Displaying the Dynasty: Behind the Scenes of the “Cinquecento” with The Medici
Written by Jonatan Turpin
Renaissance Florence is unrivalled for the lifelike interplay between subtlety and sensuality in its paintings and sculptures. Walking through the “Cinquecento” exhibition currently open at Palazzo Strozzi, I was transported into its vibrant world of intense religiosity and profanity. Works by Michelangelo and Giambologna evoke deep feelings of awestruck admiration even four-hundred years later. Many of the masterpieces here were produced for the contemporary Medici Dynasty. The patronage of the Medici court culture caused an explosion in Florence’s art in the Cinquecento, with both buildings and art used as propaganda to glorify their power.
This marble dominates the first room, making me feel overwhelmed by Cellini’s confidence. Staged heroically standing above a submissive subject, Cellini’s marble represents the power and virility of the Medici’s politics. The masculine pose of the god Apollo standing over the admiring Hyacinth is deliberately reminiscent of the near-contemporary statue “Hercules and Cacus” by Baccio Bandinelli which can be seen in Piazza della Signoria. However, rather than showing a collaboration between the two sculptors, the similarities point to the intense rivalry which defined Florence’s Cinquecento period. Cellini and Bandinelli in fact argued bitterly in front of Cosimo de Medici over the use of this marble block. Founder of the Medici Dynasty, Cosimo used his private banking fortune to gain de facto political power over Tuscany’s local councils. Cosimo patronised the arts to act as self-promotion for his rule. Those artists using such similar Greco-Roman subject matter and classical sculpting style should compete are not unusual. However that they did so in such a public manner at court reveals to us that although the money and fame offered by the Medici could inspire great art, it also caused bitter strife.
Midway through the exhibition, this is the first piece which shows a member of the Medici. After so many colourful oversized frescoes it was insightful to, at last, see a realistic historical portrait. Francesco I was the firstborn heir to Cosimo, the patriarch of the family who had funded the competing projects of Bandinelli and Cellini. A generation later it was Francesco who controlled the family’s fortune. His art school made him subject of many artists’ works. One of the greatest of these dependencies was Alessandro Allori, a greatly talented mannerist painter schooled by the great Agnolo Bronzino. Allori’s “Portrait” embodies the dichotomy between traditional surface matter and subversive allegorical statement which defines the art of the Cinquecento. At first I thought this was a generic portrait boasting Francesco’s power. However, beneath the dignified dress and posture of the ruling Medici duchy, his expression of melancholic contemplation reminded me of the reality of political instability that he faced.
This final piece caught my eye due to its high realism and historical connection to the Medici. On the surface this statue is highly similar to Cellini’s “Apollo and Hyacinth” as both pieces are medium-scale sculptures from the late sixteenth century. Both also promote the prevailing contemporary political doctrine of the Medici that “might is right” in the physical dominance of the heroes over their vanquished companion. However Ammannati’s sculpture is far more violent and dynamic in its depiction of the wrestling contest between two demigods. This was a favourite subject of classical sculpture. Ammannati’s decision to imitate it demonstrates the mythic propaganda which the Medici commissioned from artists to associate their rule with Italy’s legendary past. Cosimo in particular often sought to associate himself with Hercules.
Leaving the exhibition I felt a new appreciation for the complexities of Tuscan art during the Cinquecento. I noticed a running theme of intense physicality in both bodies and expressions. This was inspired by the artistic and political self-promoting legacy of the Medici Dynasty.