For many museum visitors, the “Medici” cited in the title of the Metropolitan Museum’s current show (subtitled: “Portraits & Politics, 1512-1570”) will evoke the names of artists from the golden age of Renaissance painting in Florence, when Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli and Verrocchio flourished under the aegis of Lorenzo the Magnificent. But none of those luminaries figure in the current exhibition (to Oct. 11), which focuses on the reign of a later member of the politically and culturally prominent banking clan—Cosimo I de’ Medici.
As if to remind us of what we’re missing, a portrait of Michelangelo by another artist (better known for painting loincloths on nudes in the Sistine Chapel’s “Last Judgment”) appears towards the end of the Met’s sprawling exhibition:
I expected to be wowed by this exhibition and, to some extent, I was: It benefits from what we’ve come to expect during the long reign of the Met’s resourceful wrangler of masterpieces from loath-to-lend institutions—Keith Christiansen, who has just retired from the chairmanship of the Met’s Department of European Paintings. Along with the exhibition’s guest curator—Carlo Falciani, art history professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence—Keith managed to corral “23 of Bronzino’s portraits, six by Pontormo, nine by Francesco Salviati, two bronze busts by Cellini that I would rank as among the greatest portrait busts of the entire Renaissance,” in Christiansen’s words at the exhibition’s press preview.
Here’s Cellini’s bravura bronze that introduces the Met’s stately symphony with a resounding cymbal-crash:
The exhibition’s press release states that “cleaning of the [bronze] bust for the exhibition has recovered its silvered eyes, which emulate a practice found in ancient bronze sculpture.” What it doesn’t say (but what is discussed by Davide Gasparatto, the Getty Museum’s senior paintings curator, in his catalogue entry) is that the bronze had originally been gilded: The “original intentions of the artist,” Gasparatto wrote, were “to create a monumental object of sumptuous and jewel-like quality.”
Like these arresting busts, most of the paintings in this show excel in polished craftsmanship but are nearly bereft of what I most prize in portraiture—a sense of the subject’s character, personality and inner life. Who are these people, other than imperious aristocrats? Bronzino, who dominates the show, doesn’t let on. As Christiansen remarked at the press preview (heard in the CultureGrrl Video at the end of my earlier Medici post), “the dominant concept [of the exhibition] is portraiture as mask [emphasis added], both revealing and hiding aspects of identity.” These portraits, he noted, are “at the opposite end of the spectrum from Alice Neel‘s informal, instantly engaging portraits [emphasis added] of people she met and befriended,” which are on display (to Aug. 1) in a nearby monographic exhibition. (I would describe the Neels as “engrossing and disquieting,” not “engaging.”)
Exemplifying Bronzino’s “portraiture as mask” is the icy stare of his “Woman with a Lapdog,” ca. 1532-33, who “appears at once to acknowledge the viewer’s presence while remaining aloof, exhibiting that Dantesque quality of unattainable perfection,” as described in Christiansen’s catalogue entry for that painting, on loan from the Städel Museum, Frankfurt (the institution that Met director Max Hollein previously led):
Linda Wolk-Simon, the Met’s former curator of drawings and prints (now visiting professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts), succinctly defined the exhibition’s missing element, in her remarks for the Met’s podcast: “What you don’t see is a penetrating glimpse of the sitter’s psyche; their interiority.” Wolk-Simon, whom CultureGrrl readers previously met at the Met, contributed an essay to the “Medici” catalogue and (in the words of Christiansen’s acknowledgments) “generously read my entries and gave me much needed guidance on a range of issues.” (I miss her candor and irreverence at the Met.)
For me, the mixing of “Medici” and “the Met” brought to mind an object from the museum’s collection that’s not included in the exhibition (because it references Lorenzo, not Cosimo I):
The “Politics” of the exhibition’s title refers to Cosimo’s use of art as propaganda. But for me, museum-related politics also came into play, evoked by a number of the show’s protagonists, including this mild-looking adolescent trying to look tough. His return to New York is something of a homecoming:
Although this painting, by Bronzino’s teacher, has been owned by the Getty Museum since 1989, New Yorkers may remember it from the Frick Collection’s galleries, where it had been displayed on loan from 1970 until it was “removed in March [of 1989] by executors for the estate of Chauncey Devereaux Stillman,” as described in this NY Times‘ report on its sale to the Getty at Christie’s for $35.2 million.
According to Rita Reif‘s NY Times report, Charles Ryskamp, then president of the Frick, stated: “Mr. Stillman had said it was his intention that it [the Pontormo] would eventually be incorporated in the [Frick’s] collection.” Stillman “had written to the museum stating this intention in 1981,” Reif wrote. So much for “donor intent.”
In a literal-minded installation strategy, the Met has installed an actual halberd (Italian, ca. 1550) beside the “Halberdier”:
With the Pontormo’s price more than tripling the previous record at auction for an Old Master painting, the munificently endowed Getty may have been the only art museum with the resources to rescue the halberdier for the American museum-going public.
Contrast the Getty boy with the self-possessed personage below (sitter unknown), in a similar akimbo pose—a work by Pontormo’s illustrious pupil that resides in the Met’s permanent collection:
In response to my query about Cennini’s anachronistic “Covid complications,” the Met press office explained that they pertained not to his health (although he does look a little unwell) but to “restrictions affecting courier travel.”
For me, the drop-dead picture in this exhibition was the sole example by Raphael (who received top billing among the artists listed in the press release). It was intended to communicate a “message…about the wealth of this wearer,” Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, who was wooing a distant cousin of the French king, Francis I, according to the catalogue entry. Less illustrious than “the Magnificent,” this later Lorenzo died of syphilis before producing a male heir. That said, he received surprising renown: Machiavelli dedicated his iconic treatise, “The Prince,” to him.
With its opulent fabrics, rendered so convincingly that you long to caress their textures, this portrait could have wooed anyone. Maybe I’m too taken by the trappings, but I don’t agree with the wall label’s description of this portrayal of Lorenzo as “a paradigm of inscrutable aristocratic hauteur.”
I see some soulfulness behind those eyes:
Raphael, “Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino,” 1518, Private Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
And while we’re on the subject of wooing…
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