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Musée Maillol Announces Exhibition of Treasures of the Medicis
Fra Angelico, Sépulture des Saints Côme et Damien, et de leurs trois frères, vers 1438-1440. Détrempe sur bois, 36 x 45 cm. Florence, Museo di San Marco (prédelle) Inv. 1890 n. 8494. Photo: Archivio fotografico della soprintendenza di Firenze.
PARIS.- Men of wealth and influence, the Medicis were not just Florentine pharmacists enriched by trade who turned into the bankers of Europe, before becoming its princes. Subtle politicians, these business men were above all fervent humanists. Their enlightened patronage revealed a culture as deep as it was widespread from the 15th through the 18th centuries.

The family clan, nearly always united — whether in power or removed from it —, never ceased to surround itself with artists, painters, sculptors, jewelers, musicians, poets and scientists, which they protected rather than just commissioning them.

Wishing to renew life via aesthetics and science, the outstanding Florentine family did not quite, in fact, launch the movement of sumptuous patronage that gripped Florence during the Renaissance. But it favored the avant-garde like no other before them, turning art into an extraordinary instrument of power, setting up forever the image of the magnificent patron.

Wherever the Medicis were installed, they reigned more thanks to the splendor of their taste than through the power of their bank. Inventors, in the archeological definition of the word, the Medicis « invented » modern Western art, by encouraging Fra Angelico’s art of perspective and Botticelli’s humanism, by conferring a nobility on Italian language literature, by supporting the early classicism of Michel-Angelo and Raphaël, by displaying Bronzino’s Florentine mannerism, by carrying the minor arts to their apotheosis, by always being at the forefront of new geographic and scientific discoveries, by creating the first operas in history with Peri’s and Caccini’s two “Eurydices”, as well as by underwriting Galileo’s astronomical discoveries.

To find once more the world’s harmonies while pretending to be its organizers, such was the Medicis’ overweening ambition.

A treasury in the musée Maillol
It was that personal and modern taste for new spaces, whether in the world of decorative arts, in painting, in music, in science or in poetry, that the exhibition « Trésor des Médicis », (The Medicis’ Treasures) emphasizes by regrouping nearly 150 works and objects, all of which were seen, coveted or touched by the magnificent Florentines, since all of them come from the Medici collections. The exhibition in the Musée Maillol invites one to enter into the very heart of the Medici palace, by recalling, among these very rarely loaned masterpieces, a history of the Medici taste, as exemplified over time and with the various heads of the Medici family, through various rooms, whether grandiose or intimate: reception room, studiolo, or cabinet of marvels, workshops for the hard stones, the library , the Medici theatre, a mathematics study-room and the chapel.

From Cosmo to Lorenzo : the glory of the Lords of Florence in the 15th century
If it was Giovanni di Bicci who founded the Medici bank at the very end of the 14th century, it was Cosmo the Elder who marked the advent of the future dynasty by becoming the wealthiest man in Europe. Henceforth, the banker of Popes and of Kings after his return from exile to Florence in 1434, it was the subtle and wise Cosmo, who is at the start of the treasure and of the almost limitless reign of the Medicis. He started by using his considerable financial resources to collect antiques – and even Islamic objects – as was the custom in the leading families during the Renaissance. But he also surrounded himself with works of art of every kind, commissioning the most adventurous artists like Fra Angelico, as is clear from a predella panel representing sepulchers of the Saints Cosmo and Damian. His grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent , a talented poet and subtle political strategist, even if an ineffectual banker, became « the first citizen of Florence » without bearing that title. He carried that « Republic of the Arts» to its first peak. Lorenzo devoted outlandish sums to purchasing hard-stone vases and admitted to a passion for antique cameos, like that of Poseidon and Athena, then attributed to Pyrgotele, the only artist allowed by Alexander the Great to engrave his portrait.

It was the Magnificent who invited the young Michelangelo to share his table and to sculpt in the garden in San Marco. He also corresponded with Amerigo Vespucci, the sailor who gave his name to America, and he collected exotic objects, like Chinese celadons.

Lorenzo also believed in Botticelli’s brilliant talent : employing an exacerbated chromatism In revolutionary Adoration of the Magi, Sandro did not hesitate to position, no longer in a family chapel, but this time in the heart of Florence, the Medici family in its entirety, Cosmo the Elder, Piero the First, Lorenzo and Julian de Medici, surrounded by their court, headed by Pic de la Mirandole and Politian, like the Muses gathered together around a new Apollonian Holy Family.

The irruption of Charles VIII’s French troops put a temporary end to the absolute power of the Medicis and to their aesthetic ascendancy: their palace in the Larga — which Apollonio di Giovanni did not hesitate to represent as Priam’s palace in an illuminated manuscript devoted to Virgil — was wrecked, their collections sold at auction. By conferring on Alexander de Medici the title of duke in 1532, Charles the Fifth restored the absolute power of the family over Florence.

From Rome to Paris : two Popes for two queens
An aesthete and a cultured man , John de Medici, second son of Lorenzo, became Pope under the name of Leo X, and he did his best to buy back many of the goods that had been scattered. He provided the Medicis’ patronage with a new Roman dimension, henceforth considering Florence as his private property, even sending there, with some arrogance, a rebellious Michel-Angelo.

A great organizer of festivities and a great collector of manuscripts, Leo X, following the example of the Magnificent, turned Rome into a paradise for artists and intellectuals. As well as Pontormo and Andrea del Sarto, he overburdened Raphaël with work.

A new visual acuity, almost Flemish in its hyperrealism, appeared in 1515 in the outstanding «Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami », Leo X’s librarian, completely dressed in a symphonic red, casting his eyes heavenwards. Gazing in awe at that painting, Bonaparte and his followers did not hesitate to borrow it momentarily from the Medici collections.

Julius de Medici, illegitimate son of Julian, Lorenzo’s brother, became Pope in his turn, after his cousin Leo X, under the name Clement VII. If that tragic Pope saw the sacking of Rome and the break with Henry VIII of England, he nonetheless remained a sensitive patron.

As early as 1530 he ensured for himself the exclusivity of Michelangelo’s work. The only exception to the rule: an Apollo (sometimes considered a David), for once almost finished by a Michelangelo fearing for his life, commissioned after the murder of the Duke Alexander de Medici by Baccio Valori, the uncompromising provisional governor of Florence. Finally confronting Cosmo, Valori in fact had to hand it over after the Grand-Duke’s return, who then placed it triumphantly in his bedroom.

Popes behaving like kings, the Medicis undertook a far-seeing matrimonial policy, which led two women to the throne of France. Placed under the direct protection of Clement VII, Catherine de Medici married the future king Henri II in 1533, bringing with her a dowry of 28000 écus in jewelry. Very attentive to art forms, the new queen was above all very fond of portraits : she gathered together over 700, including a portrait of herself that she sent to Florence, as a dowry for her grand-daughter Christine de Lorraine.

Once she became Queen Mother, she continued after her husband’s death, from a fatal thrust from a lance in 1559, the policy of brilliance in the Italian style favored by François the First of France – as is proven by a letter from Michelangelo turning down an invitation from Catherine to take part in the Valois Tomb. In parallel, during her whole life Catherine kept up a strong relationship and an ongoing correspondence with Nostradamus, whom she maintained in his post as the doctor/astrologer at court, and who cunningly predicted the death of Henri II as well as the accession to the throne of France of Henry IV.

A gifted draughtswoman, an outstanding ballet dancer, fascinated by jewelry and endowed with a huge fortune, Marie de Medici, daughter of Francis the First, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in her turn married the king of France Henri IV in 1600. Her marriage having inspired the birth of the opera in Florence, she begged her uncle Ferdinand de Medici to allow the composer Giulio Caccini to come to Paris with his daughter Francesca, a singer but also a composer. She loved to call upon the baroque opulence of two Flemish artists, Frans Pourbus, who painted her portrait wearing all her pearls , and Rubens, who had attended her wedding in Florence.

From Cosmo Ist to Ferdinand Ist : the grace of the Grand-Dukes in the 16th century
The election as Duke of Florence – followed by elevation to Grand-Duke in 1570 by Pope Pie V – of Cosmo Ist, son of the Condottierre John of the Black Stripes, opened up a new era of prosperity and of intense patronage. Leaving the old palace in via Larga, that descendant of the Medici family, from its branch known as «Popolano», settled into the Palazzo Vecchio, which he totally transformed into a palace.

He appointed Vasari to build the Uffizi to house the Medici collections as well as the city’s magistratures and acquired, thanks to his wife, the Pitti palace on the left bank of the Arno, turning Florence into a genuinely modern capital for the new Grand-Duchy.

Recovering the collection of antique medals put together by Lorenzo the Magnificent, he sent emissaries all over the country to seek out antique sculptures, and immediately purchased the Etruscan Speaker in bronze, found in a vineyard and dating from the Ist century BC, that Vasari brought him.

Grand-Duke Cosmo admitted that he also had a passion for botany : he gave the hydraulic engineer Niccolo Tribolo the task of carrying out on the hill behind the Pitti palace the Boboli gardens, the first gardens in the Italian manner. If he made of Vasari his architect and chief decorator, Cosmo Ist gave full rein to the Florentine Fine Manner by appointing Bronzino as court painter. The strange Mannerist artist undertook cartoons of mythological tapestries and many magnetic portraits of the Grand-Duchess Eléonore of Toledo, wife of Cosmo Ist (she loved collecting the strangest jewels).

The Grand-Duke himself underwrote the new aesthetics by commissioning the famous Perseus from Benvenuto Cellini, whose base was so beautiful that it was coveted by his wife.

Finally, by gathering in his Calliope study, various strange collections, going from natural stones to Cellini’s jewels, he anticipated the Studiolo of his son Francis Ist of Medici. Fascinated by alchemy and wanting to improve on nature’s creations in a pre-scientific mindset , the Grand-Duke Francis asked the ageing Vasari to gather together in a small room « … a fine casket of rare and precious things, both by their worth and their manufacture » :amber, pearls, shells, vases in rock crystal and lapis-lazuli, Medici porcelains with blue designs on a white ground..., the first in Europe. Always an aesthete and concerned with « sprezzatura » — that nonchalant gracefulness one admires in people who accomplish prowesses while appearing to find them easy -, he also added to those creations some delicate little paintings or the Apollos in bronze, sinuous and snakelike by the master of the virtuoso of mannerist « contrapposto » Giambologna (of whom everyone in Florence seemed to forget that the Flemish artist was born Jean de Boulogne). Dying suddenly from malaria or poisoned, almost at the same time as his madly loved secret wife Bianca Cappello, Francis handed over the power to his younger brother Ferdinand.

Until then, as a cardinal in his Roman Villa Médicis, which he had decorated by Jacopo Zucchi with his amazing «Creation of the universe», Ferdinand then passionately devoted himself to collecting antiquities, leading the digs himself.

« Majestate tantum » (Only with dignity), the motto of that enlightened prince and of his French wife Christine de Lorraine, favorite grand-daughter of Catherine de Medici, is a good definition of his program for peace and prosperity.

As well as the majestic monuments commissioned from Giambologna, the Grand Duke ordered the brothers Stefano and Ambrogio Caroni to set up a Studio for Hard Stones, a passion of the Medicis since Lorenzo the Magnificent, which produced mosaics of an exceptional splendor covering tables and cabinets.

He inaugurated a Room for Mathematics in the Uffizi, where Ferdinand Ist de Medici entrusted a Chair for Mathematics to Galileo.

When he inaugurated a series of unforgettable festivities, he asked Bernardo Buontalenti, engineer and orchestra leader, who had been taken in when very young by the family and brought up alongside him as a companion, to be its organizer.

By building at the very heart of the Uffizi the Teatro Mediceo, one of the first places in Europe totally devoted to the theatre, Buontalenti produced some brilliant musical interludes.

Created for the wedding of Ferdinand Ist in 1589 « La Pellegrina » thus included machines, special effects, and costumes – nearly 286 (recalled here by a watercolor of Amphitrite) – to summon the spheres’ harmony, in a kind of total spectacle where the universal bears the Medicis’ imprint.

For the marriage by proxy of Marie de Medici with Henri IV in Florence in 1600, during a banquet with tables that turned and automats that opened up onto bunches of flowers, Ferdinand even hosted the creation, inside the Pitti Palace, of the very first opera recorded, Jacopo Peri’s “Eurydice”. He decided to resurrect the ancient Greek tragedy by practicing a monodic form of singing. With its brilliant recitar cantando, this « nuova musica » attempted to « speak in harmony with a single voice to move the soul’s passions».

From Cosmo II to Cosmo III : the twilight of the Medicean starts in the 17th and 18th centuries
Open minded and curious – maybe because he benefited from having had Galileo as a tutor -, Cosmo II, during his brief reign at the very start of the 17th century , put up new buildings to receive more and more important collections.

If he provided the minor arts with a new impulse, he was the only one in Florence to encourage the Caravegesque realism that had come to light in Rome and in Naples.

It was in order to get closer to that amiable Grand-Duke – as well as in order to protect his discovery - that Galileo named the four moons of Jupiter glimpsed through his glass : « sidera Medicea » or Medicean stars.

Cosmo II also encouraged his brother, cardinal Leopold de Medici, in his initiative of collecting self-portraits by prestigious artists in the Vasari corridor — self-portraits signed Luca Giordano or Carlo Dolci— or his re-organisation of the Palatine Library and of its 14000 manuscripts and 20 000 printed volumes.

The Grand-Duke also supported his brother in his creation in 1657 of the Academia del Cimento (Academy for experimentation), which promoted Galileo’s experimental science.

An important collector of scientific instruments and of weapons, his son the Grand Duke Ferdinand II was opposed to the Holy See’s decree which had obliged Galileo to retract his Copernican discoveries before the Inquisition. The Medicis, godfathers of the Renaissance, were also the forebears of the Century of Enlightenment. The last descendant of the Medicis, prince Jean-Gaston remembered that, who undertook, 95 years after the astronomer’s death, to provide a tomb for Galileo in Florence, picking up along the way two of the great man’s fingers to enclose them inside a henceforth sacred reliquary: the genius’ finger points to the Medicis.

Although claiming – and obtaining – from the emperor the title of « Royal and Serene Highness », but above all concerned by good morals and corporeal punishments,

Cosmo III, during his very long reign of over 50 years at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, unfortunately reduced the Grand-Duchy to the condition of a fading province. Although he requested Bimbi to paint his collections, he seemed to prefer Carlo Dolci’s stilllives and enjoyed the macabre waxworks by Gaetano Zumbo.

One cannot help but see in his vaunted taste for the vanities and his obsession with the Princes’ mortuary chapel the evidence — perhaps unconscious — of an underlying anguish as regards the end of the dynasty.

Repelled by his father’s religious integrism, his son the Grand Prince Ferdinand, turned out, to be, contrariwise, a subtle patron of ancient and contemporary art, as well as a learned music lover.

Leaving Florence and enjoying, in his villa in Poggio in Caiano, at the heart of his Gabinetto, the contemplation « of small works by all the most famous painters!», he had a theatre built in another villa in Pratolino, where he supported the new aesthetic concept of baroque opera embodied by Alessandro Scarlatti. He died of syphilis and madness in 1713 aged 50, without having ever reigned. Libertine and liberal unlike the rigid Cosmo III, but drunk and nearly always in bed, living confined to his apartments while carrying out a ceaseless and melancholy debauchery, his young brother, Jean-Gaston de Medici marked the end of the dynasty in the night.

On his death in 1737, without successors, the Grand-Duchy left the Medici family to return into the demesne of Lorraine and of the future Emperor of the Holy Roman German Empire, Francis Ist of Austria. The last survivor of the line, Jean-Gaston’s sister, Anne-Marie Louise, princess Palatine – whose jewel in the shape of a cradle offered by her husband on hearing of her long awaited pregnancy , was not sufficient to give him a living heir – handed over all the Medici collections to the city of Florence, so they could remain « at the disposal of all nations». A testament of gold and fire, a fantastic spectacle of works and masterpieces which relate the world’s beauty, a world re-organized for the mind and feelings of the Medici family.

Paris | Musée Maillol | Treasures of the Medicis |




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