Gothic Art at the Uffizi

In 1560, the Duke of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici (later Grand Duke of Tuscany), commissioned the construction of the Uffizi to house magistrates, seats of the Florentine guilds, and judiciary offices. It is from this function that the building derived its name (“Uffizi” means “Offices” in English). To design and supervise the new building project, Cosimo commissioned Giorgio Vasari, who, for the last several years, had been restructuring and decorating the Palazzo Vecchio, Cosimo’s newly adopted ducal residence. Describing his design for the new building, Vasari is said to have proclaimed:

I have never built anything more difficult nor dangerous, being founded in the river, and almost in air.

After Vasari’s death in 1574, the project was finished by Bernardo Buontalenti.

Cosimo’s son and heir, Grand Duke Francesco I, opened the first museum exhibition of the Gallery in 1581. The ceilings of the Gallery were decorated with what was known as “grotesque” motifs, which were inspired by the paintings of the Domus Aurea (Emperor Nero’s former home) and reflected those in the recently renovated Ducal Apartments in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The collection of works built up over successive Medici dukes, each acquiring and adding new pieces to the Gallery. Ferdinando I transferred the Jovian series (a collection of portraits) from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Gallery. This collection was mixed with the Aulica Series, a collection of portraits of the principal members of the Medici family, which was commissioned by Francesco I. The dowry of Vittoria della Rovere, Ferdinando II’s wife, included several Titians and Raphaels that ended up in the Gallery. Cosimo III, the son of Ferdinando II and Vittoria della Rovere, appointed Paolo Falconieri as the curator of Gallery and obtained papal permission to transfer ancient statues from the Villa Medici in Rome (including the Venus of the Medici, the Wrestlers, and Arrotino) to Florence.

Ultimately, Gian Gastone de’Medici died in 1737 with no heirs, and so the Medici family lost their hardwon Grand Duchy of Tuscany to Francesco Stefano di Lorena (the son-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI). (Gian Gastone was too ineffectual a ruler to secure the title for his closest male relative, Don Carlos, later King Charles III of Spain, who ceded Tuscany to the Holy Roman Emperor in return for the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily). Although Gian Gastone lost the title, his sister, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici, did manage to hold on to the art collection. But, as it happens, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici also died with no heirs. Prior to her death, she declared the collection to be “public and inalienable property,” thereby ensuring that it would remain intact and in Florence.

Francesco Stefano’s successor, Pietro Leopoldo di Lorena opened the gallery to the public in 1769. Between 1842-1856, Leopold II commissioned 28 statues for the niches of the pillars on the square. These statues were of Tuscan figures dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century.

Room 2. Giotto and the 13th Century.

Since the 1950s, Room 2 of the Uffizi has housed Italian works dating from the 13th century. One of the central pieces in this room is Cenni di Peppi’s Santa Trinita Maestà (c. 1290-1300). Cenni di Peppi, known as Cimabue (translated as “Ox-headed” or “bullheaded,” perhaps indicating that Cimabue was hotheaded or had an aggressive personality; indeed, Dante places him among the proud in purgatory in his Divine Comedy), is viewed as the dividing line between the “old” Byzantine school of art and the “new” European tradition.

The reason for this thinking is epitomized in Cimabue’s Maestà of Santa Trinita (destined for the main altar of its eponymous Vallombrosian church in Florence). This altarpiece fuses the traditional Byzantine style with the emerging naturalism of the Gothic. For instance, Mary is positioned as the Byzantine Virgin Hodegetria, an iconographic depiction of Mary wherein she simultaneously holds the baby Jesus and points to him, indicating that he is the salvation of the world. This depiction is also known as Our Lady of the Way, a title derived from the Greek word “Hodegetria,” translated as “she who shows the way.” It was modeled after a famous icon allegedly painted by St. Luke himself. Also typical of Byzantine paintings is Cimabue’s use of damascene, i.e. the inlay of gold within the robes of the Virgin and Child, the golden background, which was used to signify that this scene took place out of time, and the solemn expressions of the angels.

Yet, the piece is unique for its expressive depiction of several Old Testament prophets (located at the bottom to signify that they form the foundation of the Church; they are from left to right: Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah) as well as detailed personalization in the other figures, which had not been seen prior to this time. Compare the visages between those in this piece with those in a piece from only 20-25 years earlier.

The faces in the Cimabue are more natural while Saint Veranus’ face (in the altarpiece on the right) seems more fitted to a cartoon. Moreover, notice the differences in spatial depth. The Cimabue creates three dimensions via foreshortening of the angels near the front of the throne while the Saint Veranus altarpiece looks flat. Noticing these differences, Vasari wrote:

“[T]here being seen therein a certain greater quality of excellence, both in the air of the heads and in the folds of the draperies, than had been shown in the Greek manner [i.e. Byzantine] up to that time by anyone who had wrought anything, not only in Pisa, but in all Italy. ”

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.

Cimabue’s innovations were picked up by his (probable) student, Giotto di Bondone, who went even further and replaced the Byzantine style with a greater sense of naturalism, rediscovered the lost art of perspective, and introduced the concept of narrative painting.

In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim-
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.

Dante's Purgatorio XI, 94-96 (Mandelbaum Translation).

Judging from Dante’s words in his Purgatorio (written around 1314), it is clear that Giotto’s innovative techniques are not only appreciated by us and art historians, but were acknowledged as groundbreaking by his immediate contemporaries.

That very obligation which the craftsmen of painting owe to nature, who serves continually as model to those who are ever wresting the good from her best and most beautiful features and striving to counterfeit and to imitate her, should be owed, in my belief, to Giotto, painter of Florence, for the reason that, after the methods of good paintings and their outlines had lain buried for so many years under the ruins of the wars, he alone, although born among inept craftsmen, by the gift of God revived that art, which had come to a grievous pass, and brought it to such a form as could be called good. And truly it was a very great miracle that that age, gross and inept, should have had strength to work in Giotto in a fashion so masterly, that design, whereof the men of those times had little or no knowledge, was restored completely to life by means of him.

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing

It was around this time that people’s attitudes towards art was changing as well. During the Medieval period, artists were considered skilled laborers akin to stonemasons or metalworkers. After the advent of Cimabue, however, artists were becoming celebrities. Lorenzo de’Medici even organized a monument to Giotto to stand in the Duomo. Prior to that time, monuments had only been erected for military and literary heroes. Art was, in short, becoming art.

The fascination with Giotto continued well after his death. Indeed, Vincent van Gogh once said of Giotto: “Giotto touched me the most — always suffering and always full of kindness and ardour as if he were already living in a world other than this. Giotto is extraordinary, anyway, and I feel him more than the poets: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.” Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo van Gogh, as translated by The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Although Giotto is best known for his tower (pictured left), his Ognissanti Maestà (c. 1310) illuminates the reason for his fame.

The Ognissanti Maestà derives its name, in part, from the positioning of Mary in a throne (maestà is the Italian word for majesty), and in part from its intended location, the Church of All Saints (Ogni is the Italian word for “each” or “all” and so ognissanti may be translated as “all saints”) where it was to be hung above the Umiliati Altar. Due to the position of the Umiliati Altar, it is believed that the altarpiece is meant to be seen from the right, and indeed, if you look at the piece from the right, it takes on a new sense of depth and spatial awareness that it only hints at when viewed headon. It is this spatial awareness that Giotto reintroduced into panel paintings that helped launch the Renaissance and earned him his fame.

Ognissanti Maestà

Giotto also strayed away from ornamental details to focus on the naturalism of his figures, giving each a different expression full of human emotion. As for the iconography in this work: Jesus is depicted giving a blessing with his right hand and holding a rolled parchment, a symbol of wisdom, in his left, while the angels at the foot of the throne are offering both roses and lilies. The roses allude to charity, Christ’s passion, and Mary herself, who was and is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns). The lilies allude to purity. The angels on either side of the throne hold a crown and a pyxis, alluding to the human nature of Christ and therefore his ultimate sacrifice. The many saints depicted surrounding the throne allude to the painting’s intended location, All Saints in Florence.

The last Maestà in this room is known as The Rucellai Madonna (c. 1285) by Duccio di Buoninsegna, a painter from Siena. It is the largest painting on wood from the 13th century known to date and was commissioned for the Santa Maria Novella by the Florentine confraternity Compagnia dei Laudesi, a lay fraternity dedicated to singing devotional hymns to the Virgin. Its name was derived from the chapel owned by the Rucellai family where it hung at the end of the 16th century. Like Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna, this altarpiece is meant to be viewed from the right.

Rucellai Madonna

Also like Giotto’s Maestà, the Rucellai Madonna fuses traditional Byzantine aspects (the gold lettering and the construction of the figures’ solemn faces) with the innovative techniques of Cimabue, including the distribution of light and shade to create depth (a technique known as chiaroscuro), draped fabrics, and the foreshortening of objects to make them appear closer to the viewer, seen here in the throne and the slight angle of Mary. Behind Mary, angels hold a banner, emphasizing her status and honor.

Room 3. Sienese Painting of the 14th Century

Like Room 2, Room 3 was designed and curated during the 1950s. It documents the transition from the 13th century fusion of Byzantine and Gothic into the 14th century “fairytale” esque style, which emphasized courtly elegance and romanticism via multicolored fabrics, elaborate flooring and marble overlay, and increased use of gold leaf. The main proponents of this style were Simone Martini, his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, and the Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro.

Simone Martini, sometimes known as Simone Memmi due to his relationship to Lippo Memmi, worked in Avignon, where he met Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, the Italian poet who is often credited as the source of the modern Italian language. Petrarch wrote of Simone:

Per mirar Policleto a prova fiso 
con gli altri ch’ebber fama di quell’arte, 
mill’anni non vedrian la minor parte 
della beltà che m’àve il cor conquiso. 

Ma certo il mio Simon fu in Paradiso 
onde questa gentil donna si parte; 
ivi la vide, et la ritrasse in carte, 
per far fede qua giù del suo bel viso. 

L’opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo 
si ponno imaginar, non qui tra noi, 
ove le membra fanno a l’alma velo; 

cortesia fe', né la potea far poi 
che fu disceso a provar caldo et gielo 
et del mortal sentiron gli occhi suoi.

Petrarch, Canz. 77.

Had Policletus seen her, or the rest
Who, in past time, won honour in this art,
A thousand years had but the meaner part
Shown of the beauty which o'ercame my breast.

But Simon sure, in Paradise the blest,
Whence came this noble lady of my heart,
Saw her, and took this wond'rous counterpart
Which should on earth her lovely face attest.

The work, indeed, was one, in heaven alone
To be conceived, not wrought by fellow-men,
Over whose souls the body's veil is thrown:

'Twas done of grace: and fail'd his pencil when
To earth he turn'd our cold and heat to bear,
And felt that his own eyes but mortal were.

As Translated by Major Robert Macgregor.

Had Polycletus in proud rivalry
On her his model gazed a thousand years,
Not half the beauty to my soul appears,
In fatal conquest, e'er could he descry.

But, Simon, thou wast then in heaven's blest sky,
Ere she, my fair one, left her native spheres,
To trace a loveliness this world reveres
Was thus thy task, from heaven's reality.

Yes—thine the portrait heaven alone could wake,
This clime, nor earth, such beauty could conceive,
Where droops the spirit 'neath its earthly shrine:

The soul's reflected grace was thine to take,
Which not on earth thy painting could achieve,
Where mortal limits all the powers confine.

As Translated by Susan Wollaston.

High praise coming from one of Italy’s foremost writers. Although the portrait Simone painted for Petrarch is lost, his Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333), which he worked on in partnership with Lippo Memmi, may just as easily be described as “one, in heaven alone to be conceived.” The piece was commissioned for the altar of St. Ansanus in the transept of the Siena Cathedral to pair with Duccio’s Masestà, discussed above (it is likely that Martini trained under Duccio).

Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus

On one side of the work is the martyr Ansanus (a patron saint of Siena), who bears a banner with Siena’s colors (not pictured here). On the other side is another martyr, who some have identified as Maxima, the mother of Ansanus, or Margaret (the inscription identifying her as Judith has been proven incorrect and not part of the original work). Gabriel points upwards towards the incarnation of the Holy Spirit with one hand, and in the other, he holds an olive branch, a sign of peace. The vase of lilies at the feet of Mary symbolize her purity.

The Latin streaming from Gabriel’s mouth states, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (“AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM”), and the rest of the prayer is embroidered in Gabriel’s robes.

Martini was interested in colorful patterns, but it was his decorative details that really took off, prompting the development of the school known as the International Gothic, the subject of a later post.

Room 4. Florentine Painting of the 14th Century.

While 14th century Sienese painting was typified by courtly elegance and otherworldly grandeur, 14th century Florentine painting continued, and further developed, Giotto’s 13th century innovations (naturalistic figures, luminosity, and spatial awareness). The major players here include Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, Pacino di Bonaguida, Giottino, and Giovanni da Milano.

Lippo di Benivieni’s altarpiece (c. 1315), although not found in Room 4 because it was acquired as part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, is more properly discussed among its 14th century Florentine brethren.

Madonna and Child between a Pope and a Bishop

Not much is known about Lippo di Benivieni, aside from the fact that he was working in Florence during the 14th century. His skill, however, can be appreciated in this altarpiece.

The expressions, produced via shading, are much more realistic and three dimensional than those produced during the 13th century, although they do retain the austere solemnity of the Byzantine tradition. Lippo also used shading to give three dimensions to the Bishop’s collar, which gives depth to the painting not seen in prior art.

It was Bernardo Daddi, however, who was considered the leading painter in Florence at this time. Daddi was a student of Giotto and like his teacher, he sought to portray his figures as realistic as possible. To do so, he combined Giotto’s innovations with stylistic features from the Sienese school. Daddi’s first dated work is the Triptych with Virgin and Child between St. Matthew and St. Nicholas of Bari (1328) depicts the Virgin Mary with St. Nicholas of Bari on the right and St. Matthew the Evangelist on the left. The work was commissioned by Nicholaus de Mazinghis, which explains St. Nicholas’ appearance in the piece. In the tondos above each figure is Christ giving a blessing.

Triptych with Virgin and Child between Saint Matthew the Evangelist and Saint Nicholas of Bari, Bernardo Daddi (1328)

Daddi’s San Pancrazio Polyptych was likely painted after this Triptych, sometime during the 1330s. (The San Pancrazio Polyptych is mistakenly identified as an Agnolo Gaddi by Vasari).

San Pancrazio Polyptych, Bernardo Daddi

The Virgin and Child are the principal image, and they are surrounded by St. Pancrazio (who eponymous Church was the home of this altarpiece), St. Zenobius, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. Reparata, and St, Miniato (from left to right). The predella contains images from the life of the Virgin, demonstrating Daddi’s skill in miniaturist painting. It Daddi’s figure of Mary, however, that demonstrates Giotto’s influence:

The similarities between the thrones is remarkable: each decorated with inlaid marble, each with a delicately decorated ciborium (canopy of state), each surrounded by angels, and each with roses and lilies at the foot of the throne. Yet, the differences between the two are equally astounding. In Giotto’s version, the angels piously face Mary and Jesus, but the angels in Daddi’s version are interacting with each other, creating a narrative image rather than a simple icon to be worshiped. This theme is reflected in the depiction of Mary and Jesus; the Mary and Jesus in Giotto’s version face the viewer, directly connecting with him or her while the Mary and Jesus in Daddi’s version face each other, establishing the mother-child relationship while Baby Jesus reaches towards a flower held by his mother. Rather than a simple icon to be mediated upon or worshipped, Daddi’s version gives human context and emotions to his figures, indicating a move towards the Renassiance and, later, Mannerism, a style focused intensely on emotion.

Also part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, but is better discussed here is Agnolo Gaddi’s Virgin and Child with Ten Angels and the Saints Benedict, Peter, John the Baptist, and Miniatus (c. 1380). Interestingly, this altarpiece is actually a combination of two separate works by Gaddi. The side panels were likely meant for the church of San Miniato in Florence, while the central panel featuring Mary enthroned was a separate piece.

Virgin and Child with ten angels and the Saints Benedict, Peter, John the Baptist and Miniatus

As in this altarpiece, Gaddi’s compositions were characterized by harsh colors, varied visages, and  curvilinear contours. To the direct right of Mary is John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint, recognizable via his animal skin tunic. Next to John is Prince Miniatus, Florence’s first martyr while to the left of Mary is St. Peter, holding a book inscripted with “DOMINE TECUM PARATUS SUM ET IN CARCEREM ET IN MORTEM IRE” (“And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death”) (Luke, 22:33). Next to him is St. Benedict, identifiable via his white tunic, which would have been worn by the Olivetan Benedictine monks who lived in the Florentine Benedictine monastery from 1373.

Unlike Daddi’s work, this altarpiece seems to revert back towards traditional motifs: Mary’s throne is flat, evoking the feeling of a casket rather than a chair. Although the two angels in back are interacting, the majority of the figures either look towards the viewer or towards the Christ child in adoration. Moreover, the faces of the figures seem rather generic, harkening back to Byzantine work.

San Marco Cells

He is not an artist properly so-called, but an inspired saint.

John Ruskin, on Fra Angelico

On the second floor of the San Marco monastery, visitors will find the monks’ dormitories. Each cell, once occupied by a single friar, contains a fresco depicting an event from Christ’s life. Yet, the central focus of the frescoes is not the event, but the witnesses to the event. Indeed, the Renaissance artist Fra Angelico and his team painted each fresco with the intention that the friars emulate the holy witnesses to Christ’s life so that they themselves may be worthy of teaching it. Therefore, the frescoes were simplistic in design, presenting a mental image more akin to icons rather than a full narrative.

Lamentation over Christ Deposed from the Cross (Cell 2)

For instance, the event depicted in Cell 2 is the Lamentation over Christ, quite literally, the passionate expression of sorrow or grief over Christ’s body. Yet the scene downplays the dramatic trauma of laying Christ to rest via its horizontal construction. Indeed, the only vertical movement is St. Dominic himself, the figure upon whom the viewer is to mediate.

The scene in Cell 6 is, admittedly, slightly more dramatic, with the figure of Christ radiating light in the center. Compare it to Raphael’s Transfiguration, however, and its simplicity is better appreciated.

In Fra Angelico’s version, Saints Peter, James, and John are reacting to Christ, but Mary and St. Dominic are mere observers of the narrative and do not take part. It is therefore Mary and St. Dominic who are the intended focus of the friars’ mediations. Although centered and radiating, Christ’s body is postured in the shape of a cross, becoming a symbol to revere rather than an actor in the narrative and shifting focus back to Mary and St. Dominic.

Transfiguration (Cell 6)

Included are the floating heads of Elias and Moses. You may notice that Fra Angelico chose to depict Moses with horns. This depiction is based on St. Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew phrase “wēlō’ yāda ‘ki qāran’ ôr pānāyw” found in Exodus 34:29. Jerome translated the Hebrew word “qāran” as “cornuta esset,” rendering the phrase to state (as translated into English) “Moses did not know that his face was horned.” Some scholars argue that Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word qāran as “horned” when it should have been translated as “rays of light.” Recent scholarship, however, has questioned whether it was really a mistake, arguing that “Jerome was no doubt aware of the metaphysical association of horns with divinity and power in the ancient world in general and the Greco-Roman world in particular, as in the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.565-621) where Cipus looks at his reflection in a clear stream and sees horns springing from his head. When Cipus and his horns are observed by an Etruscan seer, the seer cries out, ‘All hail, O King!’ …” Broderick, Herbert R. Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (2017).

In Cell 10 is the depiction of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple. Thanks to recent restoration work, the shell semi-dome has been rediscovered.

Presentation in the Temple (Cell 10)

This work is one of a few frescoes that do not include St. Dominic as witness, but rather St. Peter the Martyr and a woman some art historians identify as St. Catherine of Siena on the right. Joseph, standing behind Mary, is carrying a basket with two doves, a gift of atonement.

In Cell 26, Fra Angelico returns to horizontal movement as a method of creating simplicity.

Homo Pietatis (Cell 26)

Here, Christ is shown standing in his tomb, wounds visible on his hands. Above him are the symbols of his Passion: the lance, the sponge, the cross, and the column. Also above him you see the head of Judas kissing Christ (top left), Peter and the handmaiden (directly beneath Christ and Judas), and the mocking of Christ (top right). Once again, St. Dominic and the Virgin are depicted as witnesses to the scene.

Slightly more action packed are those frescoes now believed to have been painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, including one known as The Kiss of Judas. Missing from this fresco are the usual witnesses, St. Dominic and the Virgin Mary. Instead, the scene focuses on the narrative: Judas and his interaction with Jesus. Also interesting is the inclusion of Judas’ halo, which has been painted black.

Kiss of Judas

Although most art historians agree that Gozzoli so perfectly imitated Fra Angelico’s style that it is hard to tell them apart, there are subtle differences. Those frescoes identified as Gozzoli’s contain more figures, dressed in vibrant colors. Additionally, Gozzoli’s lush landscapes differentiate themselves from those sparse backgrounds seen in the frescoes painted by Fra Angelico.

Like The Kiss of Judas, the fresco in Cell 34 was likely painted by Gozzoli. Here, Mary and Martha serve as models for the friars, fulfilling the injunction to “watch and pray,” whereas the three apostles, languishing in their despair, serve as examples of what not to do.

The Agony in the Garden (Cell 34)

You can really see Gozzoli’s adoption (and expansion) of Fra Angelico’s innovative use of perspective. Using perspective, Gozzoli was able to depict the wall as though it is jutting out towards the viewer, creating a pronounced three dimensional space. Compare Gozzoli’s use of perspective to that of Fra Angelico:

As in the general composition of the frescoes, Gozzoli’s use of perspective less subtle and more dramatic.

Another fresco likely painted by Gozzoli is The Sermon on the Mound. Although the background lacks the lush greenery of The Kiss of Judas and The Agony in the Garden, it is harsher than those painted by Fra Angelico and Gozzoli’s figures wear the same vibrant colored cloths as in his other works.

The Sermon on the Mound

Again, Judas’ halo is black, but here his face has been obscured, perhaps to avoid “contaminating” the purity of the scene.

Likewise, in The Last Supper, Judas’ face is hidden behind that of the other apostles (he is one of the four kneeling figures in the bottom right hand corner). Odd is also Mary’s placement at the scene. She typically does not show up in Last Supper scenes, as the Gospels make no mention of her being present. Perhaps her inclusion is a return to the focus on the witnesses rather than the narrative.


The Institution of the Eucharist (The Last Supper) (Cell 35)

It is likely that the majority of this fresco was painted by Fra Angelico’s assistants, evidenced by the rather repetitive details of the apostles’ heads, the ambiguity of the apostles’ positions (are they seated or standing), and the distance between Jesus’ outstretched hand and St. John’s mouth. Yet, it is still a fascinating work due to the unknown artists’ inclusion of the windows. The windows in the work reflect the same view that the physical window provides (and would be seen in this photo had it not been so sunny outside).

The Annunciation

Fra Angelico’s celebrated Annunciation is also located on the second floor of the monastery. The Annunciation has been dubbed the quintessential Renaissance piece because it combines the three novelties of the 15th century: light painting, classical architecture, and spatial/perspective severity.

Like most Annunciations, Mary is enclosed in a walled garden, reminding viewers that she remains separate from and untouched by the sinful world and evoking the Garden of Eden. Yet, unlike conventional Annunciations of the time, Fra Angelico’s does not contain embossed wording.

Indeed, up until this point, the angel Gabriel was typically portrayed with a ribbon ballooning from his mouth (See detail of the Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, dated 1333). Fra Angelico was one of the first artists to do away with this tradition. (Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is dated c. 1442).

Here, Mary is almost life-sized, and the small grated window in the background is reminiscent of those window located in the monks’ cells. These aspects combine to achieve the effect that Mary is actually present in the room.

Cosimo de’Medici

Cosimo de’Medici reserved these rooms for himself during the construction of the new monastery, and interestingly, Pope Eugenius IV slept in this cell the night of Epiphany 1443 when he came to consecrate the new church. Notably the consecration occurred on Epiphany, not St. Mark’s feast day, as would have been usual since St. Mark is the patron saint of San Marco Monastery. The Epiphany commemorates the moment when the three Magi come to give Christ their gifts, and it is this event that is frescoed on the wall of Cosimo’s cell.

Perhaps significantly, the Adoration of the Magi was a continual theme in the iconography of the Medici. Indeed, the Medici wished to equate themselves to those princely Magi who bestowed their gifts on Christ by bestowing gifts on the Church. Moreover, the Magi are relatively alone in achieving entrance to the heavenly kingdom while maintaining their wealth. Moreover, the three generations of kings paralleled the three generations of the Medici alive at the time (Cosimo, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo). To cement the link, the family paid for lavious processions on the Feast of the Epiphany, which would parade through the city, ending at San Marco. Additionally, Piero de’Medici ignored the conventional practice of waiting only three days between birth and baptism to baptise his son Lorenzo (subsequently known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) on the Feast of the Epiphany. Cosimo and Lorenzo were both members of the Confraternity of the Magi.

Gozzoli painted not only this Adoration for the Medici, but also painted a much grander (and more well known) for the (at the time) newly constructed Medici Palace (now known as the Palazzo Medici Riccardi). (Sandro Botticelli also painted an Adoration for the Medici, now in the Uffizi).

Library

Cosimo de’Medici and the Dominicans came to an agreement in 1441 to build a “public” library within the convent for the use of elite humanists as well as the friars (although touted as a public library, one still needed permission from the library’s trustees to access it). Cosimo, along with several other humanists, had recently come into possession of the late Niccolò Nicoli’s extensive book collection. Indeed, Nicoli had bequeathed his collection to 16 trustees, including Cosimo, for the purpose of creating Italy’s first public library. Over the years, the library’s collection increased under Cosimo’s careful curation. Unfortunately, most of the volumes were transferred to the Biblioteca Laurenziana during the 19th century suppression of the monasteries.

San Marco Museum

The San Marco Museum occupies part of a complex that has served as the San Marco Monastery since its consecration in 1443. The monastery belongs to the Dominican Order (also known as “The Order of the Preachers” and commonly referred to as “The Black Friars,” derived from their black cloaks as opposed to the white cloaks worn by the Carmelite Order and the grey worn by the Franciscans).

The building was constructed atop the foundations of a medieval Sylvestrian monastery and was paid for by the Medici family, the ruling family in Florence. Cosimo de’Medici (il Vecchio) commissioned Michelozzo, one of the Medici’s favorite architects, to design the new building. It was Cosimo’s intention to relocate the Dominicans of Fiesole to Florence. (Fiesole is a small town about 15 minutes outside of Florence and coincidentally, where my husband and I stayed during our honeymoon).

View of Florence from Fiesole

After the building’s completion, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, perhaps better known as Fra Angelico, a member of the Order and a friar of the San Marco monastery, was commissioned to fresco the interior.

Fra Angelico was born around 1395 and became a Dominican friar sometime before 1423. His frescoes, intended for the friars’ private use, are typified by sparse settings meant to encourage the friars to focus on the religious purity of the work. Angelico’s frescoes may be seen in sharp contrast to his altarpieces, which were made for public consumption. Indeed, Angelico’s altarpieces reflect the ornate churches for which they were destined; they were more reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts that he likely decorated while studying in Lorenzo Monaco’s workshop than similar to the frescoes he painted within the monastery.

Sant’Antonino Cloister

The Sant’Antonino Cloister is named for St. Antoninus Pierozzi, the first prior of the San Marco Monastery, vicar general of the Dominican Observants, and Archbishop of Florence. It is dominated by Fra Angelico’s fresco of St. Dominic and the Cross.

St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix (Fra Angelico)

St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix focuses entirely on the interaction between St. Dominic and Christ, a result achieved by the lack of substantive background. The viewer’s attention is, therefore, drawn towards St. Dominic’s adoration and Christ’s serene acceptance of such. The fresco’s fixation on the communion between Christ and St. Dominic indicates that its purpose was not merely decorative. Indeed, its location within the cloister, generally a place of study and contemplation, affirms that the work was intended to invoke a spiritual response within the friars.

This work also demonstrates Fra Angelico’s important artistic contributions that have inspired some art historians to name him as the first painter of the Renaissance. For instance, instead of the golden background that was common at the time, Angelico chose a natural blue (albeit sparse) sky. Another significant innovation is the realistic, almost portrait-like details of the figures’ faces. Such detail was generally lacking in contemporary painting, as was the technique known as perspective, without which paintings tended to look flat. But here, Angelico used perspective to create space behind the figures, giving the fresco three dimensions and a more realistic feel.

The fresco was set in a marble frame and surrounded by 17th century frescoes when the Fabroni family turned this side of the cloister into their family burial vault. In fact, St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix along with five lunettes were the only frescoes painted in the cloister until the 17th century when the other twenty-two lunettes were decorated with a cycle dedicated to the life of St. Antoninus. The coats-of-arms of the Florentine families who financed the cycle are depicted in the frescoes.

One such lunette depicts the investiture of the saint to the See of Florence.

St. Antoninus is Made Archbishop of Florence (Bernardino Poccetti and Pier Dandini)

Perhaps surprisingly, as this painting was completed during the reign of the Medici dukes, is the inclusion of Fra Savonarola on the right. Fra Savonarola, a Dominican monk and a prior of this very monastery, was responsible for the short-lived exile of the Medici in 1494. It is therefore surprising that he should be celebrated in this fresco, especially as he was born only a few years prior to St. Antoninus’ death, making his inclusion anachronistic. Whether included as an act of defiance or simply as an act reverence towards an important member of the monastery, Fra Savonarola’s presence does demonstrate his lasting influence on San Marco and on Florence.

The Pilgrims’ Hospice

The Pilgrims’ Hospice was, as its name implies, used as a reception area for guests (“ospite” is the Italian word for “guest”). The room’s function is reflected in Fra Angelico’s fresco above the door, known as Christ the Pilgrim Welcomed by the Dominicans. Now the room functions as part of the museum, housing the biggest collection of Fra Angelico’s panel paintings.

As I mentioned above, Angelico’s panel paintings are clearly meant for public consumption as compared to his contemplative frescoes located on the monastery’s walls. For instance, compare the cooler palette used in St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix with the warm, rich colors used in his altarpieces.

Tabernacle of the Linen-drapers (Linaiuoli Altarpiece)

The Linen-drapers’ Guild commissioned the Linaiuoli Altarpiece in 1433 to adorn their meeting house. Fra Angelico’s attention to light (an innovation of early Renaissance painting) is evident throughout the piece. Moreover, instead of the traditional flat golden background, Fra Angelico inserted a golden drape, creating depth and demonstrating his knowledge of perspective as well as the influence of Masaccio, who is credited as one of the forerunners of the technique.

St. Mark is present both on the interior side of the panels as well as the exterior. “Therefore,” explains Padre Marchese, the 19th century Dominican art historian, “they wished that whether the tabernacle were open or closed, he should be always in their sight.” St. Mark was the patron saint of the Linen-drapers’ Guild.

The frame of this piece was commissioned to Lorenzo Ghiberti, and some art historians posit that he is the influence behind the statuesque bearing of the figures. The Predella depicts St. Peter preaching in the presence of St. Mark (the patron saint of the monastery), the Adoration of the Magi, and St. Mark’s Martyrdom.

The Chapterhouse

This room contains Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion and Saints. Giorgio Vasari, 16th century artist and art historian, tells us:

“This father was so greatly beloved for his merits by Cosimo de’ Medici, that, after completing the construction of the Church and Convent of S. Marco, he caused him to paint the whole Passion of Jesus Christ on a wall in the chapter-house.”

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.

Unfortunately, the sky in this piece has lost its blue coloring over time and the red used to prep the wall is now visible. The fresco, however, is still impressive.

The main scene is enclosed within a semi-circle, which contains small portraits holding unfurling scrolls. The first scroll on the right, held by the only portrait without an accompanying name, states, “Deus nature patitvr” (“The God of Nature Suffers”), words attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian judge and possibly the first bishop of Athens. Allegedly, when Dionysius witnessed the eclipse that followed Christ’s death, he proclaimed, “Aut deus naturae patitur aut mundi machina dissolvitur.” Following the unnamed portrait, from right to left are the portraits of: Daniel, Zechariah, Jacob, David, a pelican feeding its young, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, and the Erythrean Sibyl. (The imagery of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood was associated with redemption). Each of their banners are as follows:

Daniel“Post
edomades VII et LXII occidet XPS.”
“Et post hebdomades sexaginta duas occidetur Christus.”“And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.”Daniel 9:26 (KJV)
Zechariah“His plagatus sum.”“Et dicetur ei quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum et dicet his plagatus sum in domo eorum qui diligebant me.”“And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”Zechariah 13:6 (KJV)
Jacob“Ad praedam descende, fili mi! Dominus accubuit ut leo.”“Catulus leonis luda a praeda fili mi ascendisti requiescens accubuisti ut leo et quasi leaena quis suscitabit eum.”“Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?”Genesis 49:9 (KJV)
David“In siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”“Et dederunt in escam meam fel et in siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”“They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”Psalms 69:21 (KJV)
Pelican“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis.”“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.”“I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”Psalms 102:6 (KJV)
Isaiah“Vere languores nostros idem tulit et dolores nostros.”“Vere languores nostros ipse tulit et dolores nostros ipse portavit et nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum et percussum a Deo et humiliatum.”“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”Isaiah 53:4 (KJV)
Jeremiah“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte, si est dolor sicut dolor meus.”“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam adtendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus quoniam vindemiavit me ut locutus est Dominus in die irae furoris sui.”“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”Lamentations 1:12 (KJV)
Ezekiel“Exaltavi lignum hile.”“Et scient omnia ligna regionis quia ego Dominus humiliavi lignum sublime et exaltavi lignum humile et siccavi lignum viride et frondere feci lignum aridum ego Dominus locutus sum et feci.”“And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it.”Ezekiel 17:24 (KJV)
Job “Qui det de canibus ei ut saturem?”“Si non dixerunt viri tabernaculi mei quis det de carnibus eius ut saturemur.”“If the men of my tabernacle said not, Oh that we had of his flesh! we cannot be satisfied.”Job 31:31 (KJV)

The Erythrean Sibyl holds a banner that proclaims, “Morte morietur, tribus diebus sonno susceptus/ trino ab inferis regressus ad lucem veniet primus” (“He must die, and sleep for three days. On the third day, returning from hell, he will be the first to come to the light”).

The scene itself consists of the typical three crucifixes, with Jesus between the “good thief” Dismas and the unrepentant thief, who allegedly died with his mouth open to utter a final blasphemy. The skull at the base of the Cross alludes to Golgotha (also known as Calvary), translated as “the place of the skull” and so named because it is believed to be the site where Adam is buried.

Beneath the crucifixion gather a venerable group of saints, specifically chosen for their links to either the monastic orders, Florence, or the Medici. For instance, the three figures on the far left are Saints Cosmas, Damian, and Laurence. Saints Cosmas and Damian were the patron saints of the Medici (and the namesakes of Cosimo and his twin, who died young) while Saint Laurence was Lorenzo (the elder) de’Medici’s patron saint. Next to the Medici saints are Saint Mark, the patron Saint of San Marco, and John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. While on the opposite side of the cross are the founders of the monastic orders, St. Francis, founder of the Friars Minor, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian order, John Gualberto, the Vallombrosan Order, St. Benedict, the Benedictine Order, and Romuald, the Camaldolese Order.

It would perhaps be prudent to briefly explain some of the differences between the major monastic orders here. The Friars Minor (Franciscans) is a mendicant order founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. The Mendicants lived in abject poverty, surviving solely on the charity of others. Franciscan ideology was focused on mirroring Christ’s life of simplicity and devotion to service.

The Benedictine Order was founded in the 6th century by St. Benedict. The Benedictines emphasized manual labor and daily prayer, in contrast to the Dominican emphasis on preaching/teaching.

The Cistercian Order was an offshoot of the Benedictine Order, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 at Citeaux Abbey, France. The Cistercians split from the Benedictines due to perceived laxity, and therefore the Cistercians tended to emphasize extreme simplicity in all things.

The Dominicans followed the rule of St. Augustine. St. Augustine, one of the most well-known of the early Church Fathers, believed that the purpose of cloistered life was to learn and study, which brought the monk closer to God, and to teach through preaching, which brought the community closer to God (thus the order’s formal name, the Order of the Preachers). The Dominican emphasis on teaching engendered the Order’s priorities: theology and intellectual study.

Simplified Structure of Dominican Order

At the bottom of the fresco are influential Dominicans starting in the center with St. Dominic, who is holding the branches of the order, which give birth to the “fruit” (i.e. the other Dominicans).

Upon close examination, each Dominican has rays emanating from his head, demonstrating that they have been blessed; although, some halos have been subsequently added to those Dominicans who have been canonized.

Buoninsegna Cicciaporci

Gruesomely martyred at Antioch via a saw to the center of the head (which he holds in his left hand while holding a palm, the symbol of martyrdom, in his right hand).

Remigio Girolami

Successor to Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, where Aristotelianism reigned supreme. His two treatises, De Bono Communi and De Bono Pacis, emphasized the necessity of suppressing individual ambition as a means of achieving civic peace.

Nicholas of Paglia

Allegedly Nicholas joined the Order after hearing St. Dominic preach in Bologna. He served as the third prior provincial of the Roman Province.

Jordan of Saxony

Second Master General of the Order after St. Dominic.

St. Antoninus

Prior of San Marco and Archbishop of Florence.

Paul of Florence

Served as the Patriarch of Grado (the Patriarchy of Grado was incorporated into the archbishopric of Venice during the 15th century).

Hugh of Saint-Cher

The first Dominican cardinal.

Pope Innocent V

The first Dominican pope.

St. Dominic

Founder of the Order.

Pope Benedict XI

Served as Master General prior to becoming Cardinal, then Pope.

Cardinal John Dominici of Florence

Selected by Pope Gregory XII to represent him at the Council of Constance, the Council that ended the Western Schism.

Pietro della Palude (aka Peter Paludanus)

Served as Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Albert the Great

Served as Bishop of Ratisbon, taught and befriended St. Thomas Aquinas, and established the study of nature as a recognized science within the Christian tradition. Thus, he is the patron saint of those who study the natural sciences.

Raymond of Peñafort

Canonized in 1601 and known for the codification of canon law, which was promulgated in 1234.

Chiarito da Sesto

Served as the first Prior Provincial of the Roman Province.

Vincent Ferrer of Valencia

Helped end the Western Schism by persuading King Ferdinand I of Aragon to withdraw his support of Benedict XIII. He is also well known for his conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity, although there are contradictory accounts (some rather damning) as to the means he used to do so. He was canonized in 1455.

Bernard of Florence

Martyred.

Vestibule

The Good Samaritan (Iacopo Vignali)

Vignali’s The Good Samaritan hung in the monastery’s Antica Spezieria (Old Apothecary). The Antica Spezieria, founded by St. Antoninus, was famous for its medicines, which were sold to finance the maintenance of the monastery. This painting, dated to around 1630, is believed to have been a gift for the medicines produced during successive waves of plague in the early 17th century.

The Ducal Apartments

At the end of the gallery overlooking the Salone dei Cinquecento are the apartments of Eleonora of Toledo (the wife of Duke Cosimo I), which were once located directly above Cosimo’s own rooms (now used as offices) and directly beneath those of her eleven children (yes, eleven children).

Camera Verde

The Duchess used this room, known as the “Green Room,” to receive visitors and to manage her quite extensive household.

Unfortunately, the landscape frescoes that gave this room its name are now lost, but the grotesques (painted by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio) remain.

Grotesques mimicked ancient Roman frescoes, making them all the rage in a time when anything “classical” was considered higher art. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, Medici court painter, explains:

The painter Morto da Feltro, who was as original in his life as he was in his brain and in the new fashion of grotesques that he made, which caused him to be held in great estimation … He was a melancholy person, and was constantly studying the antiquities; and seeing among them sections of vaults and ranges of walls adorned with grotesques, he liked these so much that he never ceased from examining them. And so well did he grasp the methods of drawing foliage in the ancient manner, that he was second to no man of his time in that profession.

Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.

The Camera Verde is the link between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti, so named because it was once the residence of the Pitti family, one of the Medici’s main rivals. Duchess Eleonora was so independently wealthy that she bought the Palazzo Pitti with her own money, thereby expanding the Medici residence into a complex that stretched over the Arno river via what is now known as the Vasari Corridor (a corridor that runs along the top of the Ponte Vecchio). The Vasari corridor was designed by – you guessed it – Giorgio Vasari, and it allowed the royal family to traverse from their residence at the Pitti Palace over the Arno river and through the Uffizi to the seat of government without ever stepping out into public.

The Vasari Corridor would have been lost to history during World War II had it not been for the intervention of one man: Gerhard Wolf. Wolf was the Nazi Consul to Florence and used his position to work against the Nazi cause by saving many Jews, including famous art historian Bernard Berenson, as well as spiriting art away from the city to keep it out of Nazi hands. When it became clear that the Nazis had to retreat from Florence, they began to dismantle and destroy any and all modes of transportation that the Allies could use to advance, including all the bridges. Wolf managed to convince the Nazi higher-ups that the Ponte Vecchio had no strategic value for the Allies and so resources should not be wasted to blow it up. The Nazis agreed and allowed the bridge to stand. Fascinating what a single person can accomplish in the face of tyranny.

Chapel of Eleonora

This next room served as the Duchess’ private chapel, accessible via the Camera Verde. She commissioned her favorite artist, Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, to decorate it.

Wherefore the Duke, having recognized the ability of this man [Bronzino], caused him to set his hand to adorning a chapel of no great size in the Ducal Palace for the said Lady Duchess, a woman of true worth, if ever any woman was, and for her infinite merits worthy of eternal praise.

Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.

The altarpiece, Deposition of Christ, is actually a second version of Bronzino’s first, which had been gifted to Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, chancellor to Emperor Charles V. The Deposition is a typical pieta, showing Christ in his mother’s arms, alluding to his promised rebirth.

Deposition of Christ, Bronzino

The apostle John is placing Christ in his mother’s arms while on the right, Mary Magdalene is holding Christ’s feet. Above the scene, angels hold the symbols of the Passion (the cross, the column, the lance, and the sponge).

This work depicts Florentine mannerism at its finest. Mannerism is typified by agitated movement, intense emotion, and deep color schemes; look at the similarities between this altarpiece and Raphael’s Transfiguration, another famous work of mannerism (albeit Roman mannerism.)

Each altarpiece has similar color schemes, disorganized movement, muscular bodies positioned in awkward poses, and emotion. The figures in mannerist art are not passive depictions, but actual actors in the scene.

The vault of the Chapel depicts the Archangel Michael vanquishing the Devil (center), St. Francis receiving the stigmata (to the right), St. Jerome in the desert (not pictured), and St. John the Evangelist (to the left).

Vault of the Chapel of Eleonora

The three-faced head in the center is supposed to represent the Holy Trinity (God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit). Although quite faded, Bronzino overlaid the three-faced head with the Medici-Toledo coat of arms.

The walls of the Chapel are decorated with scenes from the life of Moses, including the crossing of the Red Sea, the appointment of Joshua, the spring miraculously gushing from the rocks, manna falling from the sky, and the adoration of the bronze serpent.

Interestingly, those drowning in the Red Sea (in the fresco on the right) are not Egyptians, but Ottomans. The symbolism would not be lost on contemporary Florentines: Cosimo I is the “new” Moses, leading his people out of reach of the Ottomans and towards safety.

Sala delle Sabine

The rest of the Duchess’ rooms are dedicated to storied women from the past.

So in the rooms above, of which there are four, painted for the Lady Duchess Eleonora, there are actions of illustrious Greek, Jewish, Latin, and Tuscan women, one in each room.

Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.

The first, Sala delle Sabine, depicts the Sabine Hersilia, wife of Romulus, the founder of Rome, throwing herself between the Romans and the Sabines. According to legend, the Romans kidnapped women from the neighboring tribe, as apparently they were lacking females within their own city. Understandably outraged, the fathers of the women proceeded to attack the Romans. Caught in the middle, the Sabine women intervened between their now-husbands and their fathers, persuading each side to lay down their arms. Such decorations allude to the Duchess’ supposed talent as a mediator.

Sala di Ester

The next room, the Sala di Ester, celebrates the Jewish heroine Ester, who begged her husband, Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to spare her people at great risk to herself (King Ahasuerus was unaware of her ancestry and he had decided to destroy the Jewish race). Ester is depicted kneeling in front of King Ahasuerus, who has extended his sceptre as a sign of pardon.

Sala di Penelope

The Sala di Penelope celebrates Penelope, wife of Ulysses (Odysseus), King of Ithaca. Ulysses left Ithaca and his wife Penelope to fight with the Greeks in the Trojan war, which lasted ten years. Ulysses, however, was waylaid on his return journey, keeping him away from home for yet another ten years. During these twenty years, multiple suitors offered to marry Penelope (as it was assumed Ulysses had died). To avoid remarriage, Penelope told the suitors that she would remarry once she had finished weaving a shroud for Ulysses’ father, Laertes.

Young men, 
my suitors, now that King Odysseus is no more,
go slowly, keen as you are to marry me, until
I can finish off this web ...
so my weaving won't all fray and come to nothing.
This is a shroud for old lord Laertes, for that day
when the deadly fate that lays us out at last will take him down. 

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books.

Every day, she would weave, but every night, she would unravel all the work that she had accomplished during the day so that she would never have to remarry.

So by day she'd weave at her great and growing web-
by night, by the light of torches set beside her,
she would unravel all she'd done. 

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books.

Thus, Penelope symbolizes fidelity and patience, two virtues Florentine men apparently prized, if only in their womenfolk.

Penelope at the Loom, Vasari and Stradano

You can see the Medici devices embedded throughout the ceiling: on the right is the Capricorn (Cosimo’s astrological sign) while on the left is a tortoise holding a sail (embodying Cosimo’s motto, Hasten Slowly).

Sala di Gualdrada

The last room celebrates Gualdrada, a Florentine woman who refused to kiss Emperor Otto IV, stating that she would only kiss her future husband. Thus, Gualdrada represented modesty and virtue, as well as Florentine independence. Interestingly, Cosimo’s marriage to Eleonora (the daughter of Don Pedro di Alvarez di Toledo, who served as Emperor Charles V’s viceroy in Naples) only served to tighten Florence’s ties with the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps Gualdrada’s inclusion within Eleonora’s apartments was meant to assuage any fears that the Duchess lacked independence from the Empire.

Gualdrada Refuses to Kiss Emperor Otto IV, Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Stradano

Gualdrada is standing in the middle of the fresco, while the personification of Florence is depicted holding the Fleur de Lis and stretched out on a lion, two of the main symbols of Florence. Once again, Medici symbols are embedded on either side of the main fresco.

Quartiere Degli Dei Celesti

On the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Quartiere Degli Dei Celesti (the Quarter of the Celestial Gods), which, like the Quartiere Degli Dei Terrestri, was decorated by Giorgio Vasari and his team.

Room of the Elements

The Quartiere’s centerpiece is the Room of the Elements. Here, each fresco personifies one of the four elements: the ceiling is dedicated to the element of air (The Mutilation of Uranus), while the three windowless walls are dedicated to earth (Saturn Receiving the Gifts of the Earth), fire (Vulcan’s Forge), and water (The Birth of Venus).

The Mutilation of Uranus, the room’s starting point, is dedicated to air, which can be deduced based on its subject: the god Uranus, who was also known as Heaven, or alternatively, sky. Before we get into the painting, I’m inserting an abridged family tree of the Greek/Roman gods, as passed down to us from the 8th century BC Greek writer Hesiod.

To explain the graphic image: according to Hesiod’s rendition of the theogony, Saturn (counterpart to Kronos from the Greek pantheon; also known as Time) was more than a little peeved when his dad, Uranus, imprisoned him upon his birth, as Uranus did with all his children. So, Saturn plots with his mother (Earth, also known as Gaia) to castrate Uranus with a sickle made by Earth.

And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing. But vast Earth [160] groaned within, being straitened, and she thought a crafty and an evil wile. Forthwith she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart: [165] “My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.” So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother: [170] “Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.”

Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.

Both sickle and the resultant severed body part fell into the sea where the sickle formed the landmass Sicily and the dismembered organ impregnated the sea with the goddess Venus, the birth of whom is the subject of the fresco representing water.

Back to the ceiling fresco, however, you can see several figures and objects surrounding Uranus and Saturn. These figures and items represent the ten powers of God that helped create the world, including the crown of abundance (represented by the crown encircling the scene), Clemency, Grace, the Firmament (represented by the flat stone holding up the figures), and the Kingdom (represented by the armillary sphere). Here, Vasari was likely alluding to the ten Sefirot derived from Kabbalistic texts, thereby combining paganism with Judaism to explain the creation of the universe. (Vasari was greatly influenced in this depiction by his correspondence with humanist Cosimo Bartoli, who described the ten attributes as Corona, Sapientia, Prudentia, Clementia over bontà, Gratia over severità, Hornamento, Triomphe, Confessione di lode, Fondamento, and Regno.) This duel allusion to ancient cosmology serves to link Cosimo with the distant past, thereby establishing a legitimacy to royalty that, as a “new man,” Cosimo lacked. Indeed, the entire subject of this room is actually a play on Cosimo’s name: by celebrating the birth of the cosmos, the room is celebrating Cosimo himself. It is interesting to note that this allusion was not lost on Cosimo’s contemporaries. For instance, in his treastie Trattato Dell’uso Et Della Fabbrica Dell’astrolabio, astrologer and cosmographer Ignazio Danti quipped, “cosmos cosmōi cosmos” (“The cosmos is Cosimo’s ornament”).

The next fresco, Saturn Receiving the Gifts of the Earth, depicts the God Saturn accepting fruit from the goddess of earth, his daughter Ceres (Demeter in the Greek pantheon).

The message of this fresco was: just as Saturn accepts fruits from the earth, Cosimo I accepts the fruits of his subjects’ labors. Cosimo’s presence is felt throughout this piece. Indeed, on the right, Fortune is holding a tortoise (not pictured) and a sail, the elements of Duke Cosimo I’s device and motto: “festina lente,” in English, “hasten slowly.”

Moreover, the Capricorn (the goat/fish looking thing) sitting next to Saturn alludes to Cosimo I’s astrological sign. Notice the red ball that the Capricorn is holding? The ball alludes both to the Medici and to Cosimo personally. The Medici symbol, which you see everywhere in Florence, is the palle, in English, the balls (a term which, funnily enough (but probably not very funny to the Medici), did in fact have the same connotations as it does today). The ball also was meant to represent the cosmos, i.e. Cosimo.

Significantly, both the Capricorn and the motto festina lente were devices of the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus, which also had been adopted by Cosimo’s patron (and technically, feudal overlord) the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The next element, fire, is represented in the fresco known as Vulcan’s Forge, fittingly painted on the wall of the fireplace.

Here, Vulcan (Hephaestus) is forging Cupid’s arrows with help from his wife, Venus. On the right are the Cyclopes (Steropes, Brontes, and Pyracmon) making Zeus’ thunderbolts. According to Vasari, Cosimo, like Vulcan, is a forger, but instead of arrows and thunderbolts, Cosimo forges virtues. Also as Vulcan made Achilles’ beautiful armor, Cosimo’s regin produced beautiful art and innovations. (During the Trojan War, Achilles’ mother, Thetis asked Vulcan to make her son impenetrable armor; Thetis raised Vulcan after his mother, Juno (Hera) discarded him because she thought him hideous, and so he could not refuse Thetis anything).

The next fresco, The Birth of Venus, is a less famous articulation of Botticelli’s painting of the same name. In Vasari’s version, Venus floats to shore, surrounded by Thetis, Neptune, the Tritons, the Nereids, and the Fear of the Sea. Venus, according to Vasari, is meant to represent Cosimo and the birth of a “new age” under his rule.

“And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, [190] they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass [195] grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, [200] and Philommedes because she sprang from the members.”

Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.

As I mentioned in a previous post, each room on the second floor corresponds to the room directly below it.

There is nothing painted here that fails to correspond to what is below.

Giorgio Vasari, Ragionamenti

The Room of the Elements lays directly above Pope Leo X’s room and thus is intended to reflect the same considerations. For instance, the Room of the Elements celebrates the origin of the cosmos whereas the Room of Leo X celebrates the origin of the family’s royal pretensions. He was the first “prince” (albeit a prince of the church) in the family, and it is due to his rise that the rest of the family were able to rise too.

Room of Ceres

The ceiling in this room depicts Ceres’ descent into the underworld. Ceres (Demeter in the Greek pantheon) was the goddess of agriculture. Ceres is on her way to the underworld to rescue her daughter Prosperpina (Persephone) who had been abducted by Pluto (Hades) to rule as his Queen. According to legend, Pluto agreed to give Ceres her daughter back so long as Prosperpina had not eaten any food during her stay in hell. Unfortunately, Prosperpina was unable to keep her fast and ate six pomegranate seeds. So, Jupiter decreed that Prosperpina would spend six months of the year in the Underworld, one month for each pomegranate seed that she consumed, and the other six months with her mother. Legend has it that during those six months without her daughter, Demeter refuses to allow anything on the earth to grow, causing fall and winter.

The Room of Ceres is located above the room dedicated to Cosimo il Vecchio. According to Vasari, as Ceres is responsible for the earth’s prosperity, being the goddess of agriculture, so too was Cosimo il Vecchio responsible for Florence’s prosperity.

Room of Opis

Opis, Saturn’s wife, is depicted on the ceiling surrounded by the seasons and personifications of the months of the year because she is the goddess of abundance. She is on a chariot of gold, symbolizing Florence, pulled by lions, symbolizing Florentines, who pull their city forward, following the Medici lead.

[C]ioè Opi, e viene a trionfare in su la carretta d’oro tirata da’ lioni, segno di Fiorenza, cioè da’ suoi cittadini, li quali così come il Lione e Re degli animali, così gli uomini Toscani, e gl’ingegni loro sono piu sottili e più belli che tutti l’ingegni dell’altre nazioni in ogni professione, così delle scienze come dell’arme, e poi di tutte l’arti manuali, avendo con quegli per tutto il mondo lasciato opere eccellenti de’ loro fatti.

Vasari, Ragionamenti

The Room of Opis is above the room dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent. Vasari explains that because Opis was worshipped by men of all sorts, she represents Lorenzo, who was also revered by men of all sorts.

[S]on quassù di sopra le storie della Dea Opi adorata, e da tutte le sorti d’uomini grandi e piccoli con doni, e tributi riconosciuta per madre universale: così come Lorenzo in questa abbiamo veduto, che da tutte le sorti d’uomini è stato riverito, presentato e tenuto per padre de’ consigli, e li tutte le virtu.

Vasari, Ragionamenti

Room of Jupiter

Jupiter (Zeus), Saturn’s son, was hidden away on the island of Crete by his mother Opis for fear that Saturn would eat him. According to a prophecy, as Saturn overthrew his father, he too would be overthrown by his own son. [I’m sensing a lot of father-son anxiety going on in ancient Greek culture] At each birth, Saturn would eat the new baby, but Opis soon was fed-up (no pun intended) with Saturn eating her children, so she handed over a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of Jupiter.

But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, [470] then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, [475] and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyctus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea [480] in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. To that place came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, [485] she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes  Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, [490] and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods.

Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.

Jupiter grew up under the care of a goat (in some stories a nymph) named Amalthea. In honor of her foster care, Jupiter placed her image among the stars as the constellation capricorn (again, an allusion to Cosimo I). As foretold, Jupiter usurped his father and defeated the titans and giants, establishing a “peaceful” new world. (Judging by the later myths, however, I wouldn’t necessarily describe the new order as “peaceful”).

Not one for modesty it seems, Cosimo I had his room placed under the room dedicated to the King of the Gods; for, like Jupiter, Cosimo had created a “peaceful” new order. Moreover, like Jupiter, Cosimo I was nurtured under the watchful eye of Capricorn. The seven stars that make up Capricorn were said to represent the seven virtues, which by linking himself to Capricorn, Cosimo also links himself to those seven virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage (or fortitude) faith, hope, and charity).

Terrace of Juno

Although walled up in the 16th century, this room originally gave way to a loggia, built to allow Duke Cosimo’s wife, the Duchess Eleonora of Toledo, to view the city. The room was dedicated to Juno in honor of the Duchess, who, according to the iconography of the rooms, was the wife of the new “Jupiter” (i.e. Cosimo). Juno was the goddess of matrimony and wealth, two qualities the Medici wanted to associate with Eleonora. In fact, the Duchess was well known for her financial acumen, not least because she was able to buy the Palazzo Pitt (the house of the Medici’s rivals) with her own money.

This room also contains Andrea del Verrocchio’s Putto with Dolphin, a bronze commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent for a fountain in the Medici villa of Careggi. Cosimo I moved it to the Palazzo’s courtyard in 1557, but it was replaced with a copy and moved inside for preservation.

Room of Hercules

The ceiling of this room depicts baby Hercules’ triumph over snakes sent by Juno, Jupiter’s wife. Juno, in her anger against Jupiter’s infidelity, sent snakes to kill Jupiter’s illegitimate child, Hercules.

Surrounding the central fresco are several of Hercules’ well known labors, including: Battling the Lernaean Hydra, vanquishing the Nemean Lion, facing the three-headed dog Cerberus, stealing the golden apples, capturing Cacus, suffocating the giant Antaeus, killing the centaur Nessus, and taming the Cretan bull.

Vasari explains that Hercules’ virtues have been exemplified by men such as Caesar, Alexander the Great, Pompey, and none other than Cosimo I himself:

Questo si vide ne’ principi della grandezza di Cesare, e di molti altri in Roma e in Grecia … che più vivo esempio possiamo noi pigliare di quello del Duca vostro padre, partorito appena dalla bontà di Dio per essere capo di questo governo …

Vasari, Ragionamenti

Beneath the Room of Hercules is the room dedicated to Giovanni delle Bande Nere, Cosimo I’s father, the only soldier in the family and thus the obvious choice for a hero known for his martial prowess. During the 16th century, it was common for royal families to commission art celebrating their own military conquests to solidify their authority over the common people. Because the Medici were bankers, they could boast no great military ancestors. Thus, Cosimo was forced to turn to the recent past to check this particular royal box.

The Quartiere Degli Dei Terrestri

The Studiolo of Francesco I:

Francesco de’ Medici, Duke Cosimo’s eldest son, commissioned Giorgio Vasari to design this room, located off the Hall of the Five Hundred. Francesco used it as his study as well as to house family heirlooms, as was typical at the time (during the 16th and 17th century, collecting and categorizing objects was in vogue, influenced, no doubt, by the beginnings of the scientific revolution). Each side of the room was designed to resemble one of the four elements, which then corresponded to the items held within each built-in cabinet. The doors to those cabinets were also designed with the particular cabinet’s contents in mind, decorated with Biblical, mythological, or historical events that corresponded to its inner treasures.

The room’s apotheosis is the vault, which depicts Nature handing a stone to Prometheus. Nature’s handoff of the stone demonstrates the convergence of science and art (two of Francesco’s passions) because, it is assumed, Prometheus will transform the stone into a beautiful gem. Prometheus is depicted holding a flaming branch because it was he, according to the greek writer Hesiod, who gave man the secret of fire. Zeus retaliated by chaining Prometheus to a mountain and ordering an eagle to eat Prometheus’ liver, which would then regrow every night only to be eaten the next day. For men’s punishment in Prometheus’ scheme, Zeus allegedly created women.

[600] even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age [605] without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them. And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good; [610] for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed. So it is not possible to deceive or go beyond the will of Zeus: for not even the son of Iapetus, kindly Prometheus, [615] escaped his heavy anger, but of necessity strong bands confined him, although he knew many a wile.

Hesiod. “The Complete Hesiod Collection.” Acheron Press edition.

It seems Hesiod did not have much luck in his love life.

Surrounding the center fresco is a typical 16th century cosmogram (i.e. the four elements, the four qualities (cold, damp, hot, dry), the four humours (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric), and the four seasons).

The Quartiere Degli Dei Terrestri

Also next to the Hall of the Five Hundred are apartments that were dedicated to housing guests of the Medici. In light of this function, Cosimo I commissioned Vasari to decorate the rooms with typical ducal trappings of power. Vasari did just that – and more. Rather than simply celebrate ducal power, the rooms serve to equate the Medici to “Dei Terrestri” (“earthly gods”).

Indeed, each room is dedicated to one of the Medici heroes, with frescoes celebrating major events of his lifetime. Each of these lower level rooms, however, corresponds to the room located directly above, which was dedicated to a mythical god and/or hero (the “Dei Celetri”). Through this linkage, Vasari mythologizes Cosimo’s more famous ancestors, elevating them to Dei Terrestri.

Room of Cosimo il Vecchio

The first room is dedicated to Cosimo il Vecchio (also known as “Pater Patriae” or “father of the nation”), arguably the most famous member of the Medici Family and Duke Cosimo’s namesake. Vasari decided to focus the room on Cosimo’s return from a year long exile in 1434.

Cosimo the Elder Returns from Exile, Giorgio Vasari

The ceiling fresco depicts throngs of Florentines meeting Cosimo as he returns to Florence, a depiction which would seem more appropriate for a triumphal return from battle rather than a return from exile. By emphasizing the people’s happiness over Cosimo’s return, however, Vasari refocuses the story on Cosimo’s popularity with the people rather than on the treason of which he was found guilty.

How did the Pater Patriae get himself exiled from the nation he had allegedly birthed? To understand, it is important to note that Florentine politics were rife with violence, internal conflict, mistrust, and petty jealousies. Indeed, Cosimo’s exile can be boiled down to one faction’s animosity towards the Medici’s increasing wealth and power. Rinaldo degli Albizzi and his conservative allies had been in control of Florence’s government for four decades when the Medici family was just beginning to assert its power. As the Medici attained more wealth and supporters, known as amici (translated as “friends”), tensions with the Albizzi grew. It all came to a head in 1429 when hostilities broke out between Florence and the city of Lucca. Albizzi and his conservatives favored a full blown war with Lucca while the Medici and the amici cautioned against it. The Albizzi won out and Florence went to war, which turned out to be a fiasco. As the costs of the war began mounting, Cosimo’s bank loaned the city money to cover the shortfall, eventually loaning Florence so much money that one third of the city’s debt was financed by the Medici bank. The result of this debacle was the people’s loss of confidence in Albizzi and an increase in respect for the Medici, who, as the Medici propagandists argued, had counseled against the war yet still risked financial ruin for the good of the republic to ensure its victory.

To avoid losing any more power and perhaps to save face, Albizzi tried Cosimo for treason, alleging Cosimo had prolonged the war for his own financial benefit. Cosimo was found guilty and subjected to exile, which, to Albizzi’s horror, was overturned after the election of a majority of amici to the Signoria. In an about-face, the newly elected Signoria brought Cosimo home and exiled Albizzi and many of his allies, purging the government of all those opposing the Medici and allowing Cosimo to take full control of the government. And so began the Medici’s tight hold on Florentine government (aside from a couple more periods of exile).

To improve their social standing both within Florence and without, the Medici family portrayed themselves as “renaissance men,” i.e. patrons of the arts, sciences, and culture. Vasari sought to capture Cosimo’s renown for artistic patronage in the painting below, Cosimo the Elder Surrounded by Literati and Artists, painted by Marco da Faenza (a collaborator to Vasari).

Here, Cosimo il Vecchio is depicted surrounded by key artists of his time, including Marsilio Ficino, Donatello, Filippo Brunelleschi, Luca della Robbia, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, many of whom he had commissioned numerous artworks.

Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Show Cosimo the Elder the Model for the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Marco da Faenza. Cosimo il Vecchio is also credited for building the family church, San Lorenzo.

Room of Lorenzo il Magnifico

The next room is dedicated to Lorenzo il Magnifico, Cosimo’s grandson. Lorenzo’s father, known as Piero the Gouty, delegated much of the family authority to Lorenzo due to his poor health, Moreover, he was not as politically astute as his father or son, thus his lack of a room.

The second day after [my father’s] death, although I, Lorenzo was very young, being only twenty years of age, the principal men of the city and of the State came to us in our house to condole with us on our loss and to encourage me to take charge of the city and of the State, as my grandfather and my father had done.

Lorenzo de’Medici, Ricordi

In contrast to his father, Lorenzo operated on an international stage, thereby expanding the family’s influence beyond the bounds of Tuscany. It is therefore fitting that the ceiling in this room depicts foreign dignitaries presenting Lorenzo with gifts, including lions, Barb horses, jewels, and a cardinal hat, which was given to his son Giovanni, the first Medici to become pope.

Lorenzo was a living representation of the Medici’s move from solidly middle class stock to nobility. Indeed, Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini, came from an ancient Roman family, a match which was notable both for the bride’s foreignness and for her blue blood. Moreover, Lorenzo successfully lobbied for a cardinalship for his son, Giovanni de’Medici (later, Pope Leo X). With Giovanni’s cardinal’s hat, Lorenzo’s son was now a prince of the church, giving him the same status as any lay prince. Lorenzo had elevated his family from its commercial roots to nobility (via his wife Clarice), then royalty (via his son Giovanni).

This [hat] was a ladder enabling his family to rise to heaven.

Machiavelli

Lorenzo also continued his grandfather’s patronage of the arts and sciences. In the painting to the right, he is depicted sitting amongst such humanists as Pico della Mirandola, Politian, Marsilio Ficino, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo Bruni. Indeed, Lorenzo himself was an amateur philosopher and poet.

Interestingly, in both of these rooms, Vasari depicted Cosimo and Lorenzo in strikingly similar poses to that taken by Roman Emperor Constantine in the Aurelian Relief known as Liberalitas (located on the Arch of Constantine in Rome), further strengthening the link of the Medici to royalty/power. In the Liberalitas, Constantine is shown distributing money and protection to Roman citizens. So too, Vasari’s designs proclaim, Cosimo and Lorenzo distributed money and protection to the artists and intellectuals that surrounded them.

Room of Leo X

In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.

Pope Leo X’s motto, taken from Psalm 120

Pope Leo X was born Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo il Magnifico. He became a cardinal at thirteen (at this time it was common to be made a cardinal prior to attaining adulthood and even prior to taking holy orders) and was eventually elected to the papacy in 1513 (at age 37), taking the name Leo X (after the Florentine lion).

The Election of Giovanni de’Medici to the Papacy, Vasari

The piece below captures Pope Leo X’s visit to Florence in 1515. The procession into Florence was led by eighty mules and was rumored to have over 3,000 participants, including mace-bearers, squires, valets, secretaries, lawyers, ambassadors, cardinals, archbishops, and trumpeters.

The Arrival of Leo X in Florence, Vasari

Since the pope had left Rome to go to Bologna to meet the king of France … Leo decided that on the way he would pass through Florence to show his homeland the glory and grandeur God had vested in him, after so many different vicissitudes.

Vasari, Ragionamenti

Unfortunately, the rooms dedicated to Clement VII, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, and Cosimo I are not open to the public, as they are used as the offices of the mayor of Florence, so I don’t have any pictures, but I can tell you about them.

First, there is a room dedicated to Clement VII, the second Medici to hold the papal throne, who was elevated to the cardinalship by his uncle, Pope Leo X. He was elected to the papacy in November of 1523, and it was under his papacy that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome and the advent of the Protestant reformation. He, however, was the one responsible for installing the Medici as Dukes of Florence in the person of his illegitimate son, Alessandro de’Medici, via his alliance with Charles V, who had recently taken over the city.

The next room is dedicated to Giovanni delle Bande Nere, Cosimo I’s father. Giovanni was a commander in the papal army, serving under both his cousins Leo X and Clement VII. He died, likely from gangrene, after being wounded during a skirmish against Imperial troops. Upon Giovanni’s marriage to Maria Salviati (granddaughter to Lorenzo il Magnifico), the two branches of the Medici family were reunited.

Finally, Cosimo I dedicated a room wholly to none other than Cosimo I, thereby including himself among the legendary Medici heroes. A clear indication of how highly he thought of his political prowess.

Cosimo I became duke after his cousin, Duke Alessandro, made himself highly unpopular during his short-lived reign as Duke of Florence. Indeed, he was assassinated by another Medici cousin, Lorenzino, in January of 1537. Rather than install Alessandro’s illegitimate four year old son as duke, the Florentines promoted Cosimo as Alessandro’s successor. Charles V agreed and invested him with the duchy. It was Cosimo who lobbied Pope Pius V to grant the Medici the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, a royal elevation from the (“simple”) dukedom of Florence.

The Old Palace and The Hall of the Five Hundred

The Palazzo Vecchio has had many names throughout its storied past, including the Palazzo dei Priori, the Palazzo della Signoria, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Palazzo di Piazza. Each of these names reflects the period of Florentine history with which it coincided, but it is its final and lasting name, the Palazzo Vecchio, that is the most revealing of all. It testifies to the winner of Florence’s internecine struggles: the Medici. Indeed, the palace’s surviving name, il Palazzo Vecchio (the “Old Palace”), is a nod towards the Medici’s use of the Palazzo as a familial residence and their ultimate move to the Palazzo Pitti, their “new palace.”

The Palazzo Vecchio began its life as the Palazzo dei Priori and served as the principal seat of government, and in fact remains to this day, Florence’s city hall. Construction began in 1298 on top of a 1st century AD Roman theatre, the ruins of which may be seen by visiting the bottom floor of the Museum. The building was built in celebration of the foundation of the Florentine Republic. To emphasize the Republic’s core values, distaste for nobility and a love of economy, the building was constructed with local stone without decoration.

Outside you can see Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine Woman, the Medici Lions, and Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa. Perseus and Medusa was Cellini’s answer to Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes.

Perseus and Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini

Salone dei Cinquecento

The Palazzo is home to the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), which was built in 1494, during the short lived Republic of Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola led a popular uprising against the Medici, ousting them from both power and the city. Upon installing his new republican government, Savonarola increased the number of Florentines eligible to participate in the government to (purportedly) over 1,000 people. Thus, a large hall was needed to accommodate at least five hundred Florentines at a time.

Fra Savonarola was eventually condemned to death, paving the way for the return of the Medici, but prior to their return, gonfaloniere Pier Soderini commissioned Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to decorate the hall. Michelangelo painted the Battle of Cascina; Leonardo, the Battle of Anghiari, but neither mural was ever completed. Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by the Pope, and Leonardo, who rarely finished his commissions, abandoned the project.

The Battle of Anghiari centered on the fight for the Milanese standard during the climax of the battle. Leonardo’s focus on the standard may have been inspired by his patron, Gonfaloniere (“Standard-bearer”) Pier Soderini, but the gruesome action was influenced by his recent employment as a military engineer under the vicious warrior Cesare Borgia. The cartoons captured frenzied movement as only those of Leonardo could. Displaying emotion through movement was one of Leonardo’s specialties. In fact, as one of the pioneers of human dissection for art’s sake, Leonardo’s knowledge of anatomy enabled him to correctly depict the facial muscles that corresponded to his figures’ facial expressions. Moreover, his preparatory sketches and horse dissections for a planned (but never executed) equestrian statue for Duke Ludovico Sforza enabled him to render the horses’ movements perfectly.

They are among the greatest evocations of movement in the entire history of art. … Movement, something that had obsessed Leonardo ever since he had tried to catch the blur of a cat’s squirming limbs in an early drawing, is here clarified as a theme with blood-red intensity.

Jonathan Jones, British art critic

In his book Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson posits that Leonardo abandoned his work on the Battle of Anghiari because “[h]e was a perfectionist faced with challenges other artists would have disregarded but that he could not.” Indeed, Leonardo struggled with achieving the proper visual perspective of a large mural that would be seen from multiple vantage points, causing figures to look distorted when observed at those vantage points. According to Isaacson, “Other painters would not have noticed, or would have chosen to ignore, the way figures in a large painting could seem disproportionate when viewed from different parts of the room. But Leonardo was obsessed by the optics, mathematics, and art of perspective.” Regardless of the reason the Battle of Anghiari was never finished, Leonardo’s cartoons for the project became a point of reference for future artists. Raphael traveled to Florence for the sole purpose of seeing the work, inspiring his move towards mannerism. Indeed, Benvenuto Cellini wrote of the cartoons, “As long as they remain intact, they were the school of the world.”

After Fra Savonarola was burned at the stake and the Medici regained power, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici made the Vecchio his residence in the 1540s, moving his court from the Palazzo de’ Medici (now Palazzo de’ Medici-Riccardi) and renovating the Hall to exude princely power, demonstrating his absolute rule. The palace was renamed the Palazzo Ducale, cementing the Medici as the ruling party in the once republican Florence.

Cosimo commissioned Baccio Bandinelli, Giuliano di Baccio d’Agnolo, and Giovanni Caccini to design a public audience chamber (known as the Udienza), where the Duke would receive foreign dignitaries, guests, and messengers. The result was a design reminiscent of imperial Roman triumphal arches; a connection that I am sure was not lost on those visiting the ducal receiving chambers.

The figure in the middle arch is Pope Leo X, the first Medici (but not the last) to sit on the papal throne. To the left of Pope Leo is Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Duke Cosimo’s father (as well as a famous condottiere) while to the right is Duke Alessandro de’Medici, the first Duke of Florence. Above each Medici are the devices associated with that particular individual. For instance, above Giovanni dalle Bande Nere is a winged firebolt, symbolizing his physical prowess and speed while above Duke Alessandro is a rhinoceros, symbolizing power.

The entire itinerary was meant to impress upon the viewers the magnificence (real or imagined) of the Medici House and reaffirm its claim to be within the upper echelons of royalty.

Meanwhile, the ceiling was commissioned to Giorgio Vasari, Duke Medici’s court painter. Vasari raised the ceiling by around seven meters and decorated it in the Venetian style with frescoes that celebrated Cosimo I’s pivotal role in the creation of the Duchy of Tuscany.

Every day I draw for the Great Hall and façades so that it will reflect all your mastery, and this has redoubled my creativity.

Giorgio Vasari to Cosimo I

For a comparison to the “Venetian Style” that Vasari was mimicking, I’ve included images below of two different ceilings located in the Doge’s palace (Venice).

As you can see, the Venetian style is epitomized by golden borders offsetting each episode.

On the left of the Palazzo Vecchio ceiling are scenes from the Florentine-Pisan war, in the center are scenes from Florence’s domestic history, and on the right are scenes from the Florentine-Sienese war during which the Duke lead the Florentines to victory. Side by side the frescoes demonstrate the stark contrast between the disastrous war led by the republican government against Pisa and the successful one fought under absolute power. The Pisan war was won at great cost to the Republic, lasting over fourteen years while the Sienese war lasted a mere fourteen months.

The central tondi, however, is the Apotheosis of Cosimo I, which depicts Cosimo I in all his glory. Here, Cosimo is wearing a purple mantle (the color of royalty), accompanied by the ducal crown, the cross of the Order of St. Stephen (a chivalric order he himself founded in 1541 and dedicated to Pope Stephen I), and the Golden Fleece, which had been awarded to him by Emperor Charles V in 1545. Chivalric orders were princely trappings that helped promote the royal families across Europe. He is surrounded by the coasts of arms of the city and the insignias of the Florentine Guilds.

Apotheosis of Cosimo I, Vasari and Giovanni Battista Naldini

One of the several middle panels is known as The Foundation of Florentia. This panel reflects the traditional foundation story that haunted Florentines for centuries.

The Foundation of Florentia, Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Stradano

Here, Mark Antony, one of the members of the Second Roman Triumvirate presents the Florentines with a banner of a white lily embroidered on red. It is what is in the background, however, that alludes to Florentine foundation anxiety: the Roman temple to Mars, the god of war.

Indeed, Florentines blamed most of their strife on this single moment in their history. When Caesar’s army founded Florentina, so the story goes, they also built a temple to Mars. The early Florentines, however, betrayed Mars when they reconsecrated his temple to St. John the Baptist, a saint known for his pacifism. (According to archeological evidence, the oldest parts of San Giovanni are from the 4th century AD and were indeed built on Roman foundations). Though at odds with our modern sense of religion, even the most pious of Florentines believed that the God of War inflicted social upheaval on the city because of their abandonment of him.

This belief intensified when, at the foot of the displaced Mars statute, one of the most famous murders in Florentine history occurred, the murder of a Messer Buondelmonte. Allegedly, it was this murder that set off the start of the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts.

And so it is clear that this life-destroying enmity comes from no other source than the sin of the pagan Florentines themselves who in ancient times worshiped the idol of Mars, since at his feet they committed the murder from which so much evil followed.

Giovanni Villani

Also interesting about this panel is Mark Antony’s posture. Notice the similarities to the Belvedere Torso? Click here to read more about the famous Torso and its influence on generations of art.

The frescoes on the walls of the hall also reflect the juxtaposition of the Sienese and Pisan wars. Recording the “disastrous” war with Pisa are the following frescoes:

Maximilian of Austria Attempts the Siege of Leghorn, Vasari and Naldini, depicts the moment that Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian comes to the aid of the Pisans, but, alas, to no avail. The Emperor’s attack on the Florentines failed, in part due to a terrible storm that shipwrecked the imperial fleet, forcing the imperial forces to withdraw. The Storming of the Fortress of Stampace, pictured below, depicts the Florentine capture of Stampace.

The Storming of the Fortress of Stampace, Vasari, Naldini, and Jacopo Zucchi

As explained above, the frescoes on the other wall are episodes from the Sienese War. In 1552, Siena rebelled against its overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, prompting Charles to request Florentine intervention whereas the Sienese turned to the French for help claiming their independence. It wasn’t until January of 1554, however, that Florentine troops marched in support of the Emperor. The frescoes depict the most famous of the battles.

The first, Capture of the Fort near the Porta Camollia, depicts the January 1554 attack on Siena led by Giangiacomo Medici, Marquis of Marignano (Giangiacomo was not a relation of the Medici family, but a member of a Milanese family of the same name). On January 26th, the ducal army attacked the Sienese fort located near Porta Camollia and surprised the guards while they slept. The Florentines marked this event as the beginning of the war.

Capture of the Fort near the Porta Camollia, Vasari

The second, The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, depicts the August 2, 1554 battle in Val di Chiana, which was decisive for the Florentines’ victory the next spring. Here, Florentine exiles, who had fled the Medici rule and sided with Siena, Frenchmen, and Grisons attacked the Florentine army, but the Florentines routed the Sienese troops.

The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, Vasari and Zucchi

The last, The Capture of Porto Ercole, Vasari, depicts the capture of Porto Ercole, Siena’s last holdout. Those who had been loyal to Siena fled to Porto Ercole after Siena had fallen on April 21, 1555. After a twenty-four day siege, however, the final bastion of Sienese independence fell.

Also found in the Hall is Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s series of statues known as The Labors of Hercules. Significantly, Cosimo I identified with the ancient Greek hero, going so far as to include Hercules’ likeness on his official seal. It was no coincidence that Hercules was also the symbol of Florence and had been on Florence’s official seal (the seal was engraved with the words, “Herculea clava domat florencia prava,” roughly translated as Hercules’ club smashes Florentine crookedness).

Moreover, take another look at the Foundation of Florence panel, discussed infra. Hercules makes an appearance! He is a little blurry, but there he is, identifiable via the club slung over his shoulder.

Thus, Cosimo was appropriating republican propaganda, “becoming the state” (perhaps beating Louis XIV to the concept of l’état, c’est moi). Ironically, Florentines idealized Hercules as the hero that destroyed tyrants.

It was Cosimo’s objective to become the “new” Hercules. In fact, Cosimo’s dominions over the 12 Etruscan cities were likened to Hercules’ 12 labors. I should mention here that some mythologies have Hercules performing more than the famous 12. Twelve, however, seems an opportune number as the 12 labors may be illusions to the 12 months, linking Hercules with time itself.

The rest of the palazzo contains subtle and some not-so-subtle allusions to Hercules (indeed, here is an entire room named for him) in a further effort to link the Medici with greatness. Alas, I think I have probably spent way too long in this post talking about all the neat artwork to see in a single room that the next rooms will have to be saved for later. Thanks as always.