Who Is More Magnificent, Medici or Saatchi?

Article excerpt

Historic Florence is an intimidatingly butch city. No wonder the Medici had to have six balls on their armorial bearings - even if four fell off, they still had two to play with. The back of the Palazzo Vecchio stands so sharp to the pavement that you would cross the road to avoid it, were such an option ever undertaken lightly in Florence. Not only are the stones rusticated with those low-pyramid diamond-panes that turn most Florentine palaces into alert armadillos, but just before the two walls meet on the corner, a third one thrusts itself meanly between them, cut like a razor. Indoors, only when you reach Machiavelli's office under the roof and the room where Dominican cosmographers sketched out Java, Florida, and the rest of the known world in maps of gold and blue, does the melodrama of state promotion give way to the painstaking reality of power.

Across the Arno, the Pitti Palace, to which the Medicis decamped when they became Grand Ducal, looks entirely real. It looks, in fact, like a huge prison, and scowls hard at visitors ascending the steep slope designed to make them feel small. Inside, however, in the summer rooms normally occupied by the Museo degli Argenti, all is joy. Showbiz, even. Which must be what the critic of the Corriere della Sera meant when she dismissed it as solo trash. She is, of course, Milanese.

"Magnificence at the Court of the Medici", subtitled "art in Florence at the end of the 16th century", is an exhibition of Renaissance treasures designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, better known outside Italy for his lavish, lazy opera productions, but here on great form. It provides the perfect antidote to all that low-charm masculinity squaring up to the streets outside. The show claims "to create an entirely new exhibition style", but British visitors may feel that actually it's early Roy Strong, with more money, real Renaissance rooms, and fibre-optic lighting. You feel at times that you've wandered into a production of Verdi's Don Carlos, but won't be required to sing. What could be more thrilling?

Magnificence is surprisingly well focused, confined to seven rooms, and to 44 years in the reigns of Grand Duke Cosimo I and his sons Francesco and Fernando: 1565-1609, within the span of William Shakespeare's life. The brief is to display items from the Medici collections in the original manner, before they were scattered into separate, didactic, single-discipline museums after the unification of Italy in 1870.

"Modern" (ie, Renaissance) sculpture by Giambologna stands beside classical sculpture, in order to prove it is just as good, perhaps even better. Paintings can be seen in the same rooms as objects which were often more valued by collectors at the time: jewellery, crossbows and armillary spheres, rock crystal vessels that shimmer like ice and silk. …