The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence: catalogue of the exhibition magnificenza!, Palazzo Strozzi, June 6 2002.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. xii + 381 pp. + 250 col. and 50 b/w pls. illus. bibl. $60. ISBN: 0-300-09495-7.
The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence is the weighty hard-back catalogue accompanying the eponymous exhibition that traveled among Chicago, Detroit, and Florence in 2002. In the USA, the museums encouraged block-buster attendance by prefacing the title with the exclamation, Magnificenza! The deployment of Michelangelo also provided a central focus and a famous name. This was more than a marketing ploy. In theory, one of the key argument for both the exhibition and the book was the continuing use of a Michelangelesque style by Medici patrons over several generations. Here, possibly for the first time, an artist's international reputation took precedence over that of his sponsors.
The book is a series of short essays by distinguished scholars along with detailed catalogue entries for the objects that were exhibited. Readers should be warned that it falls between the two categories, "catalogue" and "edited book," often in very frustrating ways. There is coverage of the key Medici patrons, Medici court regalia, the economy of sixteenth-century Florence, garden design, tapestry, pietre dure, and theater. Tellingly, there is no overall editor listed. Instead the various contributors are listed on the title page in alphabetical order. This means that one is just getting to grips with a fascinating topic when forced to jump to another; the catalogue's division between paintings, drawings, sculpture, and decorative arts similarly prevents thematic issues from emerging clearly.
The initial essay by Christina Acidini Luchinat summarizes the symbiotic relationship between Michelangelo and the Medici very effectively. But if this is the opening premise, the rest of the catalogue and its essays rarely substantiate the argument. Instead, as the catalogue progresses, Michelangelo (represented in the exhibition by a series of drawings and small-scale sculptures) almost fades into the background against the rich compilation of remarkable objects drawn from all the arts, or as one of the authors, Suzanne Butters might term it, the ars of late Cinquecento Florence. (S. B. Butters, "Making Art Pay: The Meaning and Value of Art in late Sixteenth-Century Rome and Florence," in The Art Market in Italy, eds. M. Fantoni, L. Matthew, S. Matthews-Grieco  25-40). Superb hardstone tables, vases, and cabinets vie with precious metalwork, porcelains, tapestries, and the scattered remains of elaborate ephemeral theatrical displays. The extraordinary diversity of manufactures produced at the end of the sixteenth century seem to owe more to a major campaign of capital investment in technical innovation than to Michelangelo's design skills. Equally important, as Richard Goldthwaite's essay makes clear, these products were due not to the "rise" of the individual artist but to an overall strengthening of craft skills and "an increasingly strong performance of the artisan sector" (87). It was also a triumph of the power of bureaucracy. Artists were not given full licence to act as independent operators. Instead an overseer, Emilio de'Cavalieri was appointed in 1588 to supervise the Medici's jewelers, carvers, cosmographers, goldsmiths, miniature painters, gardners, turners, confectioners, clock makers porcelain makers, distillers, sculptors, painters and the master of the mint--"in short all the artists and craftsmen of every profession, condition, and rank, who work for us, either by the day or by appraisal or on salary" (90-91).
Although the emphasis is supposed to be on painting and drawing (which are given pride of place), key points regularly emerge about the importance placed on items now termed, "the decorative arts." For example, Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti's emphasizes the fact that Eleanora's tailors were paid as much as her painters while the court embroider, Antonio Bachiacca, was held in even higher esteem and was better paid (29). All told, the material actually suggests that Michelangelo, while important in terms of reputation, was merely one of many names, styles and conceptual ideas that were manipulated in late sixteenth-century Florence.
In sum, The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence is full of fascination but at the same time, can prove a problematic hybrid. The essays, all useful in their own right, lack links that make it clear how they are connected. While the scholarly catalogue provides valuable information, the detailed information provided is often unrelated to the wider issues raised by the exhibition as a whole. Editors of exhibition catalogues are increasingly facing this dilemma. Should the publication be a record of an ephemeral event or a product in its own right? This was undoubtedly particularly complicated by the need to satisfy different scholarly and museum audiences in both Italy and the USA. Under the circumstances, Yale has produced a lavishly illustrated volume with 250 color illustrations of objects rarely seen outside the specialist literature for $60. This is a bargain and whatever its flaws is a major contribution to our appreciation and understanding of the complex economic, social and material world of late sixteenth-century Florence.
University of Sussex
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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