The Hall of Geographic Maps had been closed to the public for more than twenty years, but it has been recently reopened after a 700 thousand euro restoration. The Medicean (the Medici family was ruling family of Florence) geographer Stefano Bonsignori designed the original room and Ludovico Buti frescoed with geographical renderings of Medici Tuscany, including Florence, Siena, and Elba, around 1589. Cartology, or the making of maps, formed a key pillar of Medici propaganda and myth-making. Indeed, the renderings of Florence and the hard-won colonies of Siena and Elba, conquered during the reign of Cosimo I, represent the the Grand Duchy’s place within the history of the universe and cosmos, a persisting preoccupation of the Medici dynasty.
It was intended to house Grand Duke Ferdinand’s collection of scientific instruments, thereby emphasizing the connection between science and art. These scientific instruments, many of which were commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinand himself, were works of art in and of themselves. The Medici family believed that both art and scientific knowledge conferred political power and prestige and so became prominent patrons of both. Copies of several of those instruments are housed here; the originals have been transferred to the Florence Museum of the History of Science, also known as the Galileo Museum. One of the copies housed here is the cosmographer Antonio Santucci’s armillary sphere, known as, straightforwardly enough, Santucci’s Armillary Sphere. (Santucci also made a copy of the sphere for King Philip II of Spain, which can be viewed today in the main library of the Escorial Monastery, outside of Madrid, Spain). The word Armillae in Latin can be translated as “rings.” Each ring represents a prong of the Aristotelian universe.
Another copy located in the Hall is the great terrestrial globe made by Egnazio Danti for the Palazzo Vecchio. Danti was the first “Cosmographer to the Most Serene Grand Duke,” appointed in 1562 to the new institutional figure.
The room was meant to represent Ptolemaic cosmography, i.e., the union of cosmography proper, i.e., the sky/heavens (Santucci’s Armillary Sphere), geography (Danti’s terrestrial globe), and chorography (Buti’s frescoes), as expressed in Ptolemy’s Geographiké Uphégesis.
Room 17. Stanzino delle Matematiche
The Mathematics Rooms or Room of Military Architecture was once known as the “Hermaphrodite Room” because it once housed the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, an ancient sculpture that caused a sensation in the Renaissance due to its sensuality (now located in the Louvre, in Paris, France).
The original room was dedicated to military architecture, as devised by the diplomat Filippo Pigafetta. In a letter to the Grand Duke Ferdinando, Pigafetta wrote:
The place devoted by Your Highness to keep the devices of military architecture (principal part of the science of warfare) was missing to the perfection of your Galleries, where so many other arts with their artificers are found, and it being certain that Your Serene Highness is well furnished with instruments for drawing and measuring by sight, both in the sky and on earth, and models for hoisting the heaviest weights with ease, and inventions as well as various devices and texts pertinent to the aforesaid Architecture, it was well worth to assign them a room where they could be placed, not only to demonstrate their utility but also to be displayed to visitors.
Filippo Pigafetta, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 137.
Giulio Parigi painted the frescoes in the first bay of the ceiling, which celebrate mathematics. Each frieze depicted an invention and/or discovery of antiquity, including the Pythagorean theorem, Ptolemy’s cosmographic system, Euclid’s geometric elements, Archimedes’ inventions, or a contemporary application of mechanics, including the wheel crowned with sponges, the pile-driving and excavating machines used in building the Port of Livorno, and ships, nautical charts, and the compass. Many of these contemporary scenes were sketches depicting the actual machines themselves, as they were held in the Medici collections.
Since the War with Siena, military engagements were no longer thought of as chivalric art, but as a mathematical science, based in part on the emergence of firearms. No longer was a military man exalted for his skills in hand-to-hand combat, but now needed to possess the knowledge of “military architecture” in order to be able to win at a distance. That is not to say that strategy and mathematics had not been a part of warfare prior to the 16th century; indeed, one of the most famous mathematicians, Archimedes, earned much of his fame due to his defense of his native city Syracuse against the invading Romans in the 3rd century B.C. But with the advent of firearms, compasses, and other such advances in military technology, the need for a general to understand ratios between weight and range of cannonballs, the geometry of fortresses, navigability of the oceans, etc. was greatly increased.
For what pertains to warfare, nothing is required but practice in the mathematical sciences, that is, cosmography, geography and topography, mechanics and perspective, as well as a good knowledge of civil and military architecture with excellent skill at drawing and a good understanding of arithmetic, because with the practice of these alone, and through the live voice of intelligent and practice persons, he [Prince Lorenzo de’Medici] can easily learn everything that a good soldier needs to know.
Ranuccio Farnese to Christina of Lorraine, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 140.
The new warfare was based on engineering and new technologies including compasses, plumb levels, and surveying compasses, which invariably led to a collectors frenzy over such items. This room once housed the geometric and military compasses that Galileo had dedicated to Cosimo I in 1606 and the telescope that had been used to reveal a new image of the universe in 1610, which relaunched Copernicus’ understanding that the Earth travelled around the sun, not the other way around.
Now, this room houses 19 small marble and alabaster Roman arts dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD, statues in marble and Bronze by Tuscans from 16th to 19th centuries, 24 bronze statuettes by Flemish sculptor Willem van Tedrode, and a bronze by Lombard Leone Leoni.
Room 18. The Tribune
Perhaps one of the more well-known rooms in the Uffizi, the Tribune was constructed during Francesco de’Medici’s reign to display the Medici’s ever-growing horde of treasures. Architect Bernardo Buontalenti deigned the room in 1584.
The room is in the shape of an octagon because it was Christian belief that the number eight was a heavenly number while the room’s high vault symbolizes vault of heaven, the venetian glass windows symbolize the cosmos, and the floor, which is in the shape of a flower, symbolizes the earth. In fact, artist Jacopo Ligozzi painted animals and plants along the base of the walls to reinforce the floor’s symbolism. To symbolize water, Buontalenti designed the cupola to be encrusted with over 6,000 mother-of-pearl shells whereas he designed the red velvet walls to symbolize fire and the lantern at the top of the cupola to symbolize air. Thus, the messaging of the cosmos, so important to the Medicean propaganda, is physically built into the Tribune.
The Tribune was also supposed to evoke the spirituality of a chapel. Indeed, its very name, Tribune, was appropriated from Catholic parlance: a tribune (Tribuna in Italian) is the semicircular domed end of a basilica.
The star of the Tribune is undoubtedly the statue known as the Medici Venus (Cleomenes, son of Apollodorus), which entered the Tribune in 1677.
The Medici Venus was allegedly found near the Trajan Baths, in Rome. The statue is a 1st century B.C. marble copy of a Greek bronze. Traces of the paint that once adorned the marble can still be detected. Although many people think of Greek and Roman statues as quintessentially white, they were actually painted with highly pigmented colors, which were rubbed off over the thousands of years spent combating the elements. The Medici Venus is no exception. For a riveting commentary on the Medici Venus and the nude as depicted in art in general, watch Mary Beard’s two-part series, The Shock of the Nude.
Room 9 of the Uffizi is dominated by a panel depicting the Seven Virtues, the majority of which Piero del Pollaiuolo and his workshop painted (the exception being Fortitude).
Piero del Pollaiuolo and his brother, the better-known (and more celebrated) Antonio del Pollaiuolo, operated a workshop together in Florence, which produced paintings, sculptures, goldwork, and engravings. Their workshop is considered to be one of the most important Florentine workshops of the 15th century due to the brothers’ innovative practices, one of the more gruesome of which was the dissection of human corpses. Human dissection allowed the Pollaiuolo brothers to improve their understanding of the human form by fully appreciating where muscles were located and how they worked. Interestingly, they were dissecting humans a whole generation before Leonardo Da Vinci became famous for doing so, and they perhaps were the source of Leonardo’s interest in the subject. According to Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century art historian and artist, Antonio Pollaiuolo was “the first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.”
The Pollaiuolo brothers were also innovative in their use of the Netherlandish technique of layering pigment to add shadow, known as glazing. Such an innovation was made possible only because of their use of oil paint rather than the tempera (an egg and pigment mixture) used by other Florentine artists. Indeed, when conventional Florentine artists needed to add shadows or highlights to their work, they would either switch colors altogether, a technique known as cangiante, or would add white pigment to their tempera mixture, which lightened, but also slightly changed, the color of the mixture. The Netherlandish style of painting, on the other hand, created shadow via layers of pigment, which allowed the Pollaiuolo brothers to build depth while keeping their colors “pure.” Oil paint also took longer to dry, allowing artists to blend and modify their brush strokes. Although the brothers did not exclusively use oil paint, as is evidenced by the use of tempera in the Seven Virtues, their introduction of oil as a medium for painting had far reaching effects.
Due to the brothers’ long partnership, it has been difficult for art historians to attribute authorship for any particular piece and/or figures within a single piece. Indeed, for many years, art historians believed that the Seven Virtues were done primarily by Antonio, but based on new research, scholars now lean towards attributing the work to Piero, although it is suspected that Antonio helped with some of the detailing. The cycle was commissioned to decorate the audience chamber of the Tribunale della Mercanzia.
The Tribunale della Mercanzia housed a court of appeals with jurisdiction over disputes within the five major merchant guilds (bankers, wool, cloth, silk, and apothecaries; although in practice it also heard disputes within the minor guilds as well). Therefore, if you look closely, you can see the coat of arms of several of the guilds embossed on the façade of the building.
The function of the building as a courthouse was likely the inspiration for the subject matter of the pieces, i.e. the virtues on which courts (should) pride themselves. The subject was even more appropriate because the number of virtues mirrored the number of consuls who presided over the disputes; the consulate was a body of seven judges, one from each of the major guilds, one chosen from the myriad of minor guilds, and a non-Florentine magistrate, who acted as prior, i.e. the head of the consulate.
Public spaces were (and still are) commonly decorated with those principles considered foundational for “good governance.” The reasoning was (and is) twofold: to inspire those governing to reach for loftier ideals and to proclaim to those being governed that the ruling class did in fact practice those lofty ideals. Thus, it acted as both a galvanizing and legitimizing force. Nowhere is this message more overt than in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco in Siena’s City Hall, literally entitled Good Government.
Here, it appears that the Florentine Guilds wanted to send the message that their judges acted as the conduits of the Seven Virtues. Four of the seven, Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence and Justice, were known as the Cardinal Virtues while the other three were known as the Theological Virtues. Interestingly, although the Seven Virtues did not have a set order; the three Theological Virtues did. Charity was always placed at the center, with Faith on her right (the viewer’s left) and Hope on her left (the viewer’s right). According to St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most prolific of the early Catholic Church Fathers, Charity was the most important of the Virtues, thus the centrality of her position.
Since ancient times, the so-called Virtues had been depicted as women accompanied by different iconography, which was necessary to identify figures in an age when many were illiterate. Thus, we can also identify the Virtues based on their common attributes. Moving from right to left, the first virtue in the series is Fortitude (1470), the first and only panel painted by Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli, still very early on in his career at the time of this commission, was only awarded the commission because of support from Tommaso Soderini, a Medici operative. (The Medici were the de facto ruling family in Florence; Botticelli himself operated within Lorenzo il Magnifico de Medici’s inner circle). Pollaiuolo protested and so Botticelli’s participation was limited to a single panel, that of Fortitude. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, also submitted a drawing in an attempt to wrest the commission from Pollaiuolo, but was unsuccessful.
Fortitude is considered by many scholars to be Botticelli’s first masterpiece; the piece in which he “freed” himself from his teacher, Filippo Lippi, and developed his own enduring style.
Fortitude represents strength and perseverance in the pursuit of good. The pearls in her hair and neckline allude to her purity, but also would have served as a mark of aristocratic privilege. Pearls had been banned by Florence’s sumptuary laws (laws which dictated who could wear what; the rules were based on an individual’s rank, social class, and gender), and therefore only the wealthiest could afford to pay the bribe necessary to get an exemption. Despite this clear allusion to Florence, Botticelli shied away from including other “Florentine” references, most glaringly of which is his failure to include the Florentine attributes of Fortitude, i.e. a club and a lion skin (an allusion to the city’s hero, Heracles). Instead, he used her more traditional attributes that would have been recognized outside of Florence: the iron mace, breastplate, and corinthian column upon which Fortitude’s left forearm rests. The omission of the Florentine attributes was likely a nod to the large number of foreign merchants who came to seek justice within the Tribunale della Mercanzia. Thus, Botticelli adopted the more widely used and well-known iconography to ensure all merchants would get the message.
Comparing Botticelli’s Virtue to those of Pollaiuolo, you will notice that Botticelli’s throne is much grander, made so via intricate decorations and detailed design.
Moreover, Botticelli places his Virtue in the foreground, focusing on her figure rather than on the room in which she sits. Temperance, on the other hand, is set further back, placed in the center of a room. Although it is clear that she is the focus of the work, she seems diminutive and more contained when compared to Fortitude. Botticelli achieved this effect by depicting the slope of the floor with a less harsh angle than the technique of central perspective actually demanded. By relaxing the strictures of central perspective, Botticelli avoided one of the technique’s central problems: the creation of a stage-like view of interior spaces. Whereas Pollaiuolo applied central perspective rigorously to all of his panels.
Both women’s faces are shaped with shadow, but the shaping of Fortitude expressions comes off as much softer than the harsher treatment of Temperance’s face. The elaborate gold inlay and jewel encrusted hem on Temperance’s gown and the bejeweled golden bowl and ewer, however, demonstrates Pollaiuolo’s knowledge of goldsmithing and metal work that he learned from his older brother Antonio.
The bowl and ewer symbolize the mixing of hot and cold water to demonstratethe moderation that defines Temperance (1470) (although some claim that Temperance is pouring water into wine, the Uffizi has identified her act as mixing hot and cold water). Pursuant to Renaissance thinking, Temperance was the virtue of self-control and discipline.
Unlike Temperance, however, Faith (1469) occupies more of the space allotted to her panel. Thus, her midsection does not appear as though it has been sucked into the background. Indeed, the background is more constrained, allowing the viewer to focus on the figure of Faith, who is looking towards the heavens, holding the Eucharistic chalice in her right hand and a processional cross in her left, the typical attributes of Faith.
Her robes were inspired by the ecclesiastical ornaments worn by priests at the time, which, as you can see, were opulent. A fact probably not lost on the Florentines nor the foreign merchants; the opulence of the Catholic Church would, in several decades, turn out to be one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation.
Charity (1469) was the first of the virtues to be completed as she was the center of the piece due to her primacy within the set. In fact, this cycle of Seven Virtues was commissioned to replace a pre-existing picture of Charity.
The 15th century concept of charity differs drastically from the modern definition of the word. “Charity” is derived from the latin word “caritas.” In Christian ideology, caritas is the highest form of love, i.e. the love shared between God and man, and the manifestation of that love in the form of man’s love of his fellow man. St. Augustine explained:
Then, after this human love has nourished and invigorated the mind cleaving to your breast, and fitted it for following God, when the divine majesty has begun to disclose itself as far as suffices for man while a dweller on the earth, such fervent charity is produced, and such a flame of divine love is kindled, that by the burning out of all vices, and by the purification and sanctification of the man, it becomes plain how divine are these words, “I am a consuming fire,” and, “I have come to send fire on the earth.”
St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church.
Operating under this understanding, classical and early humanist thinkers believed that Charity was central to good governance because the proper function of the law rested with charity.
But the law is good to edify, if a man use it lawfully: for that the end of it is charity, out of a pure heart and good conscience, and faith unfeigned.
The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book XII
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Charity’s common attributes is a flame, demonstrating God’s love. Pollaiuolo’s Charity is depicted holding such a flame while smaller flames are hinted at on either side of her throne and atop her crown. Speaking of her crown, she is the only Virtue depicted with one, emphasizing her status as chief among the other Virtues. Her eminence is reinforced by her rich velvet gown, not shared by the others, and her deliberate resemblance to the Virgin. This configuration was likely influence by Filippo Lippi’s Novitiate Altarpiece, especially the posture of the child.
Although the children are different in several respects, i.e. they are mirror images, the child’s feet are placed on Charity’s knee while Lippi’s child rests one foot on the throne, etc., Pollaiuolo’s child is more akin to that of Lippi when compared to prior depictions of children. Here, the child is balanced upon his mother’s knee rather than sitting serenely on his mother’s lap, which was the more traditional depiction.
Moreover, Pollaiuolo’s baby is just that: a baby. He does not retain the adult-like qualities of some depictions of the Christ-child, but instead is structured like a real child, baby fat and all.
Unlike Charity, and in fact all of the other Virtues, Hope, is not defined by any attributes. She simply looks towards the heavens.
Hope, to us, has not much place within a legal context, unless you count the hope that all litigants have: to win. Yet, at the time of this painting, Hope was inextricably linked to the law. St. Augustine explains:
[W]e are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man sees, why does he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. [Romans 8:24-25] Full righteousness, therefore, will only then be reached, when fullness of health is attained; and this fullness of health shall be when there is fullness of love, for love is the fulfilling of the law; [Romans 13:10] and then shall come fullness of love, when we shall see Him even as He is. [1 John 3:2] Nor will any addition to love be possible more, when faith shall have reached the fruition of sight
On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, St. Augustine.
Thus, Hope acts as a conduit for the fulfillment of the law, placing it squarely within the realm of those lofty ideals judges were supposed to keep in mind when arbitrating a dispute.
Justice is depicted within in this series with her traditional attributes: the sword and the sphere.
Prudence also served an important place within Renaissance legal theory. In fact, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine’s theological successor, Prudence is the most important of the Cardinal Virtues, for without Prudence, there can be no other virtue:
Wherefore there can be no moral virtue without prudence: and consequently neither can there be without understanding. For it is by the virtue of understanding that we know self-evident principles both in speculative and in practical matters. Consequently just as right reason in speculative matters, in so far as it proceeds from naturally known principles, presupposes the understanding of those principles, so also does prudence, which is the right reason about things to be done.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I-II
Although clearly the Florentine Guilds thought differently, as they placed the more traditional primal virtue in the center, Charity.
Prudence’s main attributes are a mirror and a serpent. The mirror was considered a tool that helped one towards knowledge whereas a serpent had been a common symbol of wisdom since ancient times.
Christians appropriated this iconography from Greco-Roman culture. Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, was often depicted with a serpent. In the picture to the left, Athena (picture taken at the Vatican) has a serpent coiling near her feet. The serpent is also an essential attribute of the god Asclepius’s staff, known as the asklepian, and on the caduceus, the staff wielded by the god Hermes.
Another interesting detail of Pollaiuolo’s Prudence is that her veil mimics the shape of an ionic column.
Perhaps Pollaiuolo was inspired by the recently rediscovered work of the ancient scholar and architect Vitruvius (the original source of the so-called Vitruvian man, pictured to the right). According to Vitruvian, the Ionians designed their columns to resemble hair:
[I]n the capital they placed the volutes, hanging down at the right and left like curly ringlets, and ornamented its front with cymatia and with festoons of fruit arranged in place of hair, while they brought the flutes down the whole shaft, falling like the folds in the robes worn by matrons. Thus in the invention of the two different kinds of columns, they borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned, for the one, and for the other the delicacy, adornment, and proportions characteristic of women.
Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. Vitruvius. Trans. Morris Hicky Morgan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. London: Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press. 1914.
Another Pollaiuolo that I want to talk about is the Cardinal of Portugal’s Altarpiece, so named because it once graced the Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel in San Miniato al Monte.
The chapel was dedicated to James of Lusitania, Cardinal of Lisbon and grandson of King John I of Portugal. James died in Florence in 1459 at a very young age. From left to right, the Saints depicted are St. Vincent, patron saint of Lisbon, St. James the Great (no doubt included as the Cardinal’s patron saint and namesake), and St. Eustace (a martyr of noble blood, perhaps a nod to the Cardinal’s noble birth).
Strikingly innovative is the placement of the saints on a terrace, allowing the background of the altarpiece to depict a landscape. It was only a mere thirty years ago that the Byzantine gold background was still in vogue.
It is also perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the San Miniato altarpiece that the Pollaiuolo brothers were highly influenced by the Netherlandish style. The dark, rich hues of color are a marked departure from the soft pastels of Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. The Pollaiuolo also departed from typical Florentine technique in their depiction of gold. Generally, Florentine artists were still using gold leaf (i.e.actual gold) in their paintings, but in this altarpiece, the Pollaiuolo produced a golden color by use the Netherlandish technique of glazing.
Compare Gentile da Fabriano’s gold brocade to that of the Pollaiuolo brothers. Fabriano’s technique, known as sgraffito, consisted of applying pigment over gold leaf, pieces of which would be scratched off in a decorative pattern. The Pollaiuolo brothers, on the other hand, painted a brown base in oil, over which they painted the color of the cloth, here blue, and finally they painted yellow thread with yellow oil paint (and in some areas, red oil paint to denote shadows) as a final layer to add the gold brocading. Oil paint’s refractive quality gave their work the shine typical of gold while allowing them to create shadows and depth that was not available when pure gold leaf was used. Thereby, allowing them to create a more naturalistic appearance. The workshop of Pollaiuolo brothers, therefore, can truly be credited as the most important Florentine workshop of the 14th century.
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:
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 1. Transition from the 12th Century to the 13th.
This room contains works from the second half of the 12th century through the 13th, i.e. the oldest Tuscan panel paintings that the Uffizi owns. For instance, the 432 Cross of the Uffizi (named for its catalog number) is likely the oldest panel painting owned by the Uffizi (c. 1180). It was painted by an unknown Tuscan artist likely born before 1200.
The panel depicts Christus Triumphans (“Christ Triumphant”), as opposed to Christus Patiens (“Christ Suffering”). Images of Christus Triumphans depict Christ on the cross, but Christ is awake, stoic and without pain. There is a hint of stylized blood falling from where the nails pierce his skin (Christ’s wounds are known as the Stigmata), but otherwise Christ is alive and has therefore triumphant over death. The spiritual has triumphed over the physical.
The apron (i.e. the scenes that run along Christ’s body) is read from top to bottom, left to right. They depict Christ’s Passion: (1.) Christ washing the feet of the apostles; (2.) the kiss of Judas (the moment Judas identifies Christ to the Roman soldiers, who arrest him and eventually crucify him); (3.) the Flagellation (the moment Christ is whipped by the Romans); (4.) the Via Dolorosa (the journey to Calvary, the mountain upon which Christ is crucified); (5.) the Deposition from the Cross (the moment the apostles take Christ’s body down from the Cross); (6.) the Lamentation (the moment the Virgin kisses her son Christ, as he is being placed in his tomb); and (7.) the Resurrection.
Compare the 432 Cross with the later 434 Cross, also known as Crocifisso con Storie della Passione di Cristo (c. 1240):
Christ in the 434 Cross is clearly suffering: his eyes are closed; his brow is furrowed; his body is being pulled down by gravity. This change can be explained by the rise of the Franciscan mendicant order, a religious order that focused on Christ’s humanity and his physical form. Franciscans’ emphasis on Christ’s humanity renewed interest in his suffering on the Cross.
The blood dripping from the Stigmata in the 434 Cross is thicker and less stylized, more human. The new emphasis on Christ’s humanity was a tool that allowed Christians to feel more connected to Christ and gave Christians the ability to empathize with his suffering in order to become closer to God.
Like the 432 Cross, the 434 Cross’ apron also depicts stories from Christ’s passion: (1.) The Sanhedrin Trial (the moment Jesus is brought in front of the Jewish Elders, who send him to Pontius Pilate); (2.) The Mocking of Christ (the moment Jesus is blindfolded and beaten); (3.) The Flagellation, as explained above; (4.) the Via Dolorosa, as explained above; (5.) The Deposition, as explained above; (6.) The Entombment; (7.) The Resurrection (the moment when Jesus’ women followers find his tomb empty; and (8.) The Appearances (the moment when Jesus appears to his apostles).
Unfortunately, the terminals of this Cross (i.e. the traditional depictions that would usually be on the ends of the Cross have been lost.
Also in this room is a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (c. 1230) painted by an anonymous artist known only as the Maestro del Bigallo.
Room 2. Giotto and the 13th Century.
Since the 1950s, Room 2 of the Uffizi has housed Italian works dating from the 13th century. This room has been dubbed the Sala delle “Tre Maestà” due to the three most famous Madonnas Enthroned of the 13th century. It is these three Madonnas that many art historians harken back to when discussing the origins of the Renaissance and why it began in Florence. The first of the three is Cenni di Peppi’s 12.5 foot 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 symmetrical and repetitive figures, and the solemn expressions of the angels. Moreover, the blues and pinks of Mary’s robes are reflected in the wings of the angels, symbolizing her status as Queen of Heaven. But, unlike previous renditions of this subject, Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Maestà is constructed so as to look as though the throne is receding into the background, thereby hinting at the new developments in art that were to become prominent among Florentine painters.
The Christ Child gives a blessing and is adorned with his cruciform nimbus (“ringed cross”), a halo inscribed with a cross. The cruciform nimbus was used to identify figures of the Holy Trinity, especially Christ, in early Christian/Byzantine art. Each bar of the cross in this particular halo is comprised of three dotted lines, symbolizing the dogmas of the trinity, the oneness of God, and the two natures of Christ. Christ’s overall posture, with his right foot propped up, reflects that of his mother, whose right foot is also propped up on a ledge.
Below the scene are several Old Testament prophets, whose placement allude to their role as the foundation of the Church. From left to right they are: Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah. The prophets also serve a typology role; typology was a common theme in Christian art where an Old Testament figure was paired with and served as a harbinger of a New Testament figure. For example, Jeremiah’s three days spent inside the whale was seen as the precursor to Christ’s three days in the tomb; Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and God’s staying of Abraham’s sacrifice was a parallel to God’s sacrifice of his own son and his resurrection; David’s triumph over Goliath alluded to Christ’s triumph over Satan; and finally Isaiah, like Christ, was to be sacrificed by his father and then saved by God. Moreover, the scrolls in the prophets’ hands also serve as the foundation of the Church, reinforcing the notion that the worshippers and God’s message is part of an all-encompassing plan, as well as foretell the Mary’s role as the Mother of God.
The expressive depiction of these Old Testament prophets as well as detailed personalization in the other figures 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:
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.
Giotto also strayed away from ornamental details to focus on the naturalism of his figures, giving each a different expression full of human emotion. He abandoned the use of stark outlines to define his figures, instead opting for shadow and the graduations of light, thereby ensuring that his figures appeared solid and real. For instance, look at the subtle curve of the cushion that Mary sits atop. The curl of this cushion emphasizes Mary’s presence; her body actually interacts with the other elements of the painting and has an effect on them. He also eschewed the traditional use of damascene to depict light and instead used lighter tones of blue to suggest shifting appearance of light.
Comparing the angels in the Cimabue with the ones in the Giotto, they are placed to fill the space whereas the angels in Giotto appear to stand one next to another in real space.
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. The white, blue, and gold of Mary’s robes are reflected in the coloring of her throne (as is the red of Christ’s gown); the white alludes to her purity, the blue as her role as Queen of Heaven. The red of Christ’s gown alludes to his passion. 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.
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.
This piece, specifically the angels holding up the throne, was likely inspired by the Belle Verrière window located in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres.
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 Maestà, discussed above (it is likely that Martini trained under Duccio).
Like Duccio’s work, this piece emphasizes fluid lines, which give the figures elongated, wiry silhouettes, reminiscent of calligraphic play of line. 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 wet nurse 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. His rippling cloak conveys motion, alluding to both his startling arrival as well as the tension it has caused; indeed, Mary is depicted as recoiling from her unexpected visitor. 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, Gaddi’s son Agnolo 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.
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 Triptychwith Virgin and Childbetween 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.
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).
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.
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.
A more recently rediscovered artist, known as Giottino because he was one of the most talented followers of Giotto, painted this final piece known as the Pietà di San Remigio (1360-1365).
Mary is holding her son’s head while two other women kiss the stigmata, the wounds caused during Christ’s Passion, on Christ’s hands. Standing behind Christ and the mourning women are Saints Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and John the Evangelist (not pictured). The women kneeling on the left is one of the patrons of the work. In contrast to the other figures, she is depicted on a smaller scale and wearing contemporary Florentine dress. The work was commissioned for the Church of San Remigio. It is considered a masterpiece due to the expressions of the figures and its psychological insight into the figures’ suffering.
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.
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.
Cell 3 depicts the Annunciation, which looks as though the scene is taking place within the friar’s cell. In fact, the dominant color of the piece is the same as that used in the friar’s cell. No expensive pigments have been used, stressing the austere lifestyle of the friars.
In the left of the work stands St. Peter Martyr, a Dominican Friar himself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is less subtle, creating a more dynamic and dramatic scene.
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.
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.
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).
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. She returns Gabriel’s greeting by crossing her arms over her chest, mimicking the angel’s own gesture. 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).
Also unlike other Annunciations, Fra Angelico limits the colors of Gabriel’s wings to those four principals colors he uses in his overall palette (i.e., ocher, vermilion, grayish blue, and blue-green). 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. The work’s inscription reminds the friars, “When you come before the image of the Ever-Virgin, take care that you do not neglect to say an ‘Ave.'”
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 of 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. The three generations of kings also 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).
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. According to the 15th century poet Ugolino di Vieri, the library contained “so many thousands of volumes written by the Greek and Latin fathers that it could rightly be called the archives of sacred doctrine.” Unfortunately, most of the volumes were transferred to the Biblioteca Laurenziana during the 19th century suppression of the monasteries.
The Apartments of the Priors are located in one of the oldest parts of the Palazzo Vecchio. They were built to house the members of government, which, at the time, consisted of eight elected officials, known as priors, two for each of the four quarters of Florence, the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia (the “Standard Bearer of Justice”), who acted as the figurehead of the state, two advisory bodies, the Twelve Wise Men and the Sedici Gonfalonieri, and two legislative bodies, the Consiglio del Popolo and the Consiglio del Commune. To ensure no one person dominated the government (which apparently failed to stop the Medici), each prior only served for a two month period. During their two month tenure, the law mandated that they live within the Palazzo; indeed, within these rooms. Their private quarters were renovated by Duke Cosimo I to become private chambers for his wife, Eleonora of Toledo, whereas the rooms now known as the Apartments of the Priors kept their more or less public character.
During the Republic, the Priors used this room to deliberate on public matters. It was renovated from 1470 to 1481 by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, who are responsible for the coffered ceiling. The Maiano brothers’ wall frescoes, however, were replaced by Duke Cosimo I during the 16th century. Indeed, the Duke used this room to hold audiences while he was waiting for the princely Salone Cinquecento to be finished.
In 1543, Duke Cosimo commissioned Francesco Salviati to re-fresco the walls. Salviati was born Francesco de’Rossi, but, as was common among Renaissance artists, adopted the name of his patron, Cardinal Salviati. Typical of mannerist painters, Salviati’s work is informed by Michelangelo’s muscular body types packed together in awkward postures, giving the effect of frenzied and frantic movement.
Salviati created a fresco cycle depicting the story of Marcus Furius Camillus, a Roman General who purportedly freed Romans from the Gaulish invaders in 390 BC and defeated a rival Etruscan tribe centered in the town of Veii. Camillus became known as the “Second Founder of Rome.” The message to those lucky enough to be granted an audience with Cosimo was clear: Cosimo, like Camillus, defeated his people’s enemies. Also like Camillus, the Medici family had been exiled from their home city multiple times by inept governments and called back just as many times to save il popolo (the people). Significantly, Camillus was a republican hero, but the scenes depicted on the walls focus on his imperialist expansion of Rome, an expansion completed for the good of the Roman Republic.
On the east wall (the right wall on the picture below), Salviati painted The Triumph of Camillus, which depicts Camillus in a chariot driven by four white horses, triumphantly processing back to Rome after defeating the Veii and destroying their city.
On the north wall, Salviati painted different representations of time, including those used by the Egyptians, to link Cosimo’s rule to the “great” civilizations of the past and visually legitimize his reign by placing it in the context history.
On the last wall, which is opposite to the chapel and faces towards the north, in a corner on the right hand, is the Sun figured in the manner wherein the Egyptians represent him, and in the other corner the Moon in the same manner. In the middle is Favour, represented as a nude young man on the summit of the wheel, with Envy, Hatred, and Malice on one side, and on the other side Honours, Pleasure, and all the other things described by Lucian. Above the windows is a frieze all full of most beautiful nudes, as large as life, and in various forms and attitudes; with some scenes likewise from the life of Camillus.
Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing, 2018.
In The Weighing of the Gold, Salviati depicts the moment that Brennus, King of the Gauls, is attacked by Camillus.
The Romans had agreed to pay the Gauls a thousand pounds of gold as ransom for Rome, but, according to legend, Brennus placed his sword on the scale, indicating that more was due. At that moment, Camillus, recently returned from exile, attacked and defeated the Gaulish army. According to the ancient Roman historians Livy and Plutarch, after the Gauls sacked Rome, the Roman Senate had no choice but to recall Camillus from exile and grant him absolute power so he could defeat the Gauls. So too, the message goes, did the Florentine Priors have no choice but to recall the Medici from exile and grant Cosimo I absolute power.
The figure with two heads (on the left) is time. She is two-faced to look both towards the past and towards the future. She holds Opportunity by her forelock, while Cosimo I’s zodiac sign, the Capricorn, is located above. The allusion is clear: Cosimo I, like Time, grabs opportunity and leads her where he will. Indeed, as mentioned above, the room is full of allusions to time and Cosimo’s place within it.
Sala dei Gigli
Interestingly, this room retained its decoration from the days of the Republic. Each wall was supposed to be dedicated to men of great civic virtue (at least in the eyes of the ruling Florentines), in other words, a cycle of “uomini famosi” (“famous men”). This genre of decoration was typical of humanist tradition. Each individual depicted was to inspire the viewers (usually the ruling elite) to a higher standard of behavior and governance. The idea was that with the uomini famosi looking upon the officials, the officials would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc. In the end, only one of the wall was completed; the other walls were decorated with the Angevin Fleur de Lys, giving the room its name, Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies).
The wall that was finished depicts six Romans underneath typical Roman triumphal arches . They are arranged chronologically, from left to right: Lucius Junius Brutus, Gaius Mucius Scaevola, Marcus Furius Camillus, Publius Decius Mus, Scipio Africanus and Cicero. Although all republicans, these Roman heroes were chosen for their patriotism, not their republican values, as evidenced by their accompanying inscriptions. Indeed, Lucius Junius Brutus, the first consul of Rome (not the Brutus famous for his role in killing Julius Caesar), is celebrated for defending his country (“BRVTVS EGO ASSERTOR PATRIAE REGVMQ FVGATOR”). Lucius Junius Brutus purportedly drove out the Tarquin king, his uncle, and founded the Roman Republic after the king raped a noblewoman named Lucretia. Although the inscription beneath him does mention the flight of the Tarquin king (“REGVMQ FVGATOR”), it is only incidental (and comes after) to his defense of his country. No mention is made of his pivotal role in founding the Republic.
Additionally, Cicero, who was a martyr for the Roman Republic, is extolled for his quashing of the Catiline conspiracy (“SVM CICERO TREMVIT NOSTRAS CATILINA SECVRES”), a clear comparison to the recent Pazzi Conspiracy, which occurred in 1478, a mere four years prior to the decoration of this room. Perhaps the most telling that this Hall did not celebrate Republican virtues is Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of the heads of Roman Emperors in the tondi on the spandrels.
This itinerary can be explained by the fact that Lorenzo de’Medici was the de facto ruler of Florence and organized the redecoration of the Hall himself. In fact, during the redecoration of this room, Lorenzo was busy tightening his grip on the Florentine government via “reforms,” including the creation of an executive committee known as the Council of Seventy, which was authorized to bypass the elected priors. The Council was also responsible for selecting from its own ranks members to comprise two additional committees: the Eight, which oversaw foreign policy, and the Twelve, which oversaw domestic affairs (this committee is separate and apart from the Council of the Twelve Wise Men mentioned above). Unsurprisingly, Lorenzo sat on both committees. Moreover, the Council of Seventy chose those individuals eligible to run for election as any public officials. Thus, the frescoes are less concerned with republican ideals and more interested in promoting patriotism.
In addition to the cycle of uomini famosi, the fresco contains allusions to the city of Florence itself. On either side of the central arch are illusions to the Marzocco, the heraldic lion of Florence, each holding a banner, the one on the left holding aloft the red cross of the popolo while the one on the right (partially obscured by the doorway) is holding the banner of the Florentine lily.
San Zanobi (St. Zenobius), patron saint of Florence, is depicted underneath the central arch. Allegedly, St. Zenobius saved Florence from the Ostrogoths in AD 405 when he was bishop of Florence. St. Zenobius is most famous for his uncanny ability to bring people back from the dead. Here, he is flanked by his deacons, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius.
In the background, Ghirlandaio anachronistically included the Dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly known as il Duomo), which wasn’t constructed until the 15th century (well after St. Zenobius’ lifetime).
St. Zenobius also had connections to the Medici family. First, Cosimo il Vecchio played a major role in translating St. Zenobius’ remains to their final resting place in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore during the Council of Florence (a church meeting that was intended to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches). Secondly, the three saints’ likenesses were modeled on depictions of them located in the north sacrasity of the Cathedral, the sacrasity to which Lorenzo was forced to flee for his life during the ill fated Pazzi conspiracy. Such an association reinforced Lorenzo’s legitimacy as divinely supported.
Chapel of the Priors
Located between the Sala dell’Udienza and Eleonora’s apartments, the Chapel of the Priors was commissioned by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini to Baccio d’Agnolo and Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. The Chapel served as a place for the Priors to convene and pray prior to attending public debates.
The Chapel contains thirty-two latin inscriptions taken from Biblical, Classical, and early Christian texts that extol the virtues of good government as a message to the city leaders to practice good government.
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).
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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  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:  “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:  “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, fittinglypainted 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, TheBirth 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,  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  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,  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.
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.
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,  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,  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  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,  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,  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 …
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.
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.
 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  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;  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,  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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Time was a recurrent theme in Medici propaganda. Lorenzo il Magnifico’s motto was “Le tems revient” (“The time returns”), a play on his father Piero’s motto “Semper” (“Always).
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.