Academic journal article Art Inquiries

The Medici Pope, Curative Puns, and a Panacean Dwarf in the Sala Di Costantino

Academic journal article Art Inquiries

The Medici Pope, Curative Puns, and a Panacean Dwarf in the Sala Di Costantino

Article excerpt

In 1513, Giovanni de' Medici realized his family's great ambition when he was elevated to the papacy, thus bringing bona fide princely stature to the Florentine banking dynasty. Adopting the name Leo X and embracing the well-established pun on the Medici name meaning "doctors" in Italian, the new pope embarked upon an ambitious propagandistic campaign inspired by a venerable epithet, Christus medicus, or Christ the healer. (1) To that end, he sponsored a variety of activities, religious initiatives, and artistic commissions that played to the theme of healing. Leo's supporters and flatterers responded in kind. An abundance of panegyrics, orations, and other texts written during his reign all expressed the idea that the Medici pope was a new medicus sent to cure the ills of the Church and the world, a veritable savior to usher in an age of peace and prosperity. (2)

Such ideas are a subtext of the frescoes decorating the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican, which illustrate key events attributed to the life of the first Christian Roman emperor. (3) Located in the papal apartments, the room was used for special Masses and official functions as well as more festive occasions including weddings and banquets. It was also a fitting venue for the pontiff to receive ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries, where his princely artistic patronage was on full display. Having awarded the fresco commission in 1517 to Raphael--one of the most famous artists of the era--Leo's reputation as pope and Medici scion was doubly enhanced. (4) No doubt Leo took additional pleasure in the fact that the very artist chosen to articulate his propagandistic vision himself bore the name of the Archangel of healing.

Although Raphael designed the entire pictorial program, by his untimely death in 1520 only the so-called Vision of the Cross and Battle of the Milvian Bridge scenes were in place (fig. 1). Notably, his original plans had also called for a depiction of Constantine's miraculous healing, which was subsequently jettisoned in favor of the Donation and Baptism scenes that now grace the remaining walls. (5) For our purposes, the most important of these frescoes is that of Vision (Adlocutio) on the east wall (fig. 2). Framed by representations of past popes and allegorical female figures, the composition shows Constantine receiving his divine vision before the decisive battle against his rival Maxentius. As he addresses his troops, the soon-to-be emperor looks up to the sky to see the sign that would assure his victory: three angels carrying the cross, and the inscription in Greek "EN TOYT[OMEGA]I NIKA" (In this sign you shall conquer) (fig. 3). (6) The intensity of the moment is amplified by the gathering storm clouds overhead and by the soldiers who surge en masse towards Constantine as he speaks. Meanwhile, off to himself in the right foreground, an unruly dwarf lifts a huge helmet over his head and diverts his eyes in the opposite direction, adding an unexpected note of levity as the drama unfolds.

As might be surmised from the cover of a recent text (fig. 4), the dwarf's appearance in the iconographical scheme has typically generated little scholarly interest. (7) Attributed to Giulio Romano, who completed the fresco after Raphael's death, the dwarf has often been interpreted as a gratuitous expression of Romano's artistic license. (8) He has also been identified (erroneously) as an actual denizen of the papal court. (9) In fact, here Romano was responding to contemporary fashion. Dwarfs were a common fixture in the Italian Renaissance courts, their presence in the prince's imagery used to signal his noble status and ruling authority. (10) But while the dwarf's inclusion in the Vision scene thus served to announce Leo's elevated princely stature, in his comical presentation he was doubtless meant to appeal to the pope's sense of humor. As was well known, Leo delighted in practical jokes and buffoonery, and had a special weakness for fools and jesters. …

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