If the Reianissance has come to symbolize the rich cultural confluence that swept through 16th-century Europe, it also means one city -- Florence -- and the one family who cultivated it -- the Medici. Together, they inspired nothing less than the birth of modern European culture.

To honor his protean achievement, the Council of Europe is sponsoring a 13 -nation salute to both Florence and the Medici in the form of a citywide exhibition. "Florence, Tuscany, and the Medici in 16th-century Europe," occasioned by the 500th anniversary of the Medici dynasty, boasts some nine separate shows, each detailing a specific facet of renaissance culture as it evolved in Medicean Florence.

Thus, from science to art to politics, the shows investigate the classical underpinnings that stirred contemporary Florentine culture, the bold reinterpretation of Greek antiquity by scholars and artists, and its inevitable cultural impact on larger European society. In short, the shows trace the spark of scientific, and artistic inquiry that ignited the Renaissance imagination. For this purpose, Florence itself has been transformed into a cultural microcosm , a showcase for the forces that fed and freed the most gifted minds ever assembled in a single place in a single age.

The council's celebration is as overwhelming as the city and the family it commemorates. In a city already brimming with great art, the Council of Europe has infused Florence with even more treasures. Culling artwork and documents from Europe's finest collections, the consortium has augmented Florence's permanent Renaissance holdings. What awaits viewers, therefore, are roomfuls of drawings by Michelangelo and Del Sarto, casefuls of original notebooks by da Vinci and Galileo, and shelffuls of first editions by Machiavelli and Vasari.

Moreover, as the exhibitions themselves are housed within some of the finest examples of Renaissance artitecture, principally former Medici palaces, viewers will spend as much time studying the walls as the paintings hanging on them. In this respect, "Florence, Tuscany, and the Medici in 16th-century Europe" is a unique cultural event.It successfully attempts to fuse in a single celebration the rich diversity of cultural achievement spawned by Medicean Florence.

One would be hard pressed to name another nonmonarchical family which, on a world scale, exerted as profound an influence as the Medicis. Not only is it impossible to visit Tuscany without seeing their six-ball crest stamped everywhere, but their very name has become synonymous in contemporary vocabulary with uniform supremacy.

However extensive its political clout -- the consolidation of Tuscany, the European expansionism,the influential sea trafficking -- unarguably, the Medici legacy is a cultural one. No family in history can rival its importance as a cultural catalyst. From their court issued the very wellsprings of modern European art and scholarship, dis ciplines stimulated by family interest, patronage, and, above, all money.

Like so many early Italian powerbrokers, the Medici began as a banking family. As early as 1460 the family was operating as papal and international banking agents. This, in part, explains how its members were able to consolidate and secure power in a city splintered by political factionalism. Outbidding competing families, the Medici assumed mastery of Florence's guilds while cleverly continuing to support populist causes.

Although the dynasty, which became a hereditary monarchy in all but name, spanned 15 generations, it's commonly conceded its power was keenest only under four early members, notably: Cosimo the Elder (1389- 1464), his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), Cosimo I (1519-1574), and Ferdinand I (1587-1609).

It's not coincidental that the exhibitions focus on these four figures. Each marks a significant phase in the cultural and political evolution of the Medici family. With Cosimo the Elder's brilliant return from a year's exile in 1434, the Medici legend begins. The archetypical "Renaissance man" -- scholar, patron , politician -- Cosimo is credited with transforming Florence into the seat of classical learning. His particular contribution, so evident today, lies in his championing of Florence's two major architects, Brunelleschi and Michelozzi. Medici cultural patronage reached its zenith under Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo. His celebrated court, forum for cultural luminaries like Michelangelo and Machiavelli, established Florence as the art and literary capital of the Western world. This tradition was later institutionalized by Cosimo I, who, in 1551, commissioned Florence's finest artists to glorify Medici supremacy through art. The expansion of Medici treasures was carried to its conclusion by Ferdinand I, Who death in 1609 signaled the eclipse of Medici sovereignty.

Of all the current exhibits, perhaps none captures the cumulative raw power of Medici patronage as does "The Medici as Collectors." Housed in he famous Palazzo Vecchio, the official seat of Medici power from 1537-1609, the exhibit provides a rare opportunity to assess the intricate relationship between political and cultural patronage.

While outstanding examples of Medici art treasures are on display, notably, Verrochio's bronze "Cupid with Dolphin," Bronzino's "Besancon Pieta," and a rare Etruscan statue repaired by Cellini, one's attention is constantly siphoned off by the palazzo itself. This is particularly the case in the so-called "Salon of the 500," the former deputy chamber. Here Vasari's 39 panels illustrating the Medici history virtually overshadow the existence of Michelangelo's statue of David-Apollo.

The Medici instinct for self-promotion is more subtly but no less effectively evident in "The Princely Stage." Held in the magnificent Palazzo Medici-Riccardi , site of Lorenzo's famous court, the show chronicles Florentine theater as it literally grew out of the Medici court into the celebrated commedia dell'arte. Six rooms have been allocated to theatrical innovations such as semimobile sun devices and rotating scene changes. Most interesting, however, are the items which show how the Medici transformed Florence into a gigantic stage for its own drama. In 1589, for example, six triumphal arches were erected so that Cristina de Medici could enter the city with theatrical elan on her wedding day.

Ironically, the finest exhibit only indirectly features the Medici. "The Primacy of Design," an eloquent if exhaustive look at the Florentine school of drawing, studies art done outside the Medici court. This is an exhibit one must see several times. For assembled in some 20 rooms are some of the world's finest drawings, works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Del Sarto, Bronzino, and Pontormo.

If art was an integral part of the humanist code, so then was science. And the Council of Europe has delivered as handsomely on that score as on the art. The centerpiece exhibit is clearly "The Rebirth of Science," held in the Michelangelo-designed Laurentian Library. On display are original handwritten notebooks by da Vinci and Galileo, the latter's telescope; the original Vespucci and Verrazzano maps; Ligozzi's plant drawings; and goldcrafted scientific instruments developed during the 16th century.

Other exhibits, generally more scholarly in nature, are: "Printing, Publishing, and Society," a look at the art and impact of typography; "The Florentine Christian Community," held in the gemlike church, Santo Stefano al Ponte, assembles original documents on the Council of Trent; "The Medici and Europe: Sea-Merchants," investigates diplomatic alliances; "Magic and Alchemy," takes a sober look at 16th-century occultism; finally, "Power and Space," a look at the development of an architectural language to promote political imagery.

Lest this not be enough, stalwart viewers should note that a number of satellite Tuscan towns -- Siena, Prato, Lucca, Arezzo, and Pisa -- are also hosts to exhibits on Medici themes. These shows, as well as the Council of Europe's full-scale exhibition in Florence, are expected to continue through early fall.

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