One of the best jokes in movie history is an apologia for evil. Harry Lime, the black-market peddler of diluted penicillin for sick children, indelibly played by Orson Welles in “The Third Man,” trolls a straight-arrow friend with lines scripted by Graham Greene: “Remember what the fella says: in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That’s delectable enough to make up for mangling art history. Among the oligarchic republics and monarchies of Italy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it was the guileful Medici, in Florence—not the irrepressibly corrupt and, yes, betimes homicidal Borgias, mainly in Rome—who nurtured Leonardo and Michelangelo and most fruitfully advanced humanism in all fields of culture. (Niccolò Machiavelli was also a native son.) Unlike Greene and Welles, “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570,” at the Metropolitan Museum, assigns credit where it is due.
The banking family rose to govern Florence, nominally a republic, in the fourteen-thirties. After losing power in 1494, they reinstated themselves by force, with support from Pope Julius II, in 1512, the year that the Met show takes as its starting point. A further republican interlude, from 1527 to 1530, was crushed by armies sent by Pope Clement VII (a Medici himself) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This entailed a devastating ten-month siege that coincided with a plague epidemic and a famine. Disgusted by the Medici’s reactionary usurpation, Michelangelo, the city’s premier creator, moved to Rome, never again to set foot in Florence. (Neither he nor Leonardo is represented in the show.) But most other artists fell into line, flattering the regime with masterly portraiture that came to characterize Mannerism—an exaggeration of Renaissance aesthetics which exalted virtuosic artifice. As dukes and grand dukes, eventually extending their domain to all of Tuscany, the Medici held sway for the next two hundred years. It helps to keep in mind the violence of their restoration, which left memories of fearful suffering that could only discourage further opposition. If needful of consolation, the artists took it in beauty.
The Met show focusses narrowly on court culture, mainly through portraiture but also including books, prints, and manuscripts. The highlights are portraits by Jacopo da Pontormo and his student Agnolo Bronzino, two artists whom I have come to love. The warm-blooded Pontormo and the deceptively icy Bronzino developed variants of a style for style’s sake that used to be deprecated by art critics and historians as a decadent descent from Renaissance peaks. (Lone paintings by Andrea del Sarto and Raphael, along with one tentatively attributed to Raphael’s workshop, stand in for the old school.) Mannerism did indeed lack the gravitas and trailblazing form of the work done by Michelangelo’s cohort, but it achieved a sort of glorious sunset sophistication, which the show’s curators, Keith Christiansen and Carlo Falciani, and several consulting scholars relate to the politics of the period.
The art is great, the politics abstruse. I found the show fascinating without being terribly interesting. (Good luck keeping the names, dates, and deeds of the players straight. They teem like grasshoppers.) But the connoisseurship dazzles. Exquisitely selected and installed, the portraits, including mighty busts sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini, have no truck with mediocrity, apart from a haplessly overthought, fantasized grouping of historic poets painted by Giorgio Vasari, who, despite being a leading theorist and champion of Florentine disegno (design at one with drawing), was blah with a brush. His book “Lives of the Artists” (1550, enlarged in 1568) invented the practice of art history. Literature, notably poetry, obsessed Florentine artists and intellectuals, who led the consolidation of the turn made by their fellow-citizen Dante, in the fourteenth century, from Latin to the vulgate that became modern Italian. Science, too, had moments of support. A Medici patriarch was an important patron of Galileo’s, though the family’s next generation, likely deferring to the panicked Vatican, largely condoned his trial for the heresy of demoting Earth from the center of the universe. Flexible if not outright cynical tactics served the clan’s long-term strategy: to secure Florence’s independent eminence in Italy and beyond.
In a section on literature, the show turns up a poet new to me: Laura Battiferri, a woman who, married to an architect and sculptor, engaged in witty exchanges of poems with the multitalented, reliably sassy Bronzino, who was given to writing riotously homoerotic rhapsodies that were circulated among receptive readers. In 1560 or so, Bronzino portrayed Battiferri in profile—unusual for him—with a long nose and prominent chin cannily recalling those of Dante. Radiating intelligence, she holds open a manuscript volume displaying two sonnets by Petrarch. The friends enjoyed impersonating the fourteenth-century Florentine bard and his idealized ladylove, Laura. They had to have been a lot of fun, ornamenting a milieu of preening style and often freewheeling Eros. Such charms nestled within the scheming ambitions of the Medici state, which loomed large in Italy with its financial clout and a resourceful diplomacy that involved numerous marriages of convenience. The family finagled the installations of four popes (the Borgias managed two) and two queens of France. After the world-changing insurrection of Martin Luther, in 1517, Florence became a stronghold of the Counter-Reformation, although that movement’s overbearing piety was slow to affect the city’s deluxe tastes.
The best Florentine Mannerist portraiture stands up to the contemporaneous painterly feats of Venetians like Veronese and Tintoretto, whose absence rather haunts the show. But no one anywhere could rival that other Venetian, Titian, whose sensitivity to character, prodigies of color, and preternatural touch make him the greatest of all prior to Rembrandt. Pontormo comes closest with respect to color. Look long at his works, such as “Portrait of a Young Man” (circa 1525-26) and “Portrait of a Halberdier,” which is dated circa 1529-30—the years of the bloody siege that returned the Medici to power. (The formidably armed young man must have been a defender of the city.) Allow the hues and tones to surprise and absorb your gaze. You might well swoon. Even Pontormo’s blacks and grays glow. He was relatively inattentive to personality, but a sitter had to be glad of inclusion in the golden circle of his regard. For individual character, Bronzino rules. For me, Bronzino’s cool depiction of court personalities secretes a pathos of emotion held in check by obligatory elegance—an aesthetic of praise fringed with melancholy. Bronzino liked young men in art as in life. New Yorkers will be familiar with his “Ludovico Capponi” (circa 1550-52), a rare loan from the Frick Collection: an adolescent page strives toward arrogance, not quite nailing it, in a getup that features the projecting codpiece (with self-control, you can cease staring at it) that was a cynosure of male fashion at the time. (The equivalent attribute in earlier Italian portraits of men was apt to be a sword.) A wall in the last room of the show, hung with five tip-top Bronzinos, staggered me like a sequence of Sunday punches.
Less persuasive is the curators’ insistence on a triumvirate of masters, interspersing works by Pontormo and Bronzino with ones by the eclectic Francesco Salviati. I don’t get it. Though plentifully skilled, Salviati strikes me as often wacky, with a caricatural bent that can seem modern in accidentally burlesque ways. Some background elements in his “Portrait of a Man” (1544-45) bring to mind the American cornball regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, and the long-necked youth in his “Portrait of a Young Man with a Dog” (circa 1543-45), oblivious to the flyby of a semi-naked angel, might be something out of Mad magazine. The humor feels unintentional, unlike that found in a go-for-broke series by Bronzino of allegorical portraits that render leading lights of the court as figures of theological and mythological pedigree. The long-ruling duke Cosimo I de’ Medici becomes Orpheus, nude and wielding a kind of viol while watched by the helldog Cerberus, and his son Giovanni impersonates John the Baptist. It’s hard to imagine the subjects countenancing these antic depictions, but they must have, or we wouldn’t have the pictures to look at now.
The elevation even of japes in Medici-sponsored portraiture may induce a certain monotony, pleasurable on the eye but a mite starchy in the mind and conditioned by servitude to despotic patronage. For explosive relief, head just down the hall at the Met to the concurrent, huge retrospective of the bohemian demiurge Alice Neel. Neel, who died in 1984, embraced a raw humanity in her subjects that had only simmered in previous traditions of portraiture. It’s remarkable how an artist long classed as an eccentric outlier has come to seem an Old Master for present sensibilities. Her motto could have been an injunction that is associated with the poet Arthur Rimbaud, though likely not written by him: “Take rhetoric and wring its neck.” You are immersed at a glance in the untidy livingness, in the flesh, of persons from various strata of society, with a tilt toward the poor and the marginalized who for many years were neighbors of Neel’s in Spanish Harlem. A frisson of nakedness infuses even her clothed subjects, whose resilience consists in being fully and, therefore, by Neel’s reckoning, lovably human. The predominant feeling is a sort of rugged agape. Now return to the Medici and imagine their fainting fits, were they exposed to Neel’s principled gaucherie. Art has many mansions. Today, the most compelling tend to the tumbledown. ♦
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