Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Medici's - Part II

This is the second and last part of the BBC programme about the Medici family, as tomorrow we leave Florence.

We're now starting to hear about Piero, son of Cosimo (remember he was the cautious one!).  This son was known as Pierro the Gouty.  He was Lord of Florence for a short while, but wasn't much into collecting art.  His health was really bad and it is said that at times his gout was so serious that the only thing he could do was waggle his tongue!   Unlike his son, Lorenzo (The Magnificent), Piero kept the family banking business ticking over.  However, one of his first moves was to call in some rather overdue debts and this forced quite a few merchants into bankruptcy and didn't make him very popular in Florence.  Still, the Villa  - now a hunting lodge - was the gathering place for the great and the good and the Medici's were still in the thick of power.

Lorenzo, with his world class education and his family money, set out in the pursuit of pleasure and power (reminded me a bit of Bertie).  Although he neglected the banking business and this led to its failure (!!), he was very flamboyant and commissioned a great deal of art; in fact, he founded an art academy.  Michelangelo was one of its students.  We are shown some of his early works, including Madonna of the Stairs 

 and The Battle of the Centaurs.  This, according to the narrator, was the birth of Western European secular art.

The programme showed viewers a sketch of a "revolutionary piece of architecture", another villa, commissioned by Lorenzo (sadly I'm not able to find a picture to show you).  It was filled with frescos that weren't completed until after Lorenzo's death but now,  G-Dixon states, the Medici's worship Art, not God.  

For all that, Lorenzo arranged for one of his sons to join the church (where he later became Pope Leo X).  He also married a daughter to a son of Pope Innocent VIII (born before he joined the church -- of course -- so maybe that's why he's called 'innocent'?).  The power they held meant the Medici's weren't very popular, particularly not with rival banking families nor, apparently, with the current pope.  There was a plot to kill Lorenzo and his brother, Guiliano; the brother died, Lorenzo survived.  The plot was sanctioned by Pope Sixtus IV who also gave dispensation for crimes committed in service of the church.  

Lorenzo's son, Piero II, (The Unfortunate) faired even worse, being 'feeble, arrogant and undisciplined'.   When the King of France invaded, he pretty much handed over the city and ran away to Venice; the Medici family were in exile between 1494 and 1512.

During their absence, a fanatical monk named Girolama Savonarola became the leader in Florence.  

He is thought to have been the forerunner of the Reformation because he was so critical of the Papacy.  What Savonarola is mainly remembered for, however is his Bonfire of the Vanities (Another thing I heard of ages ago, but didn't know what it was).  According to Wikipedia,

In 1497, he and his followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities. They sent boys from door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be transformed into statues of the saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence.   Many fine Florentine Renaissance artworks were lost in Savonarola’s notorious bonfires — including paintings by Sandro Botticelli, which he is alleged to have thrown into the fires himself.
Florence didn't long put up with Savonarola -- he was also opposed to trade and to making money -- and in 1503 he was Ex'd:  excommunicated and executed.

Meanwhile, Michelangelo was creating his Christian symbol of the strength of Florence's Republic, his statue of David, which glowers down towards Rome (and here's me all along thinking it was religious art...).  

[There is no denying it is a beautiful statue, however we did not go the museum to see it, having gone to the the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and been unable to get past the manic hoards surrounding her.]. 

According to the programme, it was the exile of the Medici's that bred the brutal generations that followed.  They spent their time away developing a stronger relationship with the Papacy and gained access to the use of the Papal military muscle.  They returned to Florence to rule as absolute dictators and they used Art as a weapon.   (They also inter-married with royalty throughout Europe, and the things that some of of them got up to make for even more interesting reading.)
In 1519, Pope Leo X (a Medici) commissioned the Church of San Lorenzo to be built and it would be the burial place for Medici's, a tomb to make that family always be remembered.  Michelangelo was to create the statues for each of the graves.  G-Dixon says that Michelangelo had rather a love-hate relationship with the Medici and he demonstrated this in what he produced.  The statues of the deceased Medici are depicted as Roman figures, chilling and abstract, with disinterested expressions.  Below those figures, the artist added his own ideas in the form of figures named Dawn, Dusk, Night and Day.  They are more languid, more prominent than the Medici figures and they remind the viewer of the passage of time and the power of death; time lays waste even to the powerful Medici's.  G-Dixon said that Michelangelo had become an artist rebel, placing his wishes before those of his patron. 

The next Medici generation of the 1530's brought Alessandro.  He bought his position as the first Duke of Florence from Emporer Charles V (AKA Carlos, Emporer of the Spanish Empire), who sacked Rome in 1527.  This will have made the Pope, then Clement VII, unhappy, however they made their peace after a fashion.  On our travels I discovered that much of Italian politics around this time forced men to choose their allegiance:  for Pope or for Emporer.  

Incidentally, Pope Clement VII was the son of the brother who was murdered (Guiliano), born one month after his father's death.  He's also the unfortunate Pope who denied Henry VIII the annulment of his marriage to Catharine of Aragon which led to the creation of the Anglican Church. 

Anyhow, back to Alessandro.  He was known as The Moor, because of his dark complexion.  He was said to be the (illegitimate but recognised) son of Lorenzo II, but scholars today believe he was actually the illegitimate son of the Pope - Clement VII (from before he joined the church, I'm sure).  His enemies declared his rule to be 'harsh, depraved and incompetent'.  He is remembered for having built the massive and intimidating fortress, Fortezza da Basso, overlooking Florence.   G-Dixon referred to him as a 'thug'.

He also had the Medici palle to have artist Benvenuto Cellini to make coins stamped with his image [I have Cellini's autobiography around here somewhere, I think...must dig it out again].  To a 16th century Florentine with republican sympathies these coins were disgusting, a symbol that the Medici's considered themselves Kings; and in fact being a Duke, he was now nobility.  First they used money to gain power, now they used the power to be on the money.  Alessandro was assasinated at the age of 26 by a distant cousin, Lorenzo, nicknamed "Lorenzaccio" (Bad Lorenzo). We were then taken to see the inside of the Palazzo de Signori, still today used as the Office of the Mayor.

Skipping forward a bit to 1570, we have Francesco and the title has been elevated to Grand Duke of Florence.  G-Dixon describes Francesco as 'solitary and anemic'.  He was an amateur scientist and was also interested in art.  He had The Studio built in the Palazzo Vecchio, a museum for his eyes only.  There were paintings said to represent the four elements - all naked ladies.  There were cupboards behind the paintings and though it is unknown what was stored in them, Francesco was believed to be an opium addict.  G-Dixon refers to art as a narcotic, art as religion, politics, a private obsession.  Art had now become something with other than religious significance.

Andrew Graham-Dixon concludes by saying that the Medici's declared that Greed is Good and Greed for Art is Better.   Why use money, why not trade up and use the 'biggest, baddest currency of all', the currency of art.  

I'm not sure I follow this conclusion, but I know one thing, I've really enjoyed digging up a lot of the details in these two posts and had I known all that before we went to Florence, I would probably have liked it much better.  I rather doubt we will return to Florence, but if we do, I'll be digging out these posts -- and probably a few select biographies -- to acquaint myself with more about the history of the city.

Next stop - and our last:  Genoa.

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