Palladio is probably better known for the wonderful villas and palazzos he designed around Vicenza. His first solo villa was built in 1540-41, but by 1545 there were documents showing demand from people wanting villas “alla Palladiana” – in the Palladian style. More drawings survive from Palladio’s hand than all the other Italian Renaissance architects put together, thanks to two English collectors, Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington.
The Villa Rotonda near Vicenza, together with the Villa Barbaro at Maser and Villa Emo at Fanzolo are prime examples of his work. Villa Barbaro and Villa Emo were constructed in the area around Treviso, the preferred site for the villas of the Venetian noblemen.
Maser lies in a striking natural setting on a ridge below the Dolomites and above the plain that sweeps towards Asolo and Treviso. The Barbaro had held an estate here from the 15th century and an earlier house is probably incorporated into the present one.
The sloping site is well exploited by the house, which is one story at the rear and two stories at the front. Its main façade is adorned with an engaged giant Ionic Order, possibly its first appearance in Palladio’s domestic architecture. It is surmounted by a pediment bearing the Barbaro arms and the main block is flanked by low arcades, terminating in dovecotes.
It is ironic that the fame this villa enjoys is in an indirect proportion to its “Palladian” content. While it bears a superficial resemblance to the Villa Emo and other Palladian works, the eccentricities of Villa Barbaro stand out on closer inspection. To being with, the proportions of the flanking wings are ungainly in relationship to the main block, the result of those wings containing further living quarters on the upper floor – unlike the Villa Emo’s, which existed only for farming purposes. Similarly, the elaborate use of sculpture on the main façade, the arcades and the nymphaeum strikes a discordant note in terms of Palladio’s other villas; so, too, the treatment of the main block, which projects much further forward than the Villa Emo’s. The Villa Barbaro’s lateral façades also create an awkward transition between the wings and the main façade, something accentuated by the sudden change in decoration. The entablature of the Ionic order ends abruptly at the corners of the main front, and the lateral pediments lack conviction.
The presence of the Villa Barbaro in the Quattro Libri indicates that Palladio felt it to be his, but the many elements suggest that more than one hand played a part in the villa’s design. Palladio’s role here was one of coordinator, reconciling and putting a professional gloss on the intentions of two patrons who knew their own minds. These intentions led to a building that had more in common with contemporary Roman villas than with the villa farms typical of the Veneto. Already in Palladio’s lifetime, Vasari likened the nymphaeum to that of the Villa Giulia, and it is a telling comparison. Daniele Barbaro had many ties with Rome, both as an ecclesiastic and as a student of classical architecture. His translation of Vitruvius was dedicated to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este and contained praise of his antiquarian-minded architect, Pirro Ligorio. The nymphaeum and other classical resonances at the Villa Barbaro, the taste for plastic decoration and the exploitation of its hillside site finds parallels in Cardinal Ippolito’s villas at Tivoli and on the Quirinal in Rome, as well as the Villa Giulia (today the National Etruscan Museum in Rome).
The same holds true for the interior decoration. Paolo Veronese’s frescoes and their relationship to the design of the villa as a whole has been endlessly discussed. Clearly, they should not be seen in isolation from earlier villa decorations by Veronese and his circle, but rather as the culmination or, better, the apotheosis of that style. It seems clear that the frescoes at Maser were conceived independently of Palladio’s work. Palladio omitted any reference to the frescoes in his description of the villa in the Quattro Libri. That might be a sign of disapproval or is simply just a lapse. Almost immediately afterward he was at work with Veronese in the refactory of San Giorgio Maggiore and his relations with the Barbaro brothers do not appear to have suffered.
If total control over his projects lay beyond Palladio’s reach, there are times when design and decoration combine perfectly. One such case is the Villa Emo, a house that could be interpreted as a refinement upon if not an answer to the villa pattern essayed at Maser. Like the Barbaro, the Emo were Venetian nobles who held land at Fanzolo near Treviso from the middle of the 15th century; there was already a casa padronale on their property by 1509. By 1535 a foundry had been established, though it was probably not until the end of the 1550s, when Leonardo Emo was in his late twenties, that Palladio was called upon to provide designs for a new house. The villa, mentioned in Palladio’s draft manuscript for the Quattro Libri of 1561, would probably have been finished by 1565, when Emo married Cornelia Grimani.
The Emo had introduced the cultivation of grain to this area, draining much of the land to make it arable, and their success was subsequently translated into one of the most substantial villa complexes erected by Palladio. The villa is foursquare in plan and conforms unusually closely to the woodcut in the Quattro Libri. Simple arcades terminating in dovecotes mask the service buildings and align neatly with the main block, which dominates the estate. The central block is raised in height by a ground floor, with a ramp leading to the entrance.
The portico itself provides the one decorative feature in the whole of this extensive façade. Although the order is Doric, the effect is somewhat strained, with column spacing more in keeping with that use by Palladio for the Ionic order.
The simplicity of the exterior is matched by the plan of the main villa block which is among the least complex in Palladio’s domestic architecture. The portico, vestibule and stairs occupy half of the centre of the piano nobile, the other half become a square salone. The same tripartite division is reflected in the lateral suites of rooms. Exceptionally, doors from the portico lead on to these suites, making them easily accessible from the outside. The shallow vestibule goes directly into the salone, which is very much the focal point of the main floor. Its privileged position is emphasized by the height of its ceiling, which is roughly twice that of the vestibule and surrounding rooms. The lower ceiling of the lateral suites are not only in keeping with their proportions but also allow space for a mezzanine floor above them. Compact stairs to either side of the vestibule give access to the mezzanine and down to the service area on the ground floor.
The interior of the Villa Emo is as opulently decorated as the exterior is plain. The frescoes are the creation of Veronese’s sometimes collaborator Giambattista Zelotti, and though not as splendid as Maser’s, they are nonetheless striking. In the salone, the harmony of real and fictive architecture makes a pointed contrast to Veronese’s handiwork at Maser, for Zelotti strove to align his Corinthian columns with the beams of Palladio’s ceiling. In the lateral rooms, too, the interaction of real and fictive space is evident, and unlike the Villa Barbaro, the architecture has not been overwhelmed by frescoes.
Villa Rotonda draws together so many strands from Palladio’s life that it can be seen as the great summa of his achievement. Its novelty immediately recognised, the Rotonda became one of the most imitated buildings in the history of architecture. The very name of the villa indicates its indebtedness to the great rotunda of antiquity, the Pantheon, and Palladio leaves many hints about the building’s genesis in his account in the Quattro Libri.
Created for a retired monsignor, the Rotonda stands on a hillock described by Palladio as of easy ascent and surrounded by other hills “that give the appearance of a grand theatre”. The hills were cultivated and there were excellent views in all directions – hence loggias were added to all four façades.
From the stairs, one passes through the Ionic porticos, modelled on Palladio’s favourite Portico of Octavia in Rome, and enters the domed central sala by means of a short passageway. This room is still point at the centre of the building and was originally open to the elements above; an antique faun mask in the floor still recalls its early function for catching rain. The room rises to the full height of the building and a handsome wooden balustrade encircles it, marking the division between the piano nobile and the upper floor.
In plan, the Rotonda combines two aesthetically satisfying forms, the circle and the square, for the sequence of rooms surrounding the central sala describes a cube to enclose the Rotonda. Since a large living space was not a high priority for the patron, only one chamber and an antechamber define each corner of the building. Mezzanine rooms reminiscent of similar rooms in many of Palladio’s villas occupy the space between the antechambers and the upper floor, which was initially undivided and used for storage although subsequently converted into more living space.
The decoration of the piano nobile is typical of Palladio’s later works, with paintings by Anselmo Canera, Bernardino India and Alessandro Maganza, with stuccowork by Agostino Rubini, Ruggiero Bascape and Domenico Fontana, who also worked at Teatro Olimpico.
It was the inclusion of a dome in the Rotonda that has fascinated later generations, for it embodied one of Palladio’s most audacious gestures. The dome was determined by the site and its associations as well as by the four porticos and circular sala. These elements were conjured up by the architect in his studies of classical temples, but Palladio also believed the houses and temples in the ancient world were to some degree interchangeable – hence the adaptation of the temple portico. If Palladio could “borrow” the portico for a house, then it follows that the cupola could also be adapted for domestic architecture.
Palladio’s pride is his creation is evident in his commentary on the Rotonda. His hesitation over what to term it – palace or villa – is an indirect acknowledgement that he had created a new type of building, one both secular but with distinctive overtones of the sacred. Posterity has paid the architect the compliment of elevating the Rotonda into the realm of a cult object, like the Pantheon or the Mona Lisa, a confirmation, one could say, of its status as a classic. Above all, the Rotonda embodied a lifelong pursuit of an ideal, a vision of antiquity not so much rediscovered in the ruins of Rome as re-created in Palladio’s mind.
Villa Rotonda and Teatro Olimpico feature in Joseph Losey’s film Don Giovanni, which was filmed on location in Vicenza.
The Teatro Olimpico was a Vicentine initiative combining civic prestige and antiquarianism. The Accademia Olimpica, from which the theatre derives its name, was one of many private academies that sprang up in Italy during the Renaissance. The scope of such societies was partly social and partly dedicated to debates and what would now be called humanistic pursuits. Founded in 1555, the Olimpica was slightly atypical in not being restricted to aristocrats, counting Palladio and the sons of the artist Valerio Belli among its early members. This mixing of artists and aristocrats on neutral territory went back to Trissino’s academy at Cricoli and to the circle that met around Alvise Cornaro in Padua. It had also been common in the Rome of Pope Leo X where talent was recognised regardless of social background.
One of the many pastimes of the Olimpica was the production of plays, both classical and modern, for which Palladio collaborated with artists like Lorenzo Rubini and Giovanni Antonio Fasolo on the sets. The stages were temporary, generally built in the council chamber of the Basilica, and paintings of the first productions reveal a stage and auditorium not unlike the Olimpico itself.
By 1579 the academy felt that its quarters were not suitable for theatrical productions or its own activities and petitioned the city council for a more permanent site. They were given a derelict building on the edge of town, a combination of prison and arsenal located diagonally opposite Palazzo Chiericati on a corner of the Piazza dell’Isola. Given his involvement in the academy, Palladio was inevitably drafted as the designer of the new theatre.
The Teatro Olimpico was finally inaugurated in 1585, and when the curtain rose the audience saw the same spectacle we witness today: a monumental boxlike façade divided into three stories and punctuated by five doorways.
The basic metaphor of the stage is a triumphal arch, loosely based upon the arch of Constantine. The frons scenae is divided into a sequence of bays by two orders of Corinthian columns, freestanding on the ground floor and engaged above. Statues of academicians fill the aedicules between the columns and more stand above the projecting entablatures of both orders. The statues were principally executed by Agostino Rubini, Ruggiero Bascape and Domenico Fontana. Across the top of the stage runs an attic story with reliefs of the labours of Hercules, patron of Accademia Olimpica. The whole façade is effectively turned into a triumphal arch celebrating the victory of Hercules and virtue over vice.
While the Teatro Olimpico is more imposing than any other early surviving theatre, it did not really exercise much influence on the development of later theatres – indeed plays were rarely given on its stage before the 20th century, and its chief attraction lay in seeing the spectacle offered by the illumination of the theatre and the perspective streets, as was performed for Pius VI and Napoleon. Still, the Teatro Olimpico remains a potent testimonial to its creator’s imaginative recreation of the antique.
If you want to stay in a Palladian villa, Villa Saraceno in Vicenza is available for bookings through The Landmark Trust UK. Next time little bears are in northern Italy!
“They were created in a short time for all time. Each one of them in its beauty was even then and at once antique, but in the freshness of its vigour it is, even to the present day, recent and newly wrought.” Plutarch’s description of the buildings of the Acropolis provides a concise definition of classical architecture, and if any buildings since antiquity fulfil these criteria, the architecture of Andrea Palladio does. The crisp lines, elegant proportions, and classicizing porticos of his houses and churches are immediately identifiable and combine functionality with beauty in a way that is both modern and timeless.
Palladio’s career spanned most of the 16th century, the period of the High Renaissance in his native Veneto, but his career was unusual compared to that of the other great Renaissance architects like Bramante and Michelangelo. For one thing, Palladio never trained as an artist but rather as a stonemason, gradually working his way up from the workshop to become the unofficial first architect of Venice by his death in 1580. For another, his style, widely appreciated and imitated by his contemporaries, also gave rise to one of the most influential and enduring of architectural movements: Palladianism became an article of faith in the 18th century and spread Palladio’s gospel from Potsdam to Providence.
Born in 1508 in Padua in northern Italy, Andrea Palladio spent most of his adult life in the nearby city of Vicenza. Palladio’s early years were remarkable by the standard of his times. His talent was recognised and developed by the humanist poet and scholar, Gian Giorgio Trissino, and further stimulated by his encounters with Rome and with Barbaro’s systematic approach to the antique. In Vicenza, he was groomed by influential backers to assume the position that Jacopo Sansovini, Michele Sanmicheli and Giulio Romano held in their own cities, Venice, Verona and Mantua respectively. Palladio had the genius to rise to the challenge; by 1550, he would take his place among the great architects of the previous generation.
Although Palladio’s designs are not to be seen along the Grand Canal in Venice, when standing by the Punta della Dogana, the Old Customs House at the entrance to the Grand Canal, one takes in the most miraculous of all views of Venice: the Doge’s Palace and Sansovino‘s Library of San Marco stand to the east with San Giorgio Maggiore across the bay, while the Redentore closes the scene triumphantly to the west.
San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore were designed by Palladio and represent his contribution to the city’s appearance. They also embody his mature statement of what he would call Christian temples, a merging of the classical and contemporary in a new kind of architecture comparable to his achievement with villas and palaces.
The rebuilding of the church and convent of San Giorgio Maggiore was Palladio’s largest ecclesiastical project. The antiquity and setting of San Giorgio make it central to the history and ceremony of the city. A church had existed from 790 on the island of San Giorgio, which Doge Tribune Memmo gave to the Benedictine order in act of donation in 982. The doge and government officials visited the church every year on the feast of Saint Stephen to venerate his relics, a ceremony dating from the 12th century. The original monastic complex was extensively restored in the 13th century and again in the early 15th. Shortly before 1500, a large dormitory wing had been begun behind the pre-Palladian church, the architect for which was Giovanni Buora. Buora or his son Andrea may have been the author of a comprehensive project for renewal of the monastery and church proposed around 1521-22. This project included a new cloister already begun in 1516, but little else was accomplished except for laying out a new refectory. An oblong room some 10 by 30 meters, the refectory had only been constructed up to the height of its roundheaded windows upon Palladio’s arrival in 1560. He then transformed what would have been a conventional room into something more dramatic by endowing it with a classical cornice, cross vaulting and three thermal windows. These interventions turned the room into something reminiscent of a Roman bath, and the interior was further embellished by Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana.
Equally important and even more dramatic are the sequence of spaces that bring the visitor from the cloister to the refectory. Here the main problem facing Palladio was to provide a transition within a confined area to the refectory half a story above. This he achieved by raising the height of the small vestibule and filling it with a staircase dominated by an imposing portal. The doorway is based upon a classical portal in Spoleto, one that Michele Sanmicheli occasionally employed in his architecture, but Palladio has enlarged it to a superhuman scale that rivets our attention.
Palladio’s flair and ingenuity here convinced the Benedictine monks to entrust him with providing a model for their own basilica in 1565. By this date, the dilapidated nature of the old church would have been glaringly apparent, especially since the other main monastic churches in Venice had been rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. A wooden model of the new church was fashioned by March 1566 and work began soon afterwards. The Venetian Senate encouraged the project by authorising the monastery to fell one thousand oaks from one of its estates near Treviso to provide foundations for the new building. The foundation stone was laid in 1566 in the presence of the doge, the patriarch and the abbot Andrea Pampuro, then acting head of the Cassinese congregation. One year later the piers were being constructed, and contracts were issued for the walls, chapels and vaulting in 1568. The cupola was underway when the French king Henry III inspected San Giorgio during his visit in 1574, and the body of the church was finished the following year. The choir was began the year of Palladio’s death (1580) and finished in 1589. Decoration of the interior continued through the 1590s with paintings by the Tintoretto and Bassano workshops as well as sculptures by Girolamo Campagna and Niccolo Roccatagliata.
San Giorgio Maggiore offered Palladio the opportunity to establish himself as the major architect in Venice. The Carita, San Francesco della Vigna and Santa Lucia were markers along the way, but the Benedictine project gave him the scale and means to realise his ideas.
San Giorgio sometimes suffers by comparison with the Redentore, as if churches, especially church façades, were abstract exercises in problem solving. Such an approach ignores the differences in function and scale between Palladio’s churches.
A large Benedictine monastery had specific needs that made for a complex brief, and Palladio’s solution was as masterful as it was unexpected. The beauty of the design lies in his ability to reconcile potentially conflicting elements while endowing them with a style at once saturated in a classical vocabulary and yet not completely unconnected with Venetian traditions. The main body of the church is conceived as a classical basilica, inspired by Palladio’s reconstruction of the Basilica of Maxentius, which he ranked among the most beautiful in Rome.
As an experience, the interior of San Giorgio Maggiore overwhelms any visitor through its scale and the grandeur of its architect’s imagination. A giant Composite order frames the nave while supporting a barrel vault above, and a smaller Corinthian order articulates the aisles, which have cross-vaulting. The side chapels are uniformly designed and elevated three steps above the floor; their tabernacles have a Corinthian order, and the principal altars in the transept are further distinguished by column shafts of coloured marble.
In his orchestration of the different scales and spaces, Palladio applied the lessons learned from his study of the baths: each component is distinguished from the others, and all interlock in a tradition that looks back through Codussi to Bruneleschi.
In the choir, the scale and style change, this time to a more intimate effect with alternating niches and aedicules above the richly carved walnut stalls. Though built after his death, the choir must reflect Palladio’s original intention as well as the reformist tendencies of the Cassinese congregation, which advocated retro-choirs so that the celebration of mass could be seen by all present rather than exclusively by the monks.
More controversy has surrounded the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore that any other aspect of Palladio’s religious architecture. There has been a persistent tendency to see the extant façade as a departure from the architect’s intentions even though an early elevation shows a clear connection with his experience at San Francesco della Vigna as well as with the finished project. Taking into account the small campo in front of the church and the body of the church, the façade combines the illusion of a portico, when seen from across the water, together with a dynamic overlapping of engaged columns and pilasters, when seen from nearby.
View from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore across San Marco Basin.
The church of the Redentore was the product of a very different type of commission, one that involved the highest councils of the Venetian Republic, and it owed its existence to one of the most devastating bouts of plague suffered by Venice since the Black Death of the Middle Ages. The first outbreaks occurred in the later part of 1575 and flared until July 1577, by which time more than fifty thousand people had perished. The losses amounted to a quarter of the city’s population, and as the poor were disproportionately affected by the epidemic, the social and economic fabric of the city underwent acute strain.
Whenever there was an outbreak of plague, there was a revival of devotion of saints like Roch and Sebastian as well as the veneration of Christ the Redeemer, to whom the votive church of 1576 was dedicated. An annual pilgrimage by the doge and government on the feast of the Redeemer was decreed and ten thousand ducats were initially set aside for the church. Two noblemen were entrusted with the task of selecting a site, and one owned by the Capuchin friars on the Venetian island of Giudecca was chosen, probably because it was unbuilt and presented no prospect of interference by the local clergy. As soon as the site was chosen, Palladio received the task of preparing models for the new church.
Although the Redentore is neither so large nor so opulently appointed as San Giorgio Maggiore, it pays handsome tribute to the investment by the Venetian government, which finally amounted to some sixty thousand ducats. It also reflects the triumphalist mood of church and state in the first years of the Catholic Reformation. The Capuchins protested against the church’s splendour but their complaints were ignored. Like San Giorgio, the Redentore demonstrates Palladio’s ability to tailor his style to the site of the building, as well as to its functions, which in this case were ceremonial, votive and monastic.
The Redentore’s ceremonial quality is the first called to mind as one approaches the church today, and it is easy to conjure up the procession of dignitaries who visited there on feast day. Every year in late July a pontoon bridge is floated from the Zattere to the Redentore allowing thousands of visitors easy access to the church to enjoy the celebrations (Festa del Redentore) which culminate in a magnificent fireworks display.
The façade was conceived for the view across the Giudecca Canal and is built up from a variety of elements, from the Corinthian pilasters and segments of pediments to the frontispiece proper, which modulates from colossal Composite pilasters to engaged columns. The colossal order supports a pediment set into the attic but conveys the illusion of a portico in antis, much as was the case at San Francesco della Vigna and San Giorgio Maggiore.
On the interior, one finds the same clear and rational arrangement of elements as in San Giorgio Maggiore, here allied to a plan of equal ingenuity. The Capuchins were a preaching order, an offshoot of the Franciscans, and their basic need was for a large, uninterrupted nave for sermons. Lateral chapels were required for private devotions and smaller masses. As at San Giorgio Maggiore, the chapels are raised three steps above the floor of the nave. This motif derives from the Roman baths but was filtered through Palladio’s study of Rafael’s St Peter’s and works inspired by it.
Like San Giorgio Maggiore, the Redentore reveals Palladio’s intensive study of the baths, but the church is much more than a compendium of motifs or influences. It is a harmonious blending of many elements into an organic whole, something that makes the experience of a Palladian church as complex and satisfying as a church by Borromini.
As we have gone down memory lane to revisit our beary adventures in Florence, we noticed that the detailed recollection of the artistic adventures was a bit hazy. We must have been suffering from a version of Stendhal Syndrome 🙂
Meanwhile, the recollection of the shopping adventures is as vivid as if they happened yesterday 🙂
Like the visit to Amando Poggi where we discovered a delightful amethyst and pearl necklace from the Zoccai dome collection. We had to have!
We also had to have a pair of pearl earrings for the necklace acquired in Seville. We found them at U. Gherardi on Ponte Vecchio.
I still remember the conversation with Ugo Gherardi who told me he usually made the earrings with white gold. I agreed that white gold was suited better to the pearls and I usually preferred white gold but this time the idea was to match the earrings to the necklace which had yellow gold, as he could see for himself. I got the earrings made with yellow gold 🙂
Ugo Gherardi, 14 at the time, recalls the flood of 1966 in an interview with The Florentine.
I had just bought an Alviero Martini handbag in Rome, and Miss Honey wanted one too! So off we went to Alviero Martini in Piazza del Duomo where we found the perfect little handbag 🙂
I still remember being amazed by the leather goods at the Scuola del Cuoio at Santa Croce. Shopping there again is at the top of the list for when we go back to Florence. I’m sure one of those jewel-bags will have my initials on it! And with any luck some cherries too… Hmm… Next flight to Florence leaves in… 🙂
Little Puffles and Honey found two hats with their names on them in Florence. Funny that! 🙂
It was the period before they had acquired the dazzling wardrobe they now own!
We found alabaster cherries at Solo A Firenze. Quite possibly we might have bought the lot of them!
We are grateful that the Chapel of the Princes didn’t assimilate all the pietre dure in Italy and there were enough left over for our two mosaics.
Also on the list for our next visit is Caffé Gilli, the oldest café in Florence. Established over 270 years ago by a Swiss family in Medici-era Florence, it started as a pastry shop steps away from the Duomo.
Today’s feast is not from Caffé Gilli, but from a Swiss patisserie in Perth, Chez Jean-Claude.
And no one will tell little bears how to enjoy their feast! One of the funniest moments in Florence was lunch at Trattoria Antica Fattore. The waiter recommended lasagne and it was delicious. But he was totally indignant at my request for a glass of sweet wine. He asked with total incredulity: “With lasagne?” After which he gave me a most categorical “NO!” I had to wait for the sweet wine until I got tiramisu. And it wasn’t sweet wine at all, it was a glass of sherry. No wonder he was indignant 🙂
Happy bears plotting their next shopping adventures 🙂
On the first floor of the Uffizi Gallery there is an unremarkable door that provides entry to the Vasari Corridor.
The Vasari Corridor was reopened for viewing in 2010 and closed again at the end of November 2016, for renovations. It has a non-specific opening date of 2018. More than that, it seems the corridor is undergoing quite a bit of re-organization, completely changing the way it has looked for hundreds of years.
We were lucky to visit the corridor in 2012 and see it in its original state so to speak.
Entering the Vasari Corridor was like stepping onto another dimension – the atmosphere was quiet and silent, almost unreal and completely different from the rest of Uffizi Gallery. Unfortunately no photos were allowed and the group was escorted by Uffizi staff. So no photos of little bears running up and down the corridor 😦
The collection of artwork displayed along the Corridor’s consists mostly of works from the 16th and 17th centuries as well as a special and unique collection of artists’ self-portraits. More than 1,000 paintings from the 16th century to modern day grace the walls, from artists such as Diego Velázquez, Marc Chagall, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. The collection was added to by subsequent generations of Medici, and artists have been known to donate portraits as well. Many paintings and self-portraits that are a part of the collection are actually not on display for lack of space along the corridor’s walls.
The collection of art in the Vasari corridor was unique in that it was organised chronologically, often in the same spot where various members of the Medici family had originally displayed it. Some self-portraits – such as one portrait where the artists is painting himself in a mirror – reveal an eccentric flair not typically seen in 16th and 17th century portraiture, while others make significant statements about gender and allow insights into artistic identity. For example, there were very few women painters at the time, and many of the self-portraits have more humour or cheekiness than was often displayed in works of the period.
There are three different collections in the Vasari Corridor, and the collection of portraits is one of the most famous and complete collections in all of Europe. The first collection begins at the doorway to the Uffizi Gallery and ends as the corridor turns toward the Ponte Vecchio. It contains paintings completed by Italian and European 17th and 18th century artists including Guido Reni, Gerrit van Honthorst, Empoli, and Guercino.
The second collection is a famous collection of self-portraits arranged chronologically beginning at the Ponte Vecchio. Cardinal Leopoldo started this collection in the early 17th century with 80 portraits and some of the early pieces collected by the Medici family were later added to Leopoldo’s collection. Some of the portraits on display in this section of the Vasari Corridor include those of Giorgio Vasari, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, and Carlo Levi.
The last group of paintings in the corridor is displayed where the Corridor turns toward the Boboli Gardens, and is part of a collection of Medici and Hapsburg/Lorraine family portraits.
Like most of Florence’s key attractions, the story of the Vasari Corridor is linked to the powerful Medici family, who rose to prominence in the 15th Century. Cosimo I de’ Medici, then the second duke of Florence, purchased the Palazzo Pitti in 1549, and up until the completion of Versailles in Paris in the early 18th Century, Palazzo Pitti was considered the most opulent palace in Europe.
There was just one problem for the Medici family: to travel from their new home to both the Uffizi administration offices where Cosimo worked and the Palazzo Vecchio, their previous home, the Medici had to cross Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s main pedestrian bridge above the Arno River. Today tourists encounter a gauntlet of flashy jewellery shops, but back then the bridge was occupied with butchers and tanners who needed to be close to the river for their businesses.
Cosimo’s solution was bold. He would simply build an overground passageway above one side of the Ponte Vecchio, reaching from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi offices.
Designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1564 and spanning a length of 1.2km, officially the passageway was created for the celebration of the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine.
A section of the corridor passes through the upper balcony of the church of Santa Felicita, which allowed the Medici family to attend mass without having to mingle with commoners or potential murderers.
To build the corridor several medieval towers located along its way were quite literally crossed. All owners were forced to consent to give the space through their properties for the passageway… all consented except for the Mannelli family that firmly opposed having the corridor pass through his home. It seems that Cosimo appreciated the courage the family had to stand up to him and thus permitted them to withhold entrance into their home and the corridor was built around the tower.
The exit from the corridor (for the tour) is a discrete door near the grotto in the Pitti Palace’s opulent Boboli Gardens.
Cosimo had a clear vision for the use of architecture in his Dukedom: he wanted it to bring harmony to the urban fabric, but it was also intended as an unmistakable expression of his absolute political power. In the 1540’s he was already planning to unite all the various offices of government in one administrative centre, and in 1546, he opened up a street down from the Palazzo Ducale to the river, beginning the demolition of many houses and workshops in that densely-populated area, all with an eye to building the new government offices there. In the February of 1549/50 Eleonora got the opportunity to acquire the new home she had wanted: 9,000 gold Scudi from her dowry were used to purchase the Palazzo Pitti over the river in Oltrarno.
The 15th century property had never been fully completed, and a great deal of work would be necessary to bring it up to the standards required by the Duke and Duchess, who intended to expand it to be a suitable home for their growing family, and a fitting official residence for themselves and their retinue, set in beautiful terraced gardens reaching up onto the Boboli hill behind. Now Cosimo needed architects to serve him.
It was the death of Pope Julius III in 1555 which gave him the opportunity to bring his vision for the architecture of Florence into being. The Pope’s death freed two individuals from his service: Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati. Cosimo sought Vasari as both artist and architect, and Vasari introduced Ammannati to the Duke for his skills as both sculptor and architect. Cosimo took them both into his service, and while Vasari began work on the Palazzo Ducale, Ammannati was engaged on the Palazzo Pitti. In Cosimo and Vasari we have one of those perfect meetings of minds between artist and patron, and Vasari is at pains in his writings to stress the rapport between his artistic ideas and the will of the Duke. The two developed a lifelong close relationship, and Vasari acted as Cosimo’s Superintendent of Works in the modern sense.
This was what Giorgio Vasari was later to describe as the “great corridor”, the ‘umbilical cord’ that was designed to link the official residences of father and son with the new seat of government, by passing right over the Ponte Vecchio. He gave his name to it: it is now known as the Vasari Corridor. The reason for this corridor takes us back to the Pazzi Conspiracy and the death of Allesandro de’ Medici in 1537. Cosimo himself survived several assassination attempts, dealing with the culprits brutally, and his own agents had caught up with Lorenzaccio in Venice in 1548, stabbing him to death in public. To an absolute ruler like Cosimo, this risk of assassination was ever-present, and when he went around in public he wore a mail shirt beneath his doublet and was surrounded by an armed bodyguard. How much simpler then, to have your own aerial walkway raised safely above street level, keeping you out of the mud of the streets and the inclement weather, and without the need to arrange an armed retinue to accompany you, horses to ride, or even a carriage?
Considering Cosimo’s great vision for the development of the Uffizi and his official residence over the river, the decision to physically link them must have pre-dated the betrothal of Francesco and Joanna, but the planned celebration of those nuptials in December of 1565 meant that the project had to be completed in record time. The newlyweds were to move into the Palazzo Ducale after the ceremony, which was to be linked to the Uffizi by a single arch on one side, while the main part of the corridor was to run down the lungarno, across the Ponte Vecchio, and through Oltrarno to the Pitti, a distance of nearly 400 metres.
The project began in March 1564/5: Tommaso de’ Medici, Florentine patrician and Knight of the Order of Jesus Christ drew up an agreement in the name of Duke Cosimo, with “Maestro Bernardo Esquire son of Antonio, alias son of Milady Mattea, builder.” Maestro Bernardo was in fact the Ducal Builder, who Vasari says worked on all his projects “with great excellence”. In the agreement he was committed to: “bring to perfection and to build by the end of September next [in the] future [year] 1565 a corridor that is able to pass from the principal Palazzo in the Square of His most Illustrious Excellency as far as the Palazzo de’ Pitti, in this form: that it needs to have two arches, one that crosses the street where the wall of the Customs Office meets that of the church of San Pier Scheraggio, and the other [passing] over the said church; and continuing with another arch from the house where Signor Traiano Boba lives, the Gentleman in Waiting of His Excellency, and following the Lungarno, with a corridor with arches and columns as far as the Ponte Vecchio, and then continuing over the botteghe and houses of the said bridge, on the flank of the bridge towards the Ponte a Rubaconte [ie the upstream side], passing over them on stone corbels, and [also for] the small turn around the tower of the house of the heir of Matteo Mannelli, upon which tower should be supported another arch over the Via de’ Bardi; and continuing it should rest upon the tower of the Parte Guelfa, which is in front of the said house of the Martelli, and continuing it should go in the direction of the alley which is behind the houses which are on the main street [Via de’ Guicciardini] arriving next above the steps of the church of Santa Felicita, above those steps it needs to have a loggia, to which should be attached another corridor on columns, which should stretch along the cloister of the priests of Santa Felicita, and descending there it should finish on the flat area where today there is the nursery of the garden of the Pitti. And the said corridor and work in its entirety should be covered by a roof, all tiled, with wicker for the ceiling of the roof, with rough and fine plastering, according to the order, design style and model which step by step will be given to you and communicated by the Magnificent and excellent Maestro Giorgio Vasari, painter and architect of the aforementioned His Most Illustrious Excellency: as declared by the said Maestro Tommaso, in his name, who will be held responsible in this project for alleviating all difficulties which might be caused to the said Maestro Bernardo, for the most part regarding the particulars of the owners of the edifices, over and beside which he will have to guide that project and fabric.”
The construction of the Corridor had a cost for others, and not just in the form of taxes. It has been estimated that around thirty houses were demolished in the course of building the corridor, and the owners and tenants of the botteghe and houses on the bridge had to put up with the construction of the corridor right over their properties, and the tops of those buildings must have been levelled to allow the corridor to pass. An anonymous diarist confirms that along the course followed by the corridor, there were “very great damages to the artisans who had houses and botteghe there; and further damages of many citizens who had beautiful houses there…” The diarist put the number of houses flattened at three hundred in total, but this would also have included the area where the Uffizi were built, so it’s quite believable. People were compensated: where the corridor trespassed into a small part of the house of the Ricci family on the corner of the Via de’ Bardi, they only received the amount of fifty gold Florins, but in the same street the “old house of the Paganelli” was purchased outright for the much larger sum of two hundred gold Scudi.
Ponte Vecchio was the bridge at the very narrowest part of the whole course of Arno river through Florence, and so the bridge where the pressure of the water was greatest. It was the first bridge built over the river and it was the only bridge over the river for over a thousand years.
The Ponte Vecchio of today is not the original bridge. The flood of 1177 destroyed one Ponte Vecchio, and the flood of 1333 destroyed another one.
In August 1220 the Ponte alla Carraia was completed with wooden decking, and the monks of the nearby monastery of Ognissanti were given the right to levy customs dues on the traffic crossing the bridge. Some 1,270 years after the first bridge was built across the Arno here, there was finally more than one bridge spanning the river. With the building of the ‘Ponte Nuovo’ (the ‘New Bridge’), the other one naturally became known as the ‘Ponte Vecchio’: the ‘Old Bridge’.
In very short order there was a third bridge. In 1237, Villani tells us that another bridge was constructed, this time upstream of Ponte Vecchio. Ponte Rubaconte (later called Ponte alle Grazie) was built entirely of stone, with nine arches, and being at the widest part of the river, it was about 215 metres long, which was about twice the length of Ponte Vecchio.
In 1252, and with considerable urging from the powerful Frescobaldi family, a fourth bridge was built between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alla Carraia, connecting the Palazzo Spini on the north bank with the Palazzo Frescobaldi in Oltrarno. Because the church of Santa Trinita was close to the north end, the bridge was called Ponte a Santa Trinita.
In just 39 years the number of bridges in Medieval Florence had gone from one to four, demonstrating not only the need created by a massive increase in population to around 60,000, but also the great wealth of the city, largely generated by the wool trade. Not having the same strategic importance as Ponte Vecchio though, none of the new bridges were fortified.
In 1333 Ponte Vecchio was destroyed again by another flood. It was what the river was carrying that posed a mortal threat to the bridge at this point. Massive amounts of wooden debris had gone into the river: everything from spars from floating mills, to beams from collapsed buildings, to baulks of timber carried by barges that had been wrecked, to whole trees uprooted by the flood. All of this had smashed into the bridge and built up against it, and…
“and then the Ponte Vecchio was crushed by the great amount of wooden debris in the Arno, and because of the narrowness of the channel of the Arno [there], which rose up to and flowed over the arches of the bridge, and [right] through the houses and botteghe that were upon it, it was overwhelmed by the water, and completely torn down and destroyed, save for two piers in midstream.”
Twelve years after the flood of 1333 – in 1345 – the bridge itself was rebuilt, but the buildings upon it took longer to be rebuilt.
The 16th Century saw Ponte Vecchio survive further floods that destroyed or damaged other bridges, and its structure had coped with the addition of the Vasari Corridor. The houses had returned, and in the following centuries the properties grew into the charming confusion that we see today.
In an eerie repeat of the great flood of 1333, in 1966 another flood struck the city on the same day, November 4th. The similarity was reinforced by the way in which the flood arrived. The river level was already rising on the November 3rd, with cellars flooding in the lower-lying parts of the city. The two hydro-electric dams of the Levane/La Penna system in the upper Valdarno were discharging some 2,000 cubic metres of water per second downstream. At 4am on the following morning, engineers were so worried about the structural integrity of the dams that they took the decision to relieve the pressure on them by releasing a great quantity of water: that water arrived at Florence in a surge travelling at around 60kph.
As ever, the lowest-lying parts of the city were hit first: at 7am the Arno burst over the lungarno at the Corso dei Tintori on the north bank, sweeping on towards Piazza Santa Croce, and on the south bank the waters began to flood Oltrarno. By 8am the Arno rose over the balustrade beneath the arches of the Vasari Corridor along the lungarno, and by 9am all of the bridges in the historic centre were impassable: Florence was cut in two, and throughout the morning the torrential waters of the Arno were once again hurling all manner of debris at the Ponte Vecchio.
In museums, churches and archives across the city, workers struggled to get priceless artworks and manuscripts to safety. At 1pm the Sovrintendente of Fine Arts, Ugo Procacci, arrived at the Uffizi. He was concerned with just one thing: to rescue the important collection of self-portraits hanging along the walls inside the Vasari Corridor. The force of the water was now so great upon the arches along the lungarno, and upon the Ponte Vecchio itself, that the corridor could have collapsed at any moment. Along with Umberto Baldini, head of the restoration department of the Soprintendenza, Dott. Procacci entered the corridor from the Uffizi. In his diary he wrote:
“The rescue of the famous collection of self-portraits was dramatic. The floor of the long corridor which runs from the Uffizi to the Ponte Vecchio was shaking continually beneath our feet as though from a violent earthquake, because below the water was pounding and swirling against the arches of the Lungarno of the Archibugieri.”
This wasn’t the moment for the usual painstaking care that museum staff normally employ when moving valuable and delicate works of art. According to Umberto Baldini, the two men lifted the paintings in their heavy frames from the walls, and then ran them along the Corridor, sliding them along the smooth terracotta tiles on the floor. These two brave men got around 70 paintings to safety in the Uffizi. Fortunately, the corridor and the collection did survive.
Ponte Vecchio also survived the flood, but the premises upon it took a terrible pounding. On the morning on the 5th, cine footage shot by the film director Giampaolo Lomi shows a scene of devastation in the bright sunshine. The flood had smashed straight through shops on the upstream side of the bridge, one having been impaled by a whole tree. Shutters were ripped from the shop fronts, and the street on the bridge was choked with debris and furniture brought from the shops. Yet once again, Ponte Vecchio – and Florence – had endured.
No city other than Florence contains such an intense concentration of art produced in such a short span of time: from the 1300s through the 1500s. The sheer number and proximity of works of painting, sculpture and architecture in Florence can cause visitors who try to see them all to experience an artistic overload labeled in the 1980s by Italian medical researchers as Stendhal’s Syndrome.
Named after the 19th century French author who first described it, the malady consists of symptoms such as dizziness, panic, confusion, fainting and overwhelming exhaustion caused by trying to see too many works of art in too short a time. Although this may sound like a joke, Florentine hospitals treat hundreds of visitors each year for these symptoms. A visit to Florence, whether brief or extended, should be enjoyable, exciting and inspiring, not bewildering and exhausting.
That means you don’t visit Florence (or any other city) with an obligation to see everything and you have an idea of which works of art to see, along with some information about them. You can confine yourself to the greatest works of the period or you can consider other works that you find interesting and worthwhile but not necessarily Masterpieces. That way you can successfully navigate the chosen museums, as well as the city’s streets and piazzas, churches and palazzos. We also alternate, one day of art, one day of shopping… 🙂
The Uffizi Galleries are immense and trying to see everything in them is a formula for utter exhaustion and a possible case of Stendhal’s Syndrome. But they are on the must-do list for Florence.
Aside from its status as a museum, one of the oldest and most renowned in Europe, the Uffizi is also among the architectural masterworks of Renaissance Florence. The name Uffizi comes from the Italian word uffici, which means “offices” and refers to the building’s original purpose. Commissioned in 1560 by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici to gather under one roof all the numerous tribunals, archives, and magistrates’ offices of the ducal administration, and thus to concentrate power near the Palazzo della Signoria, it was built from a design of Giorgio Vasari.
But the origins of the Uffizi go back to 1546, when Cosimo initiated an ambitious plan to transform the neighborhood. He had a long straight street cut through the crowded district between the Palazzo della Signoria, a portion of which he had recently adapted for his living quarters, and the Arno River. The original plan approved by Cosimo called for a building that would have eliminated, among other structures, one of the most important buildings associated with the medieval Florentine government: the Loggia dei Lanzi, or Loggia della Signoria, as it was known at that time.
Just before construction was to begin, Cosimo changed his mind and rejected the plan, having decided to spare as much of the surrounding neighborhood as possible, preserving not only the Loggia della Signoria but also the Mint and the ancient church of S. Pier Scheraggio. He called on Vasari to come up with a new design. Although better known in his own time as a painter, and in ours as the first biographer of Italian artists, Vasari produced a handsome, original plan, creating a narrow U-shaped four-story structure with two long wings that extend from the Piazza della Signoria all the way to the Arno River, linked at the far end by a short façade that faces the river, with a corridor above and a triple archway on ground level. The courtyard is not a yard at all but preserves Cosimo’s street between the two wings. The wings remain open on the short side that connects the building with the Piazza della Signoria.
Vasari’s plan didn’t require as much demolition and expropriation of property as the previous plan, and it better integrated the Uffizi into its urban context. Cosimo was perfectly capable of being autocratic, but he was also a shrewd enough politician to know when it was important to show respect for the city’s traditions. By preserving buildings closely associated with the Florentine republic of past centuries, he could demonstrate that he honored the city’s communal heritage. The new building would embody the general welfare of the state and not merely Cosimo’s own convenience in having his uffici next door to his residence.
From the start, Duke Cosimo planned to use the piano nobile, one floor above ground level, for the display of important works from the Medici art collections, a project carried out by his son and successor, Duke Francesco. Over the years, other parts of the building also became display spaces for works commissioned or collected by the Medici. When the dynasty died out in the 18th century, the last Medici heiress willed the family’s treasures in the Uffizi to Florence, in perpetuity, thereby founding one of the first modern museums. It opened to the public in 1765.
Today, the uffici of the vanished ducal regime are long gone, and the entire, vast building is devoted to the display, storage, and conservation of art. The Uffizi owns thousands of works of art, most — although not all — of them collected by generations of the Medici family. Its holdings include not only panel paintings, in particular those created during the Italian Renaissance, but also a variety of sculptures and many frescoed ceilings.
Beginning in the 1300s, Florence was part of an international mercantile and banking network that led to all kinds of cultural exchanges, which eventually enriched the collections of the Uffizi. A Medici bank representative in Bruges sent home to Florence one of the greatest works of 15th century Flemish painting, the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which several centuries later found its way to the Uffizi. Gifts from diplomats and prelates courting Medici favor, the dowries of Medici brides, and inheritances from both Italian and international marriages of the Medici dukes enlarged the collections still further. Duke Ferdinand II (1621–1670), for example, inherited Titian’s Venus of Urbino from his wife, Vittoria della Rovere, a member of the ducal family of Urbino.
So much art, too little time! Although the Uffizi contains one of the greatest art collections in the world, going through it can sometimes seem like an attempt to consume at one sitting an Italian meal with an infinite number of courses. Just to look at — never mind appreciate — such an enormous amount of art in a single visit is impossible. But there are ways to survive the Uffizi without developing a case of aesthetic indigestion.
The secret is to be selective. Don’t try to see, or even glance at, everything. There are many works of great interest, and you should feel free to look at any that engage your interest.
During the Florentine Renaissance, art was not something separate from life, on display merely to be admired. It was a part of people’s lives, bound up with both their public and their private experiences. Uccello’s Battle of San Romano Paolo provides a perfect example to highlight how politics, sex and religion informed art during this period.
Uccello’s Battle of San Romano bears no resemblance to the bloody reality of an actual battle — it looks more like the illustration of a fairy tale or a decorative tapestry. Known for preferring the study of perspective to sex (he’s supposed to have rejected his wife’s suggestion that he come to bed in favor of consorting with his “sweet mistress”, perspective), the artist here indulged his peculiar passion to the point of obsession. But there’s more to the Battle of San Romano than is evident at first glance. Embedded in this seemingly fantastic work — where armor and headdresses are ceremonial, combatants’ splintered lances fall precisely on the lines of the perspective grid, and horses’ bodies form segments of perfect circles — are fragments of actual history, and a political significance powerful enough that struggles for possession of the painting were almost as fierce as the battle it portrays.
The panel in the Uffizi, signed by the artist, is one of a set of three; the other two are in the Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery, London. Although they don’t form a continuous visual narrative, they were created as an ensemble. All three show incidents from the battle of San Romano, which took place on June 1, 1432, when the Florentine forces confronted the Sienese. For many years scholars assumed that Cosimo de’ Medici had commissioned the paintings, since the hero of the event is the condottiere Niccolò da Tolentino who was a friend and ally of Cosimo. Furthermore, the paintings appear in the inventory of the contents of Palazzo Medici, compiled after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico in 1492, and they were hung in an impressive ground-floor room used by Lorenzo to conduct state business. Although these factors were long assumed to be conclusive evidence of a Medici commission, new material brought to light in 2001 proves that the works were instead commissioned by a Medici supporter in Florence, Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, probably in the late 1430s. They came into the possession of Lorenzo de’ Medici only around 1484.
The actual battle of San Romano was still recent history at the time Uccello received the commission. It was part of a larger ongoing struggle between Florence on one side and Lucca along with its allies Siena and Milan on the other, a struggle in which Lionardo Salimbeni played a part. Although he’d enjoyed a modestly successful political career in Florence, his highest achievement was his membership on the city’s ten-man war council (dieci di balia), the body that oversaw the war that included the battle of San Romano. Commemoration of the Florentine victory would have provided an obvious motivation for commissioning the paintings.
Another series of events also occurred in the mid- to late 1430s that may have further increased Lionardo Salimbeni’s interest in the battle. In 1433, Cosimo de’ Medici helped negotiate an end to the war with Lucca, a war that had cost Florence an enormous amount of money while fomenting a lot of civic unrest and bringing little in the way of territory. Shortly after the truce, Cosimo’s enemies, led by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, succeeded in having Cosimo arrested and later exiled. Cosimo was accused of paying Niccolò da Tolentino and his soldiers in order to set himself up as a tyrant rather than to serve the republic. The Albizzi regime, distrustful of Tolentino because of his Medici connections, sent the condottiere off to fight in support of Bologna against Milan, apparently hoping he might be killed in combat. Instead, his troops lost the battle and Tolentino was captured by the Milanese. In Florence, the defeat caused an uproar and strong criticism of the Albizzi regime. Voices began calling for the return of Cosimo de’ Medici.
In 1434 Cosimo returned from exile, and he quickly consolidated his power as the behind-the-scenes ruler of Florence. In 1435 Niccolò da Tolentino died while a prisoner of the Milanese. At the request of the Florentine government, Milan returned his body to Florence for burial, but the Medici-dominated government did more than just inter Tolentino — they gave him an elaborate funeral, buried him in the cathedral, and some years later sponsored a painted monument there to his memory. Perhaps Salimbeni concluded that a series of paintings of the battle of San Romano that showed Tolentino as its hero would be a reminder of a glorious moment in a conflict that had included all too few such moments. It would be a fitting episode to decorate his newly renovated home (he had just remarried), since it would both commemorate his own part in the victory and advertise his support for the now firmly established regime of Cosimo de’ Medici.
It’s not easy to figure out the relationship between Uccello’s panels and the actual battle, since what took place on the battlefield is no longer clear, and Uccello hardly qualifies as an objective illustrator. The artist relied on written (and possibly oral) reports on what had taken place and then used his imagination to fill in the details. Several contemporary chroniclers left descriptions of the battle that vary widely, depending on the writer’s biases. One, who disliked the Medici, described Tolentino as “foolhardy” and claimed that when the battle went against him the craven condottiere burst into tears and had to be rescued by his co-commander. Another writer, Neri di Gino Capponi, cast Tolentino as the hero of the battle, although his account may be colored by his having been one of the Medici supporters who had hired Tolentino. Matteo Palmieri, also a Medici partisan, penned a fuller account shortly after the battle took place. He describes it in some detail and praises Tolentino for both bravery and strategic skill, making him the individual most responsible for the Florentine victory — which was announced in Florence that same day, when according to Palmieri, “a holiday was celebrated and the exultation of the common people was beyond measure.” Palmieri’s account may have provided Uccello with some of the details that appear in his paintings. For their part, the Sienese claimed they hadn’t done too badly in the encounter, and they refused to concede a Florentine victory.
The Florentine government, though, clearly considered Tolentino’s exploits a victory worth celebrating. A year later, in 1433, when we might think that interest in this less than crucial battle had faded, the distinguished Florentine scholar and political leader Leonardo Bruni delivered an oration. Speaking in Tuscan rather than Latin, so everybody could understand him, Bruni delivered his speech in the Piazza della Signoria in the presence of government officials, ordinary citizens, and the guest of honor himself, Niccolò da Tolentino. He praised Tolentino in glowing terms for his service to Florence, comparing him to the great ancient Roman generals, the highest compliment the scholarly Bruni could offer. Bruni hailed Tolentino as the defender of Florence’s liberties against the duke of Milan. The Sienese, against whom Tolentino was fighting, were allies of the Milanese and so, by extension, Tolentino was defending democratic, republican Florence against the aristocratic tyranny of Milan.
It appears that the Medici looked very positively on all this glorification of Tolentino’s defense of the republic. Beginning with Cosimo, the 15th century Medici rulers of Florence were eager to associate themselves with the republic, so it’s clear that Cosimo must have approved of casting his friend and ally Niccolò da Tolentino as a republican hero. Given Tolentino’s subsequent death at the hands of the Milanese, which occurred after Cosimo’s brief exile and triumphant return to Florence, Cosimo may have been willing to see the condottiere considered a martyr in the cause of Florentine liberty. With this in mind, Lionardo Salimbeni’s multiple motivations for commissioning Uccello’s series of paintings become clearer — he could please himself with some handsome additions to his home while also pleasing the most powerful man in Florence by making a hero of the man they’d both been involved in hiring to defend the liberties of Florence.
The panel in London shows Niccolò da Tolentino launching an attack on the enemy; the Louvre panel displays the arrival of Tolentino’s co-commander Michelotto da Cotignola, and the Uffizi episode shows the unhorsing of a figure usually identified as Bernardino della Ciarda, the condottiere who had defected from Florence and who now led the Sienese troops. According to contemporary chronicles, though, this incident never took place, since della Ciarda prudently kept his distance from the field of battle. Perhaps the figure represents the defeated enemy, in general, rather than any identifiable individual. The warrior’s white horse rears at the center of the composition, with a Florentine lance thrusting the darkly armored rider from the saddle. Other horses fall about, turn away, or fling up their rear legs, their abdomens and hindquarters forming those segments of circles so beloved by Uccello.
If the central figure in the Uffizi panel really does represent della Ciarda being unhorsed, it would be a fitting counterpart to the more faithful condottieri, Niccolò da Tolentino and Michelotto da Cotignola, celebrated in the other two panels. In the open countryside in the background a dog chases rabbits that flee in all directions—a mocking and easily understandable reference to the defeated enemy and a further reason to conclude that the unhorsed warrior may represent della Ciarda, the leader of those scattered Sienese forces, no matter whether he was actually present during the battle.
How Lorenzo il Magnifico got hold of these paintings in the 1480s is not a pretty story, but it offers a rare glimpse of the ruler of Florence using something close to brute force to acquire certain works of art. After Lionardo Salimbeni’s death in 1479, his sons launched complex efforts to claim parts of his estate, but the issues became so contentious they consumed several years without any resolution. Finally, family members called upon the head of the Medici family, Lorenzo il Magnifico, to act as the principal executor and to settle the problems — not an unusual request, and one of many similar ones addressed to Lorenzo, who had a reputation for fairness in such matters.
The Salimbeni heirs must have been rudely surprised by Lorenzo’s behavior in this case, however. As Il Magnifico looked over their inheritance, he expressed a strong interest in acquiring Lionardo Salimbeni’s three panels of the Battle of San Romano by Uccello, probably because of their connection with the Medici family through Cosimo’s sponsorship of Niccolò da Tolentino. Lorenzo may already have been familiar with the paintings, since the Medici had enjoyed the Salimbeni family’s hospitality in the past. Lorenzo “persuaded” one of the Salimbeni heirs, an employee of the Medici bank in Milan, to give him the portion of the series he’d inherited (the man was no doubt afraid of losing his job if he refused), but when Lorenzo encountered resistance from the owners of the rest of the series, he resorted to an uncharacteristically open display of power. He sent a group of his own workmen to the Salimbeni’s Florentine palazzo where, in the dead of night, they forcibly removed the remainder of the large paintings (each 1.8m feet high by 3.2m
wide) and carried them to Palazzo Medici. One suspects the men involved in this act of artistic piracy were not your average servants but, rather, strong-arm types hired for the occasion, as they were led by a well-known and presumably burly woodworker named Francione (Big Frank), whose job it must have been to pry the paintings out of their settings without damaging them.
What could Salimbeni’s sons do when the ruler of Florence walked off with a portion of their inheritance? Nothing, as it turned out, at least not while Lorenzo was alive. After 1483 the panels disappear from the Salimbeni inventories, so we assume that 1484 was the year they entered the Medici collections. The fact that no one in the Salimbeni family made any attempt to reclaim the panels until after the Medici had been exiled in 1494 is a clear indication of Lorenzo’s enduring power. The Salimbeni were part of the patronage network maintained by the Medici, and they knew better than to defy their padrone and his family.
One obvious reason that Lorenzo was so eager to acquire Uccello’s Battle of San Romano series is that the paintings represented a historic military victory closely associated with his own family; his grandfather Cosimo had been a key figure in both the financing and the planning of the war during which the battle took place, and its hero, Niccolò da Tolentino, had been a close associate of Cosimo’s. Furthermore, the large ground-floor room where Il Magnifico displayed the paintings originally had been used by Cosimo as a place to conduct the group meetings and one-on-one encounters where the real economic and political business of Florence took place.
Lorenzo used the room for similar though not identical purposes. It was there that he welcomed foreign dignitaries into his home. Although he sometimes kept his fellow Florentines waiting for hours in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, important foreigners — diplomats and rulers from Italian states and abroad — gained quick admittance to this politically potent room adorned with scenes of hunts and battles. In a grand room, surrounded by the artistic achievements of Florentine artists and with Uccello’s imposing panels reminding those who entered of Florentine military prowess (more fiction than fact), Lorenzo could present himself to his foreign visitors as a ruler whose political power equaled that of any prince.
One way an affluent man could repay the Medici for favours granted was through flattering portrayals of leading members of the family in a work of art, and this was the route taken by an otherwise obscure individual named Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama. Around 1475 he hired Botticelli to paint an Adoration of the Magi that later decorated his funerary chapel in S. Maria Novella. The panel is a small but beautifully realized work that contains an intriguing collection of portraits. Along with del Lama himself, there’s an assertive self-portrait of the artist, as well as several portraits of Medici family members.
The dispensing of patronage — in the form of political favors, financial assistance, business advantages, employment opportunities, professional advancement, dowry funds and marriage negotiations, written recommendations, or just a word dropped into the right ears — was a cottage industry for members of the Medici family, and the dense network of people indebted to them was among the family’s principal sources of power. In return for their efforts, the Medici received the personal gratitude and political support of those they assisted. Although we don’t know what help the Medici gave del Lama, a man of humble origins (his father was a barber) and a somewhat shady reputation, we know he somehow became a successful broker and a fellow member with the Medici of the Guild of Money Changers and Bankers. Why del Lama chose to include Cosimo de’ Medici and his two sons Piero and Giovanni, who were all dead by the time the work was painted, is uncertain. Perhaps those elders had given del Lama the assistance that enabled his financial success. Clearly, del Lama wanted to make sure the Medici knew how grateful he was, and he no doubt intended his tribute as a way of assuring continued good relations with Florence’s most powerful family.
Although the painting measures ‘only’ 1m by 1.7m, it was a perfect size for del Lama’s small chapel, long ago destroyed, which was squeezed in against the inner wall of the church of S. Maria Novella, to the right of the main door. Several factors explain the subject chosen. The del Lama chapel was dedicated to the Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi) because the patron’s name, Guaspare, is an Italian form of Caspar, one of the Three Magi. But there’s another and equally important reason for the choice of subject: it was a favorite of the Medici family. The story of the Magi decorates one of Cosimo de’ Medici’s private cells at the monastery of San Marco as well as the Medici Palace chapel, and male members of the family were active in the prestigious Company of the Magi, one of Florence’s major religious confraternities.
In his biography of Botticelli, Vasari mentions the existence of three Medici portraits in del Lama’s Adoration of the Magi. He identifies the elder Magus, who tenderly kisses the Child’s foot, as a portrait of Cosimo (d. 1464) and, kneeling on the right in the guise of the youngest Magus, Cosimo’s younger son, Giovanni, who died in 1463. But Vasari misidentified the middle-aged Magus, in red at the lower center of the scene, claiming the figure is a portrait of “Giuliano de’ Medici, the father of Pope Clement VII.” That’s impossible, as Giuliano was barely twenty years old at the time the work was painted. The middle-aged Magus is more likely a portrait of Cosimo’s older son, Piero, who died in 1469.
Even if we assume these are posthumous tributes to Medici family members who had helped del Lama, it still seems odd that Vasari, having misidentified the middle-aged Magus as Giuliano de’ Medici, made no mention of any portrayal in the painting of Giuliano’s older brother, Lorenzo, the head of the family and the ruler of Florence in 1475. We might expect that Lorenzo would have a prominent place in a composition where the Medici have literally become the Magi.
The absence of any mention by Vasari of Lorenzo and his mistaken identification of Giuliano has not stopped modern scholars from speculating on which figures among the spectators might be correctly identified as Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, although there’s little agreement on which figure represents which brother. Several scholars identify the cocky youth portrayed leaning on his sword in the extreme left foreground as Lorenzo; another claims Lorenzo is the serious-faced man portrayed in profile, third in on the right, wrapped in a long, pale-blue robe trimmed with gold and staring raptly at the Virgin and Child. Giuliano is sometimes thought to be the young man in red and black, shown at half length and in profile on the right, just next to the kneeling Magus identified by Vasari as a portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici.
Another (better?) guess is that Lorenzo may be the more mature man in black and red who remains modestly to one side, among the group on the right but a little apart from them, with his head slightly bowed and his eyes lowered, his profile silhouetted against the wall behind him. Without in any way spotlighting him, the space around the man’s head subtly draws attention to him. His dark skin and jet-black hair accord well with contemporary descriptions of Lorenzo. The plant growing out of the wall near him is sometimes identified as laurel (lauro in Italian), a play on the name Lorenzo that also appears in the poetry of the Medici circle. If informed of del Lama’s artistic plans, which he probably was, Lorenzo may have asked not to be displayed too prominently. Such calculated modesty, no doubt learned from his grandfather Cosimo, would have made good sense in the mid-1470s, when Lorenzo was still learning his role as head of the family and behind-the-scenes head of state.
A further reason to identify this figure as Lorenzo is the presence, just behind him and to the right, of an elderly man with white hair who gazes out at the viewer and points to himself. This is most likely Guaspare del Lama, who was well into his sixties when he commissioned the work. If Guaspare aspired to remain in the good graces of the Medici, what better way of demonstrating his continuing loyalty than by having himself shown right next to the current head of the Medici family?
We might suspect that Guaspare was a bit startled, though, when the painting was delivered to him, and he noticed the bulky blond man in a gold-colored cloak on the far right, who stares arrogantly outward, a pendant to the aristocratic-looking youth with a sword on the left side. Although Vasari says nothing about it, the figure is usually taken to be Botticelli’s self-portrait. Even though it’s not common to find the painter shown more prominently than his patron, perhaps Guaspare was practicing some Medicean modesty.
Despite the emphasis on portraiture in the scene, Botticelli never forgot that he was portraying a religious subject. The elevated setting for the Holy Family emphasizes their difference from the ordinary mortals around them and replicates the position of the altarpiece itself, which would have been positioned above the altar of del Lama’s chapel. The event takes place in a shed constructed on an outcropping of rock, with ruined masonry on the right and the weedy remains of an ancient Roman arcade in the left background. Crumbling classical architecture was a traditional symbol of the old pagan order shortly to be replaced by Christianity. A hole in the roof allows the gold rays of the star of Bethlehem to enter the shed and fall on the Christ Child.
Vasari comments at some length on Botticelli’s portrayal of the oldest Magus, noting the deep emotion displayed by the elderly man “as he kisses the foot of Our Lord with wonderful tenderness and conveys his sense of relief at having come to the end of his long journey.” The elder Magus does not hold the Child’s foot directly in his hands but has covered both of Christ’s feet with a veil that drapes around his own shoulders, an action imitating that of a priest at the benediction of the Sacrament, when he covers his hands with a veil to hold up by its foot the vessel, called a monstrance, that contains the Eucharist, the body of Christ, for the adoration of the faithful. Cosimo de’ Medici, whose portrait Vasari identifies in the person of the old Magus, was one of the rare laymen granted papal permission to keep a consecrated host in his chapel, an indication not merely of Cosimo’s piety but of his power and exceptional status in the Florentine community. Along with the other presumed portraits of the Medici family, the identification of the eldest Magus with Cosimo can be seen as an instance of religious imagery that reinforces both the impression of Cosimo’s deep piety and the reality of Medici political power.
“Venus, that is to say, Humanitas, is a nymph of excellent beauty, born of heaven and beloved by God. Her soul and mind are Love and Charity, her eyes Dignity and Generosity; her hands Liberality and Magnificence; her feet Comeliness and Modesty. Her whole form is Temperance and Honesty, Charm and Splendor. My dear Lorenzo, a nymph of such nobility has been wholly given into your hands! If you were to marry her and claim her as your own, she would make sweet all the years of your life.”—Letter of Marsilio Ficino to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, ca. 1477
“[T]his enchanted world, permeated by mute music, silent song.” — Paul Barolsky, 2000
When the distinguished Florentine intellectual Marsilio Ficino penned a letter to his fourteen-year-old pupil Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, he wasn’t advising the young man about his love life but, rather, urging on him the study of philosophy. By identifying the Humanities with the goddess of erotic love, perhaps he hoped to make studying more attractive to the boy, as well as showing him the value of humanitas, the sum of all the fine qualities most valued in a Renaissance gentleman. Ficino personified this abstract concept through Venus, with each part of her body standing for a virtue that his pupil should strive to attain.
About five years later, in 1482, someone — we still are not certain who — gave Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco an extraordinary wedding gift, which at times has been interpreted in terms of Ficino’s letter as the world’s most beautiful painted philosophy lesson: Botticelli’s Primavera, or Springtime. Today, though, the belief that the painting is merely the visual equivalent of Ficino’s letter is no longer accepted; instead, art historians regard the work as both a poetic and sensual dreamworld and a complex symbolic statement that reveals different levels of meaning to different viewers. Nevertheless, disagreement persists about how the painting should be understood. Scholars have cited a variety of possible sources for its imagery, ranging from rarified intellectual texts to poetry, marriage manuals, and popular pamphlets on astrology. There’s no doubt that the painting is rich in literary, familial, political, sexual, religious, and mythic associations, but as one present-day scholar commented wryly, the painting “has been affected by an obvious crisis of over-explanation”. None of the evidence is definitive — the painting may simply celebrate marriage, in general, and its importance for family continuity rather than any one particular marriage.
Arguments also continue about who commissioned the work, for what purpose, and at what precise date, although a good case can be made that the painting was commissioned around 1480 by Lorenzo il Magnifico as a wedding gift for his young second cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, an orphan who had grown up surrounded by art and classical culture in the home of Il Magnifico. We know that the elder Lorenzo arranged the marriage of his youthful ward, and that his reasons were political. The bride, Semiramide degli Appiani, was the sister of Jacopo IV degli Appiani, the lord of Piombino and Elba, and the Medici needed the military and economic support of the Appiani family. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, though still in his teens, was the only available Medici bachelor who’d reached a minimum age for marriage; in the early 1480s the male children of Lorenzo the Magnificent were still too young. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco appears to have been less than pleased by the arrangements made on his behalf, and he professed indifference to his upcoming nuptials, so the gift of such an extraordinary painting by a favorite Medici artist may have been part of the elder Lorenzo’s efforts to placate the young man.
Visitors to the Uffizi are often spellbound by the beauty of the Primavera but mystified by its enigmatic content. The individual figures and groups of figures have no apparent relationship to one another. Although reading the painting from left to right as if it were a written text enables us to identify the figures, all from classical mythology, this fails to produce a coherent narrative. On the far left is the god Mercury, clad in a rose-red cloak and recognizable by his winged sandals and caduceus (a staff intertwined with serpents), which he holds in his right hand and uses to dispel clouds that might disturb the painting’s idyllic atmosphere. Next to him the Three Graces, classical embodiments of beauty, perform a sinuous dance, their long blonde hair and gauzy white garments rippling around them.
At the center stands a modestly clothed Christianized Venus, whose rose-red cloak echoes the color of Mercury’s garb, reminding us of the connection between those two planetary deities. We might mistake Venus for the Virgin Mary rather than the goddess of sexual love but for the presence of the winged and blindfolded Cupid who hovers above her, aiming his fire-tipped arrow at one of the Graces. Although Cupid’s paternity remains uncertain, in some versions of the ancient myth he was the child of Venus’s affair with Mercury. On the right side is the only real narrative: the wind god Zephyr, puff-cheeked and blue-skinned, pursues the nymph Chloris, from whose mouth issues a stream of flowers as she is transformed into Flora, or Primavera, the flower-bedecked personification of Spring. The exquisite figures inhabit a lush, shadowy garden where dark green trees laden with oranges form a backdrop, and flowers carpet the grassy meadow.
The work abounds in painted images that most likely refer to the Medici family. The round golden fruit would have suggested to fifteenth-century Florentines the well-known family emblem of the Medici: the palle, six red or gold balls on a shield. Around the figure of Zephyr the orange trees give way to laurel, lauro in Italian and traditionally in the Medici family a reference to the name Lorenzo. Among his activities in classical myths, Mercury bore a special responsibility for doctors; the Italian name Medici means doctors, and the god’s serpent staff is still the symbol of the medical profession.
The myth of Zephyr and Chloris, Greek in origin, comes to us from the Roman poet Ovid, who describes the month of May by telling the story of Flora, whose feast the ancient Romans celebrated in early May. Ovid relates how Zephyr, the west wind, pursued Chloris, the nymph of fields, and how, at his touch, she was transformed into the far more splendid Flora. After capturing her, Zephyr raped her, but eventually he regretted his lustful excess and married her, making Flora the mistress of flowers and the patroness of springtime. There can be little doubt that Botticelli illustrates this story on the right side of his painting. The flowers streaming from the mouth of Chloris blend into the flower-embroidered dress of Flora, which in turn melts into the flowers of the meadow, creating an almost cinematic sequence, an imaginative visual translation of a verbal description.
But what relationship exists between this ancient nature myth and the rest of the painting? Poetry and philosophy from the Medici circle in Florence may offer some clues, but they don’t provide a definitive explanation. Many of the poems composed by Lorenzo the Magnificent and his friend Angelo Poliziano evoke the gods and spirits of the ancient world, and they abound in evocations of springtime and love. We don’t need to assume that Botticelli read Ovid in the Latin original, since either Lorenzo or Poliziano could have suggested Ovid’s story as a starting point for Botticelli’s images, perhaps along with handing over copies of their own poems. But it’s also possible that the artist never intended to illustrate a narrative — the painting can be seen as a series of loosely connected poetic “stanzas” about springtime that don’t produce a continuous story line. Botticelli was a creative spirit, a visual poet, who possessed an unparalleled ability to transform words and ideas into unforgettable painted images.
The philosopher Ficino interpreted Venus as Love in its broadest sense — as that which both gives physical life and has the power to soar beyond the senses, into the realm of the intellect and the spirit. Although Ovid doesn’t mention Venus or Mercury in his telling of the Primavera story, the goddess of love was associated with spring because she presided over growth, flowering, and fertility. In ancient Greek art Mercury often appears as the leader of the Graces, a connection that survived into the fifteenth century. Even though the figure of Flora-Primavera has given her name to the painting, the central placement of Venus, the halo-like circle of light that surrounds her head, her hand gesture of regal invitation, and her gaze directed at the viewer all suggest that she may hold the key to the work, welcoming the viewer into her magical springtime garden.
The resemblance of Botticelli’s Venus to the Virgin Mary surely isn’t accidental. From the center of her garden of love, Venus presides over her classical court as a haloed queen, very much as Mary — pictured in religious art as the Queen of Heaven — presides over the celestial Garden of Paradise. Even the relationship between Zephyr and the nymph he’s pursuing may have a quasi-religious dimension. A close look at the face of Zephyr reveals fine gold lines representing his breath as it flows from his mouth to that of Chloris. Religious paintings of the Annunciation often show the progress of the Holy Spirit toward Mary the same way: as golden rays of light that extend from the Dove to Mary. But unlike the Angel Gabriel, who is merely the messenger, Zephyr takes physical possession of Chloris, though Botticelli wouldn’t have dreamed of showing an actual rape. Instead, in one of the most ingenious and daring details of the painting, he may be illustrating what art historian Paul Barolsky calls an imaginative form of oral sex: as the personification of the spring wind, Zephyr impregnates Chloris by blowing into her mouth. And her mouth, in turn, gives birth to her new, transformed self: beginning as a stream of flowers, Chloris becomes Flora.
Another way to understand the painting is through the seasonal imagery that pervades it. Spring begins when Zephyr transforms Chloris into Flora and brings forth the first flowers. The Graces dance in celebration of the season, while Venus and Cupid remind us that spring is the time of love, fecundity, and their consequence—procreation. Venus is the astrological deity who rules the spring season from April 21 through May 21, just as Mercury rules the later spring, from May 22 through June 21, the first day of summer. Although today few people take astrology seriously, in the Renaissance it was still considered by many to be a valid science. Ficino wrote about it extensively, and in the early 1500s Pope Leo X, a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, endowed a Chair of Astrology at the University of Padua.
Clearly, a painting as dense with visual imagery as this one doesn’t appear out of nowhere. In addition to its relationship to religious traditions and classical mythology, the work is also part of a Tuscan tradition of depicting the Garden of Love, a subject featuring Venus as the central figure that’s often depicted on birth trays — a popular gift to new mothers — and other objects related to marriage and childbirth. In that context the function of such imagery is clear: Venus brings love, and love brings marriage and children.
The elegant, courtly qualities of the painting may be related to the festivals sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent, celebrations that formed an important part of Lorenzo’s political activity. Botticelli was directly familiar with those events, as he’s known to have produced banners and other decorations for them. Such pageants, performed by gorgeously costumed members of the city’s elite but intended for everyone to enjoy, were part of the Medici family’s long-standing political program of keeping the common people happy by keeping them entertained. May Day celebrations were particularly elaborate.
Although the Primavera, a private commission, wasn’t meant as a public political statement, even paintings of mythological subjects may have a political dimension. The unusually large size of the painting (two meters high and more than three meters wide) places it on a scale with other large paintings owned by the Medici: Uccello’s series of battle pictures and the now lost Labors of Hercules series by the Pollaiuolo brothers. It’s easy to see how scenes of battles and heroes might be used to support the Medici political agenda, but a celebration of fertility and procreation that implies the continuation of the family dynasty could have formed another part of the same agenda.
Mythic stories about the season were also a way of linking Florence to its classical past and the city’s contemporary life — to the peace and prosperity that Lorenzo wished to associate with his reign. The hundreds of flowers scattered about in the painting as well as their personification as Flora remind us that the name Florence means “flowers”, and that the city’s cathedral was dedicated to St. Mary of the Flower. If Il Magnifico himself commissioned the painting as a gift to his ward on the occasion of the younger Lorenzo’s wedding (uncertain, but possible, even probable), then such a reminder would not have been out of place.
The youthful Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco might have drawn further from Botticelli’s painting the moral that passionate physical love, the province of youth and Springtime seen in the Zephyr-Chloris-Flora myth, is transformed by the influence of Ficino’s “heavenly” Venus and the chaste Graces into a higher, more mature, and more spiritual love that is ultimately the love of God. By this route, classical deities could be revived in a Christian context, because they’re no longer dangerous pagan gods but have been transformed into benevolent symbols and personifications with Christian significance.
Since the work was most likely a gift to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco on the occasion of his marriage, the work also may be related to the marriage customs and beliefs of the time. According to a Medici inventory of 1498–1499, the work hung over a lettuccio, or daybed, in a ground-floor room of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s town house, an older dwelling next door to the famous Palazzo Medici in Florence. The painting’s theme of fertility and procreation would make it an appropriate decoration to be placed over a bed, and although a daybed isn’t the same as a marriage bed, it could have been a place where, in the evening after the servants had gone to sleep, the young couple could doze, dream, and perhaps even make love, under a picture of the enchanted garden of Venus, the goddess of love.
Along with whatever philosophical inspiration and sexual stimulus the painting provided for the groom, it may have conveyed very different messages to the bride. Italian Renaissance marriage manuals endlessly repeat the ideal behaviors expected of an upper-class wife: chastity, submissiveness and childbearing. Chastity refers to the necessity that the bride be a virgin at her marriage and that she maintain a demure appearance and virtuous behavior as a wife. Submissiveness was essential because aristocratic marriages were political and economic alliances between families, not love matches, and the bride, usually between fourteen and sixteen years old, had little say in choosing her husband, and an ironclad obligation to obey him.
The manuals further emphasized that for women the purpose of marriage was procreation, and that the wife’s pleasure, happiness and satisfaction must come from childbearing and motherhood. Art historian Lillian Zirpolo relates each of these lessons for the bride to Botticelli’s Primavera. She sees the Three Graces as personifications of the ideal behavior of a Renaissance wife: chaste, demure, graceful, and decorous. She interprets Flora’s smile and Venus’s contented expression, as well as the bulging abdomens of the two women, as expressions of their satisfaction with motherhood. In seductively beautiful painted form, the work may offer a lesson in female familial duty.
Zirpolo further relates the story of Zephyr and Chloris to a more alarming aspect of Renaissance marriage manuals, all of them written by men: they find the origins of marriage in the story of the mass kidnapping and rape of the Sabine women by the Romans. That tale, one of the fundamental myths of ancient Rome, claims it was necessary for the Romans, who had a severe shortage of women in their own tribe, to carry off the women of the Sabine tribe, against the women’s will, in order to marry and procreate with them, thus saving the Roman race. Renaissance brides were instructed to submit to their husbands for similar reasons.
Zephyr and Chloris, viewed from this perspective, take on quite a different meaning. Zephyr becomes truly menacing, and Chloris becomes a frightened and defenseless woman, the panic-stricken prey of a determined assailant. For the Renaissance bride, the lesson was clear: resistance to her husband’s will was both futile and dangerous, but submission to him would bring the rich rewards embodied in the contented and literally flourishing Flora. It’s easy to imagine Semiramide degli Appiani — probably no more than fifteen at the time of her marriage, but already well schooled in proper behavior for her important new role as a Medici wife — having little difficulty in absorbing the message Primavera held for her.
How should modern viewers, both male and female, regard this many-leveled work? Today, few people of either sex read the Roman poems and Renaissance philosophical treatises that provided Botticelli with his material. Even fewer women would want anything to do with marriage manuals that celebrate kidnapping and rape as a model for the beginning of a happy marital union. Perhaps the best option is to acknowledge the work’s various possible meanings to its Renaissance viewers and then to step back from those meanings and appreciate the painting for the deep spell cast by the sheer physical beauty of Botticelli’s painted forms: the palette of rich, muted colors, now restored after a recent cleaning; the elegant, studied poses of the figures; the rich patterns of curving, interlocking lines and intricate surface patterns that resemble the tone-painting and complex, interweaving voices of a Renaissance madrigal. To appreciate such musical magic, we don’t need to understand every last one of the words; and to appreciate Botticelli’s visual magic, we don’t have to accept — or even understand — every idea that his images convey.
In the end, the Primavera leaves us with more questions than answers. The fact that several centuries of scholarly efforts have not provided any definitive answers to what the painting means should alert us to the possibility that the work was never intended to have just one meaning. Perhaps the very elusiveness of its meanings and the many possible interpretations of its imagery were all part of the “game” — the intellectual exercise so enjoyed by the artist’s sophisticated clientele. As a contemporary of Botticelli commented about the meaning of one of the artist’s works: “Some give one explanation and some another; no one is of the same opinion, so that it is the most beautiful of painted images.”
“From the midst of the sea there emerged a divine face of an appearance worthy of veneration even by the gods. Then gradually I saw the whole shining figure rising out of the sea. Her hair, most abundant in its richness, flowed yieldingly about her divine neck in slight curves, fluttering luxuriously.” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass
The Birth of Venus is Botticelli’s most famous and beloved painting, a marvelous mixture of classical mythology, Renaissance poetry, and Christianity, fused by the artist’s ability to transform even the most unpromising material into magically beautiful images. As told by the ancient Greeks, the birth of the goddess of erotic love is a gory family saga that features infanticide, parricide, cannibalism, and castration. And yet, Botticelli’s charmed brush purges the final chapter of the story of all such associations and turns it into a triumph of elegance and delicacy.
Unlike Botticelli’s Primavera, the Birth of Venus may not have been a Medici commission. Although at a later date both paintings belonged to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the original patron of the Birth of Venus is unknown. The two works are not a pair and most likely never hung next to each other as they do today in the Uffizi. The Birth of Venus, probably from around 1486, is painted on canvas rather than on a wood panel, and it is somewhat smaller in its dimensions, although the figures are larger. The central figure is Venus, here newly born from the sea foam and wafted to shore on a pale pink shell by the breath of the winged wind god Zephyr, shown cozily entwined with Chloris, the nymph of flowers whom he had abducted in Botticelli’s slightly earlier Primavera.
The ancient Greek story of the birth of Venus begins at a much earlier moment than the one Botticelli shows. Back in the shadowy beginnings of the world, the father god Saturn ruled by terror. Warned by some primal instinct that his children would eventually kill him, he developed the nasty habit of eating each of them as they were born. But the various mothers managed to save a few of their offspring, and eventually a group of the god’s children rebelled against him and killed him. Fearing that his powers would survive even death, they dismembered their father’s corpse and castrated him, flinging his genitals into the ocean. But the grisly old god was so prodigiously fertile that his severed genitals mated with the sea foam, and the unlikely result of that union was Venus.
Not a trace of the legend’s savagery remains in Botticelli’s painting. His source wasn’t the ancient myth itself but one of the retellings that appeared during the Renaissance. Perhaps Botticelli had read The Golden Ass, an ancient Roman novel that appeared in an Italian translation in 1469, which contained a more refined description of the birth of Venus, or perhaps he’d read Renaissance poems that treat the subject with equal delicacy. In any case, Botticelli’s sophisticated patron — whoever this was — wouldn’t have been satisfied with a slavish copy of a literary text.
Botticelli met the challenge brilliantly. He does not show the actual birth of Venus but, rather, the moment of her landing on shore. For the pose of his Venus he used the classical Venus pudica, or modest Venus type, where the goddess appears with one hand covering her breasts and the other concealing her sex, an image that appears in Italian art as early as the 1300s. Although ancient Roman statues show Venus as a mature and worldly woman unconcerned with being seen in the nude, Botticelli portrayed the goddess as a wistful, virginal-looking girl sincerely interested in preserving her modesty. She uses the curling streams of her long, taffy-blonde hair, lightly touched here and there with gold pigment, to conceal her nakedness, and she looks more than ready to receive the flower-embroidered pink cloak in which an attendant on the right side of the painting is about to wrap her. The latter — identified as one of the Horae, or Hours of the Day, in classical mythology among the attendants of Venus — hurries toward the goddess with the grace of a dancer, her garments and the cloak she carries billowing around her body.
Despite similarities of pose, Botticelli’s Venus bears little resemblance to a classical goddess. Her body is oddly shaped, with an elongated neck, sloping shoulders, circular breasts, high waist, and thick ankles, and yet such is the authority of Botticelli’s style that most viewers barely notice these aberrations. Instead, the artist enchants us with the gentle melancholy of Venus’s face, the sinuous play of line in her abundant hair, and the contrast of her simple, somehow modest nudity with the complex draperies of the clothed female attendant on the right and the decidedly carnal tangle of Zephyr and Chloris on the left.
Behind the figures are a body of water and a landscape. The trees on the far right have absolutely straight, parallel trunks touched, like the strands of Venus’s hair, with highlights of gold. The waves of the chalky green sea form perfect little V-shapes or, closer to the shore, swirl into prominent patterns of foam that more closely resemble lace than water. Considering the circumstances of Venus’s birth, the artist was no doubt aware that the Italian word schiuma, which can mean “sea foam”, was — and still is — slang term for semen. A flat blue sky provides the kind of summary background that caused Leonardo da Vinci to accuse Botticelli of creating landscapes by throwing a sponge at his pictures. But realism wasn’t Botticelli’s goal. The flat, almost tapestry-like composition is part of the painting’s magic, creating a dreamlike atmosphere in which the figures seem to float.
Modern viewers familiar with the ghastly Greek myth of the origins of Venus are sometimes puzzled by the determination of Renaissance humanists and art patrons to ignore that aspect of the legend. But despite the enthusiasm for classical culture that prevailed in elite circles in Florence in the late 1400s, it was still a Christian society, and stories such as the birth of Venus required some reinterpretation before they were considered fully fit for Christian consumption.
The group of humanist scholars who gathered around the Medici family included several whose ambition was to reconcile classical culture with Christianity — a tall order, given such stories as the birth of Venus and numerous others that enliven Greek and Roman mythology. Nonetheless, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, one of the most talented of the group, offered a reinterpretation of the story of the birth of Venus that was rarified enough to satisfy even the most sensitive Christian minds. He suggested that we shouldn’t take the story literally but, instead, should interpret it symbolically. The birth of Venus, he declared, is really about “the birth of beauty in the human mind, fertilized by divinity.” The idea that beauty can be born in the human mind only when that mind is “fertilized” by God is certainly a most imaginative transformation of the Greek myth of the ocean impregnated by the severed genitals of Saturn.
The possibility that the painting can be interpreted on more than one level, and that the literal meaning is perhaps the least important, is an approach that would have appealed to Botticelli’s highly educated and cultured circle of patrons, a group that included poets, linguists, and philosophers as well as wealthy merchants and bankers like the Medici family. As noted in the essay about Botticelli’s Primavera, the same Marsilio Ficino who came up with the ingenious reinterpretation of the birth of Venus had also written to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in enthusiastic terms a few years earlier, equating Venus with humanitas, a concept embodying all the desirable traits of a Renaissance gentleman. In Ficino’s flexible philosophical categories, Venus could also personify ideal beauty — and beauty, according to Plato, is identical with truth. Still adapting Plato, Ficino claimed that the contemplation of earthly beauty could lead the soul upward to divine beauty and ultimately to the contemplation of God. With these ideas in mind, it would be inaccurate to conclude that Botticelli’s painting is purely pagan in its subject matter. Although it tells the pagan story of the birth of Venus, the painting is also resonant with Christian meanings.
On the visual level Botticelli made his own references to Christianity. For members of his cultured Renaissance audience the modest pose of Venus and the running female figure on her right would bring to mind paintings of both the Baptism of Christ and the Annunciation to Mary that they’d seen as altarpieces in churches. As if to emphasize the latter parallel, Botticelli often used the same face for his images of Venus and the Virgin Mary, providing a vivid illustration of another idea of Ficino’s: that both Venus and the Virgin Mary are emanations of Divine Love, with Venus representing its earthly aspect and Mary its heavenly one.
According to a charming but unprovable legend, Botticelli fell in love with the famous Florentine beauty Simonetta Cattaneo, the wife of a compliant fellow named Marco Vespucci and reputed to be the favorite mistress of Il Magnifico’s younger brother, Giuliano de’ Medici. As a result of Botticelli’s infatuation, it is supposedly Simonetta’s lovely face that appears in the artist’s paintings of the goddess of love and the Virgin Mary, including the Birth of Venus. Several portraits by Florentine artists, said to be of Simonetta, reveal an attractive young woman, but one who lacks the ethereal loveliness of Botticelli’s Venuses and Virgins, whose appearance no doubt owes as much to the artist’s imagination as to his alleged passion for Simonetta.
There’s something about the dreamy, otherworldly beauty of Botticelli’s work that has given rise to all kinds of misconceptions about the artist, extending even to his name. The nineteenth-century English art critic and esthete Walter Pater used to repeat the name “Botticelli” over and over, enchanted by the sound of it. The unromantic truth is that Alessandro di Filipepi (the artist’s baptismal name) had a portly older brother, Giovanni, a successful pawnbroker whose friends nicknamed him “Il Botticello,” the Little Barrel. Since the young Alessandro appears to have been raised in his brother’s home, it was natural that people would begin to refer to the boy as “Sandro del Botticello”, which in time became the more familiar Botticelli. A possible picture of Botticelli as an enthusiastic partygoer emerges from a playful poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici, devoted to Florence’s best-known drinkers. The following ditty, a portion of that poem, may refer in punning terms to the artist:
Botticelli, little barrel . . . Where’d they get the “little” from?
Cramming food and talking nonsense; fat and full and quite at home.
Here to lunch and there to dinner, never misses, never doubt.
He’s Botticelli on arrival, and full to the brim goes rolling out.
The picture of the artist that emerges from Lorenzo’s affectionate lines suggests a man who enjoyed good food in good company, but it appears that Botticelli may have been part of the Medici intellectual circle as well, an unusual honor in an era when most artists were still treated like servants or tradesmen. Where else, if not from these intellectuals, would Botticelli have acquired his sophisticated and detailed knowledge of classical mythology and its possible levels of meaning? Botticelli may have listened to and perhaps even participated in wide-ranging discussions of the dialogues of Plato, ancient Roman poetry, and classical mythology, as well as the efforts to reconcile all of those with Christianity. But the written works produced by the scholars of the Medici circle are little read today, except by specialists. Only Botticelli possessed the gift of turning their ideas into ravishing visual images.
It appears that the Medici valued Botticelli as both a painter and a loyal supporter of their regime. In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 they called upon him to produce “disgrace pictures”—portraits of the bodies of the hanged conspirators, painted on the exterior walls of the city hall, a commission that must have left the sensitive artist shuddering but which he executed without hesitation. Although the payment — the considerable sum of forty gold florins — came from the government, there’s little doubt that Lorenzo the Magnificent was behind the choice of a painter and his generous remuneration.
For all his success with the Medici and other wealthy clients in the 1470s and 1480s, Botticelli outlived his own popularity. During the later 1480s Florence fell under the spell of the fanatical Dominican preacher Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who railed against the city’s materialism and the fascination of its intellectuals with pagan ideas and attitudes. He urged the Florentines to burn their “vanities” — jewelry, tapestries, paintings, luxurious clothing — in a huge bonfire in front of the city’s cathedral. Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492, in some accounts begging on his deathbed for Savonarola’s blessing, and two years later the family that had so consistently patronized Botticelli was forced into exile.
According to Vasari’s report, Botticelli became such a dedicated follower of Savonarola that he repented of his interest in classical subject matter and later gave up painting entirely. Here too, legends have replaced less dramatic facts. Botticelli continued to paint for various clients into the early years of the 1500s, although he was no longer in such great demand. His later works took on an austere appearance, and his subject matter became exclusively religious and moralistic. We may believe Vasari’s sad description of the aged Botticelli, crippled and impoverished at his death in 1510. The world the Medici had nourished, where pagan ideals coexisted with Christianity and where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus had found success, was gone from Florence, and Botticelli was by then too old and ill to participate in its spectacular revival in Rome in the 1500s.
The intricate and intimate connections of religion and politics in the Renaissance are never more numerous than in images of popes and prelates. Although many Renaissance portraits offer no clues to either the identities of the sitters or their motivations for commissioning a portrait, in the case of Raphael’s masterly portrayal of Pope Leo X with two cardinals, we can dip into a rich trove of Renaissance history to fill out the political context, as well as the lives of the three men in the painting and the supremely gifted artist who immortalized them.
Always a consummate portraitist, Raphael was at the peak of his powers when, around 1517–1518, he created this image of Leo X Medici in the company of two cardinals who are also his cousins.† Raphael had come to Rome from Florence around 1509, called there by Pope Julius II. While Michelangelo labored almost alone, painting the ceiling of the nearby Sistine Chapel, Raphael, helped by a troop of assistants, frescoed the walls of several important rooms in the Vatican Palace. When Leo X succeeded Julius in 1513, the new pope soon sent the irritable, intimidating Michelangelo home to Florence to work on Medici projects there, but Raphael remained in his employ in the Vatican. Leo liked the gracious, diplomatic artist as well as the work he produced, and he must have been especially satisfied with this portrait, as he kept it among his personal possessions. After the pope’s death it passed to another member of the Medici family, was later owned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, and except for a brief exile in Napoleonic France, it has always been displayed in Florence.
Raphael’s genius in capturing the character of his sitters is on full display in what amounts to a dynastic portrait of Leo X and his two cousins. This is not the usual official papal portrait — we don’t see the politically oblivious pope occupied with affairs of state, which interested him very little. Instead, he is about to examine, through a gold-framed magnifying glass, a splendid illuminated manuscript, a Bible opened to the beginning of the Gospel of John, perhaps in honor of the pope’s baptismal name, Giovanni. Raphael depicted the page so accurately that the book has been identified as a manuscript now preserved in Berlin. Next to the manuscript sits a finely worked bell of gold and silver, topped with a red silk tassel. The brilliant rendering of textures — the shimmering dark-red velvet and lustrous white silk brocade of the pope’s vestments, the glossy crimson silk of the cardinals’ robes, the gleaming gold and silver of the bell, the magnifying glass frame, and the decorated manuscript page, as well as the differing skin tones of the three men — stands as evidence of Raphael’s complete mastery of the art of painting.
Although the seated pope is at a slightly lower level than his two standing companions, Leo’s large head and bulky, richly clothed body dominate the composition. Raphael succeeded in giving the homely and somewhat timorous pope a commanding, even majestic presence—his corpulence becomes an expression not of indolence but of authority. Contemporary sources report that Leo was extremely proud of his elegant white hands, prominently posed in the painting and without rings that might distract from their beauty. Those same sources also relate that the pope was severely myopic and that he could read only with the help of a magnifying glass. But Raphael knew better than to portray him squinting through the glass. Instead, Leo holds it, not like a reader but like a connoisseur, ready to have a closer look at a work of art. Raphael often idealized his subjects, but this doesn’t mean he made them better-looking than they were in reality. In this portrait the idealization consists of emphasizing the pope’s attractive qualities and transforming his unattractive features into advantages that showcase his power.
How Giovanni de’ Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s second son, became Pope Leo X is a story that reveals much about the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries. Born in 1475, since childhood Giovanni had been destined by his father for an ecclesiastical career, because Lorenzo believed that a presence in the highest echelons of the Church would be a great political advantage to the Medici family. The boy received his monastic tonsure at age seven, and by the time he was ten his father’s tireless efforts had acquired dozens of benefices for him—income-producing Church offices that required no responsibilities. In 1489, after a great deal of pressure, bribes, and persuasion exerted on Pope Innocent VIII by Lorenzo de’ Medici (actions that included giving his teenage daughter Maddalena in marriage to the pope’s dissolute forty-year-old illegitimate son), the thirteen-year-old Giovanni was named a cardinal. His formal investiture was delayed until 1492, but even for that lax period the appointment was considered premature.
Although Giovanni had been educated by the finest minds in Florence and later studied theology and canon law at the university in Pisa, he’d also received a very different kind of education during his youth, when he learned to take for granted that all the benefits and favors at the disposal of the Church could be bought and sold though influence, barter, or gold and that this was perfectly normal. To enter the Church was not to begin a life dedicated to spiritual matters but to embark on something more like a profitable career in business or politics. His later inability to grasp that the trading or selling of Church offices, benefices, pardons, and indulgences was inappropriate — and could even be seen as sordid — is a reflection of what he’d experienced throughout his childhood, as he witnessed his father using every means at his disposal to assure his son’s advancement in the Church. Perhaps some of the seeds of the Reformation sprouted in the garden of the Palazzo Medici.
After the death of his influential father in 1492, Giovanni’s promising clerical career was nearly ruined by his older brother Piero, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s successor as the unofficial head of the Florentine state. By 1494 Piero had made his family so detested in Florence that the people revolted and forced the Medici to flee the city. Giovanni passed the next years in wandering exile, spending time at the court of Urbino, as well as in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. After the election of Julius II in 1503 and Cardinal Giovanni’s return to Rome, the young prelate’s career prospered, and he was able to contribute to the restoration of Medici rule in Florence in 1512.
At the death of Julius II in 1513, Giovanni de’ Medici was elected pope, taking the name Leo in honor of the lion (leone) known as the Marzocco that was one of the symbols of Florence. But Leo X was no lion in his personality or his papacy. An easygoing, luxury-loving man only thirty-seven years old and not yet ordained as a priest at the time he assumed the papal office, Leo is supposed to have responded to his election by saying: “God has given us the papacy; now let us enjoy it.” And enjoy it he did, filling the Vatican not only with artists, poets, and philosophers but also with actors, dancers, acrobats, animals (including an elephant) and their trainers, gourmet cooks, clowns, and courtesans.
To the relief of many both within and outside the Vatican, Leo X abandoned the aggressive militarism of Julius II, but he lacked his predecessor’s energy and determination, and he failed to understand the seriousness of the religious unrest stirring in northern Europe. He dismissed Martin Luther’s now famous protest of 1517 — his posting on the church door in Wittenberg of the Ninety-Five Theses challenging the Church’s sale of indulgences — as nothing more than “monkish squabbles” that would soon fade away. Raphael may well have been painting this work at the very moment Luther set off the spark that ignited centuries of religious resentments and led to the Protestant Reformation.
Fate had very different destinies in store for the two cardinals who attend Leo in Raphael’s portrait. On our right, the tense and watchful Luigi de’ Rossi meets the viewer’s eye with a sharp, suspicious glance of his own. Born in 1474, he was the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s illegitimate half sister, Maria, wife of Leonetto de’ Rossi. Luigi had been raised and educated along with Giovanni de’ Medici, and the two had become close friends. Leo made his cousin a cardinal in 1517, which indicates that the painting cannot have been begun before that year.
Rossi had reason to look nervous. He was one of thirty-one cardinals Leo created in 1517, an unusually large number to be appointed at one time. The explanation for the sudden expansion of the College of Cardinals was the uncovering of a plot by certain members of the Curia to assassinate the pope. After having the perpetrators executed or exiled, Leo decided it would be prudent to weight the College in his favor, and among those friends and relatives he promoted was his cousin Luigi. Cardinal de’ Rossi died in 1519, so Raphael’s painting must have been completed before that date. Although Rossi accomplished little during his short life, his presence in the painting gives us a firm time frame for one of Raphael’s masterpieces.
Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the handsome, sad-eyed man on our left, was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s brother Giuliano, who was murdered in 1478 during a plot against the Medici known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. Giulio was raised by Lorenzo among his own children, and he formed an especially close bond with the slightly older Giovanni. When Giovanni became pope in 1513, Giulio was one of the first cardinals he created. After serving his cousin in various capacities, in 1523 he was himself elected pope, as Clement VII. Expected to be at least competent, he instead proved to be among the most disastrous pontiffs in the history of the Church. His inept diplomacy and his inability to make decisions and stick to them brought down on the Eternal City in 1527 the worst attack since the barbarian invasions of a thousand years earlier: the Sack of Rome.
But those events — de’ Rossi’s death, the crises of the Reformation, the stormy papacy of Clement VII — were all in the future. Although we don’t know the pope’s precise motivations for commissioning this portrait, the fact that he chose to have himself portrayed in the company of two cousins who had been his companions since childhood, and whom he’d raised to the cardinalate, suggests he considered the work the clerical equivalent of a traditional dynastic portrait, an expression of his desire to have the Medici family remain as potent and enduring a force in the Church as they were in the Florentine state. Although the Medici coat of arms — six balls on a shield — doesn’t appear in the painting, the brilliantly reflective gold knob on the back of the pope’s chair serves as a reminder of the palle, a word that was also a rallying cry for Medici supporters.
The symbolic significance of the portrait as a stand-in for the pope is attested by its presence at several important Medici weddings in which the family of bankers who’d become rulers allied themselves with the aristocracy and even with royalty. Shortly after the painting was completed, it was rushed from Rome to Florence and given a prominent place at the festivities following the wedding in September 1518 of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, duke of Urbino and grandson of Il Magnifico, to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a niece of King Francis I of France. The same portrait also occupied a place of honor at the wedding in 1533 of Alessandro de’ Medici, the first hereditary duke of Florence, and Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V.
The most important appearance of the portrait was at the marriage in 1539 of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora di Toledo. Cosimo had obtained the painting shortly after he became duke in 1537, and in displaying it he paid homage to Leo X, his relative who had providentially fated him for fame and power by baptizing him with the potent name of Cosimo. He was named after the great Cosimo de’ Medici of the fifteenth century, who had attained such authority and respect in Florence that after his death the city declared him Pater Patriae, the father of his country. By coincidence, one of Duke Cosimo’s godparents, Cardinal de’ Rossi, is also in the portrait.
Although Leo X proved no match for the wily German princes when it came to dealing with Martin Luther and his adherents, the major goal of his papacy had nothing to do with either international diplomacy or the religious conflicts in northern Europe. The pope’s main interest was in supporting and consolidating the recently reinstated Medici government in Florence and in assuring the protection and advancement of Medici family members. In this quest he succeeded. Not only did his cousin Giulio eventually become the second Medici pope, but Giulio’s illegitimate son Alessandro (fathered on an African slave some years before the future pope was named a cardinal) became the first Medici duke, the beginning of a dynasty that would endure for more than two hundred years.
From An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence by Judith Testa.
This dome is much better! It’s made of chocolate! Hee, hee!
The story of the construction of Florence cathedral and its cupolone, or big dome, is an epic drama as well as one of the most important chapters in the history of Western architecture. At every stage the project bristles with overweening human ambitions, bitter personal conflicts, and seemingly insoluble engineering problems accompanied by life-threatening working conditions; all of it set against a background of political intrigue and acrimony, epidemics, and sporadic warfare that sometimes found Florence fighting for its survival. But just as the Capitol building in the United States continued to rise throughout the darkest days of the Civil War, so work on the dome went on, whatever the fortunes of Florence.
In 1294 the Florentines decided to rebuild their cathedral, then known as S. Reparata and now called S. Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower), because a lily is the symbol of Florence. Arnolfo di Cambio, a distinguished local architect, drew up the plans, and construction went forward during the first half of the 1300s but halted in 1348, when an outbreak of bubonic plague killed more than 60 percent of Florence’s population. During the late 1300s, subsequent architects enlarged Arnolfo’s design and made important changes. An adventurous plan was adopted in 1367, one that proposed a double-shelled dome that dispensed with the support provided by the external buttresses characteristic of both French and northern Italian Gothic architecture. The new plan called for an octagonal dome of unparalleled size — 42 meters in diameter and 90 meters high. There was only one problem: nobody in Florence or anywhere else had any idea how to erect such a huge dome. That’s why successive architects concentrated on any other part of the cathedral, and why others were fired when they failed to make their promised progress on the dome.
As the 1400s opened, the cathedral had been under construction for more than a hundred years, but all the Florentines had to show for the effort was a 40 meter high hulk crowned with a gaping hole. Even though the nave and transepts had been vaulted, the bell tower completed, and colored marble decoration applied to the exterior side walls, the unfinished interior remained open to the elements as if it were a ruin rather than a building close to completion. As a result, the proud Florentines were becoming the laughing stock of Tuscany. Despite their intention to show their superiority by building an immense dome, the Florentines were aware that further ridicule would be heaped on them if their attempt to build a dome ended in failure.
Why was Florence so hesitant to erect this particular dome? Medieval architects had been building them for centuries, and the ancient Romans had created vast domed spaces. The reasons for the Florentines’ anxiety lay in the unprecedented size of their projected dome. At that time all arches—and a dome is an arch turned 360 degrees on its axis—were built using a wooden framework called centering. A horizontal wooden beam was secured across the opening at the point where the arch begins to curve, or spring, and a wooden framework was then erected on this crossbeam to support the bricks or stones composing the arch.
An arch is limited in size only by the size and strength of the timber available for centering. If giant redwoods grew in Tuscany, there would have been no problem in constructing the centering for the dome. But the opening in Florence’s cathedral was nearly 40 meters across, and no tree found anywhere near Florence was both tall enough and strong enough to bridge that gap. It was therefore considered impossible to build a wooden framework sufficiently wide and sturdy. Furthermore, architects of the time believed that the sheer weight of such a gigantic timber construction would cause it to self-destruct even before any stones were laid on it.
There were other problems, encountered by all dome builders but particularly acute in the case of such a large dome: compression and tension, known as “push and pull” energies. Compression, or downward push, does not create insoluble problems, since stone has enormous compressive strength, as anyone who has ever tried to crush even a small stone with any force less than a hammer blow can testify. In a dome, however, stones in the lower portion are also thrust or pulled outward by the weight of the stones above. To visualize this, think of the way an inflated balloon bulges outward at the bottom if pressed on from above. Under light pressure the balloon will stretch, but under heavy pressure it will burst. The problem with large domes made of stone held together with mortar is that, like the bursting balloon, they tend to fly apart at the base. Such was the problem that had brought construction of the dome of Florence cathedral to a standstill.
Frustrated in their efforts to find a capomaestro (chief architect) capable of constructing a dome, the cathedral’s Board of Works, known as the Operai, turned to other civic projects, chief among them a competition held in 1401 to design a new set of bronze doors for the cathedral’s baptistery, a focal point of communal devotion located just across from the front entrance of the incomplete cathedral. The Operai chose goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti to execute the project, a decision that would, oddly enough, have enormous consequences for the construction of the cathedral dome.
The runner-up and eventual loser in the competition to execute the baptistery doors was a furious Filippo Brunelleschi. Convinced that the competition had been rigged in favor of Ghiberti, whom he despised, Brunelleschi gave up his previous profession of sculptor-goldsmith and stomped off to Rome to study ancient Roman architecture. Given his long-standing interest in mechanical problems, he probably was thinking that such study someday might enable him to solve the problems involved in constructing the cathedral dome.
Brunelleschi remained in Rome on and off for thirteen years, sometimes alone and other times in the company of his friend, the sculptor Donatello, tramping through the city’s ancient ruins, examining, measuring, sketching and digging around in them to such an extent that the two men developed a reputation as treatreasure hunters. But the treasures Brunelleschi hoped to recover were the architectural and engineering secrets embedded in those gigantic structures.
For a thousand years, nobody had understood or even attempted to understand how the Romans had built their enormous vaults and domes — many people still thought the dome of the Pantheon had been built by devils. But Brunelleschi was determined to figure it out, and he slowly developed his own ideas on how ancient architectural elements and construction techniques could be used in building the dome of Florence cathedral. Even though Brunelleschi never quite succeeded in understanding how the emperor Hadrian’s architect had constructed the 43 meters diameter dome over the rotunda of the Pantheon, its existence offered proof that it could be done. Brunelleschi thought the Romans had built the dome without the use of centering, and although modern architectural historians have proved him wrong, it was a fruitful misconception.
Even though he had little or no experience as an architect, the self-taught Brunelleschi came to be regarded in Florence as an expert on ancient Roman dome-building techniques. As early as 1407, records show him in discussions with the Operai concerning construction of the dome, but neither he nor the cautious Operai was yet ready to proceed. Nonetheless, acting on Brunelleschi’s advice, the Operai made an important decision in 1410: they authorized the construction of a 9 meters high octagonal drum on which the dome would rest. This raised the height at which the dome would begin to 52 meters — taller than even the highest French Gothic cathedrals.
By 1417 Brunelleschi was back in Florence for good, and the Operai again paid him for some plans, so it seems he was now deeply involved in the project. But as with the bronze doors for the baptistery, the Operai, much to Brunelleschi’s disgust, insisted on a competition. For this contest there were eleven entries, most of them plans so primitive they caused laughter among the members of the Operai. The most notorious was the Dirt Pile: an unspecified individual proposed that the area to be covered by the dome be filled up with an enormous quantity of dirt and the dome built around it. Then, with the dome complete, a rumor would be floated that the dirt contained gold coins, and every man, woman, and child in Florence would rush to the cathedral with a basket, ready to carry off the dirt in hopes of finding the coins. With competition of this caliber, we might assume that Brunelleschi’s plan would have been adopted without delay, but Ghiberti also submitted a plan, and although the Operai awarded the commission to Brunelleschi, it seems Ghiberti had convinced some members of the Operai to name him co-architect, a turn of events that again left Brunelleschi fuming.
As it turned out, Ghiberti was busy with his bronze doors and played no significant part in the dome project. Nonetheless, Brunelleschi’s plan was so radical and daring that not every member of the Operai believed it could be built. Perhaps they wanted to keep Ghiberti around for insurance, in case Brunelleschi’s construction came crashing down. On several occasions during his discussions with the Operai, the arguments became so heated that a shouting Brunelleschi had to be removed, carried bodily from the room. Little wonder that many in Florence considered him a lunatic and his dome-building ideas a fantastic and dangerous dream.
But the plan Brunelleschi proposed was no madman’s fantasy. His idea is a work of genius that began a revolution in architectural and engineering practice: a dome of unparalleled width and height to be constructed entirely without the traditional framework of wooden centering. Three months after winning the competition, the architect presented the Operai with a list of specifications outlining what he planned to do and how he was going to do it. As envisioned in the model of 1367, Brunelleschi proposed a tall, double-shelled dome. But where the architects of the 1300s had offered no solutions for how to construct such a dome, Brunelleschi, the consummate technologist, had thought it all out in advance.
Because he realized that the dome had to be as light as possible in order not to crush the recently constructed drum, and steep enough that it would exert minimum outward thrust, he conceived his two shells as both steep and surprisingly thin, given their enormous scale. The thickness of the inner cupola is two meters at the base, and it tapers so that the topmost portion is only a meter and a half thick. An outer cupola placed over this, “to preserve it from the weather and to vault it in more magnificent and swelling form”, in Brunelleschi’s words, is even thinner: less than one meter at the bottom and only 40 centimeters thick at the top. A space 1.2 meters wide separates the two shells, which are connected to a complex skeleton of cross-braced ribs, eight of which are visible on the exterior — where they resemble the long white spokes of an enormous umbrella — with sixteen more concealed between the two shells.
Where the ribs converge at the top is a 15 meters diameter opening known as an oculus (the Latin word for “eye”), later to be topped by a lantern, which holds the ribs in place, and through its open design also admits light to the interior of the church. Further light was to come from seventy-two small windows in the shells of the dome. Such openings not only would provide illumination but also would let the immense structure “breathe”, so that moisture and heat would not build up between the two shells. The windows in the outer shell are still there, but those inside were closed in the 16th century so the interior of the dome could be covered with paintings. Had these remained open, they would have provided a dazzling crown of light that would have transformed the appearance of the cathedral’s now rather dark interior.
In addition to the system of cross-braced internal and external ribs, Brunelleschi also stipulated the use of a series of gigantic chains to counteract the outward thrust exerted by his dome. These aren’t the simple ones familiar to us, made of metal links, but staggeringly complex devices consisting of concentric rings of stone beams laid horizontally around the octagonal circumference of the dome. These long sandstone beams rested on and interlocked with shorter beams, laid transversely, rather like railroad ties, at one-meter intervals. Along with four such sandstone chains there would be another made of wood, encircling the dome seven meters above the stone chains. This one would consist of twenty-four chestnut wood beams, each about six meters long and 30 centimeters high and wide, three for each segment of the octagon, spliced together with complicated oak-and-iron clamps. These chains would secure the vertical ribs like tight belts.
Finally, Brunelleschi specified how he planned to solve the previously intractable problem of laying the masonry of the dome without the use of centering — we might call his solution the principle of progressive self-support. The dome would be built in a series of horizontal courses, something like the snow blocks of an Eskimo igloo. Each course would be bonded to its predecessor in such a way that it would carry its own weight once the mortar hardened. It was then strong enough to support work on the next course, continuing around until each ring was closed and, by being closed, became able to support the next course, and so onward and upward. The masons would work from scaffolds that could be suspended from recently completed sections of the dome, and the beams supporting the platforms could be lifted as work progressed. Thus, each portion of the structure reinforced the next one as the dome was built up layer by layer.
Brunelleschi also specified that he had designed the machinery necessary for hoisting all this material into place, but he gave no details, for fear that others would steal his ideas, a lifelong preoccupation of his. At the end of his lengthy memorandum, he admitted he had not yet solved every problem that might be encountered in the course of construction but, he insisted, experience gained in the actual work of construction would provide the solutions.
Work began at dawn on August 7, 1420. Foremost in the masons’ minds must have been the frightening fact that none of them yet knew whether the structure they were to build could really be erected according to Brunelleschi’s plan. Their new capomaestro had spent a lot of time explaining to the nervous masons, some of whom had never worked more than a few meters above the ground, what they were supposed to do. Not always a patient man, Brunelleschi persisted until he was certain his workmen understood their job. According to one story, in his efforts to clarify what the dome would look like, he bought a large turnip at the local market, cut it in half and placed it on the ground, declaring that his dome would look like that, an earthy image that succeeded where more abstract ones had failed.
Early in 1421, Brunelleschi introduced an ingenious hoisting device of his own design to raise the enormous blocks of stone, a machine so large and complex it had taken two months to complete, with the carpenters sworn to secrecy about how it was constructed. Placed on a tall wooden platform at the center of the octagonal space below the dome-to-be and powered by teams of oxen, the hoist would eventually raise aloft marble, brick, common stone, and mortar weighing an estimated seventy million pounds. It proved so popular that the Operai had to issue orders forbidding the masons and adventurous Florentines from hitching rides on it.
Another machine soon followed, nicknamed the castello (castle), which moved loads sideways, since the hoist could only move things straight up. The castello was used in 1471, long after Brunelleschi’s death, to place the 2.5 meters high hollow bronze sphere atop the lantern, the last act in the decades-long drama of the dome’s construction. The artist commissioned to make the bronze ball was Andrea del Verrocchio, who had as an apprentice in his shop a young man named Leonardo da Vinci. Because he made a series of drawings of the hoisting devices, Leonardo was long credited with inventing them, a misattribution that must have left Brunelleschi spinning in his grave.
In 1426 Brunelleschi is said to have designed a time-saving device: a little cookshop with an attached latrine, installed between the shells of the cupola in order to spare the masons the effort of going down for their noon meal. As for the latrine, it replaced slop pails and would surely have made the masons’ cramped working environment more pleasant. Since by this time the masons had to scale the equivalent of a twenty-five-story building each time they went to or from their work, this must have been a convenience they particularly appreciated.
Brunelleschi designed many more machines for building the dome, and although a few of them survive, and drawings for others exist, how they functioned is now often impossible to determine. The machines preserved today in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence look more like mysterious and sinister torture devices than building aids. The impression arises that nobody but Brunelleschi himself and his closest associates knew how these things worked. Even the members of the Operai were in the dark, and they simply had to trust that Brunelleschi knew what he was doing.
A reading of the earliest biography of Brunelleschi, probably written in the 1480s by Antonio Manetti, leaves one with the impression that the author was as mystified as everyone else by the details of Brunelleschi’s building methods. “Between the shells of the cupola,” Manetti wrote, just as if he actually knew what he was talking about, “both toward the inside of the church and on the tiled outside surface as well as [hidden] in its [shells], are diverse provisions and devices in various places. The hidden [devices] are much more numerous than the exposed: for protection against wind, earthquake, and its own weight—which could be harmful [with respect] to what is below in a [particular] place, and more with respect to the things piled up above [in their relation] to the things below.” Huh?
According to a story told by Manetti, the architect’s passion for secrecy enabled him to take revenge on his perennial rival, Ghiberti. In 1426, when work on the wood chain was about to begin, Brunelleschi took to his bed. Responsibility then fell to his co-capomaestro, Ghiberti, to oversee the construction of the chain, something he had no idea how to do. Work halted while Brunelleschi remained in bed, masons grumbled, and Ghiberti dithered. But as soon as Brunelleschi heard that Ghiberti had begun constructing and raising a portion of the chain, he made a miraculous recovery. He staged a dramatic arrival on the site, clambered up into the dome to inspect Ghiberti’s work, and pronounced it worthless. He ordered it removed and replaced with construction completed under his personal supervision. The Operai responded by tripling his salary and dismissing Ghiberti. Although Brunelleschi’s triumph seemed complete at that point, Ghiberti was eventually hired back, probably at his own insistence, but with sharply reduced authority, responsibilities, and salary.
The method by which Brunelleschi figured out how to regulate the gradual curvature of the dome and calculate the ever-increasing angles at which the stones, bricks, and massive stone beams were to be laid remains one of the dome’s unsolved mysteries. Once the dome had reached the height of 21 meters above the drum, another crucial problem arose: the shells would now curve inward beyond the critical angle of thirty degrees — above which gravity and friction alone would not keep the mortar in place until it hardened. Brunelleschi now switched from stone to brick in order to lessen the weight, and he designed wooden molds for specially shaped bricks, which were to be laid in interlocking herringbone patterns, also of Brunelleschi’s design, but based on his studies of ancient Roman brickwork.
These were terrifying times for the masons, who now had to work on walls that leaned inward at an alarming angle almost 75 meters above the ground. Domes built with wood centering at least had a network of scaffolding to break a man’s fall and to obscure the view of the abyss below. To calm his increasingly anxious masons, Brunelleschi designed a portable parapet to go around their narrow working platforms, less for safety than for screening the drop. According to cathedral documents, the purpose was “to prevent the masons from looking down.” Despite the perils, there was only one fatality during the construction of the dome.
Brunelleschi declared the dome complete in 1436, although much remained to be done, including the decoration of the raw masonry just above the drum (which was never fully carried out), the tiling of the exterior shell, and the design, construction and installation of the lantern. Given Brunelleschi’s extraordinary achievement, it seems incredible that the Operai insisted on yet another competition to design the lantern. Brunelleschi won this one, too. Although Brunelleschi’s lantern seems small in relation to the bulk of the dome, it required more than a 450 tonnes of stone to be raised to the top of the cupola. As huge blocks of marble, some of them weighing two tonnes, began to pile up near the cathedral, nervous Florentines imagined their precious new dome collapsing under all that extra weight. But Brunelleschi dismissed their fears, noting that the lantern would strengthen rather than crush the dome by acting as a common keystone for the arched ribs of the vault. Once again, he was right. No part of his dome has ever collapsed, and it has never needed major repairs.
The great architect did not live to see his lantern take form, although it was eventually built from his handsome, classically inspired designs. He witnessed the consecration of its first stone by the archbishop of Florence in March 1446. When he died less than a month later, just short of seventy years old, he received the rare honor of being buried inside the cathedral. Although Brunelleschi never married, he had an adopted son and heir, Andrea Buggiano, who carved a memorial monument — a roundel containing Brunelleschi’s portrait with an inscription composed by the chancellor of the republic of Florence that loftily compares Brunelleschi to Daedalus, the fabled engineer of ancient Greek mythology, a reference that brings to mind the idea that the cathedral dome raised without centering was an achievement comparable to Daedalus’s miraculous flight.
Brunelleschi’s actual floor tomb was so modest that its location was soon forgotten. It was only rediscovered during archeological work on the cathedral in 1972. The simple inscription on it reads: “Here lies the body of the great ingenious man Filippo Brunelleschi.” An equally fine epitaph might be the words written by another eminent Florentine, the art theorist, scholar, and gentleman architect Leon Battista Alberti. In dedicating one of his books on art to Brunelleschi in 1435, he praised the brilliant achievement of the cathedral dome: “Who would ever be so hard of heart or envious enough to fail to praise Filippo the architect on seeing here such a large structure, rising above the skies, ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people?”
After more than half a millennium the dome still “rises above the skies” and is still the very signature of Florence. It is the city’s most striking feature, visible from innumerable points within and around the city and in clear weather from as far away as Pistoia. Until the development of new kinds of ultra-strong building materials in the twentieth century, it remained unrivaled in size. Even Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, although taller, is 3 meters narrower; Wren’s cupola for St. Paul’s in London is smaller by nine meters, and the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, is less than two-thirds the size of Brunelleschi’s creation. Brunelleschi’s achievement has become so closely identified with the Florentines’ sense of self that it remains a powerful symbol even today. In a still current expression, a citizen strongly dedicated to the city is called a fiorentino di cupolone — a Florentine of the BIG dome.
Visitors can follow in the footsteps of Brunelleschi and his masons and climb to the top of the dome, although the ascent is not for anyone who is unaccustomed to extended stair-climbing, made dizzy by heights, or rendered nervous by enclosed spaces. There are 463 steps to the summit. Imagine making the better part of that climb twice a day — once up and once down — as Brunelleschi’s masons did six days a week for sixteen years. Today’s visitors begin their ascent via a spiral staircase in the southwestern pier, one of the four that supports the dome. The first 150 steps lead only to the top of the pier, where the visitor emerges onto an interior balcony that encloses the base of the dome. Nowhere does the vast span of the dome seem greater than from there.
From this balcony a small door leads into the gradually narrowing space between the two shells of the dome, where another set of steps, constructed along with the cupola, threads its way upward. Between the two tilting walls of the inner and outer shells is a maze of low doorways, cramped passages, and other, irregularly ascending staircases, all of which had their functions and were used by the builders. Only from within these constricted spaces is it possible to see close up the various devices and techniques employed by Brunelleschi. The great stone chains, the wood chain, and the complicated whirling pattern of herringbone brickwork are all visible. Small windows pierce the outer shell, letting in light and air and offering brief glimpses of the city below.
A final set of steep steps scales the uppermost part of the dome, and shallow iron steps lead out onto the viewing platform at the base of the marble lantern, as far as anyone is allowed to go. The climb rewards the visitor with unparalleled views of the city of Florence and the Tuscan countryside. It also has the effect of removing the feeling that the dome is a miraculous creation and replacing that impression with something better and more accurate: the realization that the great dome is the product of an extraordinary human mind brought into being by a remarkable team of workers. It was built by human hands, at enormous cost and with almost inconceivable effort, amid wars, plagues, and personal and political intrigues, with a relatively limited understanding of the properties of materials and of how the forces of nature act on those materials. Not the least of the effects of a trip to the top of the dome is a renewed sense of awe for the skill and intellect of that “great ingenious man Filippo Brunelleschi”.
The original façade, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and usually attributed to Giotto, was actually begun twenty years after Giotto’s death. A mid 15th century pen-and-ink drawing of this so-called Giotto’s façade is visible in the Codex Rustici, and in the drawing of Bernardino Poccetti in 1587, both on display in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. This façade was the collective work of several artists, among them Andrea Orcagna and Taddeo Gaddi. This original façade was completed in only its lower portion and then left unfinished. It was dismantled in 1587-1588 by the Medici court architect Bernardo Buontalenti, ordered by Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici, as it appeared totally outmoded in Renaissance times. Some of the original sculptures are on display in the Museum Opera del Duomo, while others are in the Berlin Museum and in the Louvre. The competition for a new façade turned into a huge corruption scandal.
A few designs were proposed in later years, but none were accepted and the façade was left bare until the 19th century.
In 1864, a new competition was held to design a new façade and it was won by Emilio De Fabris in 1871. Work began in 1876 and was completed in 1887.
The A Window on Italy – The Corsini Collection exhibition at the Art Gallery of WA includes the actual costumes worn by Anna Barnerini Corsini and her son Filippo, for the celebration of the unveiling of the facade of the Duomo in 1887.
About the last things we’d expect to find inside a cathedral are secular monuments to the military prowess of the mercenary generals of Italy known as condottieri, professional warriors who sold their services to the highest bidder. Nonetheless, two such monuments greet the visitor to Florence cathedral. On the left (north) wall, in the third bay past the entrance, are two over-life-size frescoed equestrian portraits painted to look like sculptured images: the earlier, by Paolo Uccello, is from 1436 and portrays Sir John Hawkwood; the second, painted by Andrea del Castagno in 1456, shows Niccolò da Tolentino.
Their grand scale and conspicuous placement make them the most easily visible images within the cathedral. That Florence memorialized these two decidedly unholy men on sacred ground is evidence of their importance to the city. God, Christ, Mary, and the saints might save people’s souls, but the members of the Florentine government regarded the two condottieri as saviors of their republic, protectors of their precious political independence, despite the fact that condottieri in general were widely disliked and distrusted by the Florentine citizenry. Who were these men whom the Florentine government admired enough to award them the rare honor of burial within the city’s cathedral? And was simple admiration the government’s only motivation for commissioning such monuments?
During the second half of the 1300s, Sir John Hawkwood was the most feared and successful mercenary general in Italy. The fourteenth century was a time of continual strife, as hundreds of Italian political entities large and small fought one another for power and territory. Hawkwood was the embodiment of that strife. It may seem odd that an Englishman of no great rank could attain such power in Italy, but the chronic disunity of the peninsula and the eagerness of one power to damage another played directly into Hawkwood’s hands.
The future scourge of Italy was born around 1320 into a modest family in the English territory of Essex. As a young man he served in the English army, and he received his knighthood from King Edward III. Those years of military life convinced him that his future lay on the battlefield. In 1360 he collected a group of men-at-arms and moved into Italy, where he began his Italian career in 1362–1363, fighting for the marquis of Monferrato against Milan. In 1364 he assisted Pisa in its long-running conflict with Florence. After several minor campaigns in various parts of central Italy, in 1368 he entered the service of Bernabò Visconti, the duke of Milan.
Hawkwood’s new employer was a distinctly unsavory individual. The head of the largest and most powerful state in northern Italy, Bernabò had come to power by poisoning his older brother. The father of a remarkable fourteen sons by his wife, he nonetheless lorded it over a household that, according to a chronicler of the time, “appeared to be more the seraglio of a sultan than the habitation of a Catholic prince.” Along with his legitimate heirs, he had two dozen illegitimate children by his various mistresses and innumerable others born to servant women. A modern historian bluntly labeled him a sex maniac.
Indifferent to his employer’s morals, Hawkwood fought successfully for Milan, upholding the Visconti standard against Pisa, Florence, and other enemies of the Milanese. In 1372, resenting the interference of court officials in his strategies, Hawkwood resigned his Milanese command and offered his services to another major peninsular power, the papacy. Despite the removal of the papal court to France for most of the 1300s, the popes maintained an interest in their Italian territories. By the mid-1370s negotiations were well under way for the return of the papacy to Rome, so it was an ideal time for Hawkwood to enter the papal service. He promptly engaged in successful battles on behalf of the papacy against Milan.
By 1374 Florence was the only significant Italian power that had yet to hire Hawkwood to fight its wars, although the Florentine government had repeatedly bought him off with money in exchange for promises (repeatedly broken) to refrain from attacking Florentine territory. But in his last two years of service with the Church, the shrewd Hawkwood had begun to realize where reliable power lay in Italy, and it wasn’t with the barely solvent papacy or with the treacherous and lecherous Visconti of Milan—instead, it was with the bankers and merchants of Florence. In 1375 Florence bought him off with the enormous sum of 130,000 florins, payable in four installments, in exchange for five years of promised nonaggression by Hawkwood’s forces.
But the restless Hawkwood and his soldiers kept moving. Early in 1377 Bernabò Visconti made his former general an irresistible offer: he would reemploy him as the commander of the forces of an antipapal league, and he’d also give the fifty-seven-year-old soldier one of his illegitimate daughters, a seventeen-year-old girl named Donnina, in marriage. Hawkwood accepted, since the military commission would give him something to do other than roam around aimlessly with his destructive troops, and the marriage would not only bring him personal wealth but also make him a son-in-law of the most powerful prince in Italy. But even marriage to one of Bernabò’s daughters was not sufficient to keep Hawkwood faithful to Milan. In 1388 he quarreled with the duke, and in an about-face typical of mercenary leaders, Hawkwood entered the service of Milan’s archenemy, Florence.
Despite many misgivings the Florentines had decided that Hawkwood was their best hope of prevailing in their ongoing struggles against both the papacy and the duke of Milan, and once again Hawkwood proved his military worth. He fought for Florence against Naples and also against Giangaleazzo Visconti, who had by then overthrown Bernabò and become duke of Milan. In 1390 Hawkwood humbled the Milanese in a series of battles where the English-born general’s tactics were considered especially brilliant. In 1392 Florence concluded an advantageous peace with Milan and amply rewarded its now seventy-two-year-old commander. They gave him a villa near Florence, provided dowries for his three daughters and a pension for his wife to be paid after his death, and exempted him from the city’s most onerous forms of taxation. Hawkwood died in 1394, at the age of about seventy-four or seventy-five—a remarkable old age for a man who’d spent more than forty years almost continuously on the field of battle.
After a magnificent state funeral, Hawkwood’s body was given a further honor: he was buried in the choir of the city’s still unfinished cathedral. The Signoria then commissioned a marble tomb for him, but in 1395 they substituted a less expensive memorial, a fresco painting on the north wall of the cathedral, perhaps for economic reasons but also because the king of England had requested Hawkwood’s bones for burial on English soil. Some forty years later the fresco had faded, or perhaps it had been damaged by Arno floods or by water coming in through the huge hole in the cathedral’s roof — Brunelleschi’s great dome hadn’t been started when Hawkwood’s memorial was painted. In 1436, the same year that Brunelleschi completed the dome and that the cathedral was rededicated as S. Maria del Fiore, the cathedral’s Operai hired the painter Paolo Uccello to replace the old fresco with a new one.
Uccello painted his fresco in imitation of a bronze equestrian monument, which accounts for the drab greenish palette of colors. When the work was almost complete, some cathedral officials angrily objected to the angle of view: the horse had been painted as if from below, and they claimed it showed too much of the horse’s stomach and the animal’s more than ample sexual organs. They ordered Uccello to repaint the horse from a less offensive angle, which he did, since he wanted his payment and the Signoria withheld it until the artist had gelded the animal to their satisfaction.
Uccello portrayed Hawkwood carrying a commander’s baton and wearing parade armor, not actual fighting armor but in the antique style that links the wearer to the military glories of ancient Rome. A painted inscription in Latin further underlines the link, as it is based on a famous Roman funerary inscription, the epitaph of Fabius Maximus (d. 230 BC), whose strategies defeated Hannibal’s armies in Italy. It reads: “IOANNES ACVTUS EQVES BRITANNICUS DUX AETATIS SVAE CAVTISSIMVUS ET REI MILITARIS PERITISSIMVS HABITVS EST” (John Hawkwood, British knight, esteemed the most cautious and expert general of his time). Italians found the name Hawkwood unpronounceable and mangled it in various ways, finally settling on Acuto, which means “acute” or “sharp” in Italian—an appropriate name for a man who lived by the sword. It’s unlikely that Uccello had read Plutarch’s biography of the Roman hero Fabius Maximus, the source of the epitaph, but no doubt some members of the Signoria had, as enthusiasm for antiquity among the educated elite was starting to flourish in the early 1400s.
Considering his grandiose mount, costume, and equipment, Hawkwood’s face as Uccello painted it comes as a shock. Perhaps Uccello, who of course had never seen Hawkwood, worked from the face in the original fresco, which may have been portrayed from a death mask. With grayish skin, shriveled cheeks, and hollow eye sockets, the general looks more dead than alive. But there’s a certain poetic rightness to his appearance. To the opposing forces who faced him, and even more so to the terrified peasants and townspeople who encountered his marauding army, he must have seemed very much as he appears in this painting. Like the pale rider of the biblical Apocalypse, John Hawkwood was death on horseback.
Not to be confused with St. Nicholas of Tolentino, Niccolò Mauruzzi was born around 1350 into a family of minor nobility in the central Italian city of Tolentino. As a result of bitter disputes with relatives, in particular his stepmother, he fled the city in 1370 and began a long, violent career as a mercenary, first as a common soldier and later as a commander. His biography reads less like a life than an endless list of battles, plots, counterplots, and betrayals.
After many years spent as an undistinguished soldier of fortune, in 1406 Niccolò’s luck changed. He joined the military company of Gabrino Fondulo, who sent him to Parma to propose an alliance. Instead, he became involved in a plot to eliminate Carlo Cavalcabò, the lord of Cremona, who was a guest in Parma and whose position one of Fondulo’s allies coveted. At a grand banquet in the castle of Parma, Carlo Cavalcabò and all his family were killed. Niccolò, now in charge of his own band of mercenaries, proceeded to sack the towns formerly controlled by the Cavalcabò family.
Around 1412 Niccolò and his band of soldiers passed into the service of another ambitious northern Italian condottiere, Pandolfo III Malatesta, the lord of Fano. For the next twelve years Niccolò occupied himself with a series of skirmishes, fighting in the service of various Italian rulers ranging from Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan to Queen Joanna of Naples and grabbing whatever booty he could in the process. In 1424 he entered the service of Pope Martin V, but he was not entirely successful in his battles on behalf of the papacy. He suffered several losses, and in 1425 he was briefly taken prisoner by two rival condottieri.
More raids and battles in the service of other Italian lords followed, along with continued service to the papacy, and Tolentino also fought on and off for the republic of Florence. At that time, the early 1430s, Cosimo de’ Medici was one of the most powerful men in Florence, a member of the dieci di balia, the city’s ten-man war council, which was responsible for hiring Niccolò da Tolentino to fight for Florence. The condottiere’s success in that role convinced Florence to appoint him capitano generale (commander in chief) of its forces in 1432.
In that same year, Niccolò da Tolentino achieved what became his greatest moment of glory and his chief claim to fame: he “won” the battle of San Romano. Up until that point Florence’s war with Lucca had been going badly; they’d lost a number of battles, and one of their condottieri, Bernardino della Ciarda, had defected. Attacked by the Sienese allies of Lucca while separated from the body of his troops, Niccolò and a small force withstood enemy assaults for many hours until a cavalry charge by his co-commander, Michelotto da Cotignola, routed the enemy forces. In reality, as far as historians can figure out, nobody really won the battle of San Romano. Both the Florentines and the Sienese claimed victory.
That battle, fought on June 1, 1432, was the high point of Tolentino’s military career. Two years later, in 1434, while still in the employ of Florence, he was captured by the Milanese during a battle and thrown into one of the infamous dungeons of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti. As Tolentino was being transferred from one Milanese prison to another, he suffered a fall that left him so severely injured he died a few months later, in March 1435. The Florentines requested the return of his body, and since the dead condottiere could no longer do them any harm, the Milanese agreed. The government of Florence organized an elaborate state funeral held in the city’s cathedral on April 14, 1435. Niccolò’s remains are buried in the cathedral, but his heart was removed and buried at the convent of Sant’ Agostino, in his home city of Tolentino. He left his family an enormous inheritance, which included a huge horde of coins and more than two thousand pounds of silver—not a bad haul for a lifetime of doing what mercenaries do: fighting other people’s battles.
Although both sides claimed to have won the battle of San Romano, Florentine art eventually provided a more decisive verdict than the battlefield. Paolo Uccello’s three large panel paintings portraying the struggle (one, in the Uffizi, is discussed in Chapter 13) and Andrea del Castagno’s painted monument to Niccolò da Tolentino in Florence cathedral make Niccolò a hero in a way that no written chronicle of the battle ever could.
Castagno’s equestrian portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino appears to the left of Uccello’s portrait of Hawkwood. Completed in 1456, exactly twenty years after the Hawkwood fresco, it resembles the earlier work in certain ways—as it had to, since the Signoria ordered that the fresco look similar to Uccello’s earlier effort. It is on the same scale, and it shows the horse and rider in profile and in parade armor atop a painted image of a sarcophagus containing a laudatory inscription. But beyond those general resemblances, Castagno created a very different work. In place of the greenish faux bronze of the Hawkwood monument, Castagno’s horse, rider, and coffin appear to be made of off-white marble, with green relegated to the background. In comparison to Hawkwood’s smooth, motionless mount, Tolentino’s horse is powerfully muscled and tosses its head to the side in a restless movement. The figure of the condottiere himself—in contrast to Uccello’s cadaverous image—looks very much alive. He wears an enormous ceremonial hat, and his face has the proud, hard-bitten features of a professional soldier.
The base, painted to resemble an elaborate marble sarcophagus, contains an inscription: “HIC QVEM SVBLIMEN IN EQUO PICTUM CERNIS NICOLAVS EST TOLENTINUS INCLITUS DUX FIORENTINI EXERCITUS” (“Here you see the great Niccolò da Tolentino, painted high on horseback, the famous general of the Florentine army”). To the left and right of the inscription are small male nude figures, each bearing a large shield. The shield on the left depicts the Marzocco, the sword-bearing lion, symbol of the republic of Florence; the one on the right displays Tolentino’s own armorials, an arrangement of rope variously known as the Knots of Solomon or the Gordian knot.
Although the memorial to Tolentino is straightforward enough, the question remains as to why the Florentines waited twenty years before commissioning it, especially since his burial in 1435 would have provided an obvious occasion for the project. The reasons for the long delay can be found in the political events of the mid-1430s, in particular the hostility toward Cosimo de’ Medici that had resulted in his arrest and exile from Florence in 1433. Although Cosimo quickly reestablished his authority after his return in 1434, hostility toward Niccolò da Tolentino persisted, and the controversial condottiere remained a focus of anti-Medicean sentiment. He was too closely associated with Cosimo’s personal interests to be presented as a champion of the Florentine state, and an immediate monument to him may have struck Cosimo as politically inexpedient. Two decades later, such sentiments would have faded.
Although no documents survive to tell us precisely who commissioned the fresco of Niccolò da Tolentino, the Medici were most likely involved. A man named Bernardetto d’Antonio de’ Medici, who was not as powerful or prominent as Cosimo de’ Medici, but still a respected member of the extended family, was gonfaloniere di giustizia at the time that the Signoria, the ruling body of Florence, sent a memo to the Operai of the cathedral in October 1455 declaring that a painted monument to Tolentino should be placed inside the cathedral, next to the Hawkwood monument, “paying heed to the honor and glory of all Florence”.
How the commission was awarded to Andrea del Castagno is also unknown, but he was among the city’s leading painters, and Andrea probably had a powerful backer in Cosimo de’ Medici. By 1455 Cosimo was the ruler of Florence in everything but name, and as we’ve seen, he had personal connections with the dead condottiere. He’d been gonfaloniere di giustizia in January and February 1435, just prior to Tolentino’s death. He counted the condottiere as a friend and he was responsible for the transferal of the body to the cathedral of Florence for burial, so there can be little doubt that both the battle and its hero were of personal imimportance to Cosimo.
But the de facto ruler of Florence wouldn’t have needed to intervene directly. As usual, he could apply his influence behind the scenes, as his relative Bernardetto de’ Medici was gonfaloniere di giustizia in September and October of 1455. Although the document sent to the cathedral’s Operai from the Signoria does not specify a painter by name, it’s likely that Bernardetto, through Cosimo, already had Castagno in mind. As an early biographer observed, Cosimo knew how to promote his own agenda without having his name attached to his ideas, so that “the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” The Tolentino monument can be seen as an example of wide-ranging Medici influence, indirectly glorifying the family while promoting the glory of the city.
The Tolentino and the Hawkwood monuments, with their coats of arms and inscriptions, remind the viewer both of the identity of the deceased men and of their connection to the republic of Florence. Prominently displayed in the public and sacred space of the cathedral, the frescoes declare: “Here lie the bodies of two great defenders of our state.” These assertive additions to the cathedral interior were ideal instruments to convey political messages. For the defense of the state, Florentine governments throughout the fifteenth century had found it necessary to rely on condottieri and the soldiers they commanded, despite the fear, suspicion, disgust, and outright hostility these mercenaries inspired among the common people. The two frescoes present images of condottieri as their governmental employers wished them to be seen by the citizens whose taxes paid for their services — as dignified, valiant, and praiseworthy heroes rather than the greedy, thuggish, faithless fellows they all too often were.
No building in Florence is older or more revered than the cathedral baptistery. Florentines of the Renaissance, intent on glorifying their city’s past and perhaps further persuaded by the eighteen massive classical columns that help support the interior, insisted the baptistery was an ancient Roman building later taken over for Christian use. Although modern scholarship long ago refuted that claim, the actual date of its founding remains uncertain. It was probably built in the sixth or seventh century but maybe as early as the fourth or fifth. The building was reconstructed in 1059, and the geometrical decoration in colored marble on the exterior was carried out between that date and the 1200s. Within the spacious interior an unusually large dome displays an extensive cycle of 13th century mosaics, the only such cycle in Florence, illustrating Old and New Testament stories as well as a Last Judgment.
It seems more than mere coincidence that this building was the first one chosen for adornment when the new century of the 1400s opened. Far more than the still incomplete cathedral, the baptistery was the heart of Florence. This was where citizens of all classes brought their children to be baptized, the ritual that signified their entrance into both the community of the faithful and the commune of Florence. The date of the competition to provide the baptistery with a new set of bronze doors — won by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1401 — marks the birth of the Renaissance, and Ghiberti’s second set of doors, known as the Gates of Paradise, show that movement in full bloom. Ghiberti’s masterpieces have as their worthy fourteenth-century predecessor the baptistery’s first set of bronze doors, by Andrea Pisano, depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist. And it’s no accident, either, that the executors of the will of the deposed anti-pope John XXIII, long a supporter of Florence, chose the baptistery as the site for the former pontiff’s tomb, a political statement of Florence’s support for his aborted papacy.
The 1330s were a period of relative peace and prosperity for Florence, a decade when several major projects were underway: work on the unfinished cathedral resumed in 1331, and construction of the cathedral’s bell tower started in 1334. Shortly before that, in 1330, Andrea Pisano began a set of bronze doors, although they weren’t put in place on the main (east) entrance of the baptistery until 1336. They now adorn the baptistery’s south entrance. The artist signed and dated his doors in an inscription along the top: “ANDREAS UGOLINI NINI DE PISIS ME FECIT A D MCCCXXX” (“Andrea son of Ugolino son of Nino of Pisa made me in the Year of the Lord 1330”).
Andrea’s doors contain twenty episodes from the life of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, along with eight panels showing theological and cardinal Virtues. The doors should be read from top to bottom, first on the left side and then on the right. On the left are ten episodes concerning the public life and preaching of the Baptist, while the right door displays ten scenes of John’s martyrdom and subsequent events, ending with the saint’s burial. The Virtues occupy the eight lower panels. The compositions are simple and sturdy, with figures highlighted in gold set against rudimentary landscapes and buildings. The pair of doors illustrates the two aspects of John the Baptist: his role as the last prophet and his fate as the first martyr. Florentines were deeply devoted to their patron saint, and they must have been impressed by this detailed celebration of his life and death.
Florence thrived on fierce competitiveness in business, politics, and the arts. Shortly after 1400, as the city continued its recovery from the deadly epidemic of bubonic plague that had devastated much of Europe half a century earlier and celebrated the ending in 1398 of a bitter conflict with the duchy of Milan, government officials encouraged the commissioning of civic art. Unaware that the problem with Milan would flare up again in even more deadly form just a few years later, Florence was enjoying a time of peace, economic prosperity and political pride.
The city’s guilds were always eager to enhance their own prestige and were ready to cooperate in commissioning art that would, as historian Frederick Antal put it, “give tangible expression to… democratic ideology,” projects that would enhance the appearance of the city and become objects of civic pride. What was needed was a major work that would be highly visible, and another pair of bronze doors for the baptistery was the perfect project. Keep in mind that in 1400 the cathedral itself was an embarrassingly unfinished shell; nobody had yet figured out how to construct a dome on the scale required by the building’s enormous dimensions.
The Operai of the cathedral opened a competition in 1401 to choose a sculptor to execute the new set of bronze doors. The city’s powerful wool guild, the Calimala, was in charge of artworks involving the baptistery, and its members supervised the competition. A committee of thirty-four judges, including both clerics and businessmen, rendered the final decision. Each artist was required to submit a bronze relief panel illustrating the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. This Old Testament story in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his only son as proof of his faith and then, at the last moment, sends an angel to prevent the slaying and provides a ram as a substitute, contains enough drama to stimulate the creativity of any artist.
Even though seven artists, five of them from places other than Florence, submitted their versions of the subject, it most likely would have been politically unacceptable at that moment for the committee to have chosen a foreigner to execute a work intended for a building that was the focus of so much of Florence’s patriotic pride and religious devotion. The competition thus ended with a pair of Florentine semifinalists: Lorenzo Ghiberti, only about twenty-two at the time (he was the youngest contestant), and Filippo Brunelleschi, just a few years older. Although records of the judges’ deliberations don’t survive, we know they chose Ghiberti, whose panel was one-third lighter than Brunelleschi’s and, except for the figure of Isaac, cast all in one piece. Brunelleschi’s heavier offering required several more pieces. Perhaps these practical considerations — using less of an expensive material in a sturdier final product — appealed to the judges more than the aesthetic qualities of Ghiberti’s panel. Brunelleschi, always a sore loser, complained that Ghiberti had used all kinds of tricks to convince the committee to award him the victory. Modern viewers can make their own judgment, as the two competition panels are still preserved, and they’re exhibited side by side in Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello.
Whatever their reasons, the judges’ decision had extraordinary unintended consequences. Ghiberti spent the next half century designing and executing two sets of bronze doors for the baptistery, while the disgruntled Brunelleschi gave up sculpture and went to Rome to study ancient architecture. Had he won the competition for the doors, he might never have conceived the brilliant plans that eventually enabled him to build the dome of Florence cathedral. The cathedral and the baptistery that faces it constitute the city’s spiritual and artistic center — the place where the Renaissance was born — and the judges’ decision allowed both Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, through their respective achievements in sculpture and architecture, to assist in its birth.
The expenses involved in creating the doors were enormous. According to Ghiberti’s own account, the doors cost twenty-two thousand florins, a sum historian Antonio Paolucci describes as equal to Florence’s yearly defense budget, and only slightly less than Florence paid a few years later to purchase the city of Sansepolchro. Try to imagine a work of art today whose cost equals the annual budget of the Pentagon. Despite his youth, Ghiberti knew how to drive a hard bargain. His contract for the doors, signed on November 23, 1403, provided him with the substantial annual salary of two hundred florins, with the costs of all material and other labor to be borne by the Calimala.
Meanwhile, art commissioning by committee continued, and Ghiberti learned, when he signed the contract, that the subject matter had been changed from Old Testament subjects to the life of Christ. The doors would consist of twenty-eight panels, each just under two feet square, with each scene fitted into an elaborate four-leaf-clover shape known as a quatrefoil. This old-fashioned format, French in origin and popular in the Gothic period, was chosen so that Ghiberti’s doors would be consistent with Andrea Pisano’s earlier set from the 1330s.
Ghiberti spent the next twenty-one years on the project. That might seem an excessive length of time for an artist to spend on one work, but the scale of the project and the complexities of the bronze-casting technique required it. In addition, Ghiberti was an artist of fanatical meticulousness. He worried over every tiny detail, melting down any panel that emerged from the casting in less than perfect condition and going through the whole lengthy process again. Although he had a number of assistants, the panels maintain a uniformity of style and a consistently high quality, which confirms that Ghiberti worked personally on each relief, as his contract stipulated.
The change of subject matter has logic behind it, particularly when we think of it in relation to the doors by Pisano, dedicated to John the Baptist. John brings to an end the period of the Old Law and fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy by preparing “the way of the Lord,” that is, Christ, whose life then continues the story of salvation on Ghiberti’s doors. To make sense of the narrative, however, the visitor needs to read Ghiberti’s doors differently than Pisano’s, starting at the bottom and going across both panels from left to right. The lowest register contains images of the Church Fathers: Saints Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, and Ambrose; above them are the Four Evangelists. The life of Christ begins in the third register from the bottom with four scenes from the infancy and childhood of Jesus. It then moves on in the fourth and fifth registers to events and miracles of Christ’s adult life. The top two registers contain scenes from the Passion, with the final two panels, at top right, illustrating the Resurrection and Pentecost.
The individual scenes are full of slender, supple figures brought out from the dark bronze background by being washed with gold. Through the square borders that frame each quatrefoil flows a tide of vegetable and animal forms—branches, foliage, fruit, birds, lizards, and insects — all rendered in gilded bronze with Ghiberti’s painstaking attention to detail. At each corner intersection of the borders Ghiberti modeled a tiny human head. Forty-seven of them probably represent prophets and prophetesses, some old, some young, some calm, some agitated. Many show the influence of Ghiberti’s study of ancient Roman sculpture. But one of the heads — three panels up from the ground and in the middle of the left door — is clearly a man of the Renaissance, approaching middle age, with heavy eyelids, clean-shaven chubby cheeks, a thoughtful expression, and a fashionable turban. This is Ghiberti’s self-portrait, and it supplements his signature, “OPUS LAVRENTII FLORENTINI” (“The Work of Lorenzo of Florence”), which appears just above the panels of the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi.
The completed set of doors was put in place in 1424, on the east entrance to the Baptistery, the most important one, since it faces toward the front of the cathedral, and Pisano’s doors were moved to the south entrance. Everybody loved the new doors, and it’s of interest to note that work on this costly project continued uninterrupted through several severe military crises: another attempted invasion in 1402 by the Milanese and a similar attempt on Florentine liberties by the kingdom of Naples in 1408. Both invasions were turned back, and Ghiberti’s gleaming new doors stood as a witness to Florence’s survival, as well as the city’s belief that God had indeed intervened on its behalf.
With such a glowing endorsement from the greatest artist of the age, it’s no wonder the bronze doors that now adorn the east entrance to the baptistery of Florence cathedral remain one of the glories of the city and one of the great, defining achievements of the early Renaissance. The doors celebrated by Michelangelo are the culmination of more than half a century of dedicated labor by Ghiberti. The artist’s first set of doors had scarcely been put in place when the Calimala commissioned a second set, and this time there was no question of a competition — Ghiberti would be the artist to create them, a process that took the artist craftsman twenty-seven years. He began in 1425 and declared the new doors complete in 1452.
For the program of images, the prominent humanist scholar and political leader Leonardo Bruni proposed a selection of twenty-eight Old Testament scenes that would have matched the format of Ghiberti’s first set of doors. But then the committee of the Calimala reduced the number to twenty-four, and finally Ghiberti himself (if we can believe the account he gives in his autobiographical Commentaries) declared he “was given permission to carry it out in that manner which I believed would turn out most perfectly and most ornate and rich.” The doors would consist of ten large panels, about thirty inches square, and never mind those outdated quatrefoils. This set of doors would resemble neither the pair from the 1300s nor Ghiberti’s previous set. The artist had rethought the entire format. He abandoned both the quatrefoils and the notion of gilded figures set out against a dark bronze background. Instead, each square is completely gilded, as if Ghiberti weren’t creating sculptural reliefs but setting himself the challenge of painting in gold on gold.
By the time he began his second set of doors, Ghiberti had mastered the new science of one-point perspective invented by Brunelleschi, and his scenes now feature convincingly constructed buildings and correct spatial recession. Later, Ghiberti wrote proudly of his achievement: “I strove with every measure to respect nature and to try to imitate nature… In some stories I put about a hundred figures… I worked with the greatest diligence and the greatest love.”
If Ghiberti’s first set of doors was an impressive achievement, his second set is a dazzling tour de force. Every panel is a masterpiece of condensed storytelling, the figures elegant and often sensuous, the compositions striking, the level of detail breathtaking. His first set of doors still had ties to the medieval past, but the new set is truly a work of the Renaissance. The panels of the Gates of Paradise should be read from the top, left to right. The subjects are (1) Adam and Eve, (2) Cain and Abel, (3) Noah, (4) Abraham and Isaac, (5) Jacob and Esau, (6) Joseph and His Brothers, (7) Moses, (8) Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, (9) David and Goliath, (10) King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The first panel, at upper left, shows Adam as a beautiful, reclining nude, a worthy miniature ancestor of Michelangelo’s monumental Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and God as a noble Father who gently raises Adam to life. Eve, whose creation occupies the center of the scene, floats out of Adam’s side like a seductive figure in an erotic dream, as lovely as any classical statue of a goddess. On the far right side of the composition Eve appears again, this time leaning back and gazing in regret toward Paradise, lost through disobedience to God’s command; Ghiberti tucked that latter event into a grove of beautifully detailed trees in the left background. In the sky, God appears again, now in a spiraling swirl of angels.
The only panel representing a single event is the last one executed: the Meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Magnificent Renaissance architecture with tall arches, cross-vaulted ceilings, and ancient Roman-style columns provides a backdrop for a crowded yet orderly scene. Sheba and Solomon face one another and clasp hands at the center of the composition, on the steps of a building that at once resembles a royal palace and a church. On either side, groups of people mill about, those in the far background small in size and executed in such low relief that they seem sketched on the surface, and those in the foreground larger and in such high relief that they appear almost like independent pieces of sculpture. Intricately detailed armor, elegantly flowing robes, and astonishingly individualized faces — one can pick out African, Arab, Roman, and Semitic facial types — make this panel a fitting climax to Ghiberti’s achievement.
Viewed as an ensemble, albeit one that extends across more than a century, the three sets of doors display a coherent religious meaning. The earliest, by Pisano, celebrates the Precursor; Ghiberti’s first doors illustrate the life of the Savior whom John identified; and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise brilliantly condenses events from the Old Testament, including those that prefigure the coming of Christ. The baptistery as a whole thus tells the story of human redemption as Christians of the day envisioned it.
As in his earlier set of doors, the panels showing biblical scenes aren’t the only elements of interest. Although the ten scenes are set in plain bronze frames, each door has a border consisting of gilded figures in golden niches alternating with heads that emerge from circular frames. Here, too, Ghiberti included his self-portrait, in almost the same spot as it appeared on his first set of doors. With gentle humor, the artist portrayed his wise, kindly old face and now bald head in the perfect position to serve as a doorknob. On either side of his self-portrait and running across both doors is a Latin inscription: “LAVRENTII CIONIS DE GHIBERTIS / MIRA ARTE FABRICATUM” ([“The Work of] Lorenzo, [Son of] Cione Ghiberti, Made with Marvelous Art”).
The signature used here opens a window onto an intimate aspect of the artist’s life: the question, evidently important to Ghiberti, as to whether he was an illegitimate child. In 1370 his mother, a farm laborer’s daughter, had married a man named Cione Ghiberti. Although Cione was from a respectable family, he was described as “a thoroughly useless person, a sorry wretch nearly out of his mind.” Some years later his wife left him and fled to Florence, where she became the common-law wife of the goldsmith Bartolo di Michele, whom she married after Cione’s death in 1406.
Lorenzo’s birth date is unknown, as is the exact date when his mother left her husband, so it remains uncertain whether the artist was Cione Ghiberti’s legitimate child or Bartolo di Michele’s illegitimate one. For years the artist evaded the problem of his paternity, signing himself as he did on his first set of doors, using only the name “Lorenzo”. But perhaps troublesome questions about his legitimacy arose at some point, as Ghiberti later began claiming he was Cione’s legitimate son, born while his mother was still living with her first husband, and in 1442 he started signing himself as “Lorenzo di Cione Ghiberti”, the form of his name that appears on the Gates of Paradise and the name by which he’s known today.
Ghiberti’s second set of doors created such a sensation that the cathedral authorities and the Calimala soon decided to do some further door moving. They had Ghiberti’s first set of doors removed from their prominent place on the east side of the baptistery and transferred to the north side and had the new golden doors installed at the main entrance, on the east. Here, dazzled Florentines would gather in the mornings, to watch as the rising sun transformed Ghiberti’s panels into a glowing field of molten gold. Surely Michelangelo, nearly a century later, wasn’t the first to observe that the doors resemble the traditional vision of the golden portals of paradise, but he was so famous that his nickname for them — the Gates of Paradise — has persisted to the present.
In November 1966, some five hundred years after they were completed, Ghiberti’s doors nearly perished in the flood of biblical proportions that deluged Florence when the Arno River overflowed its banks and surged twelve feet deep through the streets of the stricken city. The force of the floodwaters tore Ghiberti’s heavy panels from their oak supports and slammed them into the iron fence erected in modern times to protect the doors from vandalism. After years of restoration work (the panels were in need of conservation anyway, due to damage from automobile exhaust and other forms of modern pollution), the city decided not to return Ghiberti’s doors to the baptistery. Instead, the restored panels are displayed individually in the cathedral museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
A Japanese company sponsored the restoration, and that same group paid for the creation of an exact copy of Ghiberti’s doors, complete with brilliant gilding. Since 1990 those doors have adorned the east entrance of the baptistery. Some modern-day Florentines grumble that the new doors are too shiny — they were accustomed to the original pocked and pollution-darkened panels. But somewhere, the spirit of Lorenzo Ghiberti must be smiling to see his “marvelous art” again catching the rays of the morning sun and turning the entrance of the baptistery into the gates of heaven.
The Florentines didn’t spare any trouble or expense in decorating the baptistery. The interior walls are clad in dark green and white marble with inlaid geometrical patterns. The niches are separated by monolithic columns of Sardinian granite. The marble revetment of the interior was begun in the second half of the 11th century.
The building contains the monumental tomb of Antipope John XXIII by Donatello and Michelozzo Michelozzi. A gilt statue, with the face turned to the spectator, reposes on a deathbed, supported by two lions, under a canopy of gilt drapery. He had bequeathed several relics and his great wealth to this baptistery. Such a monument with a baldachin was a first in the Renaissance.
If you were to ask someone today, “Who was Antipope John XXIII?” the respondent might identify Angelo Roncalli, the jovial and beloved “Papa Giovanni” who held the papal office from 1958 to 1963. But there was an earlier John XXIII (1410–1415), a pope entirely different from the saintly Roncalli, a man accused of an astonishing variety of personal and papal misdeeds and whom the Catholic Church long ago struck from its record of legitimate successors to the Chair of Peter, declaring him an “anti-pope” — the theological equivalent of a nonperson. Although the name John XXIII therefore remained available, the previous John tarnished it so thoroughly that almost 550 years passed before another pope claimed it.
And yet, the disgraced and dethroned anti-pope John XXIII lies buried in one of the most imposing tombs of Renaissance Italy, a handsome marble-and-bronze ensemble inside the Florence baptistery, designed and built in the 1420s by two of the city’s leading artists, Donatello and Michelozzo. No other pope is buried in Florence, and nobody has subsequently been buried in the baptistery, long considered the city’s most sacred site. How and why such a tomb came into existence is a story full of drama, political machinations, threats of violence, and even a hint of sexual spice, a tale that seems more like an adventure novel than a page from late medieval and early Renaissance history.
The first pope to take the name John XXIII was a disreputable Neapolitan nobleman named Baldassare Coscia whose family, sometimes described as sea captains, could more accurately be described as pirates. Born around 1360, at first Coscia joined his family’s business of plundering other people’s ships, but he soon saw a more efficient and less physically dangerous way to acquire wealth: he decided on a career in the Church. He made a show of studying theology, first in Rome and then in Bologna, but mostly he dedicated himself to the pleasures of food, wine, and women. Thanks to family connections (he was a relative of Pope Boniface IX, a fellow Neapolitan), he rose quickly in the hierarchy. He became a papal chamberlain in 1392, papal legate and archbishop of Bologna in 1396, and a cardinal in 1402.
Despite his dubious family background, Coscia was no ruffian, and he proved an effective papal diplomat. He developed a reputation for financial acumen, and it was in connection with Church finances, as well as his own, that Coscia first became acquainted with the Medici family of Florence, who in the late 1300s were just beginning to establish their position as important bankers. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici had opened a bank branch in Rome, as well as operating a home office in Florence, and business relations between the Medici and Coscia began in the 1380s. In addition to transactions involving the Church, Coscia kept a personal account with the Medici bank, and large sums of money changed hands between the two men, leading to rumors that Medici money bought Coscia his cardinalate.
Before looking any further into Coscia’s life, it should be noted that the late 1300s and early 1400s were particularly complex and uneasy times in the history of the Catholic Church. Although the nearly seventy years when the papacy was resident at Avignon in France rather than in Rome had finally ended in 1378, the return of the papal court to Rome failed to end the conflict between French and Italian interests within the Church. The election in 1378 of an Italian pope ended the succession of French popes who had ruled from Avignon, but it alienated the French cardinals, who then elected a Frenchman as an alternative pope, thus beginning a most embarrassing episode in Church history — known as the Great Schism, or split — in which the Church splintered into two and eventually three competing factions, each with its own pope and each declaring the other two popes illegitimate. Finally, in 1417, the Council of Constance resolved the issue of papal succession, thrusting all competing claimants to the papal throne into limbo as anti-popes and electing the Roman aristocrat Oddone Colonna as Martin V, supreme pontiff of a reunited Catholic Church.
Baldassare Coscia stood in the thick of the intrigues that abounded during the period, and he played a crucial role. Although the details are so complex that historians despair of untangling all of them, a few episodes stand out. The popes who succeeded Coscia’s relative Boniface IX were so disgusted by Coscia’s personal behavior that they deprived him of his office as cardinal, and they may even have excommunicated him. But one of the anti-popes — Alexander V, whose election Coscia had helped to secure — reinstated him, and when Alexander died in 1410, Coscia was elected pope, taking the name John XXIII. One week later, on May 24, 1410, he was finally ordained as a priest.
As pope, John strengthened his ties with the Medici, making the head of the Medici bank in Rome depositary general of papal finances, an exclusive and influential position. This made the Medici bank the dominant firm in the handling of papal financial transactions, pushing aside rivals for the vast volume of lucrative papal business. This move by John XXIII was the single most important source of the Medici family’s extraordinary prosperity, and the origin of their generations of political power.
This John XXIII had a tumultuous papacy. He had been elected by a schismatic Church council held in Pisa, a council that claimed to have deposed the two competing popes and that previously had elected Alexander V. When Coscia was chosen to succeed the deceased Alexander, however, he found himself reigning from Bologna, as one of three popes. As a result of the intrigues, backstabbing, and sudden switches of allegiance among the secular rulers supporting one or the other of the popes, in 1413 John XXIII was forced to flee, and he took refuge in the one place where he knew he had reliable friends: Florence.
While residing in Florence, John was pressured into convening a Church council in the distant Germanic city of Constance. But when he arrived there, he was confronted by angry northern European cardinals determined to end the Schism by forcing his resignation. He refused to resign. Fearing for his life, John fled Constance in disguise and turned up next in Austria, having made a long trek on horseback through the Black Forest. His Austrian protector failed to shield him from more powerful princes, however, and had to surrender the hapless pope into the custody of the now thoroughly infuriated Council of Constance, whose members appointed a tribunal to collect evidence against him.
Not surprisingly, the evidence produced was negative. John was charged with ambition, heresy, tyranny, simony (the sale of Church offices) and “bad conduct”, which included the alleged murder of his predecessor and, while in Bologna, the seduction of some two hundred women. In 1415 John was found guilty, deposed, and thrown into prison in Germany. After two more years of debate and the deposition of the two other claimants to the papacy, the Council of Constance, as noted above, elected Martin V in 1417, putting an end to the Great Schism.
Meanwhile, the Florentines watched with dismay as their favored claimant to the papacy disappeared into a German jail. What prompted their concern had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with John’s consistent financial, political and military support of Florence. In addition to putting a Florentine bank (the Medici) in charge of papal finances, while he was papal legate in Bologna John had helped Florence gain control of Pisa, and he had also sent aid to the Florentines in 1408, in support of their struggles against King Ladislaus of Naples. John’s deposition triggered a lengthy debate within the government of Florence over whether to intercede on his behalf, but the officials decided that such intervention was too dangerous to Florence’s own interests. In the end it was Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici who secured the pope’s release by paying an enormous ransom.
In 1419 an exhausted and defeated Baldassare Coscia, now around sixty years old, crept back into Florence, accompanied by a Medici bank representative who had escorted him from Germany. It so happened that at this same time the new pope, Martin V, was reluctantly residing in Florence because he lacked the military strength to enter Rome and impose his rule on that chaotic city. The Medici smoothed over what could have been an extremely awkward situation, persuading Coscia to submit himself to the authority of Pope Martin, while also persuading the new pope to bring Coscia back into the good graces of the Church and to restore his title as cardinal.
Coscia had little time left to enjoy his reinstatement — he died six months later, on December 22, 1419, after writing and signing his will on the last day of his life. In it he named four prominent Florentines as executors, one of them Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, and gave his executors the power to choose in which church he would be buried. Among his many bequests was the donation of a particularly precious relic to the Florentine baptistery: an object said to be the right index finger of John the Baptist, the same finger John had used to point out Christ, saying “Behold the Lamb of God”. Since the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence and the city’s baptistery was dedicated to him, the gift smacks of a quid pro quo. It’s clear that Coscia wanted to be buried in the baptistery, although he was too shrewd to say so directly. It was among the most hallowed sites in Florence, and therefore the best place for him to assert his persistent and soon-to-be posthumous claim to a legitimate papacy.
He had left it to his executors to plead his case before the committee composed of members of the Calimala, the guild that had responsibility for works of art in the baptistery. The executors declared that, on his deathbed, Coscia had confided to them his wish to be buried in the baptistery, and that he wanted a chapel built there as well as his tomb. They petitioned the Calimala for permission to erect both. Responding for the nonplussed Calimala, committee chair Palla Strozzi declared they would never allow a chapel to be built inside the baptistery, as that would destroy its beauty, and that any tomb constructed there would have to be breve et honestissima (small and very modest). It was no small honor in itself, Strozzi concluded, to be permitted burial in the baptistery.
The monument the executors of Coscia’s will caused to be built amply justified Palla Strozzi’s concerns. Neither small nor modest, it aggressively declares the validity of Coscia’s claim to the papacy, and it remains an enduring testament to the unlikely alliance between the scheming, sensual Neapolitan adventurer Baldassare Coscia and the cautious, conservative, but equally ambitious and politically astute Florentine banker Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici.
How a disgraced and deposed pope — the former pirate and clerical profiteer Baldassare Coscia, whose papal name John XXIII was struck from the list of legitimate popes, and who had been declared an anti-pope — came to be buried in one of the finest tombs of Renaissance Italy, located in the baptistery of Florence, is discussed above. This essay will consider that tomb and its meaning, as well as the political significance of the unusually elaborate funerary rites that preceded the placement of Coscia’s body in such an exceptional monument in such a privileged place. (While the tomb was under construction, Coscia’s body was buried temporarily in the cathedral.)
Politics played a more important part than religion in the honors done to Coscia. When the deposed pope died in Florence in 1419, he was connected to the city by complex bonds of personal friendship, political alliance, and financial relations. As a result, the city was eager to honor him, and his funeral rites extended over nine days, mingling Florence’s civic affairs with papal politics to create what might be called politicized religious theater. There were three requiem masses, each for a different set of mourners—Church dignitaries, Florentine citizens, and Coscia family members—and all marked by splendid processions. In addition, there were numerous smaller rites, vigils, and prayer services. No one else in Florence had ever received anything remotely like this elaborate and extended send-off.
Why were the Florentines so eager to honor Baldassare Coscia? Although all the other anti-popes from the era of the Great Schism were quickly forgotten, Coscia owes his presence in an enduring memorial to his close connections with Florence, which had begun well before his brief papacy (1410–1415), and which had included putting the Medici bank in charge of papal finances, a position the Medici continued to hold even after Coscia’s papacy came to its inglorious end. But there’s a further reason that Coscia received so much attention in death: it was the Florentine government’s way of showcasing their belief that Coscia, as John XXIII, had been the true pope, without their explicitly saying so. As noted, Florence had as its reluctant guest the recently elevated reigning pope, Martin V. Although he was now the undisputed head of the reunited Catholic Church, Martin lacked the military forces to enter Rome, and the Florentines knew it. In part, Coscia’s elaborate funeral was Florence’s way of insulting Pope Martin without actually declaring against him.
The tomb that Coscia’s executors eventually caused to be built would insult Martin V even further. There’s little doubt about the symbolic importance of the site chosen. If the executors had wished to emphasize Florence’s loyalty to the reigning pope, they certainly would not have chosen the baptistery for Coscia’s burial but would have buried him modestly, perhaps in the monastic church of S. Maria Novella, where the deposed pope had been forced to humble himself before Martin V in return for being reinstated as a cardinal.
Furthermore, the prominently placed inscription on the tomb can be interpreted as endorsing the legitimacy of Coscia’s papacy. Abbreviations filled out, it reads: “IOANNES QUONDAM PAPA XXIIIIUS OBIIT FLORENTIE ANNO DOMINI MCCCCXVIIII XI KALENDAS IANUARII.” With the date modernized, it states: “John XXIII, former pope, died in Florence in the Year of Our Lord 1419, on December 22.” When Martin V heard about the inscription, he was furious. He knew the word quondam could be interpreted as meaning “former,” which would imply that Coscia at one time had been a legitimate pope, the last thing Martin wanted to admit. At an uncertain date, but probably around 1430, he sent a papal emissary to the governing body of Florence to insist that the inscription be removed and that one beginning “Baldassar Coscia Neapolitanus Cardinalis” be substituted. But the Signoria brusquely informed the envoy that what was written was written and would not be changed. The offending epitaph still stands.
The site within the baptistery chosen for Coscia’s tomb suggests that the executors of the ex-pope’s will already had a major monument in mind, despite the warning by the Calimala to keep it “small and very modest.” The tomb is located between two massive, ancient Roman columns in the center of a tripartite division of one of the walls of the octagonal baptistery, to the right of the altar. In order not to be dwarfed by the columns, the tomb would have to be both tall and robust in width—and it is. At twenty-four feet high, it was for centuries the tallest monument in Florence.
It consists of six elements. At floor level is a plain platform and above it a base carved with angel heads and wings between floral garlands. On top of this are three niches containing figures of the theological Virtues: Faith, Charity, and Hope. Above the Virtues, the seven-foot-long sarcophagus is supported on sturdy consoles, its defiant inscription written on the kind of scroll that might normally contain a papal letter, held open at either end by seated baby angels. Between the four consoles are three shields with coats of arms. Then comes the effigy of the deceased, laid out on a bier supported by lions, the traditional symbol of Florence. This is the only part of the ensemble made of bronze rather than marble. Although the bronze of the bier is left dark, the effigy is brilliantly gilded, making it stand out from its support. Atop a low wall behind the effigy is a half-circle sunburst containing an image of the Madonna and Child. Surmounting the entire ensemble is a beautifully carved tasseled canopy that appears to hang down from a ring placed at the height of flanking column capitals, and which is parted to reveal the Madonna and Child and the effigy.
The three coats of arms below the sarcophagus are an intriguing study in the politics of identity. The left compartment displays the Coscia family armorial: a human leg. Although this startling image might seem a more suitable emblem for a military surgeon, or perhaps Hannibal the Cannibal, it’s a play on the name Coscia, which in Italian means “thigh.” Above this rests the papal insignia of the triple crown. The center compartment holds the papal arms alone, and the right-hand one repeats the Coscia arms topped by a cardinal’s hat. In modern terms, this is a display of armorials that covers all the bases.
Although scholars continue to argue about the exact dating of the monument, and the precise roles played by the two artists involved, Donatello and Michelozzo, most agree that work began shortly after 1422, when the executors of Coscia’s will first requested permission to build the tomb, and that it was completed by the late 1420s, since Pope Martin complained about the inscription around 1430. The division of labor between the two artists remains elusive, but everyone agrees that the single bronze portion, the bier with its masterful portrait effigy of Coscia, is the work of Donatello, among the finest sculptors of the time and a brilliant conveyor of character through faces. Although the gilded effigy is tipped slightly forward and the figure’s head turned outward, the figure is so high above the viewer that it is difficult to appreciate the details of the face and costume. A spotlight presently trained on the effigy makes it somewhat easier to see.
Considering the Florentines’ stubborn belief in the legitimacy of Coscia’s papacy, it is of interest to note that the effigy wears a bishop’s robe and miter rather than papal regalia, perhaps as a concession to the reality of Coscia’s situation. Coscia’s face is difficult to see, which is unfortunate, because Donatello created a vivid portrait of a man who appears not so much dead as in restless sleep, seeming almost to twitch as if enmeshed in bad dreams. His heavy-lidded eyes, with deep bags under them and bushy eyebrows above, look ready to open at any moment. Tufts of hair spring out from beneath his miter and a large mole blooms on his left cheek. Thick, sensual lips and flabby jowls give him a dissipated look that accords with what we know about him. Some scholars insist that Donatello must have worked from a death mask, but others claim—and I agree—that Donatello had plenty of chances to see Coscia in Florence while he was alive. For all we know, Coscia may have sat for a portrait sketch. In any case, the artist avoided the inertness of a death mask, and he brought to vivid life every feature of the deceased man’s face.
The individuals who had the most to say about how the Coscia tomb would eventually look were both members of the Medici family: Coscia’s old friend and business associate Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Giovanni’s son and successor, Cosimo. Of the three executors named along with Giovanni in Coscia’s will, two had died by 1427 and the third had lost interest in the project, giving the two Medici a free hand. Although the tomb preserves the memory of John XXIII, it may also serve as a subtle piece of Medici self-promotion.
We don’t know how the modest tomb originally stipulated became the most lavish funerary monument of its time in Florence, but the two Medici probably played a crucial role in the transformation. They understood that in Florence the most effective way to increase the power and prestige of one’s family was through patronage of monuments that didn’t directly glorify the patrons but, instead, expressed both piety and civic consciousness. A magnificent monument to the “quondam” pope who had consistently supported their city—and also had done so much to found their personal fortune—must have seemed the perfect tribute.
From An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence by Judith Testa.
The fame of Florence today as a capital of the arts still rests mainly on the achievements of its artists in the fifteenth century. During the first decades of the 1400s, Florence took cultural command of Italy. Siena faded, and other larger and more important political entities such as the kingdom of Naples, the duchy of Milan, and the republic of Venice did not become dominant cultural forces. Mantua, Urbino, Ferrara, and several other centers also joined the Renaissance later in the 1400s, but Florence reigned supreme until Rome became the center of the High Renaissance in the early 1500s. It remains amazing that a city of less than a hundred thousand people produced such a disproportionate number of the great sculptors, architects, and painters of the early Renaissance.
Florence took half a century to recover from the bubonic plague epidemic—two-thirds of the city’s population died between 1348 and 1355—but by the beginning of the new century, the city was on its feet again economically, with its banks and textile industries flourishing. The city government then began to think about what we’d call urban renewal: tearing down crumbling old buildings, repairing those that could be saved, and building new ones. Other projects that had been interrupted by the plague could now be completed. The fact that Florentine recovery coincided with the opening of a new century added to the impetus for regeneration and renewal.
The government of Florence in the 1400s was a republic. There were no aristocrats who wielded hereditary, absolute power. The Florentines’ deep suspicion of anyone holding too much power for too long had led to the development of a cumbersome but reasonably effective system of governing by committees of officials elected every two months. This might sound like a recipe for governmental chaos or paralysis, but there were safeguards against those possibilities. In addition to a central governing committee called the Signoria, made up of the city’s most powerful men who were members of a few prominent families and who also belonged to one of the city’s major guilds, Florence also had a senior official known as a chancellor, chosen by the Signoria and holding office for a longer period, who directed the affairs of state.
Among the most influential chancellors of the early 1400s was Coluccio Salutati (d. 1406), a man of scholarly as well as political achievements. In 1397 he brought to Florence a famous Greek scholar, Manuel Chrysoloras, who inspired among educated Florentines an interest in the Greek language as well as in ancient philosophy, literature, and art. This interest may have been among the first sparks that fired the intense enthusiasm for the ancient world that would characterize Florence in the fifteenth century. Salutati was also the first to compare Florence’s republic to that of pre-imperial Rome, and its limited democracy to that of ancient Athens. Those powerful parallels to the classical world would resound throughout the fifteenth century.
Despite its admiration for antiquity, Florence was above all a mercantile republic, and the guild system, which originated in the twelfth century, was central to the city’s political and social functioning. Guilds were similar but not identical to modern trade unions. Rather than supporting the common laborers in Florence’s various industries, who had little or no power, the guilds represented the interests of merchants, manufacturers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, and artisans, with power heavily concentrated in the hands of the first three professions.
Behind the external forms of the Florentine government lay a dense network of personal associations, beginning within each family and extending outward to include relatives by marriage, neighbors, friends, and “patrons,” members of the most prominent families, distinguished by their wealth and political influence. Within each patronage network, members supported one another’s interests in both commercial and political activities. Patrons protected and advanced the interests of their clients, who in turn owed their patrons loyalty and political support. Although every important family had its circle of clients, beginning in the 1420s the Medici presided over the largest and most influential patronage network. Despite the Florentines’ dedication to the ideals of their revered republic, for the most part they accepted the increasing political domination of the Medici because of that family’s success in ruling from behind the scenes, taking good care of its clients, and leaving the forms of the republic intact.
About fifty years ago, American scholar Frederick Hartt offered an intriguing explanation for the sudden, great flourishing of Florentine art and culture in the early decades of the 1400s: he claimed it developed as a heroic, defiant response to a series of military crises. In the first two decades of the 1400s, Florence had to fend off attacks from two directions. In 1402 the duke of Milan attacked from the north, around 1408 the king of Naples invaded from the south, and in the 1420s there came a renewed threat from Milan. Florence warded off the first two attacks, but the third conflict dragged on until mid-century and nobody really won. During those decades, Florence viewed itself as a solitary heroic defender of freedom and democracy against the menacing advance of tyrants. It was against this background of warfare and constant external threats that the art of Renaissance Florence came into existence.
Besieged Florence remained convinced that it not only could have the proverbial guns and butter but also could offer vigorous support of the arts. The Florentines viewed art not as a luxury, dispensable in times of war, but as an essential expression of both religious and patriotic virtue. During the first quarter of the 1400s, the city commissioned numerous and expensive works of art. These were not private works for homes and individuals but public artworks commissioned by civic agencies, guilds in particular, and placed outside where they would be seen by every citizen. The major art projects of the early Renaissance in Florence, up through the 1450s, are either sculptures designed to adorn already existing buildings—the cathedral, for example, with its bell tower and baptistery and the multipurpose building called Orsanmichele—or architecture designed for public, communal use, in particular the completion of the cathedral with the construction of its dome. Even a private, religious commission of the 1420s, the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel of S. Maria del Carmine, makes reference to contemporary political controversies. The turn of a new century must have been part of what roused the Florentines to a determination to adorn and improve their city, and this, combined with external threats to Florentine liberty, inspired the city to a new kind of art, in a style resonant with echoes of classical antiquity, the style we now call Renaissance.
During the first quarter of the 1400s, the city commissioned numerous and expensive works of art. These were not private works for homes and individuals but public artworks commissioned by civic agencies, guilds in particular, and placed outside where they would be seen by every citizen. The major art projects of the early Renaissance in Florence, up through the 1450s, are either sculptures designed to adorn already existing buildings—the cathedral, for example, with its bell tower and baptistery and the multipurpose building called Orsanmichele—or architecture designed for public, communal use, in particular the completion of the cathedral with the construction of its dome. Even a private, religious commission of the 1420s, the fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel of S. Maria del Carmine, makes reference to contemporary political controversies. The turn of a new century must have been part of what roused the Florentines to a determination to adorn and improve their city, and this, combined with external threats to Florentine liberty, inspired the city to a new kind of art, in a style resonant with echoes of classical antiquity, the style we now call Renaissance.
What would the Florentine Renaissance have been — or to put it differently, would that Renaissance have been at all — without the patronage of the Medici family? No doubt the rebirth of interest in classical art and culture that we call the Renaissance would have happened in Florence even in the absence of the family who did so much to inspire, nurture, and underwrite it, but it would have been different and a lot less “magnificent,” to use a favorite term of that era. Even though it’s true that the Medici made their fortune as bankers in Florence, it’s equally true that they helped to make Florence’s fortune. Although other prominent families also contributed, the Renaissance in Florence is inextricably bound up with the Medici.
The first historically significant family member was an unassuming but astute and ambitious banker named Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429). Although not born into wealth, he used his modest inheritance to found a small bank, which he parlayed into a major financial institution with branches in numerous other Italian city-states, including the papal domain of Rome. As much as possible, Giovanni di Bicci avoided becoming involved in local Florentine politics, and instead he kept his eyes open for other opportunities. In the early 1400s, when the papacy returned to Rome after some seventy years of exile in the French city of Avignon, only to have the unity of the Church promptly shattered by three rival claimants to the Chair of Peter, Giovanni di Bicci supported one of those claimants, John XXIII (Baldassare Coscia – a pirate!), who rewarded him with numerous favors, chief among them the transfer of lucrative papal accounts to the Medici bank. When he died, Giovanni di Bicci left his family an amount estimated in today’s currency at about eighty million dollars. His financial acumen set the Medici on a path to becoming one of the wealthiest families in Europe.
Giovanni also interested himself in the arts, the beginning of a Medici family tradition. In 1419 he provided some of the funds for the building of Florence’s foundling hospital, known as the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the first independent work of the promising young architect Filippo Brunelleschi, from whom he soon afterward commissioned the church of S. Lorenzo. Giovanni was among the judges who, in 1401, chose Lorenzo Ghiberti to execute a pair of bronze doors for the cathedral baptistery, and he also may have taken part in the decision to entrust Brunelleschi with the construction of the cathedral dome.
If Giovanni di Bicci remains an obscure and rather colorless figure, there’s nothing obscure or colorless about his son Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464). Although he continued his father’s personal habits of modesty and prudence, rarely putting his hand directly into the seething cauldron of Florentine political life, Cosimo nonetheless amassed an extraordinary amount of personal power and behind-the-scenes political clout, thanks in part to the intricate network of relatives, friends, associates, and clients who were indebted to him. He inherited his father’s talent for banking, along with a genuine love for that line of work, and he once observed that he enjoyed banking so much he’d have remained in the business even if it hadn’t been profitable. But it was profitable — very — and it made him the richest man in Florence.
Cosimo’s enormous wealth, broad client base, and control over an international banking empire translated into great political influence, but both wealth and influence had negative consequences for him. They aroused the bitter resentment and envy of other leading Florentine families, not only other bankers such as the Strozzi and the Peruzzi but also the Albizzi and the Pazzi who belonged to the city’s old nobility, of which the Medici were never a part. Cosimo’s opponent Rinaldo degli Albizzi wrote of him in 1433: “Little is wanting to him but the actual scepter of government, or rather he has the scepter, but hides it under his cloak.” Despite all his caution, Cosimo fell victim to a coup engineered by the Albizzi and their faction in 1433, when his enemies had him arrested and confined to a tiny cell atop the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, nicknamed with black Florentine humor the alberghetto (little hotel). Refusing to eat for four days out of fear of being poisoned, Cosimo kept a cool head and befriended his jailer, who agreed to let him escape.
He then fled to Venice, where he set himself up not as an escaped prisoner but as a voluntary exile, letting it be known that he was thinking of founding his bank’s new headquarters there, thus depriving Florence of its major financial institution and threatening his native city with economic ruin. Cosimo’s enemies expected that his bank — the foundation of his power — would quickly fail in his absence, but instead the bank flourished, thanks to the determined efforts of those who ran it, all of them Medici kinsmen and close friends. It didn’t take long for the Florentines to realize how much they needed Cosimo. He was recalled to Florence a year later, in 1434.
Once back in Florence, Cosimo lost no time going after those he claimed had plotted a conspiracy against his life. He had the male members of the Strozzi, Peruzzi, and Albizzi families exiled, along with many of their supporters, and although he personally ordered no executions, he turned a blind eye to violent and often murderous attacks of his allies on his adversaries. The present-day tendency to see the Renaissance as a peaceful golden age must always be qualified by an awareness of what a violent era it really was. Wars and feuds were endemic, and vengeance was always in vogue.
For the next thirty years, Cosimo de’ Medici was the de facto ruler of Florence without ever holding any major public office, a man who had perfected the art of ruling without seeming to rule. He exercised his influence behind the scenes — through the financial power of his bank, indirect control over the electoral process, and an intricate system of clients and patronage.
In 1414 Cosimo married Contessina de’ Bardi, the heiress of another of Florence’s banking families, and through his marriage he acquired directorship of the Bardi bank. He and Contessina had two children, Giovanni and Piero, and despite his reputation for private virtue, Cosimo also fathered a son named Carlo with a slave woman. As if to atone for his own sin, Cosimo guided Carlo to a career in the church, while grooming Giovanni and Piero to follow in his own footsteps.
Despite his modest demeanor and seemingly simple way of life, Cosimo knew how to dazzle with magnificence when the occasion required. He paid for the lavish ceremony that accompanied the consecration of the cathedral in 1436, crowned at last by Brunelleschi’s stupendous dome. In 1439 he persuaded papal officials to hold a Church council in Florence rather than Ferrara by promising to pay a large portion of the expenses. The event brought a crowd of wealthy foreigners to Florence, to the great benefit of local innkeepers, brothel owners, food providers, and tradesmen, as well as artists, who copied the visitors’ exotic dress.
In 1459 Cosimo had Pope Pius II as his honored guest in Florence, and the canny banker made sure Pius was received with exceptional ceremony and elaborate pomp, all paid for from Cosimo’s purse rather than from the city’s coffers. The pope, very impressed, later wrote that Cosimo was “royal in everything save the name.” But name made all the difference. Florence would never have tolerated Cosimo as a dictator. His power depended on the goodwill of the people, skillfully manipulated by him to his own advantage, and it bore little resemblance to the hereditary, absolute power wielded by dukes and kings.
Despite the shows he could put on for visiting dignitaries, Cosimo understood that temporary decorations for special occasions are ephemeral; what stamps a man’s name on a city are his more permanent commissions. As a result, Cosimo became Florence’s most generous patron of the arts. He continued to fund the architectural projects supported by his father, and he rebuilt the monastery of San Marco, paid for several of its altarpieces, and founded its library. He paid for many other altarpieces in Florentine churches. His most significant architectural project began in 1444, when he commissioned a residence for himself and his family. The Palazzo Medici, although modest by the standards of ducal and royal palaces, was nonetheless at the time by far the largest and most luxurious private home in Florence. Cosimo also became a principal patron of the great sculptor Donatello, supporting the eccentric and financially irresponsible artist throughout his life and commissioning some of his finest works.
Less visible but equally important, Cosimo supported scholars and philosophers, including not only native Italians like the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, but also many Greeks who had fled Constantinople in 1453 when that city fell to the Turks. He gave them stipends along with access to his personal library and that of the monastery of San Marco. Their presence gave new impetus to the study of classical culture in general and Plato’s works in particular, as well as making the study of Greek something of a fad among educated Florentines.
Cosimo enjoyed a long life and died in 1464 at age seventy-five. He refused to make a will, saying it was unnecessary, as he trusted his children’s abilities and affection. Not long after his death, the grieving Florentines granted Cosimo an unheard-of honor: he was named Pater Patriae—father of his country, and the words were engraved on his simple tomb slab in the floor of the church of S. Lorenzo.
It would have been difficult for anyone to fill Cosimo’s shoes, and his physically frail son, Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici (1416–1469), never thought he’d be called upon to do so. But Piero’s more robust brother, Giovanni, died unexpectedly a short time before Cosimo’s death, leaving the forty-eight-year-old Piero, a gout-ridden semi-invalid, as the heir apparent. He struggled through five years as the head of the Medici family, never seeming comfortable with his role as the unofficial ruler of Florence.
Nonetheless, Piero possessed a talent for capitalizing on his ill health. His trick was to make sure that rumors of his illness spread throughout Florence, in order to lull his enemies into thinking his end was near. Then, when his opponents were certain they’d seen the last of him, their allegedly moribund rival would strike. On one occasion, assuming Piero’s weakness, rival factions within the city tried to unseat him, but Piero’s quick-thinking son Lorenzo foiled an assassination attempt on his father, and the remainder of Piero’s short tenure was peaceful. He died in December 1469, at the age of fifty-three.
As an art patron, Piero had little time to rival his father in magnificence. His finest project was the commission given to Benozzo Gozzoli around 1460 to fresco the walls of the Medici family chapel in their recently completed palazzo with scenes displaying the journey of the Magi. Piero also funded many festivities of the sort that later critics claimed the Medici sponsored to keep the people happy while quietly depriving them of their liberties. The most memorable was a tournament that took place in February 1469, where the stars of the show were Piero’s sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano. The display of Medici magnificence in the form of gorgeous clothing, glittering jewels, thoroughbred horses, and tailor-made armor left the citizens of Florence so dazzled that several included detailed descriptions of the event in their diaries. Lorenzo was being prepared to step onto the stage of Florentine history—and once he did, the city would never be the same.
By the time Piero died, it seemed customary for another Medici to succeed him as the semihidden hand behind the Florentine government. Two days after Piero’s death, an unofficial committee of prominent citizens, handpicked and rounded up by loyal Medici supporter Tommaso Soderini, summoned Piero’s older son, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, known as “Lorenzo il Magnifico” (1449–1492), to a meeting where it was agreed that the young man, just twenty years old, would “take charge of the city and the State,” as his grandfather and father had done. In his brief personal memoir, written a few years later, Lorenzo claimed he took on this responsibility unwillingly but, he added, with a perfect grasp of the relationship between great wealth and political power: “It is ill living in Florence for the rich unless they rule the state.”
Lorenzo would rule the state for twenty-three years, carefully preserving the forms of the republic, until his death in 1492, a period that corresponded with some of the most brilliant decades of the Renaissance in Florence. The sixteenth-century historian Guicciardini called Lorenzo “the needle of the Italian political scales,” the one man capable of preserving Florence’s autonomy in a divided and contentious Italy. During his rule there was at least a relative degree of stability and peace throughout the peninsula, and above all, Italy remained free of foreign invasions and domination. But we should be cautious of seeing this period as a Florentine golden age of tranquility and prosperity. It was neither. During those same years the Medici banking empire tottered, and Lorenzo had to fend off assassination plots and use his outstanding diplomatic skills to overcome a constant stream of internal and external threats.
Among the most serious was the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478. This was a plot to overthrow the Medici that involved not only the Pazzi family of Florence (bitter banking rivals of the Medici) but also a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, several mercenary military leaders known as condottieri, and a couple of amateur assassins, along with the pope himself as a silent partner. The plot took place in April 1478 and was intended to kill both Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Instead, it resulted in the murder of the politically insignificant Giuliano while the de facto ruler of Florence — his brother, Lorenzo — narrowly escaped. Efforts by Pazzi family members to rouse the citizens to revolt against the Medici failed, and Medici vengeance was swift and merciless. As soon as they were caught, the conspirators, among them the archbishop of Florence, were hanged or hacked to pieces.
Pope Sixtus, furious that the plot had failed and using the execution of the archbishop as a pretext, excommunicated Lorenzo and placed all of Florence under an interdict, meaning that none of the sacraments could be celebrated in the city. The pope also declared war on the Florentine state. In 1479, with the war going badly for Florence, Lorenzo secretly traveled to Naples to negotiate face-to-face with the pope’s most important ally, King Ferrante of Naples, a ghoulish character known to murder his guests and keep their mummified corpses on display. Using every bit of his personal charm and diplomatic skills during his four-month mission, Lorenzo persuaded Ferrante to break his alliance with the pope, and he returned to Florence a hero. The war ended with a treaty signed in 1480, and Lorenzo eventually reconciled with Sixtus, sending a delegation to the papal court to seal his allegiance to the papacy. Soon after, several Florentine artists, including Botticelli, went to Rome to paint frescoes on the walls of Sixtus’s recently completed Sistine Chapel.
Machiavelli was surely not the first to notice that Lorenzo seemed a bundle of contradictions. As that shrewd Florentine statesman observed: “There were two separate people in him, almost like an impossible conjunction conjoined.” Lorenzo was physically homely, yet both men and women found him irresistibly attractive. He could be arrogant, temperamental, and dismissive, but he could also charm just about anybody. He could be obnoxiously ostentatious and disarmingly casual. Despite his enormous wealth he lived quite simply, ate ordinary food, dressed soberly, and made himself available to the city’s citizens. He carried on a wide-ranging and complex correspondence, and he dealt with diplomats and heads of state from all over Europe, but he could also be found on the floor playing with his children. He was capable of sincere piety and of unscrupulous or morally heedless actions that made a mockery of religion. He wrote high-minded philosophical treatises and serious, classically inspired poetry while also composing clever carnival songs notorious for their sexual double entendres.
His arranged marriage to the haughty Roman aristocrat Clarice Orsini was unhappy, and Lorenzo was never a faithful husband, but he nonetheless performed his marital “duties” with religious—some might say revolting—regularity. In the first ten years of their union, his wife gave birth to ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood, and unlike many men in his family, he evidently fathered no bastards. He negotiated advantageous marriages for his daughters, groomed his second son for the clergy, and tried to turn his oldest son into a worthy successor. That last was Lorenzo’s most conspicuous failure.
Throughout his life Lorenzo struggled with serious illnesses. Reports from his own time claim his main problem was gout, but descriptions of his numerous symptoms suggest that, in addition to gout, he suffered from kidney stones and acute arthritis. Although at the time of his death there were the inevitable rumors of poisoning, his symptoms in his last days sound more like a deadly combination of ulcerative colitis and a perforated stomach ulcer, both probably related to the unrelenting stresses of his life. He was only forty-three when he died. His premature death was not the cause of all the subsequent crises and disasters that befell Florence and Italy, but his departure removed a wise and strong hand from the affairs of the peninsula.
Some modern scholars minimize Lorenzo’s cultural contributions, claiming that his reputation is mostly the result of later Medici legend making. They note that Lorenzo never had much interest in banking, and that several branches of the Medici bank collapsed during his years of leadership; that he abused his position of power by helping himself to public funds for his own use and by trying to defraud his cousins of their inheritance; that as an art patron his tastes ran mostly to expensive bric-a-brac; that he commissioned only one building, his country villa at Poggio a Caiano, and no important paintings or sculptures. Such claims are open to dispute, though, in at least one significant regard. It’s clear that Lorenzo was instrumental in providing something less tangible but just as important as actual patronage—an atmosphere in which the arts flourished. Whatever his personal contributions, while he lived, Florence was the cultural capital of Italy and all of Europe.
If only Lorenzo’s eldest son, Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1472–1503), had inherited his father’s dazzling intelligence and political shrewdness instead of his mother’s limited intellect and every ounce of her Orsini arrogance. Worried by his son’s violent temper and perhaps also by his preference for stableboys as sexual partners, Lorenzo married off his son at the extremely young age of sixteen to a distant relative of his wife named Alfonsina Orsini. Whatever Piero’s temperament or sexual preferences, he did one thing Lorenzo wanted: he fathered a son, born a few months after Il Magnifico’s death, and named Lorenzo in honor of his grandfather.
By the time Lorenzo il Magnifico died, it seemed inevitable that the indirect rule of the Medici would continue in the person of Piero. But the young man (he was twenty, the same age Lorenzo had been when he took on the leadership of Florence) quickly proved incapable of replacing his father. It took him only two years to undo what four generations of his family had carefully built up: a power base founded on the dispensing of patronage and behind-the-scenes influence wielded indirectly and tactfully while maintaining the façade of the Florentine republic. Despite their dedication to the ideals of republicanism, the Florentines had accepted Medici rule when it was exercised indirectly and expressed itself in terms of a network of mutual obligations. What the citizens would not accept was an arrogant, tyrannical head of the Medici family, and this was precisely how the headstrong Piero behaved.
Having come to power at a moment of great instability in Italy, Piero proved cowardly as well as incapable of competent leadership. When the French king Charles VIII and his army — invited into Italy by the duke of Milan and determined to lay claim to the kingdom of Naples — threatened to invade Florence, Piero proved unable to conduct even minimal negotiations. To the amazement of the French, he quickly gave them everything they demanded, including entry into the city with billeting for troops and possession of a series of fortresses essential to Florence’s defense. This was too much for the government and the citizens of Florence. Although the French army moved on, a fierce rebellion ensued in November 1494, which forced Piero and the rest of his family out of Florence. For the moment at least, the era of Medici rule was over.
Piero spent the rest of his life trying to regain what his own foolishness had lost. Allying himself with anyone he could find with troops to spare who was willing to support his cause, he made repeated attempts to occupy Florence and regain his position of power, but without success. In 1503 he died by drowning. There had been Medici who died by assassination, from disease, and from old age, but Piero was the only man in the entire history of the family whose death was an accident.
The next thirty-five years saw repeated attempts by the Medici to regain political control of Florence. They returned to power in 1512, thanks to the efforts of Il Magnifico’s son Cardinal Giovanni, aided by Spanish troops and the papal army of Julius II. The Medici cardinal chose his youngest brother, Giuliano, as the ruler of Florence, but when Giovanni became Pope Leo X in 1513, he appointed his nephew Lorenzo — the son of his deceased brother Piero — in Giuliano’s place. When Lorenzo died in 1519, Leo chose another relative, his cousin, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, as the head of the Florentine state. Giulio was elected pope in 1523, taking the name Clement VII, which meant that the number of Medici males available to take over the rule of Florence was now very small — just two young men, both illegitimate. One, named Ippolito, was the son of the deceased Giuliano (the youngest son of Il Magnifico) and the other, a nasty piece of work named Alessandro, was most probably the son of the pope himself.
Pope Clement attempted to rule Florence from Rome, as his cousin Pope Leo had done, but unrest in the city continued to grow, and Clement’s appointment in 1523 of his nephew Ippolito as the city resident ruler did nothing to resolve the situation. When the Sack of Rome occurred in 1527 and Clement fled, the Florentines took advantage of the power vacuum in Rome to throw off Medici rule once again. For a brief heady period the republic was restored, but in 1529 the Medici returned again, this time with military support obtained by Pope Clement from his former enemy, the emperor Charles V. The city resisted for a year, but in 1530 Florence surrendered. Alessandro de’ Medici was appointed head of state with an absurd title, Duke of the Florentine Republic, a symbol of the depths to which the Florentine government had sunk. The more than four-hundred-year-old republic was gone, this time forever.
Alessandro was assassinated in 1537 by a distant relative. Horrified members of the family and the government tried to keep his death a secret while they cast about for someone to fill his position. The only available candidate was little more than a child (or so they thought), a seventeen-year-old boy descended from the union of two branches of the Medici family who bore the seemingly heaven-sent name of Cosimo. His father, known as Giovanni delle Bande Nere, had been a noted military leader from the cadet branch of the family descended from the great fifteenth-century Cosimo’s brother; his mother, Maria Salviati, was a granddaughter of Lorenzo il Magnifico and thus a great-great-granddaughter of Cosimo Pater Patriae.
But those who plucked Cosimo de’ Medici (1519 – 1574) from obscurity to be the next duke of Florence had no idea who they were dealing with. From the very start this shrewd, intelligent, and utterly ruthless young man had a clear idea of what power meant and how to wield it effectively. He soon shook off the ambitious counselors who had hoped to rule Florence through him, and he dispatched his defeated enemies by having them exiled, imprisoned, or beheaded. Although never loved by the Florentines, over time he made himself respected, and even those who opposed his heavy-handed rule had to admit that he left Florence in a better condition than when he found it.
He gave the city a stable and efficient if thoroughly dictatorial government, overseeing improvements in agriculture and irrigation in the surrounding countryside, and building up Florence’s defenses as well as its military and naval capabilities. He took an interest in science, music, literature, and art, even making personal visits to the studios and shops of Florentine painters and sculptors, observing their progress, and assuring them of his interest in their work. No one had to convince him of the value of the arts to his regime, and he kept architects, sculptors, and painters busy with his commissions, although many of the artists he employed were of mediocre quality. During the course of a reign that lasted almost forty years, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici transformed Florence into a modern authoritarian state that would be ruled by his direct descendants for the next two centuries.
Cosimo had two sons, Francesco and Ferdinando. Francesco became the second Grand Duke of Tuscany and after his death in 1587, his younger brother, Ferdinando, of the Medici wedding extravaganza, became Grand Duke.
From An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence by Judith Testa.