IV. TWILIGHT IN FLORENCE: 1534–74

It is easier to rule a state in its decline than in its youth; diminished vitality almost welcomes subjugation. Florence, beaten down again by the Medici (1530), submitted wearily to domination by Clement VII; it rejoiced when the coarse tyrant Alessandro de’ Medici was slain by his remote relative Lorenzino (1537); and, instead of seizing the opportunity to re-establish the republic, it accepted a second Cosimo, in hopes that he might show the wisdom and statesmanship of the first. The direct line of Cosimo Pater Patriae was now legally extinct; the younger Cosimo was descended from his older namesake’s brother Lorenzo (1395–1440). Guicciardini manoeuvred the new ruler, then eighteen, into lordship in the hope of being the power behind the throne; but he forgot that the young Medici was the son of Giovanni delle Bande Nere and the grandson of Caterina Sforza, and therefore had at least two generations of iron in his blood. Cosimo took the reins in his own hands, and held them firmly for twenty-seven years.

His character and government mingled evil and good. He was as severe and cruel as unsentimental policy might dictate. He did not bother, like earlier Medici, to maintain republican forms and façade. He arranged a system of espionage that entered every family, and used parish priests as spies.29 He enforced unanimity of professed religious belief, and co-operated with the Inquisition. He was greedy of wealth and power, exploited the state monopoly of grain, taxed his subjects avidly, overthrew the semi-republic of Siena to make that city, like Arezzo and Pisa, part of his dominions, and persuaded Pope Pius V to give him the title of grand duke of Tuscany (1569).

In partial compensation for the absolutism of his rule, he organized efficient administration, a reliable army and police, a competent and incorruptible judiciary. He lived simply, avoided costly ceremony and display, managed finances stringently, and left a full treasury to his son and heir. The order and safety that were now maintained on streets and highways revived the commerce and industry that had ailed under repeated revolutions. Cosimo brought in new manufactures, as of coral and glass; he invited and protected Portuguese Jews as a stimulus to industrial development; he enlarged Livorno (Leghorn) as a busy port. He had the marshes of the Maremma drained in an effort to free that region, and nearby Siena, from malaria. Under his conscientious despotism Siena, like Florence, became more prosperous than ever before. He used part of his levied wealth to support literature and art without extravagance and with discrimination. He raised the Accademia degli Umidi to an official position as the Accademia Fiorentina, and commissioned it to set norms for proper Tuscan usage. He befriended Vasari and Cellini, tried hard to win Michelangelo back to Florence, and founded, under his absent presidency, an Arte del Disegno, or Academy of Design. He established at Pisa (1544) a school of botany second only to Padua’s in age and excellence. Doubtless Cosimo would have argued that he could not have accomplished this good had he not begun with a little evil and an iron fist.

At forty-five this iron Duke was already worn out with the strains of power and family tragedies. Within a few months, in 1562, his wife and two of his sons died from malarial fever caught during his efforts to drain the Maremma swamps. A year later he lost a daughter. In 1564 he resigned the actual government to his son Francesco. He tried to console himself with amours but found more boredom in promiscuity than in marriage. He died in 1574, aged fifty-five. He had lived up to the best and the worst in his ancestry.

Though Florence no longer produced Leonardos or Michelangelos, and had no artists to compare in this period with the urbane and universal Titian, the volcanic Tintoretto, or the festal Veronese, she experienced under her second Cosimo as vigorous a revival as could be expected from a generation that had grown up amid frustrated revolt and unsuccessful war. Even so, Cellini judged the artists employed by Cosimo to be “a band the like of which is not to be found at present in the world”30—which is a typically Florentine understatement of Venetian art. Benvenuto thought the Duke a patron with more taste than generosity, but perhaps this able governor considered economic reconstruction and political order more vital than the artistic decoration of his court. Vasari described Cosimo as “loving and favoring all artists, and indeed all men of genius.” It was Cosimo who financed at Chiusi, Arezzo, and elsewhere the excavations that revealed a remarkable Etruscan culture, and unearthed the famous Etruscan bronze statues ofThe Chimera, The Orator, and Minerva. He bought back as many as he could locate of the art treasures looted from the Medici palace in 1494 and 1527, added his own collections to them, and housed the total in that palace-fortress that Luca Pitti had begun a hundred years before. Cosimo had this monstrous edifice enlarged by Bartolommeo Ammaaati, and made it his official dwelling (1553).

Ammanati and Vasari were in Florence the leading architects of the age. It was Ammanati who laid out for Cosimo the famous Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace, and spanned the Arno with the beautiful Santa Trinità Bridge (1567–70)—destroyed in the Second World War. He was also a painter and sculptor of quality; he won sculptural competitions from Cellini and Giovanni da Bologna, and carved the Juno that adorns the Bargello court. In his old age he apologized for having made many pagan figures. The Pagan Renaissance had now (1560) run its course, and Christianity was regaining its hold on the Italian mind.

Cosimo made Baccio Bandinelli his favorite sculptor, to the horror of Cellini. One of Cosimo’s recreations was in hearing Cellini berate Bandinelli. Baccio was popular with himself; he proclaimed his intention to surpass Michelangelo, and was so critical of other artists that one of the gentlest, Andrea Sansovino, tried to kill him. Nearly everybody hated him, but his many commissions in Florence and Rome suggest that his talent was better than his character. When Leo X wished to duplicate the complexLaocoongroup of the Belvedere as a gift to Francis I, Cardinal Bibbiena asked Bandinelli to undertake the assignment; Baccio promised to make a copy superior to the original. To the general dismay he almost succeeded. Clement VII was so pleased with the result that he sent authentic antiques to Francis and kept Baccio’s copy for the Medici Palace in Florence, whence it passed to the Uffizi Gallery. For Clement and Alessandro de’ Medici Bandinelli carved a gigantic group, Hercules and Cacus, which was set up on the porch of the Palazzo Vecchio beside Michelangelo’s David. Cellini did not like it. “If your Hercules had his hair cropped,” he told Bandinelli in Cosimo’s presence, “he would not have skull enough to hold his brains…. His heavy shoulders remind one of the two baskets of a donkey’s packsaddle. His chest and muscles are copied not from nature but from a bag of bad melons.”31 Clement, however, thought the Hercules a masterpiece, and rewarded the sculptor with a substantial property in addition to the promised fee. Baccio repaid the compliment by giving the name Clement to a bastard born to him soon after the Pope’s death. His last work was a tomb prepared by him for himself and his father; as soon as it was finished he occupied it (1560). Probably he would have greater renown today had he not been invidiously immortalized by two artists who could write as well as design—Vasari and Cellini.

Giovanni da Bologna was a more genial competitor. Born at Douai, he made his way in youth to Rome (1561), resolved to be a sculptor. After a year of study there he brought a clay sample of his work to the aged Michelangelo. The old sculptor took it in his hands, pressed it here and there with his worn fingers and heavy thumbs, and in a few moments molded it to greater significance. Giovanni never forgot that visit; throughout the remainder of his eighty-four years he labored with unrelaxing ambition to equal the Titan. He started back to Flanders, but a Florentine nobleman advised him to study the art collected in Florence, and for three years maintained him in his palace. There were so many Italian artists in or near the city that it took the Fleming five years to win acceptance for his work. Then Francesco, son of Duke Cosimo, bought his Venus. He entered a competition to design a fountain for the Piazza della Signoria; Cosimo judged him too young for so responsible an assignment, but his model was rated best by many artists, and probably it won him an invitation to build a much larger fountain in Bologna. After that Giovanni was brought back to Florence as official sculptor for the Medici, and never lacked commissions. When he went to Rome again Vasari introduced him to the Pope as “the prince of the sculptors of Florence.”32 In 1583 he modeled a group, now in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and named in afterthought The Rape of the Sabines: a hero virile and muscular holds in his grasp a ravishing woman whose soft form is realistically compressed against his supporting hand, and whose back is the loveliest in the bronze sculpture of the Renaissance.

The sculptors surpassed the painters in Cosimo’s galaxy and regard. Ridolfo Ghirlandaio strove but failed to maintain his father’s excellence; we may sample him from his portrait of Lucrezia Summaria in Washington. Francesco Ubertini, nicknamed il Bachiacca, liked to paint historical scenes in great detail on a small scale. Iacopo Carrucci, called Pontormo from his birthplace, had every advantage and a good start; he received instruction from Leonardo, Piero di Cosimo, and Andrea del Sarto; and at nineteen (1513) he stirred the art world with a painting, now lost, that aroused the admiration of Michelangelo and was pronounced by Vasari “the finest fresco ever seen till then.”33 But soon afterward, to the disgust of the Italians, Pontormo fell in love with the engravings of Durer, abandoned the smooth lines and harmonies of the Italian style, preferred crude and heavy Germanic forms, and pictured men and women in poses of physical or mental disturbance. In frescoes at the Certosa outside Florence Pontormo painted in this Teutonic style scenes from the passion of Christ. Vasari resented this imitation: “Was not Pontormo aware that Germans and Flemings come to learn the Italian style, which he made such effort to shake off as if it were bad?”34 Even so, Vasari confessed the power of these frescoes. Pontormo further complicated his art by developing phobias. He never allowed death to be mentioned in his presence; he avoided feasts and crowds, lest he be crushed to death; though himself kind and gentle, he distrusted nearly everyone except his beloved pupil Bronzino. More and more he courted solitude, until he formed the habit of sleeping in an upper-story room reachable only by a ladder which he pulled up after him. On his final assignment—to fresco the main chapel of San Lorenzo—he worked for eleven years in isolation, boarding up the chapel and allowing none but himself to enter. He died (1556) before finishing the task; and when the frescoes were unveiled it was seen that the figures were badly disproportioned, the faces excited or melancholy. Let us remember him by a work of his saner maturity, the lovely portrait of Ugolino Martelli now in Washington—soft feathered hat, pensive eyes, luminous raiment, immaculate hands.

Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, renamed Bronzino, distinguished himself by a remarkable series of portraits, chiefly of the Medici. The Medici Palace contains a gallery of them, from Cosimo Pater Patriae to Duke Cosimo; and if we may judge from the pouchy face of his Leo X, they were often truthful. The best of them is of Giovanni delle Bande Nere (Uffizi) —a veritable Napoleon before Bonaparte—handsome, proud, and breathing fire.

Probably Duke Cosimo’s favorite artist was the man to whom this and every book on the Italian Renaissance owes half its life—Giorgio Vasari. The family into which he was born at Arezzo already included several artists; he was distantly related to Luca Signorelli, and he has told us how the old painter, seeing Giorgio’s boyhood drawings, encouraged him in studying design. In one of those innumerable acts of magnanimous and clairvoyant patronage that should be considered in judging the morals of the Renaissance, Cardinal Passerini, who had been appointed guardian of Ippolito and Alessandro de’ Medici, took Giorgio to Florence; and there the lad of twelve shared the studies of the young heirs to wealth and power. He became a pupil of Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo, and to the end of his life he revered Buonarroti—broken nose and all—as a god.

When the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1527, Giorgio returned to Arezzo. At eighteen, his father having died of plague, he found himself the chief support of his three sisters and two young brothers. Again kindness rescued him. His former fellow pupil, Ippolito de’ Medici, invited him to Rome, where for three years Vasari sedulously studied ancient and Renaissance art; and in 1530 Alessandro, master of Florence after another restoration, called him to live and paint in the Palazzo Medici. There he made portraits of the family, including Lorenzo the Magnificent in a somber study, and the vivacious young Caterina—posing and opposing at whim, as if already conscious that she would be queen of France. When Alessandro was assassinated Vasari wandered for some time patronless. His paintings are rudely dealt with by modern critics, but they must have earned him some repute, for at Mantua he was housed by Giulio Romano, and at Venice Aretino was his burly chaperone. Wherever he went he carefully studied the local art, talked with artists or their descendants, collected drawings and made notes. Back in Rome, he painted for Bindo Altoviti a Deposition from the Cross, which, he tells us, “had the good fortune not to displease the greatest sculptor, painter, and architect that ever lived in our time.

It was this Michelangelo who introduced him to the second Cardinal Alessandro Farnese; and it was this cultivated prelate who, in 1546, suggested to Vasari that he should compose for the guidance of posterity the lives of the artists who had so distinguished the Italy of the preceding two hundred years. While busily serving as painter and architect in Rome, Rimini, Ravenna, Arezzo, and Florence, Giorgio devoted part of his time to the unremunerative labor of the Lives, “moved by love for these our artists.” In 1550 he published the first edition of these Vite de’ più eccelenti pittori, scultori, ed architetti Italiani, with an eloquent dedication to Duke Cosimo.

From 1555 to 1572 he was Cosimo’s chief artist. He remodeled the interior of the Palazzo Vecchio and decorated many of its walls with paintings more immense than magnificent; he raised the vast administration building known from its governmental offices as the Uffizi, and now one of the great art galleries of the world. He led in completing the Laurentian Library, and he constructed the enclosed corridor that enabled Cosimo to pass under cover from the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi across the Ponte Vecchio to the new ducal residence in the Pitti Palace. In 1567 he spent several months in travel and research, and a year later he brought out a new and much enlarged edition of the Lives. He died in Florence in 1574, and was buried with his ancestors in Arezzo.

He was not a great artist but he was a good man, an industrious investigator, and (barring a few bites at Bandinelli) a generous as well as intelligent critic. In simple, racy, almost colloquial Tuscan, and occasionally with the vividness of the novelle, he gave us one of the most interesting books of all time, from which a thousand other volumes have been cribbed. It is rich in inaccuracies, anachronisms, and contradictions, but richer still in fascinating information and judicious interpretation. It did for the artists of Renaissance Italy what Plutarch had done for the martial or civic heroes of Greece and Rome. It will remain for centuries to come one of the classics of the world’s literature.

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