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The Forgotten Medici

Review: "The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570," Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, June to October 2021

While Lorenzo the Magnificent remains the most well-known member of the Medici family thanks to popular biographies and the Netflix series, Duke Cosimo I was the most successful Medici of them all. Plucked from obscurity in 1537 to replace his assassinated predecessor, the 17-year-old Cosimo surprised both supporters and opponents with his political sagacity. In nearly four decades’ reign, he increased Florence’s control over Tuscany, made the duchy independent of foreign powers, revived the economy, and laid the foundations for a dynasty that lasted two centuries. Realizing that Florence could not compete politically with nation-states like Spain or France, he harnessed the “soft power” of art and literature to glorify Medici Florence as the origin and center of the modern manner in the arts.

“The Medici: Portraits and Power, 1512–1570” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through October 11, tells the story of Duke Cosimo I and his family, the people who flourished under his rule, and even some of the few who stood firmly against his regime. Magnificent portraits by some of the most distinguished artists of the time—Raphael, Jacopo Pontormo, Titian, Benvenuto Cellini, Agnolo Bronzino, Francesco Salviati—reveal how these figures wanted to be remembered. Besides paintings and sculptures, there are also drawings, marble reliefs, medals, weapons, and a red dress that may have belonged to Cosimo’s wife, the beauteous Eleanor of Toledo, whose portraits by Bronzino are high points of the exhibition.

Bust of Cosimo I by Benvenuto Cellini / Wikimedia Commons

A larger-than-life bronze bust of Cosimo sculpted by Cellini in the style of emperor Augustus opens the show. The duke’s bulging eyes fiercely glare at the viewer, making the Machiavellian point that a successful ruler needs to be feared more than loved. Although he did not come from the main Medici line, Cosimo had an impressively martial family. He was the grandson of the audacious Caterina Sforza, praised by Machiavelli in the highest terms for her “magnanimous enterprise” defending her fortress from Cesare Borgia. His father was the popular military hero Giovanni delle Bande Nere. Cosimo’s mother had constantly urged him to emulate, if not surpass, his father. Bronzino’s superb “official” portrait (ca. 1545) depicts the duke in spiky armor with a hand resting on his helmet. Like Mars, the god of war, the duke is at peace but ever alert to danger beyond the horizon. Cosimo liked it so much that he had almost 30 copies made and widely distributed as diplomatic gifts to other rulers to claim his place on the European political scene.

One theme of the show is the difference between republican and court portraiture. An intriguing first gallery illustrates the beauty of the former style: austere, sober, manly, engaging. It may indicate nostalgia for the previous regime. In Pontormo’s fascinating “Two Friends,” two young men dressed in black turn toward us with welcoming faces. One holds a piece of paper and points to a handwritten passage from Cicero’s dialogue Laelius de Amicitia. In the classical tradition revered by Renaissance humanists, friendship was linked with courage, republicanism, and spirited resistance to injustice and tyranny. One of the opponents of the Medici commissioned the work. Imagine the conversations that this picture elicited.

Contrast this image with Raphael’s bravura portrayal of Lorenzo II, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Dressed in the latest extravagant French style, he exudes aristocratic hauteur and grandiosity. Lorenzo administered the family’s affairs when the Medici returned from exile in 1512, leading Machiavelli to dedicate The Prince to him. The dedicatee turned out to be inattentive to the city’s affairs and probably never read the book. In it, Machiavelli advises princes to manage their image in order to win public approval. Lorenzo never learned that lesson, but Cosimo and his court painters did. 

In Sebastiano del Piombo’s picture of the Medici pope Clement VII, the pontiff looks cunning and astute, although historians tell us he proved to be weak and indecisive in his role as leader of Christendom. He was devastated when Emperor Charles V’s troops mutinied and sacked Rome in 1527, fleeing to Castel Sant’Angelo for safety. Florence took the opportunity to exile the Medici. After this humiliation, Clement struck a deal with the emperor to use Spanish troops to besiege Florence in 1529. The army sat outside the city’s gates for almost a year, finally forcing the republic to accept the pope’s nephew (or possibly illegitimate son), Alessandro de’ Medici, as the first duke of the city in 1532.

While the city waited out the siege, Michelangelo, by now a fierce opponent of the family, supervised the refortification of the city’s wall. Daniele da Volterra’s unfinished portrait of the master is on display. Pontormo’s celebrated “Young Man with a Halberdier” depicts contemporary weapons of the type used to defend and attack Florence during the siege. A teenager dressed in the uniform of the civic militia standing in front of the city’s fortifications with his left elbow in a proudly defiant pose, the personification of youth and virtù

Pontormo painted a fascinating portrait of first duke Alessandro. Sitting in a bare room, wearing simple black attire, with a composed demeanor, he seems to embody the virtues of sobriety and restraint. Yet the duke was hated by the elite for his lascivious behavior toward their wives and daughters (something Machiavelli strongly warned princes to avoid) and was murdered by his cousin! That assassin, Lorenzino, commissioned a portrait medal commemorating himself as a modern day Brutus, defender of the republic.

Twenty-three of Bronzino’s paintings dominate the show, and his coldly sophisticated style is especially evident in his portrayal of court ladies, beginning with “Woman with a Lapdog.” The lady richly attired in a red dress wears a mask of icy reserve. Duchess Eleonor of Toledo is depicted dressed in a fantastically elaborate crimson satin dress embroidered with gold thread and pearls against a blue background painted with the most expensive pigment on earth, crushed lapis lazuli. Breathtaking, too, is the recently restored portrait of Laura Battiferri, the most celebrated female poet of the period, holding in her hand an open book of Petrarch’s poetry. The unusual (for the 16th century) profile view of Laura faces a strikingly similar portrait of Dante linking the renowned Florentine tradition with contemporary poetry.

The final room is devoted to the contest between Bronzino and Francesco Salviati. Bronzino wins the match with his sprezzatura portraits of young gentlemen. His rival Salviati paints best when he dispenses with the hyper-sophistication and aloofness at which his rival excelled. His paintings of Cosimo I’s military hero father Giovanni delle Bande Nere and the socially ambitious medical doctor Carlo Rimbotti possess a vibrant and immediate manliness. The last portrait in the show is of the greatest opponent of the Medici, Roman banker Bindo Altoviti. Raphael painted him as a beautiful youth (a portrait now in the National Gallery of Art), but we see Altoviti in his noble and stalwart maturity. The portrait is oil on marble, a wonderful symbol of the sitter’s moral strength and endurance. A fitting ending to a magnificent and thought-provoking presentation.

The sumptuous catalog published by Yale University Press, edited by Met curator Keith Christiansen and guest curator Carlo Falciani, contains glorious reproductions of all the works in the exhibition and brilliant, accessible scholarly essays. The Met website offers a virtual tour by the curators and several podcasts.

Joseph R. Phelan has taught at the University of Maryland, the Catholic University of America, and the University of Toronto.