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The Medici, Michelangelo, and the art of Florence. (Museums Today).

BETWEEN 1537 AND 1621, the first four Medici grand dukes of Florence--Cosimo I, his sons Francesco I and Ferdinando I, and his grandson Cosimo II--presided over a spectacular flowering of the arts and sciences, exemplified by the pioneering achievements and dominant legacy of Michelangelo. Celebrated during his lifetime for his extraordinary talent as a sculptor, painter, architect, draftsman, and poet, Michelangelo inspired subsequent Florentine artists and attracted the city's most-powerful patrons. The Medici grand dukes' extensive and enlightened patronage allowed art in all media to flourish. In addition to commissioning portraits and decorative objects for their private enjoyment and public display, the Medici family ordered the reconstruction or renovation of numerous civic buildings and private residences, and established several major institutions for artistic production and instruction. Thus, Michelangelo and the Medici grand dukes, sharing a voracious intellectual curiosity and an awareness of the power of images, shaped the artistic, political, and cultural identity of Renaissance Florence.

In 1537, the young Cosimo de Medici was plucked from relative political obscurity in the Tuscan countryside to lead Florence after the assassination of his cousin, Duke Alessandro de Medici. Surprising the Florentine aristocrats who put him in power while believing they could easily manipulate the 18-year-old, Cosimo declined to marry into one of their families. Instead, he tied himself to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, by marrying the Spanish princess Eleonora di Toledo, daughter of the Emperor's viceroy in Naples. In doing so, he elevated himself to absolute ruler of Florence. By 1569, when Cosimo convinced Pope Pius V to bestow on him the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, he had expanded his totalitarian rule throughout the Tuscan territories, sometimes violently seizing control of neighboring cities.

Cosimo's control of Florence was equally ruthless, but, despite intimidating tactics, he eventually won the grudging support of the citizenry--not simply for the city's economic and political expansion, but for its greater military security. Many Florentines also found much to admire in Cosimo's wide-ranging intellect. He had a keen interest in art, which he shrewdly used as propaganda to promote the legitimacy of his family's rule. He commissioned major fresco programs for his residences, sponsored spectacular festivals and pageants, founded an artists' academy, championed a literary academy, and was particularly fascinated with botany, chemistry, and zoology.

In 1519, Pope Leo X, a boyhood friend of Michelangelo, commissioned him to produce a magnificent funerary chapel with four Medici family tombs. Summoned to Rome by Pope Clement VII in 1534 to undertake the massive "Last Judgment" fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo failed to complete a number of the tomb sculptures. Nevertheless, the works were greatly prized by patrons and admired by artists, their unfinished state providing special access to the master's intellectual and artistic process.

Although Cosimo I never persuaded Michelangelo to return to Florence, the Grand Duke did avail himself of the talents of the city's other most-gifted sons--particularly Jacopo Pontormo, Agnolo Bronzino, Francesco Salviati, and Giorgio Vasari. Pontormo, who had served Allesandro de Medici, was awarded numerous important commissions by Cosimo I, notably the decoration of the Villa Castello, the choir of the Church of San Lorenzo, and at least two tapestry designs.

Pontormo's protege, Bronzino, received virtually continuous employment at the Medici court. Bronzino and his workshop produced myriad portraits of Cosimo, Eleonora, and their children; the Grand Duke's distinguished ancestors; and members of the court. The artist's extremely elegant and sophisticated sensibilities were applied as well to religious works, most prominently in his decorations in the chapel of Eleonora di Toledo in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Years spent in Rome helped Salviati develop his elegant and extravagant style of painting. He was pressed into service by Cosimo between 1543 and 1548, when he created complicated, archaeologically inspired frescoes of ancient Roman history for the Sala dell'Udienza (audience hall) of the Palazzo Vecchio. He employed a similarly refined, ornamental style in the designs he provided to Cosimo's Arazzeria (tapestry workshops).

Vasari was a competent painter and architect whose gifts as an organizer made him invaluable to the Medici court. First recognized by Alessandro, Vasari was for Cosimo the perfect propaganda minister and artists' "crew chief." Vasari directed the remodeling of the vast Palazzo Vecchio and oversaw the decorations for Michelangelo's funeral in 1564 and Francesco I's wedding in 1565.

Michelangelo's death in Rome elicited an outpouring of tributes for the "heavenly and divine" artist. He wished to be buried in his native city, and, at the instigation of his nephew, Leonardo Buonarroti, the artist's body was transported by mule over the mountains to Horence, where it arrived at the customs house "in a bale--as if it were some merchandise." Academicians carried the coffin on their shoulders to the sacristy of the church in Santa Croce, where it was opened and the body revealed to be intact--"a divine sign," according to Vincenzo Borghini, the lieutenant of the academy.

Vasari wrote that, since the Florentines were unable to keep Michelangelo while he was alive, they would honor him in death "with every sort of magnificence." A pyramid-shaped catafalque, decorated with allegorical figures, occupied the Church of San Lorenzo's central nave. Black drapery, sculptures of skeletons, and painted scenes from Michelangelo's life decorated the aisles. Throngs of spectators filled the church to hear the scholar Benedetto Varchi's eulogy, and published account of the funeral's splendor glorified the artist and his Medici patrons.

Upon the death of Cosimo I in 1574, his son Francesco became Grand Duke of Tuscany. Less dedicated to statecraft than his father and naturally introverted, Francesco never emerged from the shadow of Cosimo's long reign or achieved a political persona of his own. For years, his father had reprimanded Francesco for spending his time in laboratories and workshops by day and taking solitary walks about the city by night. Lacking Cosimo's social ease and spontaneity, Francesco imposed a rigid decorum on his court and built secret rooms and passageways so that he could move about the grand ducal residences and the city undetected--the windowless Studiolo (vault room) in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Tribuna of the Uffizi (offices), and the private Vasari corridor above the Ponte Vecchio. His subjects could not approach him in person, but were required to slip their written requests and petitions into the slot of a door in the Uffizi--surreptitiously monitored by Francesco through a peephole.

In addition to the numerous paintings and bronze sculptures he ordered to decorate his Studiolo, he commissioned or purchased numerous other major works of art and contributed to the family's collection of villas, buying Lapeggi and Magia del Quarata and rebuilding his favorite, Pratolino. More importantly, it was Francesco who gathered together much of his family's paintings and antiquities to create a coherent collection, organizing them historically in the galleries of the Uffizi.

Born in 1548 Os the fourth son of Cosimo I and Eleonora di Toledo, Ferdinando de Medici was not destined to rule. In 1563, Ferdinando was named a cardinal and moved to Rome, where he enlarged and embellished the magnificent Villa Medici to house his superb collection of classical sculptures, which were ultimately installed in the Uffizi galleries in Florence.

In 1587, Francesco I died without a legitimate male heir, and Ferdinando, who had never taken priestly vows, immediately declared himself Grand Duke of Tuscany. Seeking a marriage that would preserve his political independence, Ferdinando chose his distant cousin, Christine of Lorraine, the favorite granddaughter of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France. The sumptuous and well-documented wedding festivities, celebrated in Florence between Apr. 30 and May 15, 1589, were designed to impress the royal houses of Europe.

Soon after Ferdinando succeeded Francesco as grand duke in 1587, he demonstrated his interest in supporting the artists' workshops that had been established by his father and brother. He relocated them from the Casino di San Marco, where they had been informally grouped, to the Uffizi, and organized them into a single, official entity, the Galleria dei Lavori (Gallery of Works). Ferdinando was especially passionate about works in pietra dure (hard stone inlay), in part because he wished to adorn a number of the stately interiors of his residences with panels in this rich and difficult medium, so he raised the workshops to a level of importance above the others. The Galleria dei Lavori, later renamed the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, quickly won international acclaim for its magnificent products, and it still exists today.

Born in 1590, the son of Ferdinando I de Medici and Christine of Lorraine, Cosimo II's comparatively brief reign (1609-21) was a period of peace and prosperity for Tuscany, thanks largely to the political and economic policies his father and grandfather had put in place. Cosimo's marriage in 1608 to Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, sister of Emperor Ferdinand II, allied the Medici family with the Hapsburg dynasty.

Cosimo II upheld the reputation of the Medici as patrons of the arts and the natural sciences. He appointed Galileo Galilei professor of philosophy and mathematics at the University of Pisa. In return, Galileo named the four Jupiter moons he had discovered in 1610 the "Medici stars."

Cosimo II inherited his family's interest in art patronage for the glorification of the dynasty, and he significantly augmented the Medici collections. His acquisitions reveal a wide-ranging interest in contemporary paintings, from Florence and elsewhere, and an ongoing commitment to the Medici workshops. These establishments continued to produce luxurious objects, with a gradual shift from the complex and intricate Mannerist designs of the Florentine court artists to the bold, dramatic language of the Baroque.

Following Cosimo II's death in 1621, his wife and mother served as co-regents for his son Ferdinando II, then only 10 years old. By the time he succeeded to the title, Florence's fortunes had begun to fade. The grand-ducal treasury was severely depleted, and a period of austerity reduced cultural initiatives. Many artists chose to leave Florence for Rome, Naples, and other cities where the new Baroque style was rapidly gaining ascendancy.

The Medici grand dukes were arguably the first political leaders in Europe to establish modern systems of urban planning and use cultural commissions to celebrate their accomplishments and secure their dynasty's future. Through their extensive patronage initiatives--resulting in new residences, government centers, fortifications, artistic institutions, gardens, public sculpture, fountains, and elaborately staged events--they dynamically transformed Florence and exerted a widespread and lasting cultural influence on other European courts.

The exhibition, "The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence," which brings to the U.S. for the first time a number of the most-important masterpieces of the late Italian Renaissance, is on view at The Art Institute of Chicago through Feb. 2. It will travel to The Detroit Institute of Art (March 16-June 8). *

Larry J. Feinberg, the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Curator of European Painting at The Art Institute of Chicago, is curator of the exhibition, "The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence"; Alan P. Darr is Walter B. Ford II Family Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Detroit Institute of Arts; and Antonia Bostrom is Assistant Curator for European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Detroit Institute of Arts.
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Article Details
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Author:Feinberg, Larry J.; Darr, Alan P.; Bostrom, Antonia
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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