Quartiere Degli Dei Celesti

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

Room of the Elements

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

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

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

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

Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.

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

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

Giorgio Vasari, Ragionamenti

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

Room of Ceres

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

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

Room of Opis

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

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

Vasari, Ragionamenti

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

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

Vasari, Ragionamenti

Room of Jupiter

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

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

Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.

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

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

Terrace of Juno

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

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

Room of Hercules

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

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

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

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

Vasari, Ragionamenti

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