Magazine article USA TODAY

The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Florence. (Museums Today)

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Florence. (Museums Today)

Article excerpt

BETWEEN 1537 AND 1621, the first four Medici grand dukes of Florence--Cosimo I, his sons Francesco I and Ferdinando I, and his grandson Cosimo II--presided over a spectacular flowering of the arts and sciences, exemplified by the pioneering achievements and dominant legacy of Michelangelo. Celebrated during his lifetime for his extraordinary talent as a sculptor, painter, architect, draftsman, and poet, Michelangelo inspired subsequent Florentine artists and attracted the city's most-powerful patrons. The Medici grand dukes' extensive and enlightened patronage allowed art in all media to flourish. In addition to commissioning portraits and decorative objects for their private enjoyment and public display, the Medici family ordered the reconstruction or renovation of numerous civic buildings and private residences, and established several major institutions for artistic production and instruction. Thus, Michelangelo and the Medici grand dukes, sharing a voracious intellectual curiosity and an awareness of the power of images, shaped the artistic, political, and cultural identity of Renaissance Florence.

In 1537, the young Cosimo de Medici was plucked from relative political obscurity in the Tuscan countryside to lead Florence after the assassination of his cousin, Duke Alessandro de Medici. Surprising the Florentine aristocrats who put him in power while believing they could easily manipulate the 18-year-old, Cosimo declined to marry into one of their families. Instead, he tied himself to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, by marrying the Spanish princess Eleonora di Toledo, daughter of the Emperor's viceroy in Naples. In doing so, he elevated himself to absolute ruler of Florence. By 1569, when Cosimo convinced Pope Pius V to bestow on him the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, he had expanded his totalitarian rule throughout the Tuscan territories, sometimes violently seizing control of neighboring cities.

Cosimo's control of Florence was equally ruthless, but, despite intimidating tactics, he eventually won the grudging support of the citizenry--not simply for the city's economic and political expansion, but for its greater military security. Many Florentines also found much to admire in Cosimo's wide-ranging intellect. He had a keen interest in art, which he shrewdly used as propaganda to promote the legitimacy of his family's rule. He commissioned major fresco programs for his residences, sponsored spectacular festivals and pageants, founded an artists' academy, championed a literary academy, and was particularly fascinated with botany, chemistry, and zoology.

In 1519, Pope Leo X, a boyhood friend of Michelangelo, commissioned him to produce a magnificent funerary chapel with four Medici family tombs. Summoned to Rome by Pope Clement VII in 1534 to undertake the massive "Last Judgment" fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo failed to complete a number of the tomb sculptures. Nevertheless, the works were greatly prized by patrons and admired by artists, their unfinished state providing special access to the master's intellectual and artistic process.

Although Cosimo I never persuaded Michelangelo to return to Florence, the Grand Duke did avail himself of the talents of the city's other most-gifted sons--particularly Jacopo Pontormo, Agnolo Bronzino, Francesco Salviati, and Giorgio Vasari. Pontormo, who had served Allesandro de Medici, was awarded numerous important commissions by Cosimo I, notably the decoration of the Villa Castello, the choir of the Church of San Lorenzo, and at least two tapestry designs.

Pontormo's protege, Bronzino, received virtually continuous employment at the Medici court. Bronzino and his workshop produced myriad portraits of Cosimo, Eleonora, and their children; the Grand Duke's distinguished ancestors; and members of the court. The artist's extremely elegant and sophisticated sensibilities were applied as well to religious works, most prominently in his decorations in the chapel of Eleonora di Toledo in the Palazzo Vecchio. …

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