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The international Artistic Treasure of the Medici

Myth, Glamour and Responsibility


By pro­mo­ting and sup­por­ting the arts, sci­ence, and archi­tec­tu­re, they con­tri­bu­t­ed to the blosso­m­ing of the Renais­sance. They built who­le Flo­ren­ti­ne neigh­bour­hoods and crea­ted an art collec­tion that, today, fills the halls of many a muse­um. The buil­ding hos­ting the modern Uffi­zi Gal­le­ries was built by archi­tect Gior­gio Vasa­ri in the 16th cen­tu­ry. Thanks to the gene­ro­si­ty of Anna Maria Lui­sa, the last heir of the Medi­ci fami­ly, the collec­tion was tur­ned into an open and unsa­le­ab­le cul­tu­ral good.

Art as brand buil­ding: the Medi­ci por­traits

Not­hing was left to chan­ce during the Medici’s reign. Take their por­traits, for examp­le, pain­ted at court. The cover of this edi­ti­on depicts one of them. On the pain­ting by court pain­ter Agno­lo Bron­zi­no we can see Eleo­no­ra von Tole­do and her son Gio­van­ni. Eleo­no­ra von Tole­do was the wife of Cosi­mo I. de’ Medi­ci, Grand Duke of Tusca­ny. In 1539, the 17-year-old was mar­ried off to Cosi­mo I, who’d been bes­to­wed with the tit­le of Duke only recent­ly. The sup­port of his father-in-law, then one of the most power­ful men on the Ita­li­an pen­in­su­la, couldn’t have come at a bet­ter time. He pro­fi­ted from Eleonora’s dowry by, among other pro­jects, using it to crea­te the Bobo­li Gar­dens in Flo­rence. Bron­zi­no deli­vers an artis­tic result which has the attri­bu­tes of medi­um­istic fore­sight, depic­ting the Medi­ci and their poli­ti­cal and cul­tu­ral pro­pa­gan­da. Even the por­traits of Eleo­no­ra von Tole­do and her son Gio­van­ni cap­tu­re his skill with fines­se. The por­trait is lim­ned by the majes­tic and divi­ne aura of the cou­p­le. The clothes, jewels, and the aloof stance speak of their majes­tic aspi­ra­ti­ons, while their divini­ty is embo­di­ed by the the­me – mother and child – as well as the colour of the back­ground. Exclu­si­vi­ty and divini­ty are con­nec­ted by ultra­ma­ri­ne, a colour deri­ved from lapis lazu­li, an expen­si­ve mate­ri­al. The por­trait was pain­ted around 1545. Near­ly one cen­tu­ry befo­re this peri­od, one of their ances­tors alrea­dy knew about the plea­su­re and beau­ty of art.

Loren­zo I. de‘ Medi­ci was born on 1 Janu­a­ry 1449. Loren­zo took over his decea­sed father’s busi­ness at the mere age of 20. He was extre­me­ly rich as his fami­ly mana­ged the Ban­ca dei Medi­ci bank. As a patron, he sup­por­ted poli­ti­ci­ans who repre­sen­ted and car­ri­ed out his inte­rests. His sav­vy stra­te­gies ensu­red the City of Flo­rence wasn’t taken over by the Church Sta­te and, for that rea­son, he was awar­ded the hono­ra­ry tit­le of ‘Il magni­fi­co’ Loren­zo The Magni­ficent. Loren­zo was smart enough to sur­round hims­elf with a pos­se of artists, phi­lo­so­phers, archi­tects and wri­ters who he sup­por­ted finan­cial­ly. Among them fea­ture pain­ter San­dro Bot­ti­cel­li, who­se most famous work, The Birth of Venus, is a sym­bol of the Renais­sance. Ins­tead of repre­sen­ting Chris­ti­an saints, as was cus­to­ma­ry in the Midd­le Ages, he depic­ted anci­ent god­des­ses who knowin­gly put their beau­ty on show. By picking up art from the past, he brought about a whol­ly new con­cep­ti­on of what man­kind should look like: not only God, but man takes cent­re sta­ge. The indi­vi­du­al being beco­mes important. This chan­ge of per­spec­ti­ve was just as clear in the David by Michel­an­ge­lo Buo­na­rot­ti. Even Michel­an­ge­lo, the Renaissance’s most famous artist, was part of the Medici’s inner cir­cle.

The Medi­ci suc­cee­ded in kee­ping the myth and legend sur­roun­ding their fami­ly ali­ve to this very day, more than half a mill­en­ni­um after they first set foot on the inter­na­tio­nal sce­ne. The art collec­tion in the Uffi­zi Gal­le­ry in Flo­rence is most­ly behind this as it’s deve­lo­ped into a pil­grimage site for art. We met Dr Eike Schmidt, the Direc­tor of the Uffi­zi in Flo­rence and spo­ke with him about the deve­lo­p­ment and chal­len­ges of this uni­que heri­ta­ge in the who­le world. A cul­tu­ral good that keeps on gro­wing and doesn’t only enga­ge with art from the past but also with its con­tem­pora­ry coun­ter­part.

The Uffi­zi Gal­le­ry – the Medici’s heri­ta­ge that beca­me into a pil­grimage site for art

Dialogues with MilionArt Kaleidoscope

The Uffi­zi host a gigan­tic artis­tic tre­a­su­re – which pie­ces are your favou­rites?

Thank­ful­ly, I always dis­co­ver new favou­rite works of art. All I need is to be in a room that I’ve alrea­dy seen count­less times and look in ano­t­her direc­tion. I’ll dis­co­ver some­thing new and be com­ple­te­ly blown away by it. I’m always ent­hral­led by world-famous works: Michelangelo’s Ton­do Doni, for examp­le – not just becau­se it’s a work that will stop you in your tracks, epi­to­mi­sing a who­le era, name­ly the High Renais­sance, in just a smat­te­ring of squa­re cen­ti­me­tres, but also becau­se ever­ything Michel­an­ge­lo pain­ted in detail on the Sis­ti­ne Cha­pel had alrea­dy been pain­ted two years befo­re, in 1506, on the Ton­do Doni. As if that weren’t enough, we also have the ori­gi­nal frame. Fasci­na­ting!

You weren’t the only new muse­um direc­tor appoin­ted by the Ita­li­an Government: in 2015, twen­ty posts were fil­led in order to bring in a breath of fresh air to the natio­nal muse­ums. Did you meet the government’s expec­ta­ti­ons?

You can defi­ni­te­ly feel a breath of fresh air in the Uffi­zi: just ask any of the visi­tors or even the staff working behind the sce­nes. Howe­ver, as soon as wind blows, we have to expect a coun­ter cur­rent and, now and again, a small storm – that’s just how natu­re works. Right now, we’re being blown in all direc­tions.

How did you mas­ter the head­wind?

Will­power and pati­ence are, natu­ral­ly, nee­ded – that goes without say­ing. The­re was always ten­si­on bet­ween Flo­rence and the Minis­try in Rome. That’s cha­rac­te­ris­tic for Ita­ly, becau­se the natio­nal spi­rit isn’t as strong as else­whe­re. Howe­ver, its absence means that we have a very strong and deeply-roo­ted local spi­rit. What is deci­ded in Rome is always seen with com­ple­te scep­ti­cism. This sta­te of affairs hasn’t made my job any easier. What has done so was the mani­fold pro­ces­ses at the muse­um with no appa­rent logic to them. Staff had reached a brea­king point and were incredi­b­ly frus­tra­ted. Hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­sa­ti­on was at the heart of ever­ything and initia­ti­ve was sty­mied by this rea­li­ty. Many core issu­es hadn’t been addres­sed for a good three, or even four, deca­de. The­re was a fee­ling of over­all resi­gna­ti­on in the Uffi­zi. However,there still were some col­leagues who were rea­dy to get back on track and tack­le the new chal­len­ge.

If someo­ne were to ima­gi­ne the finan­cial aspect of such a deman­ding muse­um, what would it look like? Is ever­ything finan­ced by public funds or do you have other sources of inco­me?

It’s all topsy-tur­vy. Not­hing is as you ima­gi­ne. We aren’t finan­ced at all by public funds, rather we finan­ce the public cof­fers. Our pro­fit has to cover run­ning cos­ts as well as our invest­ments; on top of that, 20% of our ticket sales pro­ceeds are fun­nel­led back into the Minis­try in Rome and used to finan­ce muse­ums in struc­tu­ral­ly weak regi­ons; ano­t­her 20% then goes to the city of Flo­rence for imple­men­ting cul­tu­ral and artis­tic mea­su­res, such as the reno­va­ti­on of the Bap­tis­te­ry. We also have pri­va­te spon­sors who sup­port us. The most well-known and generous up to now has been Guc­ci. They pro­vi­ded us with the € 2,000,000 nee­ded for res­to­ring the Bobo­li Gar­dens. The Gar­dens are, as far as bota­ny is con­cer­ned, a uni­que natu­ral heri­ta­ge, as dif­fe­rent plants were brought to Flo­rence in the 16th and 17th cen­tu­ry to be plan­ted on the grounds. After 70 years of invest­ment dry­ing up, we’ve now final­ly star­ted to plant spe­ci­es yet again. One pro­ject I hope will con­ti­nue well into the next genera­ti­ons.

Do the Uffi­zi purcha­se art or is the collec­tion expan­ded?

Yes, we do, and not becau­se we don’t have enough art but becau­se we want to expand our collection’s qua­li­ty. We purcha­se count­less new pie­ces of art every year, inclu­ding some real­ly sig­Ro­man­ni­fi­cant ones. We care that the public knows we still purcha­se art, as we did in that past, becau­se that’s par­ti­al­ly what an acti­ve muse­um is all about. Hence, our two autum­nal exhi­bi­ti­ons will fea­ture recent acqui­si­ti­ons. One is a bozzet­to (sketch) by Luca Gior­da­no for a fres­co in the Church of San­ta Maria del Car­mi­ne, while the other is a por­trait by Anton Rapha­el Mengs, which depicts the child­ren of the Gre­at Duke of Tusca­ny Peter Leo­pold, who then went on to beco­me Emperor. The­re are other por­traits of his child­ren in the KHM in Vien­na and in the Madrid Pra­do, but we didn’t have any: this com­ple­ments our collec­tion. We also accept gifts by con­tem­pora­ry artists – tra­di­ti­on dic­ta­tes the­se be self-por­traits. The last two ent­ries are self-por­traits by Ai Wei­wei and Hel­i­don Xhixha.

What do you belie­ve are your main respon­si­bi­li­ties at the Uffi­zi?

The respon­si­bi­li­ty isn’t only having to choo­se which new works are to be part of the collec­tion, but pri­ma­ri­ly to pro­tect ever­ything we have. In Ita­ly the­re is a dif­fe­rence bet­ween ‘Tut­e­la’ (pro­tec­ting art) and ‘Valo­riz­za­zio­ne’ (enhan­cing art). Howe­ver, I belie­ve they go hand in hand. The collec­tion doesn’t only encom­pass the Renais­sance, most of the Baro­que, the time of the Enligh­ten­ment and Roman­ti­cism, and the most important works from the Ita­li­an Unity Move­ment, but it also con­tains some of the most important works from out­side Euro­pe. Take our Isla­mic rugs and car­pets from the Midd­le Ages, but also the oldest docu­men­ted works from Sub-Saha­ran Afri­ca: car­ved ivory tusks, which were given to the Medi­ci in the 16th cen­tu­ry as diplo­ma­tic gifts from envoys in wes­tern Afri­ca and have been con­ser­ved at the Uffi­zi ever sin­ce. Con­tra­ry to all the works of art that pop­ped up sin­ce the start of the gre­at Afri­can trend of the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, the­se are uni­que art tre­a­su­res that are incredi­b­ly signi­fi­cant for Africa’s cul­tu­ral iden­ti­ty. Moreo­ver, we also have Aztec works from Mexi­co, Chi­ne­se tex­ti­les, and a lot more from all sorts of coun­tries. We’re a modern muse­um, if you will, and have been so ever sin­ce the­re have been things such as collec­tions. This dif­fe­ren­tia­tes us from the Lou­vre or the Bri­tish Muse­um, which only beca­me inter­na­tio­nal muse­ums at the start of their colo­ni­al histo­ry.

What’s your take on the sug­ges­ti­on by Mau­ri­zio Ser­a­ci­ni that a Leo­nar­do da Vin­ci is hiding below Vasari’s pain­ting?

As the test drills didn’t deli­ver any results, neit­her one nor the other side tri­um­phed. What the­se non-results, howe­ver, allow us to say is the fol­lowing: if the­re had been some­thing below it, which we can­not exclu­de, then it can’t be seen with our modern tech­no­lo­gy. We need to be pati­ent. As far as the pro­ba­bi­li­ty is con­cer­ned, we have to con­si­der two fac­tors: Vasa­ri, while still ali­ve, knew that Leo­nar­do was a far a far supe­ri­or pain­ter than he – did he ever paint over an exis­ting pie­ce? That’s ques­tion­ab­le, to say the least. Then again, Leo­nar­do loved to expe­ri­ment, and a lot of his work has been lost and never reached us. We can posit that alrea­dy during Vasari’s life­time, the­re wasn’t much going around of Leonardo’s work. Howe­ver, that will have to be deter­mi­ned by the next tech­no­lo­gi­cal genera­ti­on.

Which chal­len­ges do big muse­ums have to face right now?

We’re facing ple­nty of chal­len­ges. One important one is to con­si­der a museum’s ori­gi­nal role. The Uffi­zi have exis­ted as a prince­ly collec­tion for near­ly 500 years, but for 248 years as a muse­um. When they were reinven­ted as a public muse­um, the­re was a very clear inten­ti­on behind it, name­ly to rese­arch, teach, edu­ca­te, inst­ruct and be the impul­se behind artis­tic inspi­ra­ti­on. A lar­ge share of the visi­tors in the 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry were artists. Thank­ful­ly, that hasn’t chan­ged today. One of my favou­rite expe­ri­en­ces is when I can take artists on a muse­um tour – and that’s not as rare as you may think. Ever­yo­ne has their own point of view, but artists always have a very spe­cial one.

And what about the deve­lo­p­ment of pro­mo­ting art?

Ever­yo­ne cros­ses the thres­hold of a muse­um, be they young or old, with spe­ci­fic expe­ri­en­ces, desi­res, hopes, an own world­view, and a spe­ci­fic fee­ling. Pro­mo­ting art only works when there’s a dia­lo­gue bet­ween the work of art and peop­le: it has to be bidi­rec­tio­n­al. Art pro­mo­ters need a deep know­ledge of histo­ry of art but also of social histo­ry, phi­lo­so­phy, and music: only then can we gua­ran­tee the right con­di­ti­ons to crea­te some­thing new.

A city tour by Eike Schmidt in Flo­rence: what can we expect?

First, I would start the city tour in the ear­ly hours of the morning, as ever­ything takes on a dif­fe­rent hue at that time. We get to expe­ri­ence a spe­cial light, and are free from the human flood cas­ca­ding across the streets. Just like it was in the ’60 and ‘70s. For some­bo­dy who’s in Flo­rence for the first time, I would start with a small muse­um. The Museo di San Mar­co, to be pre­cise. You can’t under­stand who the Medi­ci are if you don’t visit it. The first genera­ti­ons of the Medi­ci explo­i­ted San Mar­co, as this is were they announ­ced their orders for works of art and sto­cked their libra­ry. If you’re in this part of the city, I would con­ti­nue towards the impres­si­ve Medi­ci Cha­pels and the Church of San Loren­zo: Dona­tel­lo and Michel­an­ge­lo are to be seen here, as well as the fun­era­ry cha­pel, the Baro­que res­ting place of the Medi­ci. I would spend the after­noon in the Bobo­li Gar­dens. Inci­dent­al­ly, it’s one of the lar­gest sculp­tu­ral gar­dens in the world. The Uffi­zi would be the crow­ning high­light of the last day, as you come to a cul­mi­na­ti­on of all you’ve expe­ri­en­ced over the cour­se of the last days.

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