On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
June 26 – October 11, 2021
If you think yourself immune to the seductions of visual propaganda, go check out the current Met exhibition, The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570. It will test you. Presiding over the first room of the show is Benvenuto Cellini’s colossal bronze bust of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (ca. 1546–47). Shown in ornate all’antica armor like that of a Roman hero or ruler, Cosimo’s fierce eyes flash with inlaid silver as if he were alive. The duke eventually had the bust placed over a gate of his new fortress of Portoferraio on Elba, where it proclaimed his control and also acted as a kind of surrogate. It is hard to describe the vital power of this piece, the way that, despite looking to one side and not even deigning to recognize the onlooker, it nonetheless intimidates. Energy seems to emanate from its surfaces, so that even the knot of the enveloping mantle reads like a gnarled hand, clenching the cloak with ferocious talons. Passing below this awe-inducing work must have felt like submission to Cosimo’s power.
Raphael, Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, 1518. Oil on canvas, 38 1/4 x 31 1/4 inches. Private Collection. Courtesy Bridgeman Images.
Made in times of relative stability, Cellini’s Cosimo I de’ Medici is one of those images that purposefully simplifies history, cleans up its messy brutality, and presents the outcome of complex processes as preordained. In sum, it makes beautiful the ugly. In fact, it’s such an effective image you may ultimately decide you prefer things this way. It is a credit to the artists of 16th-century Florence that the Cellini is hardly alone here. Everywhere, impressive portraits celebrating Cosimo and other Medici make you want things that you know you shouldn’t. After all these centuries, we viewers—and evidently the curators—are far from invulnerable to the compelling rhetoric of such imagery. Yet there is reason to believe many of Cosimo’s contemporaries kept their critical faculties. This show is ostensibly about how the Medici, in establishing themselves as hereditary rulers of Florence, used portraiture to legitimate their rule and broadcast their power. But as you roam the exhibition, there are traces of other stories, counternarratives that complicate the Medicean focus.
This may not be entirely obvious in the first rooms of the show. After brief encounters with portraits belonging to the fading republican regime at the beginning of the century (probing, sober, and human-scaled), we quickly come face-to face-with the triumphant Medici dynasty in a pageant of portraits by Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Jacopo Pontormo, and Agnolo Bronzino, accompanied here by a gigantic family tree. Having introduced the familial and historical situation, the show proceeds to spotlight Cosimo I de’ Medici, his capable wife Eleanora of Toledo, and their large family. It was Cosimo I above all who gave lasting foundations to Medici rule in Florence and these portraits reflect his aspirations for the dynasty. Although they record something of individual physiognomy, they are ultimately splendid court productions, crystalline distillations fixed by absolute command of compositional design and unusual color harmonies. Masks of power, they offer only the barest glimpses of interior life. When the everyday or incidental does intrude, it hardly compromises the presentation of elevated station. A Medici princeling fondling his teething necklace (Garzia de’ Medici, ca. 1550) does not look so much a playful innocent as a somber grandee handling the bridles of power.
But things soon get more complicated, and the incidental at times becomes primary. In the next room, we find a group of likenesses of the Medici and others in the guise of saints and mythological figures (e.g. Orpheus and St. John the Baptist), but we also discover works that are only indirectly aligned with the regime’s mythmaking. A number of the sitters in question belonged to the Florentine Academy, founded by Cosimo to promote an idealized Tuscan literature grounded in the canonical language of Petrarch and Dante, and the fact that several carry books no doubt reflects something of the Medici’s cultural priorities. Even so, there are several paintings that do not make an obvious fit for the political story told here. Thus, Pontormo’s Portrait of a Man with a Book (ca. 1540–41) may well be a portrait of Cosimo Bartoli, who served Cosimo de’ Medici, but there is nothing that overtly speaks to his relationship to Medici power. This is a portrait of a person who appears a refined litterateur—to the extent that the Medici are relevant to his painted persona, you might say that they were a cultural precondition, as pervasive and banal as the weather.
Florentines living and working between Florence and Rome, including anti-Medicean refugees, are the theme of the final room of the exhibition, which juxtaposes portraits by Bronzino and Francesco Salviati, a superb Florentine painter who took up an eclectic mix of foreign styles towards the middle of the century. Whereas Bronzino usually produced highly finished portraits in a self-consciously Florentine mode, the itinerant Salviati absorbed numerous non-Florentine influences, blending them in his own uniquely cosmopolitan manner. Although skilled in design like any Florentine master, Salviati could wield his brush with Venetian bravado or elongate his bodies like the Emilian Parmigianino. Although he received only a few commissions from the Medici during his time in Florence, Salviati, who would later settle in Rome, created a series of remarkable portraits that were refreshing in their imaginative freedom, piquing our interest in the texture of particular personalities. In Salviati’s Boy with a Dog and Winged Victory (ca. 1538–48), for example, we meet a sprightly youth standing in a surreal landscape that contains devices like a winged wreath-bearing Nike. His sensitive face and these accoutrements point towards some still-mysterious, possibly romantic backstory. Salviati’s portraits, with their synthesis of hypnotic naturalism and dreamlike artificiality, pulse with life and individuality.
Considering Salviati’s portraits, you realize that not everyone was in the thrall of Medicean power and aesthetics. The faces of these sitters prove portraiture did not simply subjugate, but also brought to life alternative possibilities. Through the articulate mind and hand of a creative artist, many private individuals spoke for themselves, even against the grain of the Medicean agenda. By the time you arrive at the end of this exhibition, you realize that submerged within it is a more interesting story, a story about 16th-century Florentine identity that traces the fascinating ways privileged individuals—and not just dynasts—had themselves fashioned for each other and posterity.