings were primarily intended for the grand duke's private study, he shared them with Italy's leading naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and thence with the world through woodcut copies in Aldrovandi's books.

Ferdinando I sent Casabona to Crete on a plant-collecting expedition and renovated the Pisan garden. At his behest, Ligozzi allied mineralogy, botany, zoology, and art through the medium of pietre dure, turning designs of plants and animals into inlays of translucent slices of precious stones. For Ferdinando II and his kin, Giovanna Garzoni produced the watercolor still-lifes and floral bouquets so fashionable in the seventeenth century; she also created botanical images much like Ligozzi's, but with her own touch of illusionary cast shadows added to the fruits, nuts, and creatures scattered around the portraits of isolated plants. Under Cosimo III, the art of the still-life moved from Garzoni's intimate scale to the grandiose, and from the scientific to the horticultural and culinary. Bartholomeo Bimbi's huge oil paintings celebrate (sometimes with unconscious humor--see the monster horse-radish in pl. 64) Tuscany's astonishing abundance of fruits and vegetables. With thirty-four kinds of cherries and more than a hundred kinds of pears to chose from, the Pythagorean vegetarian diet prescribed for Cosimo seems no hardship.

Gretchen A. Hirschauer's study of a single work, Perugino's Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome, and Saint Mary Magdalene emphasizes a different aspect of plants in Renaissance Florentine art in the late fifteenth century. The dozen-plus identifiable flowers and trees in Perugino's small altarpiece are, she argues, laden with religious symbolism that would have enhanced the private meditations of its owner, the Bishop of Cagli, as he gazed up at the painting. The essay, however, sidesteps pertinent questions about symbolism and naturalism in this period. To carry symbolic force, both the everyday identity of a plant and its spiritual significance have to be known. Would the bishop have been able to name all of these plants? Would his explanations of what they represented match Hirschauer's (mostly drawn from Mirella Levi D'Ancona)? And what degree of naturalism was actually necessary to make the symbolic point?

It was a brilliant idea to reunite these exquisite works of art, and deep thanks are due to Tongiorgi Tomasi, Hirschauer, Mrs. Paul Mellon, the National Gallery of Art, the Uffizi, and many other lenders for making the exhibition happen. The Medicis themselves would have coveted the beautifully designed catalogue.


Princeton Research Forum and National Coalition of Independent Scholars
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Author:Reeds, Karen
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
Previous Article:Adrian W. B. Randolph. Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence.
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