The art collection of Lorenzo de Medici

    

1492 is an emblematic date in the Italian, European and international History. It commemorates not only the end of a century and the end of the Middle Ages, but also the end of the Laurentian golden age in Florence. In October, Christopher Columbus was about to discover America; six month before, the 8th of April, it was Lorenzo de Medici’s death, to which succeeded the famous inventory[1] of the Medici Palace and the record of one of the most exceptional collection.

It appears that the passion for collecting was leading the Medici’s life, as far as “on the first occasion when Lorenzo was able to carve out a significant new space of his own, he very quickly filled it with paintings by different contemporary masters, thereby creating […] a sort of miniature gallery of modern art for his private delectation"[2].

A question may be raised by this passion for collecting: was display a public propaganda, or was it aimed at private delectation, and decoration? The extent of his collection is amazing; as a result, four areas of display within the Medici Palace will be considered, in order to reveal his predilection for fine art, to understand the influence of humanism, and consider the “magnificence” of this unprecedented gathering.

  

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Apart from his many countryside villas (Careggi, Poggio a Caiano and Fiesole, amongst others) most of Lorenzo’s collection was displayed in his Florentine “fortress”, Via Larga. Fourteen rooms were disposed around the sides of the courtyard square, on the ground floor. Adjoining the “loggia” was a suite of four rooms, including a “sala grande”, a camera, an “anticameretta”, used as a scrittoio, and a studio. The ground floor also included a large camera for Lorenzo, with adjacent bath and antechamber. On the mezzanine, were at least three rooms, two for the servants and another scrittoio[3]. Hence, there can be little doubt that the Medici Palace was an authentic lived-in “gallery of art” where many areas were used for exhibition. Since Cosimo’s period, the family was used to show to visitors the heavier marble pieces, to be found both in the courtyard, in the garden of San Marco, and the smaller ‘fine things’ in Lorenzo’s quarter: the Library, the scrittoio, and his bedchamber.

 

Studying the gathering of books in the Medici Library first, is the best way to understand both Lorenzo’s taste for illuminated manuscripts, and his humanist and scholar culture. Lorenzo increased largely the collection of books brought by his ancestors. It has been established that “Lorenzo’s enormous contribution to the expansion of the family library, started by his grand father Cosimo and extended by his father Piero and his uncle Giovanni, has become increasingly apparent[4].” In other words, Lorenzo’s predilection for collection was a legacy: previously, Giovanni di Bicci, Cosimo de Medici, and Piero de Cosimo had been passionate collectors as well as bankers. However, Lorenzo was far more interested by humanism, arts and collecting, than by running the bank.

The gathering of all these manuscripts is above all the result of his humanist education, given by “Gentile Becchi, a priest, a sound Latinist, a poet[5].” By the age of twelve, the young Medici was reading Latin, studying Ovid and Dante; at sixteen, he was writing poems of his own, in his native Tuscan, using precisely the rules of rhetoric, and the Petrarchan style. J. R. Hale goes as far as to say that he was one of the “major literary figure between Petrarch and Ariosto and the only man to figure in popular anthologies who was also head of a bank and of a state[1][6]”. In addition he was said to be a good musician, practicing himself the popular Florentine art of improvised singing in public; and eventually interested in copying expensive books.

As a consequence, almost immediately, he gathered at his court the leading artists and intellectual of his day, and was surrounded by humanists and intellectual with scholarly knowledge of antiques sources: his teacher Marcilio Ficino, the philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the philologist Angelo Poliziano, the poet Luigi Pulci. Lorenzo attended meetings of the Neo-Platonic Academy, supporting the development of humanism through his circle of educated friends. He was also close to some famous and talented artists, artisans and engineer: Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo and his family for several years; the sculptor Bertolo was, as well, an intimate of Lorenzo, installed in Palazzo Medici; and for some time, the young Leonardo da Vinci. This scholarly companionship raised Lorenzo’s taste for fine art and humanists’ ideals, Italian poetry and architectural ambition. As a result, there can be little doubt that “Lorenzo de Medici was a genuine intellectual with broad yet education and discriminating tastes[7]”. The best evidence is definitely the famous Medici Library he expanded.

It contained a large collection of manuscripts, in which many religious texts, revealing his appreciation of religious tradition, music and Tuscan history. Moreover, the vast development of the library, which absorbed much of Lorenzo’s energy and finance during his later years, provided work for a great many copyists and illuminators. The Greek collection included some six hundred volumes, which were most of the time lent to Poliziano (who played a major part in the gathering of Lorenzo’s collection). The most valuable of Polizinano’s acquisition is said to be the copy of a very ancient manuscript of seven mathematical works of Archimedes. The influence of Micilo Ficino and the Neo-Platonic “Circle” played an important part in his interest for Greek philosophy. According to the inventory of 1492, the Medici library contained one of the most important collection of Greek manuscripts, after the papal collection. The legacy of Latin and Italian manuscripts inherited by Lorenzo in 1469 from his father, set the magnificence of the collector and his fine taste for illuminated manuscripts. The Medici Library contained as well a large anthology of Hellenistic poetry, and an Homeric compilation starting with the Iliad, and including the Odyssey.

However, “The precious bindings of the books added to their value as exquisite objets d’art rather than as instruments of learning. The books were bound in silk or velvet with plated frames and silver medallions, sometimes enamelled, the covers hinting at the fabulous illuminations to be discovered inside[8].”

If Lorenzo was an important patron of the arts in Renaissance Florence, expressing a particular predilection for philosophy, poetry, and travels, he was also a passionate collector of antiques objects. His activities are documented in a series of 173 letters (not only written by him) where he explained that, although his preference was for small objects, he acquired many sculptures to embellish his palace.

 

 

Hidden from the world by high walls, San Marco’s garden was the best area for the display of bronze statues. The shape of this “medieval hortus conclusus” was aimed at reproducing the atmosphere of Antiquity, and perhaps even to inspire the appearance of an ancient roman house. According to previous studies, the location of the sculpture followed a didactic and metaphoric plan: two statues of Marsyas were located at the entrance, facing each other, “as an example of the destiny awaiting those who displease Apollo, god of the arts and lord of the garden”[9]. A bust of Hadrian was sited in the passageway between the courtyard and the ancestral Medici Palace. The inventory also mentions a bust of the Emperor Nerva, larger than life; two marble busts of Agrippa and Augustus (received on the coronation of the Pope Sixte IV in Rome in 1471), a statue of Plato found in Pistoia; and amongst others, some Etruscan antiquities. His collection of busts exposes his taste for Antiquity, and above all for Roman Emperor examples.

Together with history, the main inspiration was mythology. Lorenzo acquired a group of three satyrs (brought by the antiquarian Giovanni Ciampolini), which were also displayed in the Garden. He owned an Eros “shooting his bow” in bronze, a replica of the same type done by Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, and a “sleeping cupid” (gift from Ferdinand I of Aragon). Located in the garden loggia, the antiquarium housed several reliefs; amongst other “Adonis with a very fine dog”, a putto holding Jove’s thunderbolt (made by Praxiteles or Polucletus). All these sculptures kept and displayed in the garden were like an opened-air exhibition, and the value of this collection for contemporary artists was huge: it provided them with classical model to study. Moreover, his antique vases and some sculpture were, for the most part, deeply cut with his name LAU.R.MED. He thus denoted his ownership.

Many of these objets d’art were bought from other collectors (in particular from Pope Paulus II’s own collection); some of them he received as presents, “sometimes wrapped up in a petition”[10]; however his main source was the Roman dealer Giovanni Ciampolini, known for his scandalous behaviour in the gamesmanship of the contemporary art market. For instance, it was said that he extracted antiquities from Rome, not always legally. However, all Lorenzo’s collection was not aimed to be public; his study and bedchamber were gathering the smallest and favourite object of his treasure.

 

 

             If the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) current exhibition: “At home in Renaissance Italy” recreates Lorenzo’s study, it is because the ruins of it are the best proof of Lorenzo’s gathering and taste. Known as Lorenzo’s scrittoio, this tiny room located on the first floor of the family’s palace, was the very heart of his collection, and housed the antique and modern vases, the cameos, the incised precious stones and medals, coins and plaques of which there were more than two thousand altogether, according to the inventory of possessions of Lorenzo at the time of his death. “The whole family was seized with such a passion for collecting that its collection even contained unicorn horns, elephant tusks and instruments made from exotic animal trophies.”[11] The Magnificent commissioned various artists to decorate this private room, and to design a particular atmosphere devoted to contemplation and meditation.

In the scrittoio, said a contemporary visitor, “the floor as well as the ceiling was enamelled with most worthy figures, so that whoever enters it is filled with admiration. The master of this enamelling was Luca della Robbia[1][12]”. The vaulted ceiling was, in fact, decorated with the celebrated cycle of the Labours of the Months (figure 2). The twelve enamelled terracotta tiles, which illustrate the works of each month, are now considered as a unique artistic and technological feat. The borders show the influence of the astrological signs of the zodiac and how much daylight there would be in every month. The location of these majolica, in a private and intimate atmosphere, and the temporal denotation they evoke, are significant of the importance of this room. According to the reconstruction of the ceiling, with complicated measurements, it has been demonstrated that the studiolo’s surface was approximately four meters on five and a half. In view of the small size of the room, only the objects and paintings considered as rare collector’s pieces, mainly the small ones, were kept there.  

The floor, now lost, was made of painted tiles, probably by the same workshop. The walls were lined with inlaid cupboards, with shelves designed to house books and works of art. Lorenzo’s passion for antiques is noticeable through the number of his gems that have ended up in the Museo archeologico in Naples. They were some unique pieces, life the famous Farnese Cup, which had an apotheosis scene on the inside with precise Nilotic allusions, and a head of Medusa on the outside. This bowl, made of sardonyx, chalcedony and agate, was valued at ten thousand florins at the time of Lorenzo’s death. Because of its archaeological and mythological high significance, thanks to its dimensions, form, beauty and figurative complexity,  it has been described as the greatest existing cameo.

Besides, works by Fra Angelico, Squarcione, Piero and Antonio Pollaiuolo, Castagno, Pesellino, Filippo Lippi, Jan van Eyck, Petrus Cristus, Domenico Veneziano and Ucello were found. Since he hardly ever ordered works on his own account, most of his treasury was a family inheritance. Furthermore, an article written by Paula Nuttal[13] underlines Lorenzo’s predilection for Netherlandish paintings. Out of the 142 paintings inventoried at his death, some 42 were Netherlandish (about one-third of the whole picture collection). Amongst other, there were the famous “Saint Jerome in his study”, which was probably painted by Jan Van Eyck, along with a “Portrait of a Lady” by Petrus Christus. These two paintings carried the highest valuation above all Italian works; hence, they were prized respectively at thirty and forty florins. The painting by Van Eyck must have been an especially valued object according to the rather elaborate description in the record and the fact that he had a protective leather case. The Inventory explains that the painting shows a cabinet with various books in perspective and a lion at the saint feet; what’s more, it was specifically described as a painted oil, which was still something of an oddity in Florence at that time[14].  The painting by Petrus Christus should be considered in detail: the anonymity of the sitter indicates that it was purchased for its own sake, as an object of beauty and curiosity, enhancing the exotic taste of Lorenzo. Besides, they were other Northern paintings such as “Virgin and Child”, a “Head of Christ”, the “Raising of Lazarus”. There can be little doubt that most of these paintings may have been gifts. Gathering the most precious objects of his own, Lorenzo’s studio can be thus regarded as the essence of his private collection, along with his bedroom.

 

 

It goes without saying that the so-called “chamera di Lorenzo” located on the ground floor of the Palace, was as well an area of private display. It has been said that “in his bedchamber he had exquisite aubergine-colored glassware, as well as modern paintings[15]”. In fact, he commissioned the battle scene by Paolo Ucello and appropriated them for the walls of his room in the Palazzo Medici. The precise language of the Inventory may be revealing in the case of this painting, it says: “Six paintings with gilt frames above the waist coating and above the bed, which is 42 braccia long and 3 ½ braccia high, painted, that is, three of the Battle of San Romano and one of battle of dragons and lions, and another of the story of Paris by the hand of Paolo Ucello and one by the hand of Pesellino, in which there is a hunt, 300 Florins)”[16]. It has been observed that these famous paintings remained “over an elaborate waistcoat of intarsia decorations with a walnut cornice, in which there was cut in a large closet with seven shelves, two doorways and a long bench on one side of the same bench”[17]. Thus, thess paintings were part of the decoration, of the furniture. In the same room there were other paintings, including Fra Angelico’s Adoration of the Magi, a little altar by Squarcione and the portrait of Galeazzo by Pollaiuolo, amongst an ample bed with drawers and cabinets, which were chock full of various objects. Seven chandeliers were found around the room for giving light to the painting. In his bedroom many objects or equipment for tournaments were discovered as well; there is therefore an obvious connection between these paintings and Medici’s devotion to tournaments.

 

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If purchasing objects was the result of an economical wealth and a social talent, displaying them is to be seen as an art too, a genuine mise en scène. That is why Patricia Rubin asserts that “the rhetoric and ethic of expenditure and display can be seen as a mutual process of self-fashioning and its mirror.”[18].

Lorenzo’s display in the four main area of the Medici’s “citadel” is quite significant: if the aim of the Library he expanded was to testify his humanism and scholar knowledge, San Marco’s garden was designed to give evidence of his Antique awareness, and to recreate the atmosphere of an ancient roman house. His scrittoio, gathering the most precious objects, was meant to impress visitors, whereas his private bedroom’s display expressed his taste for tournament and Netherlandish painting.

Lorenzo de Medici died leaving an extraordinary treasure of antiquities, cameos and a fortune of statue, engraving his name in almost every sculpture and antiques, but also in Italian history and European Renaissance.

 


[1] List of all the possessions owned by Lorenzo de Medici at the time of his death, preserved in the Archivio di stato in Florence.

[2] Kent, F. W.  Lorenzo de Medici and the art of Magnificence, university P, Baltimore & London,  2004, p131

[3] See the description of Isabelle Hyman, in Fifteenth Century Florentine Studies. Garland Publishing, New York and London, 1977.

[4] Article by Cristina Acidini Luchinat, in Renaissance Florence, The age of Lorenzo de Medici, 1449-1492. Edition Chartat. Milan, Florence, 1993.

[5] J. R. Hale, in Florence and the Medici; The Pattern of Control. Phoenix Press Paperback. 2004. p49

[6] J. R. Hale, Florence and the Medici; The Pattern of Control. Phoenix Press   Paperback. 2004. p53

[8] “The library” article written by Cristina Acidini Luchinat, in Renaissance Florence, The age of Lorenzo de Medici, 1449-1492. Edition Chartat. Milan, Florence, 1993.

[9] “The Medici Collection of Antiques Treasures House” in Renaissance Florence, The age of Lorenzo de Medici, 1449-1492. Edition Chartat. Milan, Florence, 1993. p115.

[10] Florence and the Medici. J. R. Hale. Phoenix Press Paperback. 2004, p59

[11] “The Medici collection of Antique Treasures House”. Direction of the Museo degli Argenti, in Renaissance Florence, The age of Lorenzo de Medici, 1449-1492. Edition Chartat. Milan, Florence, 1993.

[12] Anonymous quote, see the exhibition “At home in Renaissance Italy” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 5 October 2006 to 7 January 2007.

[13] “The Medici and Netherlandish painting”, in Early Medici and their Artists. New Haven and London. 1995.

[14] See the commentary written by James Beck, in Lorenzo de Medici, new perspectives, ed Toscani,B; Peter Lang, New York, 1993, pp131, 136.

[15] Kent, F. W. Lorenzo de Medici & The art of Magnificence. The Johns Hopkins, p31

[16]  James Beck, in Lorenzo de’ Medici, New Perspectives, ed Toscani, New York, 1993, pp 337 138.

[17] James Beck, Lorenzo de’ Medici, New Perspectives, ed Toscani, New York, 1993, p138.