11 June 2024

Medici Portraits & Politics exhibition, in N.Y

The Med­ici: Portraits and Politics 1512–1570 exhibition was at Met­ropolitan NY in 2021. The catalogue by the same name exp­lored how the art­ists end­owed their works with a clearly styl­ish character that identified Fl­orentine por­t­rait­­ure. With 90+ notable paint­ings, scul­pt­ur­es, works on paper and me­d­­als, this volume was written by a team of lead­ing international auth­ors and presented a detailed anal­ysis of this era in It­al­ian art: med­als, paintings, sculptures, car­v­ed gemstones, drawings, et­ch­ings, man­u­­scripts and arm­our. Incl­uded were works by the era's most fam­ous artists: Raphael, Jac­opo Pont­ormo & Rosso Fiorentino, Ben­venuto Cell­ini, Agnolo Bronz­ino, Fran­cesco Salviati etc who depicted the elite of Medici Florence.

The Medici had continuously ruled Florence in 1434-94. But the Medici family only returned to power in 1512, after Florence had lost its ident­ity and become a pawn in stormy Eur­op­ean polit­ics. Florence ch­anged from a rep­ublic with elected officials .. to one ruled by Med­ici.

And the key fig­ure in this transformation was 17 year old Cosimo I de Medici from a mi­n­or branch of an elite family, who bec­ame Duke of Fl­orence in 1537, after his pred­ecessor Alessandro de' Medici was mur­d­ered. Cosimo had been selected by power brokers in Florence who bel­ieved they could con­trol him. But instead he grab­bed control from el­ected off­icials, estab­l­ish­ing him­self as an auto­crat. Flor­en­ce was made imp­ort­ant again, even with a tyrant, and the city was grateful.

Alessandro de' Medici Duke of Florence, 1534
by Jacopo Pontormo,
Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art

To convert the mercant­ile city into the capital of a Medici state, Cosimo en­listed the leading in­tellect­uals, promoting grand architectural, eng­in­eering and art projects. Explore how Cosimo and the other Medici used the era’s dom­inant medi­um, art, as propaganda, clarifying that Florence was still a pow­er to reckon with. See what Floren­t­­ines thought about infl­uen­ce and the central role that arts and culture played in Renaissance pol­it­ics. Cosimo’s goal was to see how he and his cir­cle used the arts to promote the Medici brand.

Port­raits, a very personal sub­ject, pro­vided a seductive way to expl­ore politics and pat­ronage. They be­came an ess­ential means of not­ing sitters’ likeness, character, soc­ial pos­ition and cul­t­ur­al ambitions

In Giorgio Vasari's famous book Lives of the Artists (1550), which was dedicated to the Duke, Florence was promoted as the heart of the Re­n­aissance. He had nurtured the idea of Florence as the intellectual power­house of the Renaissance and the Medici as the key players.

The 2021 exhibition displayed a bronze bust of Cosimo I de' Med­ici 1545 by Cellini, on loan from the Museo Naz­ion­ale del Barg­ello in Fl­orence. In 1557 the bust found a permanent home above the main for­t­ress gate on Elba Island. Its pierc­ing gaze and Roman-ish armour conveyed Cosimo’s pow­er, build­ing on imperial iconography to link the Med­ici and It­aly’s ancient lead­ers. Specialists saw that its eyes had been crafted out of silver, a pre­ference pion­eer­ed in the class­ical civ­il­isations that Renais­sance artists copied centuries later. Thus it was restored.

bronze bust of Cosimo I de' Med­ici 1545 by Cellini
Credit Museo Naz­ion­ale del Barg­ello, Fl­orence

Other works also connected the family to classical culture eg Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus (1537–9) by Bronzino. He cast the Duke as the mythological musician Orpheus, align­ing him with greater forces. A marble bust of an aging Cosimo by sculptor Giovanni Bandini showed him as a Roman emperor, timeless in his authority.

Portraits and Politics
had 6 sections that started in the early C16th when the family newly returned from exile. See how the High Ren­ais­sance rulers cemented their power through commissioning cul­t­ure and associating with artists. The ex­hib­ition’s first sections cov­ered 1512-34, intro­d­ucing us to relatives like Pope Cl­em­ent VII, Lor­­enzo the Magnificent’s ne­ph­ew and Alessandro de’ Med­ici, who ?was the son of Lorenzo di Piero, Duke of Urbino. [The family actually pro­duced four popes: Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leo XI].

Then ins­pect Cosimo himself. See how the Duke and his immed­iate fam­ily, including 1st wife Eleonora of Toledo (d1572), used portraits to proj­ect power, assert Medici continuity and convey cultural refine­ment! Bronzino painted Eleonora, posing alongside each of her sons. Plac­ing each son next to mum said that the next gen­erat­ion would create branches from the invigorated dynastic  trunk.

Bronzino, Eleanora of Toledo and son Giovanni, 1545
Photo credit: Ufizzi

The second half of Por­t­raits and Politics examined those whose art elev­at­ed Florence to new cultural heights. It put together the work of Bronzino, the Mannerist artist who was Cosimo’s court paint­er, and Francesco Salviati, whose pan-Italian style com­peted with Bron­z­ino’s clearly Florentine-based art. And the exhibition celebrated the city’s literary culture, linked to portraiture. But as realistic as the facial image was, this alone could not convey the most intim­ate aspects of the sitter. Identity was embedded in symbols, in­ cod­if­ied for­m­al language capable of ex­­­­­plaining concepts prev­iously con­fin­ed to poetry. NB Bron­zino’s restored Portrait of Poet Lau­ra Bat­t­if­erri. Laur­a’s like­ness explicitly referenced 2 other fam­ous Flor­ent­ine poets: her Dante prof­ile and her Petrarch verses.

Not all of the people featured were well-known eg his ancestor Cosimo the Eld­er on the catalogue cover. Cosimo the Elder was not a Medici, but was the son of a wealthy Florentine bank­er. None­theless the work was described as a masterpiece of C16th port­rait­ure, summarising the power of art as prop­ag­an­da. The young man with a med­al­l­ion portrait of a woman near his chest was filled with symbolism.

The catalogue closed with a quote from the Ren­aissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, acknowledging the staying power of great art. Now read The Medici Family in History Today and The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–70 (see above).


Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

I had a blonde moment when I read portraits and thought photo, saw the year 1512 and thought what the hell cameras were not around then. My brain is still trying to wake up and yes I know you were talking about paintings but my brain didn't go there straight away. These ones shown here are damn good and the post was interesting, well as interesting as my half asleep brain could manage.

DUTA said...

De Medici is a well-known and well-remembered name along history. The members of this Florence located family, greatly promoted their political influence through arts and culture.

Liam Ryan said...

Oh yes, love the Medici.
I have watched quite a few documentaries and even the netflix series about them.
Thanks for the interesting read. I hope the exhibition comes to London.

Deb said...

Helen I love it.
You said that Cosimo the Elder was not a Medici, but was the son of a wealthy Florentine bank­er. Which only goes to show that genetic inheritance was only half the story. Good connections and important patronage counted just as much.

Margaret D said...

I really like the last painting, it feels real Hels.

Student, for Helen said...


You had that moment only because the 16th century portraits pro­vided a wonderful means of realistically painting likeness, character, soc­ial pos­ition and cul­t­ur­al ambitions. Had these paintings been abstract, non realistic and uber modern, you would not have thought they were the work of cameras.

Student, for Helen said...

DUTA Cosimo grabbed power first, and then established his dynasty as one of learning, arts, cultural refinement and imperialism down the generations. Helen's line is quite right: to convert the mercant­ile city into the capital of a Medici state, Cosimo en­listed the leading in­tellect­uals, promoting grand architectural, eng­in­eering and art projects.

Student, for Helen said...


Thank you. It will be very important for the blog readers and students to find the Netflix series about the Medici. I will publish the details in this blog if I can find them.

Student, for Helen said...


I agree that in that society in that century, good connections and powerful patronage counted a great deal. Cosimo emphasized how he specifically en­listed the leading in­tellect­uals for his grand architectural, eng­in­eering and art projects.

Student, for Helen said...

Margaret, There were many Medici portraits that proj­ected power and conveyed cultural refine­ment! But painting the mother and son together was suggesting that family strength and continuity were the most important qualities. It felt very real.

Medici Private Tour said...

The Medici Private Tour, Florence – the family and the TV series
A unique private tour to find out more about the Medici Family and the essence of their main characters. This Italian banking family had a political dynasty that began under Cosimo de' Medici in the Republic of Florence during the 15th century. A family who encouraged the careers of several artists as Michelangelo. A family that ruled Florence and, later, Tuscany becoming the symbol of a city and a very important part of its history.

This unique walking itinerary will take you to Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the first palace of the Family and home of Cosimo il Vecchio and Lorenzo il Magnifico. Here worked artists as Donatello, Michelangelo, Paolo Uccello, Benozzo Gozzoli and Botticelli. Also walk by Palazzo Strozzi, Palazzo Albizi and Palazzo Pazzi, amazing palaces of the Medici's enemy families. Discover the places where many of the scenes of the tv series “THE MEDICI” took place.

Hels said...

Many thanks for the information. I have been all around the inside of the Florence Museum myself, but that was years ago and I had no idea about The Medici Private Tour outside the museum. The tour outside will give a much more complete view of the Medicis.

Now the big question. During the 3 hour walk, is there a chance to sit and drink an espresso :)

Jenny Woolf said...

This sounds like a really worthwhile and serious exhibition, not enough art shows put the works into the context of their time, even now. And there is no substitute for seeing the art works themselves, gathered in the same place. I really do hope this show comes to London eventually. I've been a couple of times to Florence, and each time I left feeling dissatisfied, as if I was missing so much. If I ever see this show I feel it would help me to fill in some of the gaps I still have about this extraordinary family and their world.

Hels said...


I would prefer to see each work in the place it came originally from, seeing paintings as part of the family's or church's total decorative art plan. I am delighted that the paintings were not destroyed or hidden, and were given to galleries for safe keeping. But each gallery wall is naked, except for one or two paintings, and the floors are totally empty.

Having said that, I would give my second kidney to be able to personally inspect The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–70.