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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."




At the Metropolitan Museum of Art we have "The Medici: Portraits and Politics: 1512 -1570" (through October 11).  This is a show of Old "Masters" that tries to do the best it can for a period in Florentine art traditionally known as "Mannerism" but which the museum in its accompanying literature tries to dignify as "Renaissance."  The best reason it can make this claim is that for the most part the show steers clear of the spindly, rubbery bodies and overly cluttered compositions that distinguish Mannerism's religious, mythological and allegorical paintings, focusing instead of the relatively straightforward and mannerism-free subject of portraits



To borrow a term from show biz, the MacGuffin that the museum uses – the gimmick that is meant to tie everything in the exhibit together-- is politics. The 90 works on view (painted, drawn or executed in other media, including sculpture and medallions) all come from a period in the 16th century when Florence – for centuries, a republic with elected officials -- had just been turned into a duchy headed up by the Medici family. Many (though far from all) of the portraits on view depict members of this family.


(Of course, the Medici had been prominent in the city for a long time but they needed additional forces commanded by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor for them to turn it into the 16th century equivalent of an absolutist state.)


As far as I'm concerned, most of the "politics" in this show are in the labels, as opposed to the works themselves -- though there are a few cases where the artists have obliged their sitters by incorporating signs of military superiority or other allegorical insignia into their costumes or their settings. 


(The only place where the show absolutely screams "Mannerism" is in a couple of paintings where the spindly, rubbery nude bodies of supposedly beautiful male youths have been grafted onto the heads of Medici bigwigs as part of what the labels call "A Poetics of Portraiture," and more specifically "Allegorical and disguised portraiture.")


(Then again, the Met wouldn't have ruffled too many feathers if it had come out and called the show downright Mannerist. Fifty or  seventy-five years ago, Mannerism was widely dismissed as a decadent  period, but with postmodernist decadence in command of the current art scene, Mannerism looks more and more like a highly desirable ancestor figure every day: it makes present art look so much better by comparison.)


And the Met is nothing if not political itself. During the same week that I attended this show, the museum's Costume Institute was staging its annual Gala, the monster benefit that it normally holds in May, but has been forced to cancel for the previous two Mays due to the pandemic. According to Fox News online, tickets for the event cost guests $35,000, and tables started at $200,000.


Among the approximately 400 guests were two Democratic Congresswomen from New York, according to People online.  They were Carolyn Maloney, in whose district the Met is located, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is in a less fashionable part of town but who – as a highly-articulate leader of the left-wing faction among the Democrats in Congress – seems to be anywhere that she can make a statement.


In this case, she wore a simple white gown with "Tax the Rich" emblazoned in red on it.  Maloney's lavishly-embroidered green & gold gown (with accompanying handbag) were decorated with lettering of the E.R.A.—the long-dormant Era Rights Amendment for women that is showing signs of coming back to life under the impact of #MeToo.


The Met's decision to stage "The Medici" at this moment reminded me that shows like this one are dreamed up years in advance.  If Donald Trump had won the 2020 election, this exhibition about a family that superseded democracy might have seemed frighteningly timely. It might have offered comfort to the vanquished with a message that even in a duchy, art can thrive.  Maybe it will still seem prophetic in 2024.


The show itself has one very nice portrait by Raphael, one that didn't stand out by Titian and one quite presentable half-finished portrait of Michelangelo by a student of his, Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566).


According to the label, Michelangelo was a republican at heart, who had worked on fortifications for the defense of Florence in 1529-30, but then fled to Rome, refusing service to the Medici dukes. Good man! I always knew I liked him.


Of the artists responsible for the remaining portrait paintings and drawings in this show, the most largely represented are Bronzino (1503-1572), with about 30 portraits, Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 – 1556), and Francesco Salviati (1510 – 1563), with nearly ten portraits each. Despite the closeness of their birthdates, Pontormo is usually classed as a first-generation Mannerist, while the other two are considered second-generation (Bronzino studied with Pontormo).


On the whole, these portraits depict nice-looking, beautiful people.  This to me is a sure sign that flattery was in style at the court of Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany -- head of the clan who ruled the city for most of the 16th century.  Interesting but maybe homely faces in this show are few and far between. 


This marks a definite change from the previous century, when Ghirlandaio could paint that memorable old man with the cauliflower nose and his grandson, and Piero della Francesca could so brilliantly limn the unforgettably hook-nosed profile of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino i(himself a welcome reminder that dukes can be enlightened patrons of the arts).


The only image in this show that struck me as comparably rich in character – as opposed to conventionally handsome -- was the marble portrait bust of Giovanni delle Bande Nereca, father of Cosimo I, made in the 1540s by Francesco da Sangallo  (1494-1576).  This figure in full military attire has a handsome face, to be sure, but it's also twisted into a very welcome scowl. 


According to the label, the sculptor may have been trying to summon up memories of the subject's grandfather, Francesco  Sforza, a legendary commander and founder of the family's fortunes. Perhaps Sangello also had access to an old painting or sculpture of Sforza, which helped him to achieve his figure's archaic charm.


Situated next to this excellent sculpture – for contrast – is a painted portrait of the same subject by Salviati.  From the sublime to the ridiculous: the portrait is coyly sentimental and tediously glamorous -- a good object-lesson in why Salviati is not nearly as well-known as either Bronzino or Pontormo. 


Neither of them are that well known either, but at least they lend a certain dignity and reserve to the figures they depict (as long as there is no attempt to substitute allegorical bodies for their own – fully-clothed – flesh and blood).  


And quite a number of paintings in this show are not known to depict any members of the Medici family. They are simply labeled "Portrait of a Boy,"  "Portrait of a Man with a Book," "Portrait of a Woman," and so forth. This helps the viewer to appreciate the art without having to worry about any political hooks.


Looking for an image to illustrate this review, I settled on "Portrait of a Halberdier," painted by Pontormo sometime around 1528 to 1530, because with its handsome costume and military weapon it's more interesting than all the portraits of men  in this show simply wearing black.


However, reading the label, I was happy to learn the subject wasn't a toady in the court of Cosimo I.  Instead, he seems to have been opposed to the Medici takeover: one of the adolescent boys who were too young to fight but took up arms and followed their fathers on patrols in defense of the republic when it was under siege by the Medici and their powerful allies.


The figure is identified as "probably" Francesco Guardi (1514-1554) but this cannot have been the painter of the same name famous for his vedute of Venice, for that artaist lived two centuries later (1712 – 1793).  Maybe this is the vedutisto's grandfather? Or somebody else altogether? To me, the anonymity only adds to the painting's charm.


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