by Roderick Conway Morris

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Galleria dell'Accademia, FlorenceGalleria dell'Accademia, Florence
A group portrait by Anton Domenico Gabbiani
of musicians in the entourage of Ferdinando de' Medici in the 1680s.

The Last Great Medici Connoisseur and Patron of the Arts

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 7 August 2013


Ferdinando de' Medici had the misfortune to be born the first son of Cosimo de' Medici, a narrow-minded religious fanatic who became Grand Duke seven years later, in 1670. The father went on to rule Tuscany for 53 years, the longest reign of any of the Medici, outliving his eldest son and putative successor by a decade.

By this time the dynasty was showing severe signs of dysfunction. All of Cosimo's three children - Ferdinando, Gian Gastone and Maria Luisa - were forced into loveless arranged marriages and none produced an heir, bringing the Medici line to an ignominious end in 1737 on the death of Gian Gastone.

Ferdinando was styled Grand Prince on Cosimo III's accession to the Tuscan Grand Duchy, but the princely title proved a somewhat empty one as his father, whom he loathed, rigorously excluded him from matters of state and administration. Ferdinando's obstreperous mother, Marguerite-Louise d'Orléans, returned to France when the boy was 12. Although notionally confined to a convent there, this did not prevent her from causing a notorious series of scandals, involving nude bathing, astronomical gambling debts, affairs with servants and pyromaniacal stunts allegedly aimed at burning the convent to the ground.

The untidy and frequently farcical decline and fall of the Medici has obscured the achievements of the one member of the clan during this period to have left a lasting legacy: Ferdinando. The nature of that legacy is amply revealed by 'The Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici: Collector and Patron,' an exhibition curated with learning and insight by Riccardo Spinelli, at the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti.

Ferdinando's first passion from his earliest years was music. He became an accomplished harpsichordist, able to sight-read a piece and then play it from memory. He built up a sizable permanent group of players and financed the development of new types of instruments. He brought Bartolomeo Cristofori from Venice to be his chief instrument maker - and in 1700 Cristofori invented and constructed the first piano. Ferdinando attracted to Florence musicians from all over Italy and beyond, making the city a center of excellence and innovation. Among those who enjoyed his patronage was the 22-year-old Handel, whose first Italian opera 'Rodrigo' was staged in Florence in 1707.

The first section of the exhibition contains both formal dynastic portraits of Ferdinando - including a magnficent marble bust by Giovan Battista Foggini that was executed when the prince was still in his teens - and an array of more informal portraits of Ferdinando's musical friends and associates.

There are two splendid group portraits of Ferdinando's musicians from the mid 1680s by one of his favorite artists, Anton Domenico Gabbiani. One of these group portraits includes Ferdinando himself; indeed Cosimo reproved his son for his overfamiliarity with players and singers. The other picture is of three musicians accompanied by a richly appareled young black servant. At the center of the canvas is the castrato Francesco de Castris, who from 1686 became Ferdinando's director of music and trusted adviser, with whom, according to rumor at least, the prince also had a more intimate relationship.

Ferdinando's role in musical history has been recognized since the late 19th century, when scholars began to re-examine his life and times. What has been all but forgotten were his energetic activities as a collector and patron of the visual arts, which will surely be remedied by this well-researched exhibition.

The young prince began buying pictures at a young age and the next section of the show displays works by artists he favored during this period. Prominent among them were two foreign painters who had settled in Italy, the Flemish Livio Mehus and the Bavarian Johann Carl Loth. One of the Mehus canvases was bought in a junk shop in August 1684 and Ferdinando eventually came to own about 50 of his paintings. It is typical of Ferdinando's personal engagement with artists that he subsidized the art education of Mehus's son, and, when the father died, bought Livio's drawings, paid for the funeral expenses and ensured that the son was able to provide for his family by guaranteeing him a regular income.

Ferdinando showed an early appreciation of the vigorous and expressive brushwork characteristic of Venetian painters (and of those they influenced, like Mehus and Loth). And a two-month-long stay in Venice in 1688 not only confirmed his particular enthusiasm for the Venetian style, but also his passion for collecting in general.

The prince extracted from his father permission for the trip to Venice in exchange for his agreement to accept Cosimo's choice of bride for him, Princess Violante Beatrice of Bavaria. The ostentatious and extravagant arrangements for what would turn out to be the last spectacular celebration of a Medici marriage are the subject of the next section of the show. Works here include plans for the extensive remodeling of Palazzo Pitti to create new quarters for the bride and groom, designs for a temporary new facade for the Duomo and for the reconstruction of the Pergola Theater, a large engraving of the immense wedding procession itself in January 1689, as well as sculptures commissioned for the couple's new home.

Princess Violante, aged 16 at the time of the wedding, was a rather tragic figure. She shared her husband's musical interests and wrote her own plays, in which she performed. But although she seems to have been devoted to Ferdinando, her feelings were not reciprocated. The prince's neglect of his spouse contrasted markedly with the consideration and generosity with which he treated so many others.

Following the solemnization of this unhappy alliance, Ferdinando turned his attention to a new avenue of collecting, seeking out major Old Master altarpieces of the finest quality from out-of-the-way churches, convents and private collections. Over the next 15 years he acquired over a dozen by Ludovico Cigoli, Fra Bartolomeo, Rosso Fiorentino, Orazio Riminaldi, Guercino, Raphael, Annibale Carracci, Parmigianino, Lanfranco and Andrea del Sarto. Two of these, one by Annibale Carracci and another by Lanfranco, are in the show, while others (listed in the catalog) can be found in their permanent positions in the Uffizi and in the Galleria Palatina at Palazzo Pitti.

In around 1699, Ferdinando initiated another project: the creation of the 'little room of small works' at the Villa di Poggio at Caiano, a favorite Medici villa built in the 15th century by Lorenzo the Magnificent. No work in this gallery, which became a miniature compendium of Old Master painting, was to be bigger than a Florentine 'braccio,' which measured roughly 58 centimeters, or half a yard.

Thanks to four drawings from 1765 recording the hang of the room, it has been possible to re-create the layout of the display, which once included works by the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens, and partially to rehang two walls with a score of pictures from the original collection, including paintings by Bernini, Barocci and Dürer.

The ceiling of the 'little room' was frescoed by Sebastiano Ricci in around 1707. Ferdinando also commissioned the Venetian artist to fresco a suite of rooms in his summer quarters at Palazzo Pitti. Ricci created in the antechamber an extraordinarily bright, airy and witty proto-rococo interior, depicting the story of Venus and Adonis and other mythological scenes, highlighted in princely gold and framed by trompe l'oeil classical architecture. (Not normally open to the public, the room can be visited on Saturdays and Sundays for the duration of the exhibition.)

Above the door on the end wall of the antechamber, three airborne cupids eternally struggle to maneuver into position an outsized crown on to the top of an elaborate Medici coat of arms. The image is a perfect emblem of Ferdinando's unfulfilled ducal destiny, expressed with a virtuoso skill and lightness of touch fully worthy of the refined tastes of the last great Medici connoisseur and patron of the arts.

The Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici (1663-1713): Collector and Patron. Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Through Nov. 3.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023