Review “The Medici: portraits and politics, 1512-1570”: the power of painting
The portrait in 16th-century Florence reflected defining historical moments, sophisticated parallels between art and linguistics, and the astute strategies employed by Cosimo I de Medici to promote himself and his hometown. “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570”, a splendid scholarly exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by Keith Christiansen, President of the Museum of European Paintings, and Carlo Falciani of the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, explains how portraits could embody the principles of imitate—The direct imitation of the physical characteristics of a subject — and ritrare, in which symbols, allegories and pictorial vanities conveyed the individual and collective identities of a model. As captured in more than 90 works on display, Florentine portraits could also evoke much larger narratives.
Almost a century of Medici family rule ended in the 1490s with the establishment of the Republic of Florence. The turbulent period explored by the exhibition begins in 1512, when Giuliano and Lorenzo de ‘Medici brought their historic dynasty back to power. Following the ruinous sack of Rome in 1527, during which Pope Medici Clement VII was practically imprisoned, Florence was also attacked. The Medici were driven out of the city, and a new republic was born. In the grip of pestilence and famine, and in 1529-30 besieged by Spanish imperial forces (with the support of the Vatican and Habsburg Emperor Charles V), this republic also suffered an untimely demise. The ancestry of the last descendant of the elder branch of the Medici family, Alessandro de ‘Medici, brought his clan back to power in 1532 and ended the city’s long and charged history of Republican rule. His assassination in 1537 led to the ascension of Cosimo I de Medici, a young heir, although from a side branch of the family.
The inspired but increasingly autocratic reign of Cosimo I witnessed frequent debates about vernacular and classical cultures; vestiges of republican virtues and style in the more poetic environment of his court; and the brilliant reincarnation of the city into a dynastic duchy of the Medici. As the show beautifully shows, the portrait has become the mirror of a changing body politic and the vehicle of a powerful new form of nationalist expression.
The masterful bust of Cosimo I (1546-47) by Benvenuto Cellini welcomes us at the door of the exhibition. The monumental bronze sculpture, a dazzling archetype of absolute power, is marked by a decorative classical armor, the tense muscles of the subject and his distant and fascinating gaze. Although the portrait bust is no longer fully gilded, the subject’s eyes are still silver and bewitching.