Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: The Medici: Portraits and Power at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 The Medici: Portraits and Power, 1512-1570

Metropolitan Museum of Art

June 26, 2021-October 11, 2021

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The great statue we know as Michelangelo's David was once a fallen giant. 

The huge piece of marble which eventually became the David had been "badly blocked" in its preparatory stage. It languished for years before Michelangelo was commissioned by the directors of the Arte della Lana, the wool merchants guild of Florence, and the committee overseeing the city's cathedral, to create a monumental statue for the Duomo.

Michelangelo's David continues to cast a long shadow over Italian art, indeed over all of Western civilization. A spectacular exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Medici: Portraits and Power, is no exception. 

The only reference to Michelangelo in The Medici: Portraits and Power is a single portrait. Yet, the ninety-plus paintings, statues, rare books and other treasures on view can best be appreciated by reflecting that these were created in Florence. This was the city of the young Michelangelo, which he pointedly avoided during the last decades of his life. What factors could have induced Michelangelo to turn his back on his beloved Florence?

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) 
Daniele da Volterra's Michelangelo, ca. 1544

After four years of staggering work, Michelangelo finished his masterpiece. On September 8, 1504, to widespread acclaim, David, was presented to the citizens of Florence. The statue was placed in a civic, rather than a religious setting: the square before the Palazzo Vecchio, the city's municipal  headquarters. Standing 17 feet high (5.17 meters), David was a fitting symbol of the Republic of Florence. 

A mere eight years later, Florence suffered a devastating political coup on September 1, 1512. When the dust settled, Michelangelo's David still stood on its plinth. Instead, the Republic of Florence was the fallen giant.

The Medici, Florence's most influential - and notorious - family - were the masterminds who toppled the Republic of Florence in 1512. Then, after briefly being exiled in 1527, they mounted a definitive assault on the populist government of Florence, determined to crush the Republic. Backed by Spanish troops, the Medici Pope, Clement VII,  besieged the the city. Florence, already wracked by plague which had caused 36,000 deaths, fell on August 10, 1530.

After securing control, the Medici then proceeded to stage a cultural revolution to bolster their reputation by proclaiming the world-class status of Florentine art and literature.

The key figure in the transition from republican government to a heredity-based dukedom was Cosimo I de’ Medici, who became Duke of Florence in 1537. Cosimo was just seventeen years of age when he was vested wih the title of Duke, a prestigious, but also dangerous honor. Alessandro de’ Medici, placed in power as overlord of Florence in 1532, had been assassinated and the young Cosimo was a likely target, as well.

We shall return to Cosimo I de’ Medici, again and again, in this review. Like a modern dictator, Cosimo utilized the talents of Florence's artists to raise up images of himself all over his princely realm. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Gallery view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics. In the foreground is Giovanni Bandini's sculpture of Cosimo de Medici, 1572

The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, follows in the footsteps of two worthy predecessors: The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, displayed at the Met during the winter of 2011-2012, and Michelangelo - Divine Draftsman and Designer, 2017. Considered as a three-part continuum, these Metropolitan Museum exhibitions recreate the civilization of Renaissance Italy to a degree that would have been impossible at any other museum in the world, except perhaps the Ufizzi in Florence. 

Credit for The Medici: Portraits and Politics is chiefly due to Keith Christiansen, the Met's Chairman of  European Paintings. He was ably assisted by Carlo Falciani, Professor of Art History at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. Christiansen is retiring after forty years at the Met, so The Medici: Portraits and Politics can be considered as the capstone of a brilliant career devoted to art scholarship and the enduring values of civilization.

The Medici: Portraits and Politics, like The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, is filled with insights on how developments in depicting the human likeness reflected the changing society of Italy during the Renaissance.This beautifully-mounted exhibition widens its focus to include more than portraiture, however. Special attention is paid to the role of literature in Florence during the 1500's, notably the treatment of Dante Alighieri, who was revered almost as a living presence, despite the fact that he had died in 1321.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Gallery view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics exhibition. From left: Titian's portrait of Benedetto Varchi, Bronzino’s Allegorical Portrait of Dante & his portrait of Laura Battiferri 

There is a sobering note, however, to The Medici: Portraits and Politics. The years covered in the exhibition, 1512 to 1570, witnessed the "high noon" of the art of Renaissance Florence. Yet, this era was chiefly a time of culmination, the "sunset" of the living, thriving tradition of art in Florence. 

Like a relay-race, the torch of artistic inspiration had been passed across generations of Florentine painters and sculptors beginning with Cimibue and Giotto in the late thirteenth century. This dynamic process was stifled by Cosimo's authoritarian rule, even as he commissioned works of art. The great creative spirit of Renaissance Florence began to fail, as artists paid closer attention to Medici moods than to their own muses. 

Florence under Cosimo I was, thus, no place for independent spirits. Michelangelo, an ardent supporter of the Republic, stayed away.  

It is interesting to note that two of the most important works of art on view in the Met exhibition were painted by non-Florentine painters. Raphael's Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino and Titian's portrait of Benedetto Varchi are  problematical paintings which raise nagging questions about the Medici regime. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Raphael's Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, 1518

Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino (1492-1519), bore the same name as his grandfather, the illustrious Lorenzo the Magnificent. But he was a short-lived, mediocrity installed to govern Florence by his uncle, Pope Leo X, who had staged managed the 1512 coup. Lorenzo's chief claim to fame is that Michelangelo designed his tomb in the Medici Chapel, with a pensive statue of him, and Raphael painted his portrait.

Raphael's portrait, however, is a classic case of clothes not making the man. Despite dressing in the sumptuous attire of a Renaissance prince, Lorenzo visibly shrinks into his fur-lined robe. He looks like someone posing in the costume of a nobleman or playacting as a duke. It was not an image which Cosimo, who had plenty of political savvy, would have found reassuring.

Benedetto Varchi, on the other hand, was superbly talented and determined to express his views without treating Duke Cosimo with fawning deference. As a result, Varchi was exiled to Venice, where Titian painted his portrait.


Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Title page of Benedetto Varchi's Storia Florentina, published in 1721 

After being permitted to return to Florence, Varchi was commissioned by Cosimo to write a detailed history of Florence. It was a sly attempt to enlist the scholar into the Medici camp. Varchi's forthright narrative touched a raw nerve with Cosimo due the candid treatment of the assassination of Alessandro de' Medici. The book remained unpublished until 1721.


Jacopo da Pontormo, Alessandro de' Medici, ca. 1534–35

It is interesting to speculate that Alessandro de' Medici was aware of  the grandiose pretensions so readily apparent in Raphael's Lorenzo de' Medici. When he became Duke of Florence, Alessandro commissioned Jacopo Pontormo to paint his portrait in a deliberately austere style. If he thought that modesty and restraint would protect him, however, it was a fatal mistake. He was murdered by another member of the Medici family.

Cosimo I was faced with the same problem. Clearly, he would not remain alive for long if he relied on the trappings of power to impress his subjects. Yet, as Cosimo knew, a ruler's image is important. One of the many delights of this wonderful exhibition at the Met, is to follow the attempts of Cosimo to create an effective public persona for himself. 

Shortly after assuming power in Florence, Cosimo commissioned Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503–1572 ) to portray him as Orpheus, tragic hero of Greek mythology. Bronzino was one of Florence's major artists and a leading exponent of Mannerism, the controversial style of painting that emphasized stylized body postures, references to antiquity and lots of nudity.

What seems like tasteless exhibitionism in Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo was actually a subtle appeal to bring peace to a society riven by war and political factionalism. Here Cosimo/Orpheus poses, after calming the savage "hound of hell", Cerberus. That was precisely what Cosimo was endeavoring to do in Florence.

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo de' Medici as Orpheus, 1537-1539

In the story from Greek mythology, Orpheus charmed Cerberus so that he could rescue his wife, Eurydice, from Hades and bring her back to the land of the living. Hardly had the paint dried on Bronzino's painting, than a wife for Cosimo duly appeared in Florence. One of the celebrated chapters in the story of the Medici had begun.

Eleanora di Toledo (1522–1562) was the daughter of Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, the Spanish nobleman who governed Naples for Emperor Charles V. Cosimo had seen Eleanora while on a diplomatic mission years before he became Duke of Florence.  When the opportunity arose for marriage to one of the daughters of the Spanish viceroy, Cosimo insisted that it be Eleanora. It was a wise decision. As events were to prove, Cosimo had chosen the perfect wife.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Agnolo Bronzino's Eleonora di Toledo, ca. 1539–40

A great beauty by sixteenth century standards, Eleanora posed often for Bronzino who immortalized her with an "ice-goddess" allure - look but keep your distance. Yet, if you study Bronzino's early portrait of Eleanora, painted around the time of her marriage to Cosimo in 1539, I think you will detect more than a gleam of smoldering sensuality in her eyes, the look which entranced Cosimo on his youthful diplomatic mission to Naples,

Eleanora was much more than a beautiful consort for Cosimo. She was intelligent, ambitious, and possessed business management skills that enabled Cosimo to delegate important tasks to her, while he attended to military affairs. On several occasions, Eleanora served as regent of Florence. And perhaps most surprising of all, she and Cosimo enjoyed a loving, faithful marriage, blessed with several children.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
 Red velvet petticoat with sleeves, reputed to have been worn by Eleonora di Toledo, ca.1560

The happily, ever-after marriage of Cosimo and Eleanora ended in December 1562 when she and two of their sons were struck down by malaria, the bane of Italy. A red, velvet petticoat with sleeves, believed to have been worn by Eleanora (or more likely, by one of her ladies-in-waiting) is on display in the Met exhibition. It is a striking testimonial to a remarkable woman.

Cosimo was grief-stricken by his wife's death. It is difficult not to feel sorry for him. Cosimo was basically a decent human being and an effective ruler - a rare combination in any era. For Italy, the battleground of Europe during the 1500's, his political skill, energy and determination were absolutely invaluable. Without Cosimo, it is difficult to see how Florence could have survived as a semi-independent entity. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Benvenuto Cellini's Cosimo de' Medici, 1546-47

Benvenuto Cellini's bronze portrait of Cosimo, created in 1546-47, shows exactly the commanding presence which Cosimo felt he needed to present to the embattled and threatening world around him. The imperious, yet visionary, visage of a tested leader - that is what he wanted his dutiful subjects to see. 

Unfortunately, Cellini's portrait of Cosimo also reveals the reason why Michelangelo chose not to return to Florence following the fall of the Republic. Cosimo certainly would have welcomed him. Indeed, Cosimo plotted with Michelangelo's nephew, Lionardo Buonarroti, to secretly bring Michelangelo's body, following his death in 1564, back to Florence. Lionardo had Michelangelo's body removed from the Roman church where it had been interred and wrapped in a bale of hay for clandestine shipment to Florence.

The plan worked to perfection. A lavish public funeral for Michelangelo was held in Florence and his body was laid to rest in the Church of Santa Croce. Cosimo had finally added Michelangelo to his retinue of court artists.

The theft of Michelangelo's body was an act of state-building strategy. It was designed to use the reflected glory of a great artist to secure the power of a despotic regime. If results justify deeds, then Cosimo certainly succeeded. Five years after he staged his grave-robbing coup, Cosimo was declared Grand Duke of Tuscany by Pope Pius V.

Yet, the "political theater" of Michelangelo's funeral was the act of a tyrant.

Look at the face of Cosimo on Cellini's bronze portrait and this is what you see. This is the brazen countenance of a tyrant. A petty-tyrant, perhaps by comparison with later dictators, but a real one all the same. 

This is the face of a ruler of men who can commission works of art or command the building of a grandiose monument - but can never inspire genius.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Benvenuto Cellini's Cosimo de' Medici (detail), 1546-47.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Daniele da Volterra's Michelangelo, ca.1544. Oil on wood: 34 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (88.3 x 64.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Clarence Dillon, 1977. #1977.384.1

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Museum. In the foreground is Giovanni Bandini's sculpture of Cosimo de Medici, 1572. Marble: 39 7/8 X 15 3/4 X 15 3/4 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art M 81.39

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics exhibition. On display (from left): Titian's portrait of Benedetto Varchi, Bronzino’s Allegorical Portrait of Dante & his portrait of Laura Battiferri 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Raphael's Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, 1518. Oil on canvas: 38 1/4 × 31 1/4 in. (97.2 × 79.4 cm)  Private collection.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Title page of Benedetto Varchi's Storia Florentina, published in 1721 

Jacopo da Pontormo (Italian, 1494–1556) Alessandro de' Medici,  ca. 1534–35. Oil on panel:  39 7/8 × 32 1/4 × 1 1/8 in. (101.3 × 81.9 × 2.8 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection

Agnolo Bronzino (Italian,1503–1572) Portrait of Cosimo de' Medici as Orpheus, c. 1537-1539. Oil on panel: 36 7/8 × 30 1/16 inches (93.7 × 76.4 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1950 #1950-86-1

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Agnolo Bronzino's Eleonora di Toledo, ca. 1539–40. Oil on panel: 23 1/4 × 18 1/8 in. (59 × 46 cm)  Credit Line: Národní Galerie, Prague (O 11971)

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, showing Petticoat with sleeves,  ca. 1560. Velvet: 59 1/16 × 51 3/16 × 66 15/16 in. (150 × 130 × 170 cm)  Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Benvenuto Cellini's Cosimo de' Medici, 1546-47. Bronze: 43 5/6 X 38 9/16 X 27 3/16 in. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (358 B)


  1. Hi, Eyewitness,
    For me, the runaway sleeper of the Met's Medici show was Francesco Salviati. He imbues both gravity and humanity in his works.
    Florentine portraiture in the 1530's could simply be called "artifice," and that would be the end of it.
    But psychological depth and emotion arise with the proto-Baroque, most notably with the works of G.B. Moroni. And it only gets better from there.
    See, for example, Simon Vouet's self-portrait of c. 1626–1627 in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. That's the money shot for me.
    Ted Gallagher
    New York

    1. Thanks for your kinds words and brilliant insights.
      Ed Voves, Art Eyewitness