"The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence," a traveling exhibition of Florentine art and civilization just closed at the Art Institute of Chicago after a three-month run. It moves to the Detroit Institute of Arts, its final stop, in mid-March. Many of the 200 objects in this exhibition -- paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by Michelangelo, Bronzino, Pontormo, Salviati, Vasari and others -- have never left Italy before.
The show includes tapestry, armor, porcelain and decorative objects. There is even a conjectural recreation of the Studiolo in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, the hidden vault room where Francesco I de Medici stored his collection of scientific curios -- lumps of sulfur, alum, asphalt, petrified wood, amber, red coral, Murex shells and more.
Michelangelo and Mannerism
From 1537 to 1621, the first four Medici grand dukes -- Cosimo I, his sons Francesco I and Ferdinando I, and his grandson Cosimo II -- presided over a spectacular flowering of the arts and sciences in Florence. Michelangelo (1475-1564) towered over this time in art history. "The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence" presents nine Michelangelo drawings, a small wooden crucifix that he made, and David-Apollo (ca. 1525-30), a near life-size marble sculpture of a male nude. According to conflicting historical evidence, this work may represent either the Biblical David or the Greek god Apollo.
The head of David-Apollo is noticeably smaller than it would be in life. The limbs are unnaturally large and the torso is expressively twisted. Vasari called this figurative style (which was new in Italy at the time) maniera (Mannerism). Michelangelo's Mannerism influenced painters and sculptors throughout the Late Renaissance and Baroque eras.
After bringing David-Apollo close to completion, Michelangelo abandoned it. We see the marks of his chisels and rakes on the unfinished sculpture as if he's just stepped out for lunch and will soon return. David-Apollo lets us imagine that we are visiting the studio of one of history's greatest artists.
Pierino da Vinci's Pisa Restored (ca. 1552) is an allegorical relief in Carrara marble that shows Cosimo I de Medici leading a group of classically draped men and women toward Pisa. Cosimo raises up a female personification of the city and lifts his scepter to banish vice. The Medici commissioned many such self-aggrandizing images to consolidate their power in the eyes of the citizenry and intimidate enemies. Busts and portraits of the Medici family served similar purposes. Copies became gifts that sealed political alliances.
Agnolo Bronzino is one of the stars of this show. His Eleonora of Toledo and Her Son Giovanni (after 1545) depicts the wife of Cosimo I in a wondrous silk dress with arabesques of black velvet and gold thread. The dress overpowers Eleonora and her beautiful child. We also see a handsome Duke Cosimo I de Medici in Armor (after 1545), painted by Bronzino's workshop, and a brooding Young Man With a Lute (ca. 1532-34), by the master himself.
Bronzino's portraits dazzle, but Jacopo Pontormo's catch our eye because he presents sitters in plain surroundings to focus attention on their psychology. We see just a partially shadowed face in Alessandro de Medici (1534), a portrait of a brutal, disturbed duke who was eventually murdered. Giovanni della Casa (1541) depicts a church prelate, a man of great strength and faith, while Maria Salviati and a Child (ca. 1537 or 1543), which shows the mother of Duke Cosimo I, is equally straightforward and revealing.
There is narrative art too -- Salviati's moving Christ Carrying the Cross (ca. 1547), Christofano Allori's operatic Judith with the Head of Holofernes (ca. 1616-18); and Venus at Her Toilette (1558), a confection by Vasari. The show even includes a pinup -- Jacopo Zucchi's The Coral Fishery (ca. 1580), with eight dewy-eyed, Renaissance cuties, who wear nothing but their smiles as they fish languidly for coral and pearls.
Objects in the corners make this exhibition unusually rich and suggestive of its time. Mirabello Cavalori's Wool Factory (ca. 1570-72), which hung in the Studiolo of Francesco I, is surely accurate in technical terms, for the artist was the son of a dyer. We see men washing and treating wool in a large indoor structure. Technology made great advances during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy, because the climate of the times encouraged broad interests and an open mind.
Jacopo Ligozzi's Horned Viper and Viper of Avicenna (1577), a chalk and colored tempera work on paper, is one of some 150 plates to survive from a series of plant and animal pictures. Recording facts about the natural world in encyclopedic fashion would grow into modern science.
Kicking Tradition Aside
A philosopher once likened today's people to dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. We can see farther than our ancestors could because the traditions they created support us. If we kick tradition aside, we dangle in mid-air then fall into the abyss.
The Renaissance was a wonderful, thrilling time that can never be repeated. Europe rediscovered the Classics. It drew upon these and Christian sources in its art. The proverbial Renaissance Man thirsted after knowledge of all kinds. There were just a few artists -- but what artists they were.