Exhibition: The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570

When I hear around an upcoming art exhibition, there are few words that get me as excited as “Medici” and “portraits” in the same sentence. The Medici family were the heart of the Italian Renaissance in Florence, serving as major patrons for the arts and supporting many of the most successful artists of the era. The Medici family held significant power for almost three centuries, but this exhibition focuses primarily on the 1512 return of the Medici to Florence after they were exiled through the reign of Cosimo I de Medici as the Grand Duke of Florence.

The exhibition establishes Cosimo as the focus of the show from the moment you enter the exhibition space. The entrance holds two busts of Cosimo I, one in marble and one in bronze, both created by Benvenuto Cellini. While Cosimo did not become the Grand Duke until 1537, the exhibition shows the way Cosimo used language and art to establish and maintain his power and authority. The Medici family were just coming back from being exiled from the city and their power in the city was precariously balanced.

After the exile, Cosimo’s ‘cousin’ Alessandro de’ Medici was made the Duke of Florence. Alessandro was from the senior line of the Medici family, stemming from Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), while Cosimo was from the junior line, stemming from Cosimo the Elder’s brother, Lorenzo (1395-1440). After Alessandro was assassinated by his distant cousin, Lorenzino de’ Medici, who murdered Alessandro to preserve the Republic of Florence. With no legitimate heir for the ducal title, the Medici supporters in Florence passed the power to Cosimo. While Cosimo was accepted as the new Duke by supporters, he recognized that as a member of the junior branch, he had to reenforce his claim to the title and the legacy of the Medici family through the most powerful tool, art and culture.

The exhibition does a fantastic job of bringing the paintings to life, using text, color and historical objects to create the environment of 16th century Florence. While discussing the ten-month Siege of Florence that led to the installment of the Medici rule, the exhibition showcases real halberds and Renaissance weaponry next to Pontormo’s well-known painting”The Halberdier.” Amongst the portraits of Cosimo’s wife, Eleanora of Toledo, a beautiful gown similar to the one worn in the Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanora and their son shows the craftsmanship and beauty of the gowns worn by such a powerful woman. Bronzino is often praised for his skill in depicting luxurious fabrics, and allowing visitors to directly compare the luxury in the painting with the luxury of the real gown only amplifies Bronzino’s skill.

All of this comes together into the larger point of the exhibition. Portraits, and all art, are not made in a vacuum. They are intentionally and unintentionally influenced by the sitter and the painter’s desires, philosophies, and beliefs. A major influence on Cosimo and his portrait painters was poetry, specifically the poetry of Dante and Petrarch. Petrarch’s description of the ideal woman in the form of Laura influenced the way women were depicted in paintings for much of the Renaissance period. Dante was a major factor in the growing popularity of humanism that encouraged a diverse and well-rounded education for leaders throughout Europe. Glimpses of Dante can be seen throughout the exhibition, whether directly in the depiction of him in Giorgio Vasari’s “Six Tuscan Poets” or in the distinct shape of his nose seen in the portrait of poetess Laura Battiferri.

Through art, poetry, and culture, Cosimo aimed to establish Tuscany as a “soft power.” Not the ruthless militant powers seen elsewhere, but one built on influence of art, architecture, and poetry. It is due to Cosimo’s relentless efforts and careful orchestration that Florence is still considered an epicenter of culture and the heart of the Renaissance.

This beautifully curated exhibition brings together so many spectacular examples of Renaissance portraiture and is one you will not want to miss. It is now open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 11, 2021. For more about the exhibition, visit their website!

-Claire Sandberg

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