One family's fabled eye for art

For the first time, Americans can view part of the Medicis' art collection without traveling to Italy.

Incredible wealth and power, beauty, corruption, political intrigue. The Medici dynasty has all the right elements for a Hollywood epic.

Behind their ruthless leadership and tyrannical tactics was a family with a voracious appetite for the arts and sciences. One grand duke, Francesco, even built a secret chamber of 19 cupboards to store his precious collection.

The Medici dynasty, who ruled Italy from 1537-1631, is the subject of a new, touring exhibit, "The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence," at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Some 200 objects - from paintings and sculptures to decorative art and tapestries, mostly commissioned by the Medici family - will be on display through Feb. 2.

The late Renaissance is one of the great periods of artistic skill and craftsmanship. So it's surprising that the artists - with one notable exception - aren't the household names that their patrons have become.

But then, while the wealthy have collected art for centuries, there's never been anybody quite like the Medicis. They are credited with being the first to use art for political gain - sending paintings to rulers whom they wished to impress. And they patronized artists on such a scale that they turned Florence into a powerful cultural center.

"They had a great eye for art and had lots of money," says William Wallace, a top Michelangelo scholar and professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis. "It always helps to have both."

Without having to buy a plane ticket to Italy, Americans will be able to stand next to sculptures by Michelangelo, Cellini, and Bandinelli, and study works by major Italian painters Pontormo, Bronzino, and Vasari. It's the first time that most of these masterpieces have left Italy.

In the mini-Michelangelo room, visitors will come face to face with the rough-hewn large marble "Apollo/David" (a smaller version of "David") and a newly discovered Michelangelo drawing, "Design for a Candelabrum" from New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum. The wooden crucifix the artist was working on before he died sits in a glass case nearby. But the exhibition's emphasis is on those who commissioned the art, not the genius who created it.

"We did want this to be a Medici show and not a Michelangelo show," says curator Larry Feinberg. "We carefully chose what we thought was enough to tell the story and give him his due without having him overwhelm the Medici and everyone else in the show."

But the thread that ties the whole exhibition together is precisely the impact of Michelangelo on his contemporaries, says Mr. Wallace, who will be lecturing on the exhibit when it moves from Chicago to Detroit. "They were all equally influenced by the art genius."

For example, Michelangelo's elegant style can be seen in Pierino da Vinci's "River God." The sculpture of a pensive and graceful figure was originally thought to be created by Michelangelo himself. The black chalk "Dawn," by Salviati, was taken directly from Michelangelo's Medici tomb sculptures.

Throughout the exhibit, says Mr. Feinberg, visitors will see the "Apollo/David" pose, called the figura serpentina for a figure's twists and turns in space.

The exhibition features 14 rooms that tell the story of the first four Medici grand dukes - Cosimo I, his sons Francesco I and Ferdinando I, and grandson Cosimo II. The Medicis' art patronage, which surpassed that of ancient Greece in terms of the numbers of works commissioned, started in the 12th century and faded in the 18th century.

Cosimo I created the most powerful court, and the first half of the exhibition is devoted to the masterpieces created under his rule. One octagonal room with red walls is modeled after the Tribuna, the treasure room of Florence's Uffizi Gallery, which houses the Medici's greatest treasures. Included in this room is Bronzino's portrait "Young Man With a Lute." The youth's relaxed pose and large right hand holding the lute is influenced by Michelangelo's sculpture "Giuliano de' Medici."

Despite the tremendous flowering of the arts during this time, the people of Florence found the Medicis too ruthless. When Cosimo became ruler, he expanded his totalitarian ideas, seizing control of cities throughout Tuscany.

"But the majority of the Florentine populace grudgingly came to like Cosimo," says Feinberg. "They respected his intellect, and he brought security and tranquility to the region."

The Medicis might not have been as powerful if they hadn't been as shrewd in choosing wives as in commissioning art. Cosimo married Spanish Princess Eleonora di Toledo. His son, Ferdinando, married the granddaughter of the queen of France, and Cosimo II married the Archduchess of Austria, which allied the Medici family with the Hapsburg dynasty.

"The Medicis were very smart to elevate themselves to a European ruling house," says Feinberg. "They married into royalty."

The Medici wives are painted as powerful figures. In Pulzone's painting of Christine of Lorraine (wife of Ferdinando), she wears a dark red velvet and silk dress with a stiff white lace collar. A diamond-encrusted crown sits on a table to her right, suggesting the high ambitions of the Medici dynasty.

Cosimo's sons and grandson never matched his political or artistic influence. However, Francesco did establish a porcelain workshop, which produced the first blue-and-white porcelain in Europe. Hard-stone inlay (pietre dure), seen in gorgeous vases and stone-mosaic tabletops, thrived under Ferdinando's reign. And they continued to attract hundreds of artists, some of whom moved to Florence in hopes of being taken on by the Medici family.

"Michelangelo was patronized by the Medici family for 50 years," says Wallace. "To be patronized by the Medici gave an artist security that was nonexistent in the very scrambling competitive world of the Renaissance."

'The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence' is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago until Feb. 2. The exhibit moves to Detroit Institute of Arts March 16-June 8.

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