by Roderick Conway Morris

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Comune di Firenze
Fountain of Neptune, Piazza della Signoria, with bronze figures by Ammannati, 1560-74

Florentine Magnificence in the 16th Century

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 15 November 1997


Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-92) has conventionally been dubbed 'the Magnificent,' but, though he was effective at encouraging others to give commissions to fellow citizens, as a patron in his own right his activities were fairly modest.

Far more grandiose in their designs, lavish in their spending and influential on the appearance of the city as it is today were the descendants of Lorenzo's great-grandfather's brother: Cosimo I, who became Duke of Florence in 1537 and Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569, and his sons Francesco I and Ferdinand I (who died in 1609).

Yet the era of the Medici grand dukes has never attracted the consistent attention given to that of the Florentine Republic during the 14th and 15th centuries. The flamboyantly presented show 'Magnificence at the Court of the Medici: Art in Florence at the End of the 16th Century' now sets out to remedy this neglect. The exhibition, at the Pitti Palace - which was bought in 1549 and completed by Cosimo I and his wife, Eleonora of Toledo, who at the same time began laying out the still charming Boboli Gardens on the hillside behind - marks the centennial of the founding of the Kunsthistorisches Institut (Art History Institute) in Florence (and continues until Jan. 6).

The admirable Institut, used by readers from all over the world, with its vast, ever-expanding library and picture archive of more than half a million images, is a living example of the vision that made 19th-century Germany the powerhouse of systematic research in many academic fields. And the Pitti show, in the Museo degli Argenti, highlights the invaluable work of some of the most recent of a long line of German scholars, notably Ulrich Middeldorf, for 15 years director of the Institut, until 1968, and Detlef Heikamp, a curator of the exhibition.

Not, despite the bedrock of years of research, that the exhibition is a heavyweight academic occasion. The theme is 'Magnificence' and the theatrical designer Pier Luigi Pizzi has built and lighted elaborate settings in the already riotously frescoed grand ducal apartments to create a positively operatic effect, everything glittering even when not - although it frequently is - gold.

Cosimo was made duke at the age of only 18, but his combination of shrewdness, ability to react swiftly to events and readiness to be ruthless and deceitful if required - political 'virtues' adumbrated by Machiavelli in 'The Prince' - soon facilitated his transition from figurehead to absolute ruler. With outside assistance he conquered Florence's age-old rival Siena.

The Medici grand dukes' possession of so many celebrated works of art, both ancient and modern, added immeasurably to their international prestige, but they did not rest on their laurels. While they proceeded to adorn the city with major new works, such as Bartolomeo Ammannati's Fountain of Neptune on the Piazza della Signoria and new Trinita bridge, and numerous monumental statues by Giambologna, they acquired a wealth of new decorative items: carpets and arms from the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Japan, porcelain from China, and masks from Central America, scientific instruments, samples of minerals and other natural wonders.

Florence's own workshops, meanwhile, worked overtime producing new objects, consuming a staggering variety and quantity of precious materials from lapis lazuli, rock crystal, agate and onyx to gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. The export of these Medici-sponsored luxury goods, sometimes as diplomatic gifts, fostered an image of opulence and power that far exceeded the reality of the grand duchy's place in the world, but succeeded in making Florentine styles and taste popular in courts all over Europe.

The epoch of the first grand dukes coincided with the apogee of Mannerism, or the final slide into the hopeless decadence of the High Renaissance - depending on one's point of view. Many of the objets d'art of the period are as striking for their ostentatious uselessness as the exquisite skill, cost and labor expended on producing them.

Many of the drawings in the last section are charming - a particularly delightful informal one being by Federico Zuccari of himself sketching a woodland scene, while his companion enjoys a picnic. But above all, the selection of sculpture by a number of artists - some not widely known - challenges the often unspoken assumption that little of enduring artistic excellence was produced in Florence in the last decades of the 16th century.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023