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For the Medici, the Last Great Picture Show

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It’s hard to imagine Florence, cradle of the High Renaissance of early modern Europe, without its avaricious, venal, culture-conscious first family, the Medici. Crowned and uncrowned, during periods of supposedly republican government and not, they largely ruled the city-state, or connived to, from the mid-14th to the mid-18th centuries, using art to cement their power.

They excelled at banking and prospered especially when their Rome branch quietly became banker to the popes. They also populated the Catholic Church’s hierarchy with relatives, popes included, most importantly Leo X — born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici — who became Bishop of Rome in 1513, followed shortly by his cousin, Clement VII (born Giulio de’ Medici). Both worked assiduously on the family’s behalf.

The Medici persevered through exile, popular uprisings, war with neighboring city states, chronic street fighting, a spasm of violent religious fundamentalism, bouts of the plague and a devastating siege. The family returned to power with the ascension of Alessandro de’ Medici, who in 1532, became the first hereditary Duke of Florence.

In “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570,” a sumptuous, vigorous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we join the family in its final hurrah of civic brilliance. Most of the show centers on Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), plucked from a “junior” line of Medicis to become the Duke of Florence at age 17. But he knew what he was about. He reorganized the city’s bureaucracy and became the last of the dynasty’s three great cultural adjudicators. Before him came Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), both defacto rulers by dint of their wealth and cunning. The pair’s combined patronage extended the length of the High Renaissance, from Donatello and Brunelleschi to Michelangelo and da Vinci.

The show numbers around 90 objects: painted portraits, portrait busts and reliefs, books and manuscripts, medals and cameos, some wonderful drawings and a few weapons, including a sword that once belonged to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, often a Medici adversary. Organized by Keith Christiansen, retiring chairman of the Met’s European painting department, and Carlo Falciani, professor of art history at the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, it demonstrates the transformative effect of Cosimo’s patronage on the art of portraiture and the rise of Mannerism, which followed the High Renaissance and countered its emphasis on grace, order and natural proportion with artifice: elongated bodies, complex poses and exaggerated perspective.

By the time Cosimo became the second Duke of Florence, the city’s political importance was fading as were the Renaissance ideals of balance and rationality. The task as Cosimo saw it was to maintain the illusion of Medici power through art. And so he took advantage of several developments: the ongoing secularization of art and painting’s growing attention to actual people, and its rising status as portable market commodity. These were spurred in part by the growing use of oil paint over egg tempera, which allowed for more lavish colors and textures — all the better to depict the one percent. And paintings now could be copied and sent throughout Italy and Europe, propagandizing for Cosimo I, the Medici and Florence all at once.

The star here is the consummate Agnolo Bronzino, who became one of Cosimo I’s court painters in 1539, and made more than half of the 49 paintings on view. His works appear in the show’s six galleries, dominating whole walls.

Nearly all his paintings are the height of Mannerist distortion and unbalanced elegance, androgynous sensuality, with an astonishingly consistent perfection of hauteur and surface. It is as if Bronzino studied the porcelainic purity of Raphael’s and Botticelli’s Madonnas and gave it to everyone, all over. His mostly nude “Saint John the Baptist” (1560-61) is a luscious young man whose peaches and cream complexion extends to his toes. Nearby a half-length painting of Saint Sebastian reimagines its subject as an almost foppish youth with auburn hair and a single arrow piercing his smooth torso.

The exhibition is episodic and unpredictable, in a good way. Its focus changes gallery by gallery. An impressive combination of history, art history, back stories and gossip is fueled visually by continual tensions between naturalism and artifice: Contrasting with Bronzino’s treatment is the softer, more forgiving style of Francesco Salviati, a lesser known Mannerist and the second most represented artist in the exhibition. He is one of its revelations, moving in and out of Bronzino’s orbit, but ultimately it seems that he can’t quit naturalism.

And it’s all put together like a Swiss watch; there’s nothing that doesn’t cross-reference. Jacobo da Pontormo’s somber portrait of the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici, from 1534-35, shows him in mourning dress for Clement VII, who in turn is seen nearby in a portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, looking intently to the side, as if listening. Beside Alessandro, an easily-missed bronze medal depicts his distant cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici, whom history remembers for assassinating Alessandro in 1537, clearing the way for Cosimo I’s ascension. The murderer commissioned the medal himself in the guise of a comely Brutus.

Elsewhere you may be drawn to the slanting handwriting in the bound manuscript in which Bronzino, as serious a poet as painter, recorded his poems and those written in response by his correspondents. His beautiful script appears on the open pages of a book of Petrarch’s sonnets held by his close friend, the poet Laura Battiferri, the subject of an especially virtuosic portrait distinguished by her aquiline profile and all-but transparent short veil.

Bronzino’s Mannerism jumps out from the first gallery in a 1532-33 portrait of an imperious young woman in brilliant red with a lapdog. Its cool radiant precision is heightened by the contrast with its duller, less assertive neighbor: a similarly posed woman in pink by Pier Francesco Foschi. Pontormo (Bronzino’s teacher) restates this startling refinement and aloofness with more heat and pliability in “Portrait of a Halberdier (probably Francesco Guardi),” an androgynous young aristocrat with a cinched waist and a look of sleepy snobbishness.

The Met has devoted a gallery to the all-important subject of family and succession, and introduces a welcome female subject: Eleonora di Toledo, the capable wife of Cosimo I, and some of her sons. (She had 11 children.) One of her gowns is also on view, impressively intact, in deep red velvet, with tied-on sleeves that appear in her portraits. Nearby, the show’s first Bronzino portrait of her husband shows him in spiky armor, looking warily to the right. A nice touch: His hand, resting on his shiny helmet, is doubled by its perfect reflection.

The show’s big center section turns to Cosimo’s involvement with literature and the revival of humanism. Across from its wall of nudes — all male, all by Bronzino — are a string of thoughtful men, mostly young, in black and holding books. Most are members of the Accademia Fiorentina, which Cosimo sponsored. The Met’s great Bronzino “Portrait of a Young Man With a Book” (1530s), presents an arrogant youth in noticeably expensive black. The contrast of this work with a recent acquisition, Salviati’s “Carlo Rimbotti,” a smaller, far more approachable portrait, sparked the idea for this show, as Christiansen recounts in his illuminating catalog introduction.

In the final spectacular gallery, it’s just Bronzino and Salviati, duking it out, as it were. The Medici as subjects have disappeared, although both artists worked for a time in the Palazzo Vecchio, the historic structure that Cosimo had taken for his private residence. Ultimately Bronzino’s bracing steadiness of style would prevail, as instantly legible as a brand,culminating here in a showstopper like the portrait of a woman tentatively identified as Cassandra Bandini, who breaks through as a real person without shattering the artifice. Behind her, an undulant cascade of a semi-transparent textile striped in dark green is nearly abstract. Finally, there’s Bronzino’s portrait of the military leader Stefano Colonna in glamorous matte black armor before what looks like purple taffeta. Next to him hangs the exquisite black-chalk study of his delicate, bearded face.

Facing this, Salviati’s paintings can’t help but look motley, at least initially. If Bronzino’s volleys land in the same place again and again, Salviati seems to try a different return each time. He opts for intensely psychological, realist austerity in a portrait of Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, Clement VII’s major-domo. But Salviati’s “Portrait of a Young Man With a Dog” has many Mannerist attributes, from the elongated neck, small head and boneless fingers, to the spatial and symbolic ambiguities in the background: a cracked wall, a levitating angel and a patch of landscape.

And, to modern eyes, Salviati’s “Portrait of a Man” almost seems to be a Mannerist prank, with its appealing subject— his arms akimbo, gloves in hand, pinkie ring on display — and a confusing scene with an allegorical river god and a friendly Florentine lion. Verging on vamping is the swath of knotted green fabric behind him. The label says it signifies the bonds of love but here it can read as a flamboyant dig at his rival Bronzino’s more routine affection for green, evident in several other works in the gallery.

Then Salviati ends on a high note by turning more fully to the real, not the Mannerist, world: his grand portrait of Bindo Altoviti, a wealthy banker who opposed the Medicis and had his Florentine property confiscated by Cosimo. His face has real shadows, his mouth seems about to speak, just as his soft eyes are about to blink. Not a single attenuated finger in sight. He’s almost one of us. His image provides a place to pause, connect and catch your breath in this extraordinary, complexly choreographed show.

The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570

From Saturday through Oct. 11, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 535-7710; Currently open to members. Entry is by timed ticket or reservation.


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